If you're one of the viewers of TLC's popular reality show Extreme Couponing, you've seen people fill an entire basement with items like toilet paper and tomato soup. But you don't have to take things to the extreme to make couponing work for you.
"Stockpiling your garage with hundreds of boxes of mac and cheese isn't practical," says Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert. In fact, spending just 20 minutes a week couponing can save you up to $1,000 a year, reports the Promotion Marketing Association. And with a growing number of coupon websites and mobile apps, there are more ways than ever to save.
One benefit of Extreme Couponing is that it's made couponing more mainstream and, in turn, has helped to remove bad stereotypes, says Kimberly Pepper-Hoctor, who blogs about couponing at TheGirlLovesCoupons.com and teaches free couponing classes to military families. Stigmas that once placed shame on couponers--and labeled their behavior as something that only the cash-strapped do--have tapered off. In fact, more affluent households dominate coupon usage, with 41 percent of coupon "enthusiasts" coming from households with incomes greater than $70,000, according to a 2009 study by Nielsen.
"I used to do all my shopping late at night because I always got other shoppers or the cashiers rolling their eyes at me when I went to use my coupons, but that doesn't really happen anymore," Pepper-Hoctor says.
Still, many people miss out on saving money with coupons. "A lot of people just don't realize that coupons are a type of currency," says Kathy Spencer, coauthor of How to Shop for Free and founder of the couponing website HowToShopForFree.net.
Many people are looking for ways to cut shopping costs, especially given today's poor economic climate. Here are seven expert-recommended couponing strategies:
Take advantage of your newspaper subscription. Shoppers still get the majority of their coupons from newspaper inserts, according to Nielsen. But there's no need to clip everything: Only cut what you're going to use that week, says Jill Cataldo, a coupon expert and syndicated columnist.
However, don't throw away the rest of the insert. Coupons typically don't expire for at least six weeks, so you might be able to use them later on.
Use reputable websites. Cataldo recommends using one of the big couponing websites: Coupons.com, SmartSource.com, and CouponNetwork.com. Other reputable sites include RedPlum.com and CouponSherpa.com. Coupons.com is one of the oldest couponing websites, and Smart Source and Red Plum publish the coupons found in the newspaper.
Some of the sites don't require you to register, but for the ones that do, Pepper-Hoctor recommends setting up a separate email account so your regular account doesn't get spammed.
Thinking about using a different site? Spencer suggests checking if the coupons are real by using the Coupon Information Center, a not-for-profit association that supplies information on fraudulent coupons. A good rule of thumb: Don't ever pay money for a coupon.
Take advantage of mobile apps. Forgot to clip or print your coupons? No problem: Search for them using a mobile app. Coupons.com owns Grocery iQ, which compiles coupons and also has a tool for maintaining the grocery list. Another app, Shopper, provides codes you can load directly onto the store's loyalty card. Aisle411 uses geo-mapping to find coupons for in-store items and offers recipes based on the items you're shopping for.
Time it right. Determining when you're going to cash in the coupons is just as important as which ones you find. To get the most out of your coupons, Cataldo recommends following the stores' sale cycles and timing your purchases for when the items go on sale. "A lot of people don't realize how much prices vary in the store," she says. "If I have a coupon, great, but the sales price also has to be in the range that I want to buy."
Search for online deals. Receive exclusive deals for in-store and online shopping by liking a store's Facebook page or following it on Twitter. Sprinkles Cupcakes, for example, tweets a daily catchphrase that the first 50 customers at each store can say to receive a free cupcake.
If you're shopping online, don't be afraid to ask an online sales representative via chat about available discounts. "By doing this, I've found coupons for $30 off $100 at Express, free overnight shipping from Zappos, and 20 percent off at Kenneth Cole," Woroch says. You can also search for free shipping codes at FreeShipping.org, which participates with stores like Sears, Target, and Kmart.
Don't overspend. Many shoppers have a tendency to overspend when using coupons, but you can avoid that by setting a budget and sticking to it. "You should know what the total is before the cashier tells you," says Spencer.
It's OK to stock up on certain items, says Cataldo, but don't go crazy: Only buy what you'll need for several weeks. "People will say, 'Oh, I'll just buy it because I have a coupon,' but that's not the right approach," she says.
Also try to steer clear of coupons that have a high requirement for how much you need to spend to use them, says Woroch.
Stay organized. Many coupons go to waste simply because people forget they have them or they don't remember the expiration date. Consider setting reminders on your computer or cell phone several days before the coupon is set to expire. Also, carry with you only the coupons you're going to use for that week, so you're not walking around with a wallet or purse stuffed to the brim.
Spencer keeps track of her coupons by storing them in plastic bags in her purse--each one labeled with their respective store.
To reap the rewards of couponing, says Pepper-Hoctor, "You don't have to make this a full-time job."