Extreme couponing fever is everywhere. At the grocery store I see a lot of newbies trying to get free stuff. Most of them don't know the rules well enough to do it correctly; others try to break the rules and get mad at store managers when it doesn't work out. I have been couponing before the TV show, before the madness, although I have never devoted 20+ hours a week to clipping. So here is my guide for you. Here's how to apply EC tricks to save you a decent amount on your groceries, occasionally get freebies and still have enough time for a life.
Source coupons. If you get the Sunday paper delivered, you already get coupons weekly. If not, you have to try a little harder to find them. In some cities, you receive a weekly delivery of sales papers for local grocery stores and coupons. Ask friends, neighbors and relations to save the inserts for you. Print coupons from manufacturer's websites or sites such as Coupons.com, and Red Plum. Women's mags often have kid's foods or cleaning supplies coupons. Look on specially marked packages of food you already bought, store shelves or sales ads. Write letters of complaint or praise to manufacturers. Only clip coupons for items that you like and that fit with your goals (don't clip ice cream coupons if you are trying to lose weight).
Cut coupons whenever it works for you. Watch a documentary or listen to music while clipping. Trucker and I like to play a CD and sit on the floor and clip and talk. It really doesn't take much time.
Organize your coupons and keep them organized. The system that works best for me is a large index card box. I sort all of my coupons into the following categories : Dairy/refrigerated foods, frozen foods, meat, breakfast items, ethnic foods, general shelf stable, cat stuff, beverages, hygiene, household, and "Too good to pass up" (this holds freebie coupons and other great finds) I sort these into small envelopes that are marked on the front and these fit perfectly into my file.
Read over your sales papers with a highlighter. When you find an item that's on a great sale, flip through your coupons to see if you have a matching coupon. If so circle the item on the sales paper and mark a C next to it so when you are shopping you remember to use your coupon.
Carry your coupons with you when you shop. You never know when something will be on an unadvertised sale or on clearance. Also carry the sales paper so you remember to check out great sales.
Unless otherwise stated on the coupon or on the store's coupon policy, you can combine one store coupon and one manufacturer's coupon for one item. You can also combine these with a good sale price. Let's say Post cereal goes on sale for 2 for $3. You have a manufacturer's coupon for $1 off of 2. That brings your price down to $1/box. If you have a store coupon that offers $1 off 2 boxes, it becomes $.50/box. I have found that it isn't common to have both a manufacturer's and store coupon for the same item at the same time, but it does happen sometimes.
If you shop at a store that doubles coupons, you can really save. Using the previous example on Post cereal, let's say your store doubles coupons up to $1 face value. You have two coupons for $.75 off one box of cereal. The coupon doubles to $1.50 making the item free.
Shop clearance racks. When an item is dented, crushed, discontinued or changes packaging size, the item is often marked down and put in a back corner. Often the items are marked down 50% or more. Even though they have been marked down, you can still use a coupon. Example: Pantene shampoo was marked down on clearance for $2/bottle. I had several coupons for different deals ($3 off 2, $1 off 1). I used every coupon I had and cleared away enough shampoo for a year's use for my family and my parents at an average of $.75/bottle.
I do not go to three stores a week; I go to one. I look at the sales papers for two stores near me (Meijer and Kroger) and pick whichever has the best sales that week. I do not spend hours in the store; it takes me around a half hour to forty-five minutes depending on how much I'm getting. I don't walk out with $250 worth of groceries for a nickel. I do, however, save between 40-80% off my total. Usually I spend $20-25 for $50 groceries on a standard trip. I don't buy anything I wouldn't use anyway (I have no need for 100 half gallons of ice cream).
On a typical week I spend 15 minutes clipping and organizing coupons (while doing something else), 15 minutes perusing sales papers and a half hour in the store. I save $25 on my groceries, which means an hourly rate of $25/hour tax free. It is worth my time to do this. Those "extreme couponers" who save $200 on a trip may spend 20+ hours getting ready for it, which is around $10/hour and they might not use the items they buy.
Combined with seasonal shopping, gardening, and meal planning, couponing can help you get your grocery bill down to free up some extra cash for saving or paying bills. You don't have to make couponing a lifestyle to use it to save money.