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Coupon queen
Coupon queen: Meet Allison Mullen, a mom who saved thousands of dollars last year by clipping coupons.
Allison Mullen has a system for keeping her coupons organized and ready to go when she needs them. It helped save her thousands of dollars last year. / H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY

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Allison Mullen used to spend $200 to $300 a week on groceries for her family of five. Now she spends $100. What changed?

Not the family’s eating habits. Her three boys — ages 9, 8, and 4 — aren’t subsisting solely on rice and beans or mac and cheese. Nor is the family, who live in New Bloomfield, Pa., eating out substantially more.

Instead, she’s couponing, following the strategies of couponmom.com. “I wanted to stay home with my youngest child. So I became interested in really saving money on food,” she says. “In the last year, I’ve saved $2,400 on coupon value alone. Combine that with store sale prices and I’ve saved $4,900.”

And here’s the best news: Mullen isn’t the only one — and hers isn’t the only way. From increased use of store loyalty cards to abandoning the grocery store for cheaper outlets, food shoppers have discovered a new arsenal of shopping strategies. And no, we’re not talking about the “extreme couponing” you’ve seen on TV. Not only does that take the time of a full-time job, but grocery stores are starting to crack down on excessive use.

These more reasonable tactics were born of the recession, says Doug Harrison, CEO of the market research firm Harrison Group. “Over the last three years, shoppers learned to extend their discretionary incomes by 15%,” he says. “And despite the fact that the recession is officially over, every indicator tells us shoppers are sticking to it.”

The 2010 New American Pantry Study by the Harrison Group with Deloitte found that 81% of consumers say this new value-conscious sort of shopping is “fun.” No wonder 93% say they’ll keep going as the economy improves.

Here’s a look at five top shopping strategies:

"Organized" couponing.

There’s couponing — sitting down with the Sunday newspaper and clipping those offers your family will use — which saves the average family about $1,000 a year, according to NCH Marketing Info, which tracks coupon use.

And then there’s organized couponing — spending hours clipping and organizing coupons, buying an extra copy of the Sunday paper because the deals are so good, downloading and printing coupons from the Web and using technology to clue you in on which stores in your area have the best deals each week. That, as Mullen has learned, can save you much, much more. Last year, there were 332 billion coupons and 3.3 billion redeemed, which put $3.7 billion in consumers’ pockets. “The overall face value savings per coupon is $1.46,” NCH vice president Charlie Brown says.

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Do it right: Despite advances in digital coupons, the biggest bang for your couponing buck is still the Sunday paper. Those shiny inserts contained 88% of all the coupons issued in the past year.

Clip the ones you’ll use and start a file that will help you keep track of them. Watch expiration dates, Brown says.

Next, hit the Web and spend a little time on couponing sites. Nationals such as couponmom.com and thekrazycouponlady.com, and locals such as ppgazette.com in Los Angeles, can help you keep track of where your coupons match up with the best sales. These websites also will point you to digital coupons — the ones you can download and print at home or load onto your smartphone. Be sure to check out our list of USA WEEKEND carrier newspapers to find your local coupon or daily deal site.

Delayed gratification.

When it comes to grocery shopping, the New American Pantry study says 48% of us are now willing to wait for a sale. Shoppers have tuned in to the fact that prices change frequently. For them, the sale price has become the only price they’re willing to pay.

Do it right: You have to know how much the items you buy most frequently cost when they are on sale. This may mean keeping a log of the best price you paid for a particular product (sometimes called a “price book”) until you commit those prices to memory. Then you stock up when items are cheapest and shop in your own cupboard until they go on sale again. Take apple juice, for example: Mullen knows if she can get it for $1 a bottle, that’s a good price. Note: The website grocerypricebooks.com can help you get started.

Swapping stores.

The research firm Mintel recently asked consumers where they typically buy groceries. It was no surprise 81% said the supermarket. But a close 72% said mass merchandisers such as Target and Walmart. And the dollar stores are making gains, as well. “There are certain types of items — milk, baked goods, meat — that consumers know they’re better off getting at grocery stores. But in many other categories, they know by swapping stores they can get a better deal,” Mintel analyst David Browne says.

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Do it right: First, again, is that price book. You need to know what the low price is to know if you’re getting a better deal at a Target or a Family Dollar. Next, consolidate your efforts. Consider alternating outlets week by week so that you can stock up on perishables at the supermarket in Week One and everything else at the big box store in Week Two.

Making a switch to private labels.

Over the past two years, 75% of shoppers have become more willing to try private-label or store-brand products, what we used to snidely call “generics.” Once we try them, the vast majority of us come back, Harrison says. “There’s been a redefinition of must-have brands,” he says. “There are some people who have to have a Diet Coke, but they care less about which brand of household cleaner they buy.”

Do it right: In those categories where you often buy whatever’s on sale, give the store brand a try. (You may be surprised at how little you notice a difference.) Or, look for a store that’s more private-label than anything else. Over the past two years, discount supermarkets such as Aldi or Save-a-Lot have opened in hundreds of communities, and they’re growing fast. These are smaller markets that carry a much narrower selection of items, and 80% to 95% of the products are private-label. You can cut 30% off your bill in one move.

Using loyalty cards.

Finally, if you haven’t gotten on the loyalty card bandwagon, it’s time. Some 84% of grocery shoppers now have at least one, and 65% say they are either essential or very important when it comes to saving money.

Do it right: In order to get the most from your loyalty cards, you have to be honest when you sign up for them. That means giving the store your actual address and e-mail. The store will share the information with marketers who use information about the products you buy to send you other offers targeted specifically to you, Harrison says.

And use technology to help you manage your loyalty cards better. Apps such as Key Ring and CardStar (available for iPhone and Android) let you put all of your loyalty cards into your smartphone. You flash the phone at checkout and, just like with a plastic card, watch the dollars roll off. Finally, it’s worth a trip to shortcuts.com. The website works with some large grocers, such as Kroger and Giant Eagle, and allows you to download coupons right to your loyalty card. Then you just swipe at checkout. Visit shortcuts.com/stores for a list of participants.

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Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, is the financial editor for NBC’s Today, a contributing editor for More Magazine, and a columnist for The New York Daily News. She blogs daily at JeanChatzky.com.