DIY

I Became A Hardcore Couponer For A Week — Here’s How Much Money I Saved (And Sanity I Lost)

by Kim Wong-Shing

There’s couponing, and then there’s extreme couponing. The former is what my mom did growing up. The latter has an entire show on TLC dedicated to it, one in which shoppers become so skilled at couponing that they spend almost nothing on groceries. Occasionally, the grocery store even pays them money.

But is extreme couponing realistic? Can you actually save cash by spending a ton of time couponing every week?

To find out, I tried using the same methods that hardcore couponers use. Well, some of them. As you’ll see, the way that reality TV portrays extreme couponing doesn’t exactly match up with real life (surprise, surprise).

The first difference? Most stores aren’t as liberal with coupons as they are on the TV show. Real stores limit the number of coupons you can use, and therefore the amount of money that you can save.

Second, most of us don’t have the personality of an obsessive coupon fanatic. Couponing takes a lot of dedication – not just time, but also focus and organization. I, for example, usually choose to just pay a little extra money rather than give away hours of my time.

But dollars add up, and I needed to know: Am I missing out on something big? If I couponed hard enough, could I finally pay for a vacation to the Caribbean?

With that in mind, I set out on a week of hardcore couponing. Here’s how it went.

Learning to Coupon

Learning to Coupon
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The first step of my journey was to hit up my friendly neighborhood Google to discover how extreme couponing even works. I quickly discovered that there is, indeed, a method to the madness. Extreme couponers use a variety of tactics, but only some of them are available to the average shopper.

In general, coupons offer you only a buck or two discount, so how can you turn that into a huge savings? The best way is to “stack” coupons – use multiple coupons on the same items to reduce the price as much as possible. Unfortunately, many stores have policies that restrict the number of coupons you can use on any given item. My local grocery stores restrict customers to just one coupon per item, for example. No fair!

Couponers also keep close track of store sales, and they use coupons on already discounted items to maximize savings. They use store reward programs to save even more money – for example, buying a certain number of items to receive $5 back.

Coordinating coupons in this way takes a lot of time and effort. You have to keep track of expiration dates, sale periods, terms and conditions, and other specifics to make it all fit together just right.

Using these tactics, extreme couponers are able to walk away with hauls that look like this:

If you’re stocking up on 10 laundry detergents, spending a few hours per week couponing may make sense. But I don’t have a spare room to dedicate to stockpiling extra products, and I have no desire to have an oversized pantry to organize.

I just wanted to save some cash on my normal shopping routine — and fatten up my travel savings in the process. I was hoping not to lose too much time or sanity doing so; otherwise, the few bucks saved wouldn’t quite be worth it. I crossed my fingers and dreamed of Costa Rica.

Gathering Coupons

Gathering Coupons
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Now that I knew how to coupon, it was time to actually find some coupons to use. There are two places that you can find coupons: the Sunday newspaper and the internet.

The Sunday newspaper method is pretty straightforward. Find a place that sells newspapers with circulars inside, pay a couple dollars, and get your scissors ready. I ended up clipping a total of 16 coupons for everything from razors to eggs.  

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Internet coupons, on the other hand, exist in many different forms. Some stores, like Walmart, offer printable coupons. Others have phone apps. Some stores offer digital coupons that you can add to your store card so that they automatically process when you check out. Walgreens offers this option, and since I have a Walgreens card and shop there often, I chose that route. It made everything super simple.

 

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There are also apps that are unaffiliated with any stores but offer a variety of coupons and cash-back reward programs. In fact, there are a dizzying variety of these apps, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll become overwhelmed and fail to actually use any of them. My research, however, taught me that couponers really like RetailMeNot and Checkout 51.

Speaking of being overwhelmed – between keeping track of online and paper coupons, store sales, and other promotions, I totally got mixed up at times. If I did this on a regular basis, I’d definitely grab a binder to keep track of everything.

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Despite my best attempts at being efficient, I spent around three hours browsing and sorting coupons from all of the different outlets. When you don’t quite know what you’re doing, and when you’re trying to cover all your bases, the time quickly adds up. I felt my sense of reality slowly drifting away around hour two, along with my Caribbean vacation dreams.

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However, I also realized something very important at this step: Nearly every coupon I saw was a “manufacturer coupon,” meaning that it came from the company that makes the product, not the store that sells it. You can use manufacturer coupons anywhere where that item is sold, regardless of where you initially found the coupon.

Courtesy of LittleThings Author

By the same token, you’ll find the same coupons appearing over and over in different stores’ circulars.

Pro tip: If you’re not looking to be too hardcore – and if you’d like to hang onto some of your mental well-being – you can save a lot of time by limiting your browsing to only a couple favorite stores.

Going Shopping

All right! Hours of emotionally unhinged scrolling later, I had accumulated 16 paper coupons and countless digital coupons, and I was ready to shop. I planned to go for two shopping trips – one for my regular grocery haul and one for some personal toiletries.

The personal toiletries trip was looking promising. There are tons of coupons for things like toilet paper and toothpaste, which is why extreme couponers end up with whole closets full of them. Razor coupons abound.

But groceries? Food coupons are usually for processed foods, like Hamburger Helper, bags of chips, or protein bars. Useful, sure, but those foods don’t make up the majority of my groceries, so I wasn’t expecting to save too much.

I completed my groceries trip first, because I desperately needed a hearty dinner after ALL that time couponing. I went to my local grocery store, Rouses. If you’re expecting to see a haul as impressive as the one pictured above, please take a moment to lower your expectations. Here’s what I successfully couponed at the grocery store that week.

Courtesy of LittleThings Author

I bought some frozen produce, snacks, salad dressing, and pasta sauce. I used five coupons on these items, which originally totaled $22.81. I saved a total of $3.50.

As you can see, it barely made a dent in my grocery bill, which was for a couple weeks’ worth of groceries.

Courtesy of LittleThings Author

Undeterred, I continued on to my personal toiletries shopping trip, still dreaming of Costa Rica. This one went much better.

OK, my haul still doesn’t look very impressive. But that’s not the point.

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I bought paper towels, toothpaste, mouthwash, and cotton swabs. I also bought a random tube of lipstick – a testament to just how difficult it is to follow one of the golden rules of couponing, which is “only buy stuff that you need.” Just because there’s a discount doesn’t mean that you have to buy it, and in fact doing so will prevent you from saving money in the long run. But… lipstick!

My original total was $29.62. I used five coupons again, but this time I saved $9.80. That’s a significant savings!

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Costa Rica, here I come?

So Was It Worth It?

So Was It Worth It?
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All in all, I saved $13.30 in my week of couponing efforts. That figure made me proud, until I remembered that I’d spent about four hours total, researching and finding coupons. Maybe I spent more. It’s all a blur now.

Does that seem worth it to you? It doesn’t to me. BUT.

In retrospect, I could shave a lot of that time off by simply, well, being less hardcore. I do think there’s a way to use hardcore couponing wisely and efficiently, without sinking a ton of time into research and browsing.

Simply do these things:

  1. See if there are online coupons for the stores that you already shop at.
  2. Before you shop, check for coupons for any items on your list.
  3. Use those coupons when you go shopping.
  4. Do literally anything else the rest of the week, other than think about couponing.

Now that I think about it, I guess you could call this “regular couponing” instead of “hardcore couponing.” Definitely just regular coupon. It’s worth it.