Saturday, May 14, 2011

Learning to Coupon

I love saving money when I shop. I've been toying the idea of "super couponing" for years. When Kingdom First Mom's Alyssa advertised a 50% off special for Grocery University's couponing tutorial, I went ahead and bought it. Around the same time, I become really good friends with PWC Moms' Kristina, who offered a few choice tips of her own. She also steered me over to Southern Savers, which makes fancy couponing VERY simple! For about the past month, I've been using better grocery shopping tactics, and I am really enjoying it.

First, I must confess: I have no idea how much we've saved. I'll continue to have no idea until we've moved (was supposed to happen 5/2, but there was a major failure to communicate, to say the least, and so the date is now at the end of this month). Since I was expecting to move on 5/2, I had everything except the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and closet necessities packed. That mean all my receipts for Quicken are in a box...somewhere. However, I do know that I've gotten more bang for my buck. In April, we spent just a little less than our normal budget, but we got more for it. How do I know? Well, I stocked up on enough groceries to last us until last Monday, 5/9, so I didn't make my first real grocery trip of the month until Tues., 5/10.

There have been some challenges to learning to coupon. First is meal planning. I like sitting down with my cookbooks and spending about an hour deciding what we're going to eat for a week. I had to change that. Instead, I go through the circulars of the stores I like (read: those that double $0.99 and below coupons on a daily basis) and try to think of ways to throw their sales together. I'm sure I could speed the process up if I used one of those nifty online things that lets me punch in three items and spits out fifteen different recipes, but I haven't yet. Why? Because I just thought of it! :)

Next is strategy. I used to clip coupons only on things that our family needs.
Now, I clip anything I think we'll need or that I think I can get for dirt cheap (read: $0.10 or less). Southern Savers has been really useful because of the way deals are laid out. The item is listed with its current price, all coupons you can use (with links to them, if applicable), a recommendation on which coupon will get you the most savings, and the final price after coupon. Here's a sample of what I'm talking about here. It's wonderful! No need to whip out the calculator (packed) or use a lot of time thumbing through your coupons. The background work is done for you. Lovely!!!

Acquiring coupons is an obvious step I haven't discussed yet. There are three ways I get coupons: printing, newspaper clipping, and in-store.
I used to print coupons, but that drives me crazy because the printer is attached to my husband's computer, and my computer is ornery and won't accept a networked printer. Ugh! Printing coupons for the Web is great but not my primary coupon source.
I get a majority of mine from the Washington Post. I got a fabulous Living Social deal for the Post a few months ago, and the Post allowed me to renew the subscription at the same low price, so I'm still getting a Sunday paper for $0.42. Since I typically save at least $15.00 per shopping trip, I figure the subscription is worth it. Plus, the paper is totally reusable: we occasionally read it, the kids paint on it, we started our seedlings in cups made out of paper, etc.
In-store coupons are great. There are two kinds: blinkies and Catalinas.
Blinkies, dubbed by my eldest, are those coupon dispensers with the blinking lights. I like to grab a few (strictly one per person shopping with me so I don't get too greedy), stuff them in my coupon book, and keep going. Easy!
Catalinas are the coupons the clerk hands you along with your receipt. They're typically high dollar coupons, which is great, but the products are usually higher end (read: more expensive). I save those on really good sales, especially on brands like Seventh Generation. Those coupons turn expensive brand prices into store brand prices. Nice!

Learning your store is another really important step. Some stores simply do you the favor of accepting coupons (e.g., HEB in Texas). Great. Others double your coupons up to a certain amount. Typically, this is $0.50 (Loew's, if I remember correctly), but I have two fantastic stores (Harris Teeter and Wegman's) in the area that go up to $0.99. FREE TIP: Harris Teeter is having TRIPLE coupons starting Wednesday. Yes! Another thing some stores allow is using multiple coupons. The only one I know of in the area that does this is Target, which accepts a manufacturers coupon and a Target coupon for the same item. Some stores have limits on how many coupons you can use. There are lots of "things" to figure out about couponing , so check online or call your store's customer service line if you have a coupon question.

Finally, stashing your coupons. There is no wrong way to do this.
Research a few methods, try them out, and find something that works for you. Trust me, you'll want to figure out some form of organization, or you'll defeat yourself before you start. Having everything at hand is great. Carrie Isaac of Grocery University offers a good idea in her video. My friend Kristina organizes her coupon binder by shopping aisle at her favorite store. Another friend puts her coupons in a plastic organizer accordion while another uses a large envelope. I use the binder with baseball card protectors method. When I'm ready to shop, I pull out the coupons I'm going to use and stick them in an envelope with my shopping list.

Call me nerdy, but I get a thrill out of seeing my Harris Teeter receipts. It's nice to see all those minuses at the bottom and getting 46% savings just by using naptime as strategy time.

Challenge: Experiment with couponing for a month. See how it affects your grocery budget.

-Domestic Goddess out.

"I Love Saving Money" photo by

Gaga for the Guppy Gala

It all started with a BuyWithMe daily save offer: 50% annual membership to the National Zoo as well as 50% off tickets to the Guppy Gala. After much deliberation (read: is it cheaper to ride the Metro to the zoo or have free parking with the membership), I decided to go ahead and purchase the membership and tickets for the family.

The Guppy Gala, which I had never heard of and did minimal research on, turned out to be WELL WORTH the $10 (discounted) tickets. Even at the full price of $20/person, it was a great deal. Each ticket includes free parking and dinner.

The gala is one of the zoo's annual fundraisers, and it's a great family event. I took my three kids and was accompanied by my neighbor and her little one. Despite the crowds, double stroller and single stroller manipulation wasn't bad, and we were able to stay together pretty well.

First off, let's talk swag. Subway provided veggie, cold cut, and turkey 6" sandwiches, Utz chips, and Coca-Cola drinks for each paid customer (though my two 2 y/o and under scored sandwiches as well). The dining area was a little field with picnic benches set up. Free tip #1: If you get there early, take one of the benches as far away from the drinks area as possible. It allows for a quick get-away and faster access to the (very clean) Port-a-Johns. As we walked through the gala, we received food of every sort: hot dogs, chicken nuggets, Minute Maid juice boxes, Honest Tea drink pouches, soft pretzels, funnel cakes, brownies, and doughnuts. The was also a HUGE Stoneyfield yogurt area that had all sorts of samples and coupons (super score!). I saw lots of people walking around with foods that we didn't see, so free tip #2 is come with an appetite and/or after a good, hard workout.

Second, let's talk activities. My kids learned a few zookeeper duties, like how to scoop poop, catch snakes, and train animals in receiving touch. They also totally dug the ginormous inflatable slides. The walking animals (Po the Kung Fu Panda, Mrs. Elephant, Mr. Wolf, and someone else that I didn't photograph so I can't remember) were a little suspect at first, but they eventually started giving them lots of love.

There was an Arcade Alley sort of space that would have been great for kids older than mine (my oldest is 4). Another play area had a bike course, climbing wall, and a couple of other really good energy burning activities that were just a little too advanced for us.

Third, let's talk shows. There were cheerleaders (but we didn't watch them because no child that young should be wearing shorts that short in public) doing their fly through the air routines and clappers tapping their hearts out. Roaming jugglers and stilt walkers fascinated my kids over and over again. My two elder kids got a kick out of the dancing animal characters, especially the tree frog. It was nice to have a break from the walking.

Finally, let's talk animals. Surprisingly, we didn't really get to see very many. My neighbor and I commented that the gala seemed like a giant advertisement (although the only items for sale were wine, beer, and ice gelati). The animals we did get to see were pretty cool. The lion cubs were out and playing a few of the lionesses. The barn was open, and the kids got to get one-on-one with a few cows, alpacas, donkeys, and goats. My little 1 y/o was terrified after the cows started lowing at her, but the older two and our friend's little one had fun. There was a zookeeper on hand to talk about the animals and another to distribute fish food for the koi. That was a huge highlight of the evening.

Overall, the Guppy Gala was a really great event. On the way out, the sponsors were giving away their wares rather liberally, and I got enough healthy snack food for preschool snack bags for the next three weeks! Free tip #3: Bring a recyclable grocery bag with you for all the goodies you score. There were some being given away this year, and we each scored one, but bring one in case there aren't any next year. Free tip #4: If you plan on staying 'til the bitter end, bring an extra of those bags to put all the extra goodies in. This way, you can have a "dry" bag for the coloring pages, pencils, crayons, posters, etc. and a "wet" bag for all the food and juices. Makes it a lot easier! I am already looking forward to next year's gala! Kudos to the National Zoo for putting on such a great event.

-Free parking
-Close to the Metro if the thought of driving in DC stresses you out
-LOTS of free food
-TONS of activities for kids of all ages

-Pushing tired kids uphill in a stroller
-Just a smidgen too many things to do; I felt like we had to keep go, go, going so we wouldn't miss out on anything. As it was, our kids didn't do even a fraction of the activities, yet we barely managed to cover the whole festival.
-The $20/person over 2 y/o might be a turn off for some folks. We can only hope there's another BuyWithMe (or like company) special next year! I really do think everyone got their full money's worth at the event, though.

-For all ages
-If you've got small kids or kids who aren't used to walking much, then you MUST bring a stroller (or rent one).

Find a fabulous deal on a social coupon site and enjoy it with your family.

-Domestic Goddess out.