This post is the 5th in a 5-part series on how to save money while shopping for groceries. So far we have covered:
Today I am going to show you the tools that I use (my coupon binders, coupon bag, and my shopping list) and the methods that I use to keep all of this organized. I normally spend 1-2 hours a week cutting and filing coupons, and planning the upcoming week's shopping trip.
My Coupon Binders
I keep two different three-ring binders for my coupons- the first for regular grocery items and the second for health & beauty items and paper goods and cleaning supplies. I have divided my binders into sections- for example my grocery binder is divided into the following: Beverages, Baking, Condiments/Oils/Dressings, Dairy, Grains/Pasta, Meat/Seafood, Pet Supplies, Produce, Snacks, and Soups/Canned Goods.
In each section I have several sheets of plastic page protectors that have 9 pockets each (the kind meant for trading cards). I often need to fold the coupons in order to get them to fit into the pocket- but I make sure that I can read what the coupon is for, the value, and the expiration date. Within each section, I try to keep similar items together, so when I am looking for yogurt coupons, for example, I can flip to the Dairy tab, and then see within the dairy section the page that holds just my yogurt coupons.
My Coupon Bag
When I head out to the store (grocery, Target, and drug stores) I always take my coupon binders into the store with me- just in case I spot a good deal on something that I might be able to pair with a coupon, so I got into the habit of keeping my binders in a cloth bag which I can grab on my way out of the house. In my coupon bag I carry my binders, my envelopes with my pulled coupons for my current shopping trips, my clipboard with my shopping list and a pencil. Before I leave my car to head into the store I will take my wallet out of my handbag, and put my wallet and car keys into my coupon bag so that I only have one bag to manage while shopping. If I am in a store with a grocery cart- I put my bag in the place where a child can sit, and I pull out my clipboard so I can quickly scan the list of what I am shopping for.
My Shopping List
I like to keep a running list of things we need- it is right on the kitchen counter (on a clipboard, are you surprised?) so I can jot it down right when I see that we need something. I wanted to use this running grocery list as the starting point for where I planned my shopping list- so I wouldn't need to re-write everything on a new shopping list. So I created a spreadsheet in Excel, and down the left hand side of the sheet, I listed all of the main areas of the grocery store- in the order in which I shop through the store. Then I added three columns- the first column is where I write down the running list of what I need. The next two columns are for each of the two local grocery stores in my area. I then can take this running list, and use it when I do my shopping trip planning (see below).
Clipping and Filing Coupons
During the course of the week, I just accumulate any inserts that Steve brings home from the office, any coupons I receive from my Mom, and any other coupons that I may come across. Then once a week I sit down to start clipping and sorting. When going through the inserts, I don't clip every coupon that I come across- I only clip the coupons for the items that I believe I will purchase. Now that I am experienced in couponing, I also have a sense for which coupons are worth my time to clip, and which ones I will never really use. There is one place where I do not cut out the coupons at all, but just leave the inserts intact and hang on to them- and that is the monthly P&G savers- which typically offer coupons for paper products, candles, and cleaning supplies. Because these P&G inserts come out monthly, the coupons have a small expiration window- and I have found it to be easier to just clip them when I decide that I am going to use them.
After I have cut out all of the coupons, and recycled the rest of the inserts, I sort them by product category- and then I take each pile of coupons by category and temporarily file them in this little brown index card box.
I do this to just try and maintain a sense of control- if I have coupons spread out in piles all over my kitchen table, some little person is bound to come in and want to “help me”….and then I am scrambling to maintain order over everything I have sorted. I have learned that if I cut, then sort, then stash them away and just work with a section of coupons at a time, it saves my sanity!
Once they are all filed into the proper section of the index card box, I get out the binders, and go through each section. The first step is to look through that section of the binder, and pull out any expired coupons. Then I pull the coupons for just that section out of the index card box, sort them into piles for each coupon, and then file them into the binder pockets. If I have multiple copies of the same coupon, they filed as a stack into the same pocket. I go through the binder section by section until the brown box is empty and all of my coupons are filed. As I said earlier- I spend maybe an hour or two a week on this whole process. And I prefer to do this while watching TV after the kids are in bed!
Planning my shopping trip
Each Sunday, I grab my shopping list clipboard, the weekly sale circulars, and my laptop to look up the current deals on my favorite deal blogs. I first start by reading the sale circular and adding a list of items to the proper store column on my spreadsheet where I have spotted a good sale price and where want to make a purchase. I will write down what the item is, a package size (if the ad specifies a size), the sale price, and I will write down how many I plan to buy (which I determine based on any limits imposed by the ad, or the # of coupons I have to use). While I am writing this down, I will flip through my coupon binder, and remove the coupons that I plan to use- and put them into an envelope that I use for each store.
After I have figured out what I want to purchase based on the sale circular, I then look up the deals match-ups for the store based on my favorite deal blog- and most of the time they have found great match-ups that I would have missed. If I decide to make these purchases, I will add them to my shopping list, with the notes for size, price, and quantity, and print and pull the associated coupons.
Finally I will run back through the left hand column for the running list of what I need- and if I need something that isn't on sale- I will look to see if I have a coupon for it in the binder. If so, I will list a quantity next to the item on my list, so that I know to purchase it while in the store. If I can't find a coupon, I will still leave it on my list, and decide while I am in the store whether or not to buy it then, or to save the item for another week (hoping for a better deal).
I have found that using this detailed shopping list while in the store allows me to get through the store very quickly- usually in under a half an hour (not counting the check out time). I know what aisles I can skip, I know exactly what I intend to buy, and I rarely add anything into the cart unless I discover some other great deal while in the store.
Tips for Checking Out at the Store
I will tell you that sometimes handing a cashier a big pile of coupons, and then trying to keep an eye on how everything is scanning and whether or not I am getting back the catalinas I earned, etc. can be a little nerve-wracking, especially when there is a line of customers waiting to be rung up after you. So I usually try to shop at a time when the store is less crowded. I like to get in and out quickly- and I prefer not to have a long line of other customers waiting behind me while all of my coupons are scanned- because some coupon will fail to scan every time. (Literally, every time I shop there will be some coupon that won't ring up- and the cashier will need to double check that the coupon is valid, that I bought the correct quantity of the required item, and then call a manager over to do an override. I have learned that as long as I am helpful and patient, the coupon is always honored).
When I start the check out process, I hand over my store loyalty card to the cashier first, and then all of my coupons (and I double check that I did purchase everything I intended before handing them over). If I have a coupon where the cashier will have to look up the amount to deduct, such as a buy one get one free coupon, I try to hand over that item first, to make it easier to ring. I always make a note on my shopping list, if I am doing a deal that generates a catalina, so I know that I need to look for it when I am checking out and gathering my receipts.
Rules of Couponing That You Should Never Break
There are some “rules of couponing” that I feel are important to follow- such as never hand over expired coupons. Never try to “sneak” in an extra coupon for something you didn't buy- or for a size or quantity that you didn't buy. If you find that you have made a mistake (and it happens to me all of the time), just apologize and take the coupon back. But always be fair and ethical in your use of coupons.
So this wraps up this series on saving money on your grocery budget. Has this series inspired you to “Shop Smarter and Save Money” at the grocery store?
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