It happened again. I handed the cashier my club card and coupons while DH bagged our groceries – a full cart of beef, produce and general household items. The full price rang up to $200, but the final price I paid was $32. Seeing the savings I racked up, the young man behind me in line wanted to send his wife to learn to shop with me and the young cashier said she’d love to save that much, but it just takes too much time.

Here’s the thing: it does take time to save money. It takes time to clip coupons (even online coupons), make shopping lists and pare them down to the right set of purchases, organize for the shopping trip and then shop. On the other side of the coin, it also takes time to earn money to spend and that usually comes with it’s own unique set of headaches and problems. Truth be told, these days I feel more secure in my ability to save money at the cash register than to spend without concern and hope to make more money later.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not lived the perfect life when it comes to spending and saving money. For years my career dictated that I live a fast paced life: working 100 hours a week, eating out more often than at home, shopping for groceries on an emergency basis, loading up the cart without lists, without a solid idea of what we really needed to buy, and without a plan for what we would cook in the coming week. And then there was coming home from the store to dump out the previous weeks unused milk, fruit, salads, opened cans and bottles of condiments and dressings – lots of waste and expense that added up to a different kind of unwanted stress.

From time to time I would try to correct this situation by using the “weekly budget” approach: fill the cart but only spend so much per week. That took its own special toll on me because I still wasn’t very organized: I would end up taking lots of little side trips to pick up items I had forgotten or only just recently realized I would need in the coming week. Still a lot of waste, and the budget had no slack for the reality of unforeseen needs that would inevitably crop up, such as family or friends coming for a visit, colds and other illnesses requiring OTC and prescription medication, health and beauty items… it was always something!

I’ve also done the “hyper-organized” shop every sale at every store approach. This didn’t work for me either.

What I do now is fairly simple:

(1) I collect the ads for every store I shop at in the local area. These are usually delivered to my home via newspaper or mail from Wednesday to Friday night. Once in a while I have to stop by a store to pick up their ad: I only do this for stores I frequently shop in.

(2) I make an initial shopping list for each store, all in one sitting. While this can be time consuming, it ends up making a huge difference in the amount of time I eventually spend shopping, and I save more. Also, the more I know about my current inventory of groceries and household products, the less time I have to spend on this step. There are tradeoffs to be considered and a few examples from the recent past may be helpful:

  • A couple of weeks ago, every store in my area was having a sales promotion for Proctor and Gamble products. Knowing this, I evaluated specific sales prices, overall deals, and chose the best one or two deals that satisfied my needs. For example, the “Buy $40 and get $10 off my next order” deal is a way to save money in the future. This might be a great deal if I need $40 worth of Downy, Bounce, Charmin, etc., or if the store is having great sales prices too. Another store was running a “Buy $40 and save 10% immediately“ sale. For me, this is probably a better deal because I don’t have to plan a separate shopping trip in the future and I don’t have to worry about the $10 coupon from the first deal expiring before I remember to use it. A third store had sales prices that were 25% lower than the sales prices at the first 2 stores. For my needs, this is often an even better type of deal because it eliminates the tendency to over-buy in order to meet the $40 spending requirement. I also don’t have to calculate the total value of qualifying purchases in my cart if I find that one item on my list is already sold out. Naturally, I accounted for the number and value of coupons I had and store policies on doubling coupon values before I made a final choice between these different deals.
  • Every store I shop at was recently having a sale on Progresso soup. The prices were identical from one store to the next. Again, the coupons I had, store policies on doubling coupon values, and limits on the number of soup cans that could be purchased in one transaction were taken into account before I picked a store.
  • One store had a “$10 off $40 in purchases” coupon in their ad. I wanted a Swiffer Wet Jet that is normally priced at $20. I had a $10 off coupon for the Wet Jet and could get to $40 with additional purchases that met other household needs (food, cleaning products, etc). $10 off plus $10 off was the equivalent of my getting the Wet Jet for free, and I had coupons for the other times as well, so the savings were significant.
  • One store had a “spend $300 in 4 weeks and get 20% off your next purchase” deal. As a heavy-duty couponer, this deal didn’t appear likely to work to my advantage since I would have ended up spending a lot to save very little.

(3) Having considered the major sales promotions at each store, I carefully look through my coupons before I make my final selections of stores, items and sales. The process at this stage goes something like this: If I only have 1 Downy coupon and 1 Charmin coupon, that $40 Proctor and Gamble promotional sale would yield very limited savings. However, if I have 10 Downy coupons and 10 Charmin coupons and I have both the need and storage space for the products, this would work out to be a fantastic opportunity to save a lot for products My family uses in large quantities. Here again, I account for the fact that every store has different coupon policies, including doubling coupon values, limitations on the number of coupons that can be doubled or used on a specific item. While this step can be time-consuming, it is key to achieving savings of 50% to 90% rather than 25%.

(4) Final down-select. Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, I like to shop at only one or two stores a week, in a single trip. Since I systematically stockpile groceries and household cleaning items, this approach tends to work best for me.

So, what are the benefits to all this work? Well, obviously I am not driving all over the County to get to every sale, so I save on gasoline, time, and stress. Less obvious, but equally important:

  • I’m less influenced by any one store’s marketing campaign. For instance, the “Best Price This Season” banners for a specific brand of soup at 10 cans for $10 don’t pull me in to a store if I already know that every store in the local area is offering that same price.
  • I’m less attracted to sales where I may have to buy items I really don’t need so that I can reach a spending threshold (a “$10 off of $40 in purchases” type of deal). Sometimes, paying a few cents more for an item in another store can be more cost effective.
  • I’m much more familiar with regular and sales prices for the groceries I normally purchase. Writing down sales prices reinforces them in my memory, so I can very rapidly tell if a sale on a particular item is just so-so or spectacular. This saves me both time and money.
  • I’m far less prone to impulse buying. If an item in a store has greater than usual appeal to me, I have the information and experience to rapidly recognize a bargain price from a severe over-price.
  • What I save on a weekly basis, I apply to my rainy day emergency fund. These days it can be hard to build up any kind of savings, but I find that with careful planning and sticking to a reasonable weekly budget, I can put a little away each week for those inevitable challenges that crop up at the most inconvenient times.
  • Finally, I always have the supplies I need on hand. From day to day and week to week, this turns out to be a real time saver and stress reducer.

    Does it work? According to store records (and their way of accounting), our family has saved nearly $10,000 this year. Of course, that’s not quite accurate because I would never pay full price for anything. Put it a different way: my budget for the last 40 weeks works out to roughly $4,000. I’ve spent less just over $1,000. A savings of nearly $3,000 works great for me. If some of the approaches I’ve outlined are a good fit, they may just work well for you too. Give it a try and see what happens!
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