September is National Coupon Month, and the Savings Mom is ready to help you make the most of it. In this column, she answers a reader's question on making ends meet on a tight budget by being a "strategic shopper" and using the Virtual Coupon Organizer.
Question: I find that every time I go to the grocery store it is a struggle. My husband gets paid every two weeks and there is limited money to spend -- $200 on four people ($100 per week). That includes food items, paper items, toiletries, etc. I would like your point of view. Sometimes I do use coupons, but I usually do not have the money to buy the Sunday paper. Also, with coupons now you often have to buy two or more things. Please help! -- Susan Niethe, Newfane, N.Y.
Saving Mom's Solution: The good news is that you can become a strategic shopper and learn to make ends meet with a $100 weekly grocery budget. Many strategic shoppers spend even less than that. Strategic shopping is about knowing how and when to buy your favorite grocery items to pay the lowest prices for them, consistently. The three steps to becoming a strategic shopper are:
Know your grocery prices. Track the prices of your most common grocery items over a few weeks. Use a notebook to write down the 10 to 20 items you always buy and note their price at your store (and other stores, if possible) each week. You will probably notice that prices on any item can vary by as much as 50 percent over the course of a month. If you learn the various price points for your common items, you can recognize their lowest prices easily. Stock up on your items when they are at their lowest prices so that you will never have to pay full price, buying a one- to two-month supply of the item, if possible. By the time you need more of the item, it will most likely be selling at its lowest price again at one of your stores. Stocking up at the lowest prices will consistently and dramatically reduce your grocery bill.
Know your store's savings programs. Find out if the stores in your area offer special promotions such as double coupons, senior discount days, "buy one, get one free" promotions, or special markdowns in the produce or meat departments at specific times of the day. If the store does double coupons, find out what the coupon limits are so you can maximize the value of your coupons. For example, some stores may double coupons up to 50 cents, but another store in the same area may double coupons up to $1. When you use coupons, your money will go further at stores with higher coupon limits.
Know coupons. Your coupon savings will increase dramatically if you take advantage of the best sources of coupons. Remember, if there is a coupon available for an item you plan to buy, then coupons for those items are truly free money. Save coupons and wait to use them when your items are at their lowest prices. Because you will want to stock up on these items, you won't mind coupons that require you to buy more than one item (about 25 percent of coupons require you to buy more than one item).
The key here is to find coupons for your favorite items. Finding the coupons you need is simple if you:
• Use the Virtual Coupon Organizer on www.couponmom.com to find coupons for items you use. It is an online database of every coupon that has come out in the Sunday paper. If you don't feel you can afford the Sunday paper every week, you can check online as early as Saturday evenings to see what coupons will be available in the next day's Sunday paper. If you do not see any coupons you would use, you don't have to buy the paper that week (for the sake of coupons).
However, some weeks there may be several coupons you would use. In that case, it may pay to buy more than one copy of that week's newspaper to have more coupons. Ask your stores if they sell the Sunday paper at a discount on Sundays or Mondays to save even more. Many stores sell the paper at half price or sell two copies for the price of one after Sunday morning.
• Check the printable coupon sites for free coupons you can print for your items. You can find many good grocery coupons at www.smartsource.com, www.boodle.com and www.coolsavings.com.
• If you always use certain products, visit those companies' Web sites. Send an e-mail to their customer service contacts or call their toll-free number to tell them how much you like their products, and ask if they have coupons they can send you. Be sure to include your address in the e-mail messages you send. Many companies send out very generous coupons by customer request.
Once you know the best prices for your products, know where to shop with coupons, and know where to get your favorite coupons, you're ready to save! Plan your meals and shopping list around what is on sale, make a shopping list, leave the kids at home and stick to your list.