Couponing itself is both appealing and daunting in equal measure. Although it has taken off in popularity enormously, if you’re just starting out you still might not know where to begin. Couponers vary in degree and profile. There are your extreme couponers who have organized coupon binders and quite possibly have developed laser scanning in their eyes to zero in on an item 10 yards away and calculate the savings in less than a second. Then there are your “why would I want to use coupons?’ type who have not even bothered to sign up for membership from any store to get the most basic discounts and when told about fuel points assume someone is speaking about the finer details of gasoline. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between on that scale but many will find themselves forced onto the scale and having to learn about couponing quickly out of necessity. This is a position I found myself in a few years ago.
After I gave birth to my daughter I had fully intended on going back to work, but unfortunately due to health reasons, I wasn’t able to do that. My partner and I then faced the realities of providing for a child and ourselves on one salary, and it was a salary that could not sustain us without help. We researched and applied for any government benefits that we felt we might qualify for and started filling out application after application. We thankfully qualified for food stamps among others, which helped us more than anything.
Food stamps, now more commonly referred to in stores as SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), allow the families that qualify for them a particular cash amount which can be used to purchase food items from stores that accept them. The amount you receive is mostly dependent on your household’s income, your family size, and regular expenses that your family incurs, such as bills, rent, etc. If you qualify, you are issued an EBT card (Electronic Benefit Transfer), which is automatically loaded each month with your assigned amount and can be used at food stores that accept SNAP benefits like a debit card. There are specifications to follow regarding the food and drink items that you can purchase, but the informational guides are clear and easy to understand and will help you navigate what is and what is not covered.
However, particularly when you first qualify for food stamps, the amount can look and sound generous, but you soon find out when put into practice at the grocery store it doesn’t go as far as you thought it would or more to the point counted on it going. To really maximize the benefit and ensure that it covers as much of your family’s needs as it possibly can, you must find ways of making your dollar amount go as far as you possibly can. There are a number of ways out there to make that happen, with one of the simplest and immediate methods to implement being the use of coupons.
I had, of course, heard of couponing and had heard of “CouponMom,” who I was a little disappointed to find out didn’t have a cape — I felt the name promised superhero status. I also considered myself fairly frugal and felt that I was pretty good about where to get our shopping needs for less. Besides that, that was about it. We had never really gotten newspapers regularly, had never even heard of online coupon sites and couldn’t imagine how a few cents off here and there could save us enough money to be of significance. I cannot even express the level of wrong we were.
Although it does take willingness to look at shopping and meal planning in a completely new way, once you understand the basics, you will start seeing savings immediately. The amount you save when you first start out couponing might not produce the big numbers you were looking for, but the more you get familiar with the system and your local stores, you will see a significant increase in savings and decrease in spending, which will spill out into your life in all areas not just your grocery shopping. For us, we went from our food stamps not covering our monthly requirements, to having some of our monthly allowance left over, which thankfully rolls onto the next month and gives you a little margin of breathing room from which to build on.
I now feel I am somewhere in the middle of our earlier extreme scale for couponing. I don’t have a binder or laser vision yet, but I definitely know how and why using the coupon system is essential, particularly if you are in a situation where you need to stretch any benefit or penny to it’s absolute limit and then some. For the people who find themselves in the situation of being on food stamps, now more than ever is the time to learn how to coupon and make your monthly allowance go as far as you possibly can. Below are five simple things you can do to familiarize yourself with couponing and get started.
1. Pick a website
As you will discover, there is a multitude of online material and knowledge dedicated to helping you get started couponing. My suggestion, as it can be a little overwhelming at first, is to pick one website and start exploring and getting familiar with it. The basics of couponing are pretty much the same, so when starting out instead of trying to absorb the information and opinions of every site out there, begin with one. Once you are familiar with the basic concept then you can start to explore more, of which can be national or local, so remember to have a look at which zip code or state they are talking about. CouponMom, in my opinion, is a well-known, national couponing website that is perfect for beginners. It contains easy-to-understand tutorials, both written and video, and has weekly lists which tell you exactly which coupon you need and what items are on sale in just about every store in every state you can think of.
2. Buy a Sunday newspaper and start clipping
The Sunday newspaper not only contains all of the coupon inserts for the week (Redplum and Smartsource, which are weekly, PandG brands, which is monthly), but also very importantly all of the store ads that tell you which items are on sale. (You know, all the pages in the middle that you either take out straight away because they keep falling out or use for the bottom of your pet cages.) You don’t have to look at every store ad there is, but do start to pull out the inserts from the stores that you use most frequently and take note of the sale items. Where you save big in couponing is when you can pair a coupon with a sale item.
3. Pay attention when you’re shopping and don’t be fooled!
When you really start paying attention, you’ll start to notice that the stores have roughly a six-week cycle for their sale items. In other words that awesome deal you got on toilet paper last week was not a one off deal. You will most likely see that same item on sale again in about six weeks, so save your coupons and save buying those items until then. Keep a close watch and compare the price of the item you have a coupon for and its generic equivalent. Sometimes even with a coupon for the name brand, the generic still works out cheaper. Also, don’t be sucked in by the advertisements that are designed to suck you in. A big one to be aware of are the sales that encourage you to buy multiples of the same item at a discounted price. For instance, buy 5 avocados for $5. The truth is that you don’t have to buy the number specified to get the discount. You get the discount even if you only buy one, so one avocado will be $1 no matter how many you get!
4. Look in your local community for free couponing classes
If you’ve started with a website, but aren’t quite grasping the concept or you don’t have the Internet to browse, you can look for a one-off class on couponing, usually put on for free. There are a lot of people blessed with the ability to coupon who generously want to share their knowledge and help beginners. The beauty of going to see a real person locally is they will have the inside scoop on your area’s best deals and will be able to answer those questions which you can’t find an answer for anywhere else. A good place to start looking for one of these classes is at your local library. If there isn’t one scheduled in the near future, ask your librarian about it, and they will most likely be able to point you in the right direction.
5. Talk to people
If you know others on food stamps and feel comfortable talking to them about benefits, ask them what they do to make their allowance stretch the furthest. Everyone has different and novel ideas about how to save money and often tried and tested methods that have proven successful. So start talking to your friends, begin asking your colleagues, and stop the couponer with the binder and laser eyes that you see in the store to quiz them on how they do it and if they have any tips.
It is very hard to stay afloat financially these days which makes it extremely important to pool all available resources that we can find and share the knowledge to help as many people as we possibly can. If you benefit from even one of these tips and know of someone who is in similar circumstances, please pass the information on so that we may all benefit and have the chance to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
Note: If you want to find out if you qualify for food stamps, start by calling or visiting your local area’s SNAP office. Bear in mind that every state operates differently, so again if you are searching for information online, make sure it pertains to the state you live in.
Kentucky: Cabinet for Health and Family Services – Food Stamps