Tuesday, April 12, 2011

get more, spend less v2.0

With the re-emergence of TLC's show, "Extreme Couponing," I've had a few of my friends ask me for some tips on how to get household products virtually for free.  While I do not at all consider myself an "extreme couponer," I have learned how to work the system in order to pay as little as possible for some household items that I frequently use.

Just to further clarify (and because I'm all for beating a dead horse..) I'm not going to be able to show you how to buy 35 bottles of Maalox for free, because I never have and never will make that type of purchase.  But I can tell you how I typically spend very little out of pocket for things like cleaning supplies, shampoo/conditioner, body wash, toothpaste/floss/mouthwash, makeup, and other toiletries and household items.

So, back by popular demand, I'm going to share some of tricks of the trade I've learned in order to be a savvy shopper, but NOT an obsessive extreme couponer.  I'm also going to explain this process exactly as I learned.  There are many different ways to learning how to cut costs by couponing, but this is the method I found easiest, and it's what I've shared with my friends who've asked me, so it's what I'll share with you.

Now that we're clear. :)

The first step to learning how to effectively coupon, is to start clipping coupons.  My grandmother has always been a coupon cutter.  I'd sit at her table as a child and watch her clip her coupons and pile them into a wicker basket, and I thought she was so organized and on top of her shopping.  Now I look at her pile and think, "Mommom, how can you make sense of your messy coupon pile!?"  I knew I had achieved a certain level of savvy shopping when my grandmother recently asked ME for advice!

My biggest piece of advice in the beginning is to start small with just a couple of products.  Don't expect to go to the store and get $100 worth of items for $0.50.  I recently walked a friend through the process.  Armed with $5 and handful of coupons I gave him to start him off, he was able to purchase shampoo, replacement razor blades, and two tubes of toothpaste.  He spent $3.10, and walked out of the store $8 in store credit/coupons for anything in the store on his next visit.  At retail cost those products would have cost him $15.60, a savings of $12.50.  If you are able to put $12.50 back in your pocket each week from products that you need or will use throughout the year, than you are essentially saving $50 per month or roughly $600 year.  And that's just on a couple of toiletry items.  It's mind boggling how much you are saving when you start applying this process to the rest of your every day purchases.

I started by purchasing a subscription to my local paper, The Baltimore Sun.  The subscription I chose is $1.50/week for Wednesday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday delivery.  This works best for me, and I am able to get the coupon inserts that come in both the Sunday paper and the Wednesday paper.  I think it's really important to consider the cheapest route to getting you what you need.  I know some people buy extensive subscriptions, or multiple papers each week, but for my needs to support our family of two, I have absolutely no need and cannot justify spending $8-$10 per week just for coupons that are supposed to cut costs not create them, but again, that's just me.

There are also lots of options for printing electronic coupons off of internet servers, but there are so many different search engines that it can be overwhelming for someone new to couponing.  You may be tempted to print every coupon you come across in the beginning, and then you end up wasting ink and paper on the coupons you don't use.  In the beginning, I recommend just sticking to the newspaper coupons until you get a handle on what products you are purchasing, and what coupons you need.

Okay, so step one:  Get your self access to some Sunday papers with coupons inserts.  Start by cutting as many coupons as possible.  Any coupon for an item that you regularly buy, or would potentially like to try, you should cut.  Ask yourself this question, "If I could get this item for free, or potentially make money by purchasing this item, would I get it?" If the answer is yes, then cut the coupon.  

One thing I wish I would've done in the beginning is save the coupon inserts for a few weeks after I was finished cutting the coupons I wanted.  I would frequently come across a deal a few weeks later, that required a coupon I had passed over and tossed out, and would regret that I hadn't clipped it.  Now I try to remember to keep the inserts in a folder for a few weeks, just in case there is something I should've clipped, but didn't.

Step two: Organize those babies.  I didn't do this for awhile in the beginning, instead opting for the pile 'o coupons, a la my Grandmother.  It wasn't until I got such an impressive stash on my hands and I'd find myself fumbling through 50 coupons in the store just to find the ONE that I needed, that I realized I needed a better system of organization.  Some people opt for a large binder with plastic baseball card-style inserts to store and sort their coupons, but I prefer a plastic accordion-folder style organizer, similar to this or this.   I organize them by category, hair care, dental, household cleaning, household paper/plastic products, grocery dairy, grocery pantry, etc.  Pick categories that work for you.

Step three: After you've compiled a week or two of coupons, its time to start putting them to good use and making some purchases.  I first started out couponing by working the system at CVS, or "CVS'ing."  There are countless websites that give you all the nitty gritty details on how to do this, and I know I'll probably leave out some details, so I'll leave you with additional tutorials here, here and here.  

I've alluded to this process in one of my previous posts, but what you want to do is sign up for CVS's ExtraCare program.  It's free. Once you have your card, you're going to need one of the weekly advertisements, or circulars.  That's where that handy Sunday paper comes in again.

Step four: Planning out your purchases.  You want to try to do the leg work at home, so you don't waste precious time in the store, or get distracted and buy something at (god forbid!) actual retail price. ;)  This is also the step where (after people have been CVS'ing for awhile) they can get totally obsessed and start to show early signs of hoarding extreme couponing.  We don't want to do that.  This is just about buying items that you need, or WILL need in the future, and purchasing them at the time they are at the lowest price available so you can get the best deal.

You are basically looking for items that are already on sale and that will generate ExtraCare Bucks--or CVS play money.  When you combine these sales and ExtraCare Buck deals with coupons then you are on the road to getting items for free or "making money" off of them. I'll explain this more by using examples from this week's past shopping trip.

Last week is a good week to start with, because I hadn't done any CVS'ing since our big Hawaii/California trip.  Knowing that I was going to be out of town for awhile, I used up all of ExtraCare Bucks in my stash before I left--didn't want them to expire (they're good for 30 days) before I had a chance to use them.  So going into last week's shopping trip, I didn't have any ExtraCare Bucks to work with, which is the same situation a beginner finds themself in.  The goal is after you make the initial purchases (investment) and get your ExtraCare Bucks, you want to start "rolling" them so you're spending as little "real money" as possible.  This holds true for puchases at Walgreen and RiteAid also, they just have slightly different rewards programs, so you have to learn the details for your store.  Fortunately so many others have turned this into a science, that many websites will spell it out for you.

Here is everything I bought at CVS last week.

Here is how I bought it:

Transaction 1:
Complete contact solution, on sale for $8.99.
I had a coupon for $1 off and CVS was running a promotion that you got back $8.99 in ExtraCare Bucks with this purchase...essentially making it free, or for me, a dollar "profit."
Cost of item: $8.99
   plus tax: $9.53
   minus coupon: (-$1): $8.53
   Pay: $8.53
   Get back $8.99 in ExtraCare Bucks

Transaction 2:
(2) packs of Dentek flossers, on sale for $2 each with a $2 ExtraCare Buck reward for each (again, essentially making them "free)
(2) Crest mouth washes, on sale for $3.49 with a $2.50 ExtraCare Buck reward for each, plus I had a $2 coupon off for each
4 Tide DuoPacks on sale for $3.99, plus I had a $3 coupon off for each
Cost of items: $26.94
   plus tax: $28.35
   minus coupons: (-$2 x 2): $24.35
   minus coupons: (-$3 x 4): $12.35
   minus ExtraCare Bucks ($8.99) from previous transaction: $3.36
   Pay: $3.36
   Get back $9.00 in ExtraCare Bucks.

So in this second transaction I've essentially "made" money.  Now granted, it was CVS play money, but still, it's a profit here!

Some weeks there isn't anything that I would need or want on sale, or that would generate ExtraCare Bucks.  In this situation, I don't buy anything.  ExtraCare Bucks are good for about four weeks, so there no sense in wasting your "credits" on something you don't need or want.  But you definitely don't want to let them expire.  If you get to the point where they are about to expire, use them to buy whatever you need, regardless of whether they generate more ExtraCare Bucks.  You can start up again later on.

This particular week, there was lots of good stuff.  So in that situation I pulled out my second ExtraCare Card (in Sadira's name, sneaky sneaky!) and repeated the same process.  I purchased slightly different items in the second transaction, but again used coupons and was able to generate more ExtraCare Bucks.

In my second round of "sneaky" transactions, I also purchased Physician's Formula mascara (not pictured, oops) for $0.64 after coupons and ExtraCare Bucks, however it retailed for $10.59.  The mascara had a "try me free!" tag on it, with a link to a rebate form.  Once I got home I printed the rebate form, included the "try me free!" tag, and receipt with purchased price circled (as directed on the rebate form) and mailed that baby away.  Per the rebate, I'll be reimbursed the manufacturer's price, which is $10.59, or a profit of $9.95.

For the pile of loot pictured above, I spent $21.06, got back a total of $14.00 in ExtraCare Bucks, and will get a check for $9.95 in 4-6 weeks.

As I mentioned, I started off this week with $0 in ExtraCare Bucks in my "bank" since we had been travelling so much for the past few weeks.  You can see how one can essentially get loads of things for free or almost free when you can strategically roll this play money over from one week to another combined with coupons.

I've been doing this for so long now, that I spend no more than an hour per week, cutting coupons and planning out purchases.  I also set a budget for how much I'm willing to spend out of pocket for purchases per week.  Right now it's $50 per week for all Target, CVS, Walgreens, AND grocery store purchases.

So yes, all of my purchases, INCLUDING Target and the grocery store is limited to about $200 per month.  And I have NO PROBLEM coming within this budget.  I remember when I used to spend $200 in one grocery store visit.  It's pretty amazing how much I've been able to shave off of my grocery and Target purchases per month just by planning out my purchases and buying strategically.

It took me about 6 months to really hit my stride with couponing and comparative shopping to get to where I really felt I was doing well, making smart purchases and making significant cuts to my budget.  It's a little tricky in the beginning, but it's SO worth it in the end.

And, for the record, I don't always plan every shopping trip.  In fact, I'm pretty bad at planning out grocery store trips...fortunately I've just gotten good enough at spotting what a good deal is versus a bad one, and combining deals with coupons to get the most bang for my buck.

Just this week I went to the grocery store and purchased these items:

Original price: $83.69
Price I paid after coupons: $51.18

Savings of 39%

Like I said, I'll never be one to buy 35 bottles of Maalox, or 87 Snickers bars, or 113 bottles of PowerAde.  But a savings of 39% off of my normal grocery bill? I'll take it!

A blog that I follow and really love, is doing a series called "31 weeks to a better grocery budget."  The latest installment addresses using coupons to get items for free.

It's all of these little tricks that have helped me continue to be successful with goal #23. Do not use a credit card at all for the entire year.


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