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The most frequent question I receive when people find out I coupon is, “Where do I start?”  True, it can be kind of overwhelming.  Hopefully I can shed some light on this issue and give you the tools you need to start couponing and saving money.

I am going to say something that most couponers probably don’t want to hear:  coupons themselves don’t actually save you a ton of money.  They save you a few bucks here and there and allow you to sometimes get things for free or almost free.  Once in awhile you can even make a few cents by using coupons.  However, the things that will save you the most money are the good shopping principles that smart shoppers and couponers use.  Now don’t misunderstand.  I LOVE coupons and I am a huge advocate of using them.  I just think that they are more of the icing on the savings cake rather than the foundation of it.  For those of you who have tried couponing before and feel like it was too overwhelming, this should be welcome news.

If you want to start saving a bunch of money today I would suggest you implement the following habits into your shopping routine:

1.  Buy the things that are on sale and stock up on those things so that you never have to pay full price for them.  (See my posts on shopping the ads and stocking up.)

2.  Plan your meals around the things that are on sale and the things you already have in your pantry.  Planning your meals will also make it less likely that you waste your money going out to eat so often.

3.  Stop buying toiletries at grocery stores and get started on learning how to play the drug store game (Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid each have their own version of the game.  If you play it right you should be able to pay pennies on the dollar for most if not all of your toiletries and over-the-counter medication.)  Here are a few good links to learn how to make the most out your shopping at Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid.

4.  Match the coupons you have to the sales to increase your savings.  Most coupons are available in the Sunday paper and online.  There are tons of free blogs out there that have grocery store coupons match-ups every week for stores all over the country.  Here are a few of my favorites:  Surviving the Stores, The Thrifty Mama, Couponing 101, and Saving Cents With Sense.

5.  Don’t stress.  Couponing is a skill and it has to be learned.  There will be times when the learning curve seems pretty steep, but hang on and it will get easier.  I remember when I first started couponing I didn’t sleep well for a few nights because it was such a paradigm shift for me.  It was a completely different way of shopping than what I was accustomed to.  But as you practice and learn you will get better at it and it will seem easy in no time.

This blog is not meant to be a couponing blog with coupon match-ups.  I feel that there are plenty of well written blogs out there that meet that need (I listed a few in point #4).  This blog is meant to teach you sound shopping principles that will become money-saving habits, and couponing is  just one part of those habits.

Stocking Up

Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to run to the store unless you wanted to?  No more dashing to the store every couple of days to get a couple of ingredients for dinner that night, no more coming home with $110 worth of groceries when all you meant to pick up were bread and milk, no more paying full price for the things your family uses the most.  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

I am here to tell you that this is possible if you follow a simple guideline I like to call the “Pantry Principle”.  You basically build up a food storage, buying things when they are ridiculously cheap and storing them for when you need them.  There are two major benefits that I see from following this principle:

1.  You can save a whole lot of money.  If you stock up on stuff when it is cheap then you never have to buy it when it is expensive.  This works just as well for foodstuffs like flour, canned fruits and veggies, salsa, mac & cheese, and chips (Who said your food storage had to be full of only “needs”?  Stock up on the stuff your family likes!) as for toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo.  If you have determined that the price is right then go ahead and buy a few extras!  It costs a little bit more up front, but it will save you money in the long run.  (Don’t go in to debt to build up your food storage, of course!)  Let’s take an example.  I use a lot of condensed soups in my cooking, so I am always looking for a deal on them.  Last week I matched a sale with a coupon I had (more on couponing later) and was able to get four cans of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup for one dollar!  Usually those cans sell for around $1.25 each.  Just in that one transaction I saved $4, a savings of 80%!  Now of course I didn’t need four cans all for one day, but that’s kind of the point.  I have enough to last until I can find more on sale again!  In this way I have complete control over the price I am willing to pay.  Over time the savings is going to rack up and you will see your grocery bill go down dramatically.

2.  It’s always good to have a little food storage for a rainy day.  Some people say you need enough for a couple of weeks, some say a few months, and some even go so far as to have an entire year’s worth of food hoarded away for their family.  It’s brilliant.  It’s kind of like being a squirrel.  Since we never know when our own personal winter is going to set in (ie. job loss, natural disaster, illness) it’s always good to have a little storage set aside.

You can start small.  Over time (and probably in less time than you think) you will see the small contributions you make to your pantry make a big difference.  You can have peace of mind knowing that you are saving money and that you are prepared in case of an emergency that prohibits you from getting to the store.  I’d say that feels pretty good!

Have you ever bought something for a price you thought was phenomenal only to see that same thing advertised at another store for less a few days later?  Perhaps you have seen store advertisements with buzz phrases such as “unbeatable price”, “red hot buy,” or “great deal” flashing at you in colorful text.  Have you ever wondered, “Is the price actually great or am I being duped by a well planned marketing strategy?”

Stores love to make you believe that the price for which they are selling any given item is the best possible price you can get.  This may or may not be true, but how do you know?  With a little practice in “price recognition”, you can easily see past the advertising and get to the truth.

So what is price recognition?  It’s essentially the skill that wins people cars and dream vacations on the game show “The Price is Right.”  You can acquire that same skill, and apply it to your grocery (and other) shopping.  You may not win a new yacht, but you will save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on your grocery bill every year.  To do so, you need to make a personal transformation from the consumer that is satisfied with paying a “fair” price to the empowered buyer, purchasing goods at close to their absolute lowest possible prices.

Let’s talk about how to sharpen your price recognition skills.  It takes a little bit of practice and some time, but it’s really quite easy.  Grab some kind of notebook and a pen and then write down a list of things you typically buy at the grocery store.  Browse your ads and write down the prices you see advertised for those items.  Do this over the course of a few weeks and you will practically be a price recognizing pro.  Remember, you don’t have to do this every week for the rest of your life.  It’s just an exercise to help you learn how much things typically cost so you can recognize a genuine sale price.  Pretty soon you will come to see certain pricing principles that will help you get the best deal.  For example, in my area, most stores regularly sell a gallon of milk for $3, but I’ve found that nearly every week, one or more of them will have it on sale for less than $2.  Understanding that principle gives me control over what I spend, rather than allowing one store power to dictate my spending.  You are going to save a lot of money simply by never paying “full price” for any of your groceries again.  Doesn’t that feel good?

Shopping the Ads

One of the biggest things to save you money on groceries is shopping the ads.  If you are anything like I was a year ago you get a big stack of ads for all your local grocery stores in the mail or in the newspaper and immediately throw them in the trash thinking that they are junk mail.  Stop it!  Those ads are gold mines and will soon become some of your best friends.  Soon you’ll look forward to receiving those ads and then you’ll peruse them several times before you put them in a safe place where you can reference them again and again for the next week.  They will be one of your most powerful weapons in your savings arsenal.  Trust me.  Let me tell you why.

I’m going to say something incredibly obvious here:  If you want to save money you will need to start buying things for less than you are spending now.  And how are you going to know where to buy those things for less?  By looking at the ads, of course!  Browsing the ads will not only help you find which stores have good prices on the items you need it will also help you hone your price recognition skills.  Now I wouldn’t suggest shopping at every store for which you receive an ad.  That would be ridiculous.  But I would suggest that while you are getting started on this quest for savings you at least look over most of the ads.  Again, it’s an exercise to help sharpen your price recognition skills (more on that in a later post).

It can be kind of overwhelming at first.  I know that.  It gets faster and much easier as you go along.  Again, trust me.  I would suggest that you keep a list.  Just grab a piece of scratch paper and start by writing the name of each store with a list of the items you see advertised for a good price.  Then go buy those items at those stores.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  (Don’t get roped into buying things just because they are a good price.  If you don’t like pickles, don’t buy them just because they are on sale for ninety cents!)

If you are anything like I was a year ago shopping at more than one store might seem unnecessary.  But trust me, it’s one of the keys to saving tons of money.  I’ll let you in on a little secret:  no one store has the best prices on everything all of the time.  If Store A sells cheese for a great price you know, for example, they are selling chicken for an exorbitant rate to compensate.  If Store B sells chicken for a great price you know they are ripping you off somewhere else.  Many stores try to lure people in by advertising the convenience of the “One Stop Shopping” idea.  They make you believe that buying your food, filling your prescription, buying a new pair of jeans, and eating lunch all in the same place saves you money.  While I admit that sometimes these stores do have good sales on groceries, you can’t let them fool you into thinking that they always have the best prices on everything.  A little bit of inconvenience will save you mountains of money.

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