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If you've ever seen the television show Extreme Couponing or been behind someone in the checkout line who has plopped down an incredible stack of coupons for their purchase, you know that couponing can save you some serious cash on groceries and other necessities.

Couponing is an activity that will take over a part of your life. How much time and effort you dedicate to it will directly influence the kinds of savings you'll see.

Give a little, and you'll save a little; but give a lot, and you won't believe the savings you'll realize

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What are Coupons?

Coupons are printed vouchers that allow you to save a specified amount of money on a specific product or products. They're available for a wide variety of goods found at grocery stores, drug stores and other places you often shop.

Some common items that you can find coupons for include:

food

  • Cereal
  • Condiments
  • Dairy
  • Prepackaged Meals

personal care

  • Diapers
  • Hair Care Products
  • Over-the-Counter Medicine
  • Razors

household

  • Cleaning Products
  • Home Fragrances
  • Laundry Detergent
  • Tissue Paper

When you look at a coupon, the first thing you'll probably notice is the savings verbiage.You'll usually see something like:

  • Save $1.00 when you buy one package of So Soft Brand tissue paper
  • Buy one So Clean Brand shampoo, Get one FREE, up to $4.99 value
  • $2.00 off two 96-ounce bottles of So Delicious Brand juice

Known as the "purchase requirement wording", these phrases tell you what a particular coupon can be used for.

You'll notice that they specify:
  • the amount of the savings ($1.00; up to $4.99; $2.00)
  • the name of the product (So Soft tissue paper; So Clean shampoo; So Delicious juice)
  • the required purchase (one package; buy one, get one free; two bottles)

The other parts of the coupon that you need to familiarize yourself with are:

Type of Coupon: In this spot, you'll see Manufacturer's Coupon or Store Coupon. Most coupons will clearly say one or the other, but if you find one that doesn't, you can typically tell by examining the rest of the coupon and looking for store logos or reading the terms and conditions.

Product Image: Most coupons will have an image of the product for which that coupon can be used. However, be aware that the product image isn't always inclusive and that it doesn't trump the actual wording of the coupon. What does this mean? It means that the image for a salad dressing coupon may show one flavor or size when the coupon is valid for multiple flavors or sizes or that a general product picture was included and it may not be representative of the coupon at all.

Expiration Date: Good things don't last forever, and that usually goes for coupons, too. The expiration date is the last day that you can use your coupon. Coupon expiration dates vary wildly depending on the type of coupon and the issuer. Store coupons, for example, may only be valid for about a week while some manufacturer coupons could be good for three months, six months or a year.

Terms and Conditions: This area is where you will find the nitty-gritty details about using your coupon. You'll find information about coupon limitations, additional terms and some legal verbiage, such as warnings against copying the coupon or selling it.

Retailer Instructions: Retailers actually make money when they accept coupons. Typically, they get back the value of the coupon, plus a handling fee. While the handling fee may not seem like much (usually a few cents), it can add up to serious returns for a large, national chain. The retailer instructions on a coupon tell the store how much they'll earn for accepting the coupon and where to send the coupon for redemption.

Barcode: Similar in look and function to the barcodes you find on product packaging, the barcode of a coupon allows for quick scanning. When a cashier scans the coupon, the information about purchasing requirements and the amount of savings is transmitted to the register. In the event the barcode won't scan, the cashier can manually type in the barcode numbers for the same result.

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Where Do Coupons Come From?

Coupons are generally distributed by manufacturers, though some are also issued by individual stores. Generally, store coupons can only be used at the issuing store, while manufacturer's coupons can be used at any retailer that will accept them. The only exception to the store-coupon rule is when you have another store that is willing to take competitor's coupons.

The most popular way to obtain coupons is through your local newspaper. Most major publications include coupon inserts in their Sunday edition, but if you live in a large metropolitan region, you may also be able to find them in the Thursday paper. If you're unsure if your local newspaper includes coupon inserts, give them a call or check with major coupon distributors, such as P&G Brand Saver or CouponChief.

Other ways you can stock up on coupons include:

Watching Your Mail Closely: Stores and manufacturers routinely mail out coupons. Keep a closer eye on your mail to find flyers, inserts and postcards with coupons. Make sure that you open all mail (even if it looks like junk mail) to see what's hiding inside.

Requesting Them: Do you have a favorite brand or store? Check out their website or send them an email, and let them know how much of a valued customer you are. While you're at it, ask them if they have any coupons they can send you. More often than not, they'll direct you to a special coupon section on their website or even send you a few goodies through standard mail.

Get in Touch Through Social Media: Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made themselves at home in our everyday lives. Just about everyone has a social presence these days -- including manufacturers and retailers. Follow these brands and stores on social media to keep up to date on the latest sales, specials -- and you guessed it -- coupons.

Join the Club: … a coupon-trading club, that is! Whether you're a mom, a student, a busy professionalor somewhere in between, there's a club somewhere that will take you in with open arms. The most convenient coupon-trading clubs will be those that are local to you. Check with your local library or newspaper to see if there are any clubs that meet in your area. If you can't find any, turn your attention online. Look on Facebook to find both regional and national coupon-trading groups. The only downside to these kinds of groups is that you'll have to mail out your coupons or wait for yours to arrive. This means you have to plan well to ensure you receive your coupons in time for the right sale or use them before the expiration date.

Pay to Save: Despite the fact that most coupons have very clear verbiage in the terms and conditions banning their sale, you'll still find that there are many places online where you can buy and sell coupons. While some of these avenues are reputable (or as reputable as they can be considering that you're violating a coupon's terms), buying coupons online is risky. In the event your seller doesn't deliver on his promise, you won't have much recourse. Selling platforms like eBay prohibit the sale of coupons, and payment processors like PayPal are likely to direct you to a coupon's terms and conditions regarding sales when denying your request for a refund from an !5 unscrupulous seller. The bottom line: if you're really trying to save money, avoid buying coupons.

Printing Coupons from Home: If you've got internet access and a printer, you can print coupons from home! There are a number of reputable sources online, such as Couponchief that offer genuine coupons that you can print and use at your favorite stores.

Printable coupons function the same way as coupons you receive from other sources; however, there are some special rules that you must keep in mind when printing and using these types of certificates:

do

1 - DO print coupons from reputable sources only.

As internet coupons can easily be manipulated, it's important that you only source coupons from those organizations that are allowed to distribute them. Printing coupons from unauthorized sources can lead to embarrassment at the register when your coupon doesn't work or even potential legal trouble

don't

2 - DON'T make photocopies of printed coupons.

Printed coupons are intended to be used once. The barcode and other identifying informationfound on a printed coupon is put there to combat fraud -- which is exactly what you are committing if you try to copy coupons and use them more than once.

do

3- DO observe and respect coupon limits.

Both manufacturers and retailers have put limits in place when it comes to printed coupons to prevent abuse. Most coupon sources will only allow you to print one or two copies of a coupon per computer; many retailers limit how many internet coupons you can use per transaction. While some retailers have outright banned the use of printed coupons, most will allow them on their own terms. If you plan on using printed coupons, it's a good idea to check with a store ahead of time to see what their policies are.

don't

4 - DON'T argue with a cashier or manager over a store's coupon policy.

Cashiers don't make the rules when it comes to coupons, and more often than not, neither do the managers. If you are prohibited from using a coupon or coupons, air your grievances to corporate rather than make a scene at the store. A store's corporate representatives will be able to help you sort out that store's particular coupon policy so that you won't run into problems next time.

Saving Cash: Where to Use Coupons

Unlike cash -- which by law, must be accepted by any retailer -- coupons are only as good as a store's acceptance policy. For the most part, all major grocery stores, drug stores and mass retailers accept coupons. Typically, smaller stores, such as mom-and-pop stores, don't accept coupons because they don't have enough sales volume to justify the hassle.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule. The best way to determine whether a store in your area accepts coupons is simply to ask. Give the store a call to inquire about their policy. Alternately, you can reach out on social media or browse the retailer's website.

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It's important to remember that coupon policies change all the time. When internet coupons first made their appearance, many retailers outright rejected them because they weren't familiar with them. Soon, they were commonplace and openly accepted.

However, it wasn't long before abuse set in, and the internet coupon was again subject to scrutiny.

Other times, a retailer's policy changes more drastically. National discount retailer Dollar Tree has been in business since the 1980s, but it was only in 2012 that they changed their policy to start accepting manufacturer's coupons.

Organizing Your Coupons

Once you start couponing, you'll quickly find yourself overwhelmed. Who knew that there were so many coupons out there?!

If you want to be successful at extreme couponing, you have to be organized -- there's just no way around it.

When you're organized, you'll be able to maximise your savings and reduce the time spent preparing for your shopping trips. When you don't organize, you won't be able to find the coupons you need -- when you need them -- and your shopping trips will be nothing less than a disaster. Ask 10 extreme couponers how they organize their coupons, and you'll most likely receive 10 different responses. However, those responses will most likely include one (or more!) of three important organization tools:

The Coupon Caddy

A stretch organizer that separates coupons by whatever labels you choose, coupon caddies are extremely popular among newer couponers due to their small size and ease of use.They're available in a variety of colors and styles, and they're perfect for storing a small to medium stack of coupons.

The Coupon Folder

Once you've got a decent number of coupons in your possession, you're going to want to upgrade to something a little more hardcore. Here is where the coupon binder comes in. While you can probably find an online store trying to sell you their own version of a coupon binder, it's much easier and cheaper to make your own.

Envelopes

Oh, envelopes: so simple, so helpful. While envelopes may seem a lot more low-tech than a coupon caddy, it's important to realize that most extreme couponers use envelopes in addition to another organization method.

You see, coupon caddies are neat and easy to use, but they don't have the space to store hundreds (or thousands) of coupons. While coupon binders definitely do have the capacity to hold all of your coupons, they can be cumbersome to handle, especially when you're trying to steer a shopping cart and navigate aisles. Hence, the introduction of the envelope:

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When you've got several shops to hit up, things can get stressful. The last thing you want to worry about is a jumble of coupons. To keep things going smooth, separate your coupons by store and paperclip them.

If you're only visiting a couple of stores, you can place your coupons in a single envelope. If you're going to be doing a lot of running around, the easier way to organize is to give each store its own envelope. You can include the coupons for that store, and anything else you might need, such as rain checks or gift cards.

Selecting Coupons

When you're staring at a stack of shiny coupon inserts, it can be tempting to break out the scissors and clip every last coupon. However, it's important that you resist this urge. The problem with clipping every coupon in sight becomes one of space.

Where in the world are you going to store all those coupons?! Sure, you can invest in a giant binder and dozens of organizer inserts, but what's the point of clipping a coupon that you'll never use? In addition to taking up space, useless-to-you coupons waste time, cause confusion and lead to messiness.

In terms of extreme couponing, there are generally two ways of doing things: buying everything you can get cheap or free, regardless of whether you'll use it, and being reasonable about your shopping, only buying those things you intend to use or give away to someone close who can. Most new couponers tend to favor the former, while experienced couponers usually graduate to the latter.

As a beginner, there will be million questions you can ask yourself before clipping a coupon to determine if you need it. Rather than spend the time doing that, keep things simple:

Do You Really Need That Coupon? image description

A Note About Generic vs. Name-Brand Items

When you start clipping coupons and using them when you shop, you'll quickly notice that generic items never have coupons. That's because manufacturers use coupons to influence your purchasing decisions -- they want you to spend the money on their products, which are always more expensive that the generic equivalents on the shelves.

Many new couponers fall into the trap of thinking that a coupon will always save them money. This is simply not the case! While it's true that a coupon will reduce the price of the item you're purchasing, it won't necessarily make it a good buy.

Without getting into an argument about whether name-brand items are superior to generic ones, it's vital that you keep an eye on both while shopping -- that is, so long as you aren't brand loyal and are simply looking to get the best deal.

Name-brand items can easily be much cheaper than generic ones when they go on sale and you have a coupon. However, when there are no sales to be had, you're better off buying the generic or waiting for a sale on the brand you must have.

Preparing for Your Shopping Trip

You've clipped your coupons, and you've organized them. The big day is now before you. It's time to go shopping.

As eager as you may be to jump in the car and tote your caddy, binder or envelopes into the store, what you really need to do first is prepare.

Step one is to make a temporary shopping list. What do you need? Include things that you are out of as well as things that you're running low on.

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Next, gather all the weekly flyers that came with your Sunday paper. If you don't have any, pull them up online by visiting retailer websites. Take note of what's on sale, and check to see if you have any coupons for the things you need or are likely to use.

When you use a coupon on an item that's on sale, it's like you save twice! Also, remember that items like toothpaste, shampoo and laundry detergent have very long shelf lives and are something you'll always use, so it's okay to stock up on these things.

Once you've looked over the weekly ads and separated all your coupons, make a new shopping list for each store you'll be visiting. These new lists will ensure that you don't forget anything. If you need items that aren't on sale this week or for which you don't have a coupon, include those items on the list of whichever store you think you'll find the best deal.

Use your caddy, binder, envelopes or whatever organization method you prefer to store all ofyour lists and coupons.

Plan your trip out in your head. Think about each store you need to visit and where it's located. Taking into account distance and location, decide in which order you'll shop. This step helps you save time and gas -- double score!

Getting the Best Bang for Your Buck:
Tips for a Successful Shopping Trip

  • Check out the weekly ads for the major grocery stores, drug stores and mass retailers in your area, and match your coupons to these sales for the best deals.
  • Check the websites and social media accounts for these stores for any last-minute specialsand sales.
  • Shop close to the start of each store's weekly ad dates to ensure adequate inventory.
  • If you prefer to avoid long lines at the register, try shopping early in the morning or in the hours before rush hour.
  • Make sure you have your rewards card handy so that you'll pay sale prices; sign up for one if you haven't already.
  • Shop on special-sale days that you qualify for, such as Senior Mondays or Student Fridays, for even greater savings.
  • Ask for rain checks for items that sell out early so you can take advantage of a sale when the item comes back in stock.
  • Take advantage of overage, which is when a coupon's value is greater than the cost of the item. Most retailers will apply the additional money, or overage, to the rest of your bill, allowing you to enjoy the greatest savings.
  • Be sure to read the fine print on your coupons for limits to avoid picking up things that you can't use a coupon on.
  • Be nice to your cashier and fellow shoppers -- it makes everything go smoother!
  • Stay focused, stay organized and have some fun

Organizing Your Haul

You've finished your shopping, your haul is in the trunk of your car and it's time to head home. Is your extreme couponing adventure over? Not yet!

The first few weeks that you coupon will be the weeks where you learn how things work. Your hauls won't be massive, but they'll get bigger and more incredible with each time you go out.

It will be easy to unload the car and put everything away in the beginning, but there will soon come a time when you ask yourself, "Where the heck am I going to store all this toothpaste?!"

Stockpiling is synonymous with extreme couponing. Whether you simply can't pass up the opportunity for more free deodorant or you had to buy product X in order to get product Y, you're eventually going to have more product in your house than you think you have room for. Just as organization is important before shopping, it's important afterward, too.

Before you find yourself with a living room overrun with tissue paper or a dining room table that's disappeared under the weight of razors, body wash and diapers, dedicate a few areas in the house for your couponing finds.

The garage is a great place to store non-perishables like tissue, shampoo, razors, household cleaners and canned food. Buy a few shelving units, and situate them in an area of the garage that's out of the way but still accessible. In the kitchen, spare bedroom or other space inside the home, establish a similar setup for more heat-sensitive items, like deodorant, contact lens solution and makeup.

When organizing your stash, keep like items with like items. Arrange things neatly so that it only takes a glance to see what you have plenty of or what you might be running low on. It's every extreme couponers nightmare to reach for a tube of toothpaste, only to find that there's none - and that there are no sales or coupons this week.

Oh, the horror!

Hard Work = Big Payoff

As you've learned, extreme couponing isn't really for the faint of heart. It's an activity that takes time, effort and patience. However, if you can pull it off, the payoff will be nothing short of miraculous.

You may not see hundreds shaved off your grocery bill the first few weeks you coupon, but don't let that discourage you. If you stick with it and stay organized, it won't be long before you can count yourself as an extreme couponer.