When I tell people that I coupon, I usually get the same responses:
As a New Yorker, I’m well aware that time is money, that apartments are tiny, and that our attention spans are the size of walnuts. We live in a city where we can get any kind of food (or groceries, for that matter!) delivered to our apartment at any time of night, and the thought of planning and clipping and organizing and storing more than one bottle of shampoo at a time seems ridiculous.
All of these arguments were 100% mine as well, until I started, and now it’s difficult to imagine how I possibly got by WITHOUT couponing.
TLC’s Extreme Couponing might have been the shameful reason why I gave it a try to begin with, as much as I’d hate to admit it. I was home, bored, and feeling poor (as all New Yorkers, and especially, as all NY actors feel on a daily basis), when I turned on the TV to a bunch of housewives in the Midwest going absolutely insane over a .50 cent mustard discount. I too thought they were nuts, but the more I watched, the more I realized that what they were accomplishing was sort of miraculous.
I also realized that there were habits I could pick and choose out of their craziness, to make couponing MY OWN- in an NYC apartment-sized space, with the limited amount of time and attention that I had to devote to it.
It was slow to start: I clipped some coupons, went to the store, got frustrated, and gave up. The next week, I clipped more, went to the store… and actually used some of them. My couponing grew and grew from there, until I finally accomplished my crowning achievement of bringing $70 worth of groceries and incidentals to the register, paying NOTHING, and having CVS pay me $7 to carry it all out of the store.
As cool as that was, I started wondering what all this effort was for. My friends and family thought I was nuts. I was living in a three-bedroom shared apartment with two roommates, and my allotted shelf in the kitchen was overflowing. I had saved some money, and that was great, but in the end… was it all really worth it?
Then, out of the blue, came the day that I thanked my lucky stars that I had started couponing. I had booked a seven-month performing job in China. I was super excited to go, but there was a little hiccup with my work visa. I was assured by the company that hired me that it was on its way, and encouraged to give up my NY survival job in preparation to fly out, and in my excitement to get going on this new adventure, I did.
Then… low and behold… the work visa didn’t come through. In fact, it didn’t come for a full month. Still wishing and hoping that it would show up each day, I resisted returning to work, thinking “tomorrow- it will definitely be here tomorrow!” I had $700 in my checking account at the time, and it was definitely not a good moment to deal with a month of unexpected unemployment. So what did I do? I ate my couponed stockpile.
I had frozen veggies and couscous, pasta with different sauces, and the million different kinds of soup that I had accumulated over the course of my past few months of couponing. I used my reserves of contact solution and toothpaste and face wash, and I resisted spending a penny during that month, not knowing when I was about to start working again. At the end of the month, I had survived, and I had survived WELL.
It’s for when you find yourself out of work unexpectedly, or find yourself at 12:00 at night and your shampoo bottle runs out, or when you suddenly have houseguests and you can offer them one of 16 toothbrushes you have in your drawer for just that occasion. The most important lesson that I learned from those sage crazies on TLC was “buy it now, when it’s cheap or free, so you don’t have to pay full price when you DO need it.”
First, I had to figure out where coupons come from. The answer: everywhere.
The obvious place would be the Sunday paper – here in NY, the NY Post and the Daily News tend to have the best coupon selections. Also, in NYC, circulars for weekly sales at local stores tend to come out on Wednesdays, and those circulars are usually left in little plastic bags on doorsteps around the city. The majority of them end up immediately in the trash- but check them for coupons first!
Coupons can also be printed online, using coupons.com, smartsource.com, etc… but because I’m cheap and don’t feel like paying for ink cartridges, I tend to skip those. The next time you go into a store (take Duane Reade for example), keep an eye out. Tiny boxes mounted on the shelves tend to have coupons in them. Also, there are sometimes coupons called “peelies” stuck to products advertising “$1 off!” or something similar.
A little known fact is that (unless specified on the coupon) those coupons do not have to be used immediately, and taking them out of the store is totally legal. You are more than welcome to grab a few of them and file them away.
The second thing I needed to discover for myself was that organization is key. A pile of coupons doesn’t do you any good. You need to know exactly what you have, and how to find it quickly.
The TLC ladies recommended using a binder, but that wasn’t really my style. I experimented a bunch, and then settled with a small plastic coupon organizer booklet. Over time, that booklet grew to 4 booklets- 2 for food, 1 for personal care items, and 1 for household items. Within each booklet I put little stickers on the tabs to specify sections for different products. That way “Spices and Sauces” stay separate from “Dairy and Eggs”- when you have 10 coupons this seems unnecessary, but when you have 400, you’ll be grateful.
Find your own way to organize that makes sense to you- but remember, a coupon is only good if you can actually find it to use it.
Another important thing to be aware of is store cards. I cannot sing the praises of store cards enough. How many times do you get to checkout and just not feel like dealing with a store card? All the time. But here’s a tip- a lot of stores only offer sale prices WITH STORE CARD. These are not credit cards, but savings cards. They are free at customer service counters, and they could mean the difference between paying $5 or $3.
Another thing to remember is that there are two different types of coupons. There are MANUFACTURER coupons, which are usually the kind that come in the paper. They are for the product, but do not list a store specifically.
These can be used pretty much everywhere, and the majority of what you’re dealing with should be manufacturer coupons (or MQ’s for short). There are also STORE coupons- these are coupons that the store is putting out themselves (and are called SQ’s for short). Target, Walgreens, and the like put these out pretty regularly.
So, you’ve done the legwork- found the coupons, clipped, organized, now when do you know when the moment is right to use them?
Start by checking the circulars. Find out what’s on sale, and if you’re in the area, take a quick walk around the store and see if anything exciting is on clearance (these sales tend to not be advertised). Then, pull out your beautifully organized coupons, and compare.
While saving $1 off of a $3.50 can of soup is fine, you can do better. You want to find a store that has the product on sale- in fact, as a rule, ONLY USE COUPONS ON PRODUCTS THAT ARE ALREADY ON SALE. Perhaps they also have out an SQ which takes even more off. You can generally use an SQ and an MQ together (this is called “stacking”)- so look for products that you have both for, if possible.
This is sort of the “perfect storm” of couponing. It’s what you always look for, but won’t always find- don’t get frustrated, it’ll show up if you just keep looking!
That can of soup, which you might have purchased for $3.50 while on a lunch break, or on your way home from work and tired, now cost you .49 cents, and you got 2, so you saved $6.02 right there- an 86% savings.
So now, do you have more coupons?? Maybe get 4! This is where NYC couponing begins to differ from the Midwest Extreme Couponing lunatics. You don’t have room for 400 cans of soup, but you know what I bet you have room for? Six, or maybe even eight cans.
Be smart, get only what you will use, or what you know people close to you will use, but do look beyond this week or this month. Will you eat soup eight times in the next six months? Great. Get eight cans of soup. A great deal is a great deal, but I’ll never be that person who buys diapers when I don’t have a baby, or pet food when I don’t have a dog – that’s when you know you’ve gone off the deep end.
That said- don’t be afraid to branch out. Brand loyalty can be the death of a couponer.
Say you like Garnier shampoo, but you get to the store and discover that you can get L’Oreal shampoo for .75 cents cheaper. TRY IT. I have discovered some awesome products this way. I recently ran out of milk and went to the store to buy more. I usually like Hood Simply Smart milk, but I had coupons for So Delicious Coconut Milk… so I gave it a try… and guess what’s really good? Coconut milk.
Remember- each store is different, and it’s the stores right to have whatever couponing policy it prefers (or not accept coupons all together). Don’t expect your corner bodega to accept coupons- stick to the chain stores that have clear policies. If you can, pay a visit to the website of the store in advance and print off a copy of their policy to familiarize yourself with it.
There are times you may feel like you’re robbing the store, but you always want to keep everything entirely legal, or it’s not truly a victory. My favorite store to coupon at is Stop and Shop- (which are few and far between in NYC, but just happen to have huge location in Astoria, Queens, where I live) because their coupon policy actually allows them to DOUBLE COUPONS up to .99 cents. That’s right… If I come in with a .75 cent coupon, they will take $1.50 off the product. That has added up to some pretty remarkable savings in the past.
If you’re anywhere nearby, I highly recommend starting your couponing education there!
Yes, couponing takes a bit of leg work and effort to begin, but once you get it up and running it can turn into a well-oiled machine that’s easy to maintain.
Remember that coupons expire, usually in about a month, so go through your collection every once in a while and toss the old ones. I could go on and on about the various ways you can arrange your coupons to get better deals. There are infinite ways to find your way around paying full price for anything, if you set your mind to it.
Now, having done it for so long, I can’t fathom how I ever paid full price for things. When in doubt, visit TheKrazyCouponLady for advice. She is a couponing ninja, and has managed to stay fabulous through it all.
As a performer, my income is sporadic and usually small, and couponing has been my answer. It’s been a way to keep my life orderly and in control, in the face of a city and business that’s never in my control. I vow to never be the crazy that I saw on TV, but I’m proud to call myself a couponer!
Sarah Cooney is an NYC based-actor/singer/stilt walker/avid couponer! She likes puppies more than most people, loves to travel, and is a constant nomad. www.sarahbcooney.com
Have you ever tried couponing? What strategies do you recommend?