Grocery Shopping and Coupons

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction Last week, we talked about how to use a price book and the Pantry Principle to save money grocery shopping. This week, we’ll move on to using grocery coupons in the store.

Double-check the sales price. When you buy a product that’s on sale, make sure before you leave the store that you were charged that price. You would think that with computers, price changes would be handled automatically. But nine times out of 10, I’ve found that the sale price did not ring up at the register.

To handle this problem right, you’ll need to know the store’s policy regarding sales, coupons, rain checks, and how they handle overcharges. Ask at the service desk. They should have handouts for you to take home, and this information might also be available on your grocery store’s website. Do not expect the cashiers or stockers to know the fine print. The manager should know as part of her job, but the part-time teenage cashier may not know or care. You have to know.

Buy the Sunday newspaper. Every week, all the grocery stores in your area will advertise that week’s best buys. Most, but not all, of them will advertise in the biggest regional paper. If you don’t see weekly ads for the supermarket you like best, ask at the service desk where they do advertise. For example, Karns rarely puts its entire week’s worth of ads in our local paper (the Patriot-News) but they advertise their very best sales in the Sunday Patriot and also in The Sun, our local weekly. To get their full ad, we have to go to the store or find the complete sale listing in our area’s Community Courier.

It is always better to study the food circulars at home, with your list and coupon box. You need to be intimate and familiar with your stores ads to get the most from the store. The first things to look for is what is on super sale this week. These items will usually, but not always, be prominently displayed on the front page of the multi-page flier.

This is where money-saving shopping strategy directly conflicts with what we are taught to do by home economists. Never plan a week’s worth of menus, then try to match up what you want to cook with the week’s sales. Do it the other way around: study the sales first, then plan the menus around them.

Menu planning can make cooking meals more straight forward and less haphazard. I’ll be honest, I don’t plan menus a week in advance. At best, I’ll decide the night before what I’m cooking the next day so I can take the meat out of the freezer. But that’s because I’m a very good cook, I rarely use recipes, and I’m used to looking over what needs to be used up and then making do. I have a fully stocked pantry and all the cookware and seasonings I want to make this easier for me. But in order to do this successfully, you need to be able to walk into a kitchen cold and produce, using only what is on hand, a meal for five. And then those five people have to eat it without carrying on. This demands a high skill level. If you aren’t that good a cook, making up menus in advance may work better for you.

So, we study the ads, look at the sales and the prices, and determine what we stock up on and what we are eating for dinner this week. Does this take time? It does, but I earn a high hourly rate for this. If it takes me two hours (which is generous) to go through the grocery ad and coupon inserts and match them up with my list and my needs, I can easily save more than $20 on my bill. At the minimum, this is an hourly, tax-free rate of $10 an hour. That’s worth my time.

It takes time to become familiar with a grocery ad if you’ve never studied one. Looking at this week’s Giant Circular, we see many of the typical grocery store traps. These traps reward the careful shopper (that’s me!) by penalizing the careless, random shopper (not you, at least not anymore).

grocery coupons

Giant Foods flyer from 4/2015

How does any grocery store get away with giving great deals? By counting on the fact that your typical shopper doesn’t pay any attention at all. “Oh, it’s not worth my time. It’s too hard. No matter what I do, the store will win.” This is loser talk and guarantees that you will be subsidizing me. Like Vegas casinos, the occasional grocery store big winner is more than made up for by the large herd of losers. Every time you don’t pick up both items of a Buy One Get One Free pair, (we’ll shorten that to BOGOF) you subsidize my shopping trip. Do people do this all the time? Yes, they do. I make a point of talking to my cashiers and when I can, I choose the same ones (Hi, Evelyn!). It fits me into the community and the cashier is more likely to chat with me about store policy and how customers don’t seem to see the sale staring at them.

So back to this week’s circular. At the very top, we see the banner of Pack Your Pantry. I didn’t buy most of this stuff as they aren’t products I use or I already did way better last year, and I’m still using stuff up.

Do the Math

grocery coupons

First, we see Campbell’s tomato or chicken noodle soup at 50 cents a can. But, you must buy ten of them and only ten of them to get the sale. Additional or lesser quantities will be rung up at 80 cents a can. Buy nine cans, it will cost 80 cents each for a total of $7.20. Buy the tenth can, your total drops to $5. That’s right. It cost you $2.20 less to buy ten cans rather than nine. If you buy 12 cans, it is $5 plus an additional $1.80 for the two spares for a total of $6.80! Still less than buying nine cans! You have to buy thirteen (!) cans for your purchase price to cost more than buying nine cans ($7.60 vs.e $7.20, a 40 cents difference for four more cans). Many, many people make this mistake.

If you regularly use this soup, you might as well get ten heavily discounted cans. Otherwise, you buy two cans this week and then again next week and pay full price since the sale is over. This is the Pantry Principle in action and demonstrates how much you can save over time by buying ahead. This also lets you stockpile until you end up with several weeks of food on hand at all times.

The other common mistake people make with this kind of a sale is forgetting that you can apply manufacturers’ coupons to the sale. If you have a coupon for Campbell’s chicken noodle or tomato soup for $1.00 off of eight cans, they subtract this at the register for a final price of $4 for ten cans of soup or 40 cents a can. They aren’t giving you the soup, but you aren’t paying anywhere near full price either.

giant foods circular grocery coupons

On the same page we see Kellogg’s cereal for sale at $1.49 cents a box, but you must buy 4 boxes to get this price. As with the soup, smaller or larger quantities raise the price per box to @2.50 each. I had a pair of coupons for $1 off of two boxes so I bought 4 boxes of 18.7 ounce Raisin Bran for 1.49 cents a box for a final price of $3.96 for four boxes or 99 cents a box. ((1.49 x 4) – (2 x 1) = $3.96).

This is how I routinely spend about $150 per week total for a family of five for groceries. And yes, this includes personal care, paper goods, laundry soap, cleaning products, pet food and anything else you would normally buy at a grocery store. I could not do this without the Pantry Principle, excellent shopping skills, and being able to cook well from scratch.

I don’t do a lot of couponing as most coupons are for processed foods which I don’t use very much. But whenever possible, I do clip coupons and I do use them. I keep my coupons in a small index card box, filed in a number of categories. I don’t obsess over it but I do save enough money using my coupons to make it worth my while.

Back when people were doing super couponing, I looked into what was being done to get those amazing three buggies of groceries for 10 bucks. These women traded coupons over the Internet, subscribed to various coupon sites, printed out Internet coupons (I tried this and it wasn’t worth my time or paper at all), and sometimes indulged in fraud when they stole coupon inserts from newspapers in honor boxes and at the newsstand. Super couponers and fraud are the reason why so many coupons these days limit how many you can use in an individual shopping trip; i.e., no more than four of any given specific coupon in one visit, carefully matched to the items purchased.

Most coupons are for products I don’t buy. But if you do buy a heavily advertised product like Dove shampoo, you’d be a fool not to clip out those high-value coupons and save them to match up with the shampoo when it goes on sale. The key here is being organized enough to save your coupons in a file box, where you can easily retrieve them, and then matching them to an item, when the item is on sale.

This is not a high level of organization, certainly not on par with being a lawyer, but it still seems to be beyond many people. My answer to this is: would you pick up a five dollar bill in the street? How many five dollar bills do you see in the street? I routinely save five to ten bucks off of my receipt using coupons. It’s rare for me to go over this amount. I never see five-dollar bills in the gutter, week after week. Coupon money is free money, but not huge amounts. It is enough to be worth my time.

Coupon inserts are the other reason to subscribe to the Sunday newspaper, as this is the easiest way to get them. I sometimes get Catalina coupons at the checkout counter, Giant regularly puts out free magazines of recipes and coupons, I sometimes get them from my neighbors, and I pick them up off the ground in the parking lot. When I am finished with my inserts, I pass them along to my neighbors. I use less than 20% of the coupons that pass through my hands but I still save enough money to make it worth my while.

If you want to know more about super couponing, a book I liked was How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something for Nothing by Kathy Spencer. This woman makes couponing and shopping strategies into a full time job and it pays off hugely for her. I was amazed. I also know I would never do this much work as I have other things I feel are more important. In addition to this book, there are dozens more how to coupon books available at any library. Read before you buy! Remember that if you don’t use products that are routinely couponed, and you don’t put in the time and effort needed, you will never save the money a coupon queen will.

Coupons only save you money when the coupon applies to a product that you are going to buy anyway. If you buy a product just to redeem the coupon (because it saved you money), then you just spent some cash that could have gone to something else. Only use coupons for what you use routinely and always stack them with sales. This gives you the biggest discount.

Next Week: Putting Coupon-Clipping Strategies into Action