Yesterday I did some creative couponing that netted me four brand new, brand-name boxes of cereal for a dollar. We don’t actually eat cereal, but we have house guests coming who do, so I wanted one box for them. My choice was to spend $2.50 for one box, or $1 for four. So, thanks to the joys of grocery store math, I decided to buy four boxes and donate the excess three to a food drive.

How the Deal Went Down
This was a spectacular deal, but you do see things like this at the grocery store a few times a year. It’s a great opportunity to stock up on food drive donations so you can help those who are less fortunate.

It started with a special:
General Mills cereal for $1.50 per box if you bought four boxes in one transaction, otherwise it was $2.50 a box. If you bought four boxes, you also got $4 off your grocery order.
So, $6 -$4=$2 for four boxes. Not bad, just 50 cents each.
But it got better. I had a coupon for $1 off 2 boxes. My store only doubles up to $1 max, so $2-$1=$1 for four boxes.
I could have gotten the cereal free if I’d had one more coupon with a value of 50 cents or more, but I settled for 25 cents per box.

What to Watch Out For
When you’re doing deals like this with an eye toward donating the excess you won’t eat, always check the condition of the donated item. Choose cans or boxes that don’t have dents or tears, because the food bank may not be able to accept it. You should also check the expiration date. Make sure that it’s far enough away that you’ll have time to find a food drive and the food bank will have time to distribute your items before it expires. In my case, the cereal doesn’t expire until October, 2010.

Creative Couponing Opportunities
All though super-amazing deals like the cereal deal are less frequent, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities. Personal care items are a big one for super deals, and charities always need things like toothpaste, shampoo, and diapers, which are donated less frequently than food. Here are a few creative coupon methods to score free or cheap items to donate:

B1G1 or BOGO Deals – Combine a buy one, get one free special with a coupon. You’ll get the single item you wanted very cheap, plus a free one to donate.

Close-outs – Sometimes close-outs are too close to the expiration date to make it a good deal, but not always. You might see a big sale on something like cranberry sauce after the holidays. It’s not expired, but the store knows it won’t sell. Charities, on the other hand, don’t care if cranberry sauce is a holiday item. A close-out may also occur if the store is scheduling a remodel or phasing out a brand. I’ve seen close-outs for a packaging change, too. When Tropicana’s new package flopped, they significantly marked down their juice to get rid of the new cartons before re-releasing the old design.

Rebates - Several times a year, a manufacturer will offer a rebate for certain grocery or personal care products. Buy twice as much as you need. Donate half, and then keep the rest to submit your labels for the rebate. Often you’ll at least cover the cost of the donated food, and might even make a little extra on the deal.

Free with Purchase – This happens more often at Costco, but I’ve also seen it at Target and grocery stores. Sometimes the manufacturer will bundle a product with a sample size. Donate the sample sizes and it costs you nothing. I have one sample size of my shampoo, body wash, etc. If you need the sample size for traveling, keep one that you can refill (the top comes off if you pull hard enough) and donate the rest.

If you watch your coupons and store circulars carefully, you can score lots of free or nearly free items that are perfect donations to a food drive. Why not use some of your good fortune to help someone else?

I love couponing. I’ve waxed poetic about the awesomeness of coupons on this site more than once. I’ve even been known to send friends links to really cool coupons involving free chocolate. However, there is a right way to use coupons and a wrong way. You don’t want to be the crazy coupon lady irritating everyone in line behind you and the cashier. Thus, today features a new stabby post all about the crazy coupon lady I encountered this weekend.

Signs of the Crazy Coupon Lady
I’m impressed by the women who buy $400 worth of stuff for thirteen cents. I marvel at their achievement. However, these women don’t truly qualify as Crazy Coupon Ladies because they’re organized. They know how to move through the line quickly and when to drop an argument. Here are 5 signs that you’ve crossed the line from Coupon Marvel to Crazy Coupon Lady:

  • Your coupons are a jumbled mess that takes five minutes to sort out at the register.
  • Your coupon wad blocks the infrared sensor that prevents the conveyor belt from moving, but don’t realize it and wonder aloud (and rudely) why the cashier is stretching to reach all of your groceries.
  • You try to return an expired item from your stockpile.
  • You argue with the cashier who explains that she can’t accept expired food as a return.
  • You try to use coupons for things you didn’t buy or for a different brand, and then rudely ask the cashier why she can’t take them.

Don’t Be the Crazy Coupon Lady
So what can we learn from the crazy coupon lady I encountered this weekend?

Keep Your Coupons Organized
It’s not enough to have some sort of organization method before you get to the store. You must also have an organization method while in the store. They should not be wadded up in your wallet and then dumped out for you to sort while the cashier rings you up. I keep the coupons I might use in one pocket of my purse and then move them next to my wallet once I have the appropriate item in my cart. That way they’re in a neat stack when I reach the register.

As a subsection of this item: don’t rest your purse, wallet, or messy wad of unsorted coupons on the conveyor belt in front of the infrared beam. If you do, don’t accuse the cashier of trying to rush you through when she has to reach to the very back of the stationary belt to reach your items.

Rotate Your Stockpile
This is an actual transcript of the conversation that transpired between the Crazy Coupon Lady and the Beleaguered Cashier about a bottle of expired salad dressing:

CCL: I need to return this.
BC: Do you have a receipt?
CCL: No, I can’t find it.
BC: It’s expired. I can’t take back expired food.
CCL: I didn’t see it was expired until after I ate it and had a reaction.
BC: I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food without a receipt.
CCL: But I had a reaction to it.
BC: I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food.
CCL: It was expired when I bought it and I didn’t notice until I had a reaction.
BC: (grumble) I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food. Maybe if you had a receipt it would be different.
CCL: I’ll take it to another store. They’ll let me return it without a problem.

During this exchange, I could read the cashier’s mind: “CCL didn’t buy this expired. It was in her stockpile and expired before she got to it.” If you’re going to stockpile, make sure you eat or donate food before it expires. Don’t let it sit in your cupboard and then try to return it without a receipt after it expires. Also, don’t be annoyed with the cashier for observing the store policy about expired food. I have had to return soft cheese that had gone bad (before it expired), but I discovered it within days of my visit and still had the receipt. The store simply exchanged it for a good one.

Make Sure the Right Items Are In Your Cart
Finally, make sure that you actually match up the coupons with the right products. It can be tricky sometimes – the coupon might be for lipstick and you buy mascara in the same brand. That’s understandable and the cashier might push it through or you can dig into your coupon box to retrieve the right one.

Don’t, however, try to use a coupon for the wrong brand and then rudely ask the cashier why she won’t accept it. Pepperidge Farm is not going to reimburse the store for a coupon used to buy a Pillsbury product. I don’t care if they’re both “Toaster Toasts.” Buy the right brand or don’t use the coupon.

I will say this: the CCL so irritated the cashier that I got great service by simply being polite and having my coupons neatly organized. Of course, I had extra time while waiting for the CCL to finish arguing and move out of the way. Have you encountered a CCL? What was your reaction?

I love coupons. Because of my food allergies, I can’t use a lot of grocery coupons, but I do make heavy use of coupons for personal goods like shampoo. I don’t think I’ve paid full price for a bottle in a decade. Grocery stores and manufacturers are getting stingier with their coupon policies, so you have to try a little harder to the best deal. If you’re new to coupons, check out this list of my favorite coupon sites:

Sunday Newspaper
Although SmartSource and Red Plum are making forays onto the internet, they still offer their best coupons in the Sunday inserts. If you don’t currently get the paper, the coupons alone will probably cover the cost, so it could be worth it. Right now, the coupons are the only reason I still subscribe to the ever-shrinking Los Angeles Times.

Hot Coupon World
This site not only offers a great forum, but it has a searchable coupon database so you can figure out which insert offers which coupon, or hunt down printable coupons from manufacturer sites.

Organic Grocery Deals
If you like to shop organic, visit this site for the latest organic deals.

Shortcuts is not a printable coupon site. Instead they offer a limited range of local coupons that are loaded directly onto your grocery club card. No more wasting paper on printables!

They now offer some coupons on their website that you can print.

Red Plum
They’ve also put some of their coupons online.

Maunfacturer Sites
Visit the websites for major manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble to print coupons for their products. You may also have to visit brand sites to find the coupons.

A lot of these coupons seem similar to the coupons you find at Red Plum or Smart Source, but most will only allow you to print a coupon one time from each site. Since you can usually use multiple coupons if you buy multiples of the product (3 coupons for 3 boxes of cereal), try visiting several sites to get multiple coupons. Note: I haven’t tried this, so you might have to clear your cache or cookies before you can print the coupon again, even at another site.
Go here for another set of printable coupons.

More printable coupons from a variety of sources.

Coupon Cabin
Great for online coupon codes and printable store coupons.

Coupon Mountain
More online coupon codes.

Retail Me Not
More online coupon codes.

Not coupons (mostly), but rebates for online purchases.

Fat Wallet
Another source for rebates. Some merchants give different rebates through the different sites, so it pays to compare.

Remember, coupons aren’t limited to grocery stores and online stores. They’re also accepted at CVS, Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and other big box stores. If you combine coupons with CVSing, you can score some mega deals. Also, make sure to compare prices after deducting for the coupon and any doubling by the store. Sometimes a coupon makes it cheaper, but sometimes it doesn’t. If another brand is just as good, and cheaper without a coupon, then it’s the better deal.

Even if you only save $5 a week with coupons, that’s $5 less than you currently spend. They don’t take much time or effort, so why not give it a shot?

Although it doesn’t have its own catchphrase like “CVSing,” Walgreens is a good alternative for those of you who need to buy a lot of personal care products and don’t live in a CVS region. The Walgreens system sounds more complicated than CVS, but you can still get good deals via their coupons, rebates, and Register Rewards.

Finding Walgreens Coupons
The first thing you need to do is assemble your coupons. Walgreens offers three coupon sources: manufacturer coupons from the regular newspaper inserts/online sources, Register Rewards, and store and manufacturer coupons in their monthly EasySaver Catalog. Pick one up on your next visit to see the deal possibilities. The EasySaver Catalog is also lists several rebates, which you can send in to receive money back once a month.

Preparing Your Deals
Now watch the weekly newspaper circular and sites like Money Saving Mom to determine when to use your Walgreens coupons. Often an item that has a coupon or rebate will go on sale one week during the coupon period.

Stack Store/Manufacturer Coupons
You can combine a store coupon and a manufacturer coupon for each item, if available, however you can’t have more coupons than items, so make sure you count your items before you head to the register. Register Rewards count as coupons. If you have more coupons than items, add a cheap thing to fill out your order so you can use all of your coupons.

Use Register Rewards
Similar to the CVS with their Extra Care Bucks, Walgreens offers their own coupons called Register Rewards. These print from a separate machine like at the grocery store. You can then use them like cash on your next purchase, although there may be restrictions. Make sure you don’t repeat a deal and pay for it with the last set of rewards you earned from the same deal. Instead, use the Register Rewards you received from a deal on an unrelated product. For example, use Pantene-generated Register Rewards to buy Garnier and vice-versa.

Send In Your Rebates
Note the due dates on your rebates, then send in the form per their instructions once a month. You can request a check or a gift card. Get the gift card – you’ll get an extra 10% and can then use the card to avoid spending additional cash at the store.

Issues with Walgreens Coupons
Some users have reported problems with using the Walgreens system. Money Saving Mom suggested handing the cashier your coupons in batches. First, the RR, then the manufacturer coupons, then the store coupons.

Apparently some Walgreens employees are less willing to deal with coupons, so try to find helpful people and check out at their registers.

Some stores run out of items quickly, so shop early and often if there’s a deal you really want to do.

There may also be delays in receiving your rebates. Some people report that the gift cards take longer, while others report that checks take longer. Just make sure you have room in your budget to cover the initial outlay. Once you start rolling your deals, you may never have to pay cash again.

I haven’t used Walgreens because there aren’t any in my area, but my uncle, the master of frugality, has scored numerous great deals there. If you shop at Walgreens, let me know how it worked for you in the comments.

I have two main problems with online coupons: they fill up my in-box and they tempt me to buy. I solved both problems with one quick fix – email filters. Here’s how to set-up email filters to reduce your spending.

How to Set Up Email Filters
I use Thunderbird, so these instructions apply to that. Go to Tools > Rules and Alerts to set up filters for Outlook. It’s not quite as simple, but it can be done. I highly recommend switching to Thunderbird. It’s a much smaller, cleaner program. Here are the instructions for filtering your email there:

  1. Create a Coupons folder in your in-box
  2. On the top toolbar, click Tools > Message Filters
  3. Click New
  4. Name it “Coupons” or something similar
  5. In the “Perform these actions” field, select “Move Messages to” and then select “Coupons on [inbox name]
  6. In the top fields, select “Match any of the following”
  7. In the middle box select, “From” and “Contains” in the first two fields. Now enter the first store name. Something like “Amazon” or “CVS”
  8. Continue filling in the first four boxes, then click the plus button to add more.
  9. Go through your inbox and enter a portion of the company name as it appears in the email address.
  10. Click OK.
  11. Click Run Now.
  12. All your current messages will move to the folder. As future messages come in, they’ll automatically move to that folder.

How Email Filters Save Money
You’re less tempted to buy.
The key is to not look in the folder until I realize you need to make a purchase soon, then check the folder regularly for offers from that company. I complete the purchase when a great offer comes in. This way the offers don’t tempt me to buy when they come in unless I’ve already decided to make a purchase.

You Don’t Miss Valuable Coupons When It’s Time. I could just unsubscribe from the offers and use Retail Me Not, but then I’d get back on the mailing list every time I placed an order. Also, CVS and a few other stores send offers for in-store purchases that can only be used if you print the email.

You Can Learn the Offer Cycle. I keep old offers for a few months to track the offer cycle. That way I can see how often certain coupons are offered and when I’m likely to receive them.

As an added bonus, email filters keep my inbox tidier and I don’t manually sort messages. I wasn’t much of a shopper to begin with, but I’ve been less tempted to even look at an online store since I started filtering my emails. Try it and see how much you save.

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