If you’re like most people, the effects of inflation are probably outpacing the gains on your investments and your income growth at the same time — but no matter how expensive items might get, you still have to buy the things you need.
With a few good coupons, you can dial back today’s inflated prices by more than you might think — but only if you use them the right way at the right time. There are plenty of couponing 101 tutorials that tell you what to do, but knowing the mistakes to avoid is just as important.
Allowing Coupons To Lull You Into Overbuying
Many coupons come with minimum purchase requirements. If you’re spending more than you should for items you don’t really need, you’re not saving money.
“Coupons can offer you a great opportunity to stock up on some items, but if you’re buying more than you intended, you’re overspending and taxing your budget,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com. “For instance, some coupons may require that you buy 10 of something in order to get a special discount overall. If you have no intention of stocking your fridge with 10 cups of yogurt, or you only want one box of something rather than two or three, there’s no need to use these coupons. While they may provide savings overall, having to purchase a certain amount to get that special price is still causing you to spend more than you originally intended.”
Picking Your Purchases Based on Your Coupons Instead of the Other Way Around
Another way to waste money with coupons instead of saving it is to concoct a reason to buy something just because you have a coupon for it.
“If you’re interested in trying something new, a coupon can be a good incentive to do just that as it means buying a new product for less,” Ramhold said. “But if you’re using coupons to buy products you aren’t interested in just because there’s a coupon for them, you’re literally throwing money away. Sure, you might find something you like, but the odds are good that if you’re just using coupons because they’re out there then you’re going to end up with more misses than hits.”
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Breezing Over the Fine Print
Like advertisements, coupons have headlines that draw you in and then a whole bunch of caveats in small print. In both cases, the devil is in the details.
“The terms and conditions of coupons can vary widely depending on if they’re from a store or a manufacturer, so it’s important to read the fine print before trying to redeem,” Ramhold said. “It may only apply to certain varieties, sizes, or flavors of an item, for instance, so you want to be sure you’re adding the right thing to your cart. It may also be that a coupon can be used multiple times, so you may be able to stock up on a favorite for less, or maybe it’s a coupon for two different products — like you save 50 cents on a package of cookie dough but only when you buy a certain kind of milk. Reading the fine print ahead of time will ensure that you plan your grocery trips better and are able to actually redeem these coupons during checkout, rather than paying more than you expect to because you didn’t get the right items.”
Botching the Timing
Finding the right coupon is half the battle — the other half is using it at just the right moment.
“Like a card game, coupons should be played at the right time and on the right grocery item to save the most money,” said Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game and author of “Shop Smart, Save More.” “Digital coupons and paper coupons are usually for brand name grocery items and both have an expiration date that’s good for a week or even months. Hold on to that coupon and play it when that brand goes on sale. Check the store brand cost per ounce against your final sale price with the brand name coupon. Sometimes the store brand can save you more, especially when the store brand is on sale.”
Not Utilizing Technology to Its Fullest
Technology has made couponing easier than ever. Downloading coupon apps is a start, as is using store-specific apps — but the key with any digital platform is to make an effort to learn the features to get the most savings.
“In-store apps are a great place to start finding deals, but consumers must take the time to download and use them when shopping,” said Rob Weisberg, SVP and general manager of incentives at Inmar Intelligence. “Shoppers commonly forget to link their frequent shopper card to the app or virtual wallet and miss out on deals as a result. Not enabling geolocation can cause shoppers to miss out on deals since many retailers will send texts or messages with deals when they know shoppers are in the vicinity of a store.”
Writing Off Paper Coupons as Outdated
Between your in-store app, Ibotta, Coupons.com and all the rest, you might think you’ve got everything you need right there on your phone. Apps are great, but don’t count out your mom’s old-fashioned scissor-and-paper method just yet.
“Buying the Sunday paper is also still a great way to find savings as many retailers continue to use that as an avenue to deliver deals,” Weisberg said.
Fernando Lopez, marketing director of Circuit, takes it one step further by saying that true success in couponing depends on a printer.
“Even though digital coupons are becoming the norm, not investing in a printer can mean losing out on a significant amount of extra savings,” Lopez said. “You can combine e-coupons with printed options at local stores, allowing you to double your savings. Some coupons can only be used as printed copies — no printer, no discount.”
Not Using Them in Conjunction With Sales
Although you typically can’t stack paper coupons with digital coupons for the same item, you can use coupons for items that are already being sold at a discount.
“Coupons are meant to save you money, so be sure to use them when items are already on sale,” said Jessica Clark, money-saving expert and founder of bargainbestie.com. “That way, you can maximize your savings. For example, if a food item is buy-one-get-one-free and you have a coupon for $1 off, you’ll effectively be getting the second item for free after the coupon.”
Letting Them Expire
You might find a coupon that you know will save you money on something you’re bound to buy again at some point in the future, but not just yet. Develop a system to file away coupons that you’re likely to use for easy access when it comes time to pull the trigger.
“Don’t let your coupons expire,” Clark said. “If you have a coupon for an item but don’t need it right away, make sure to put it in a place where you’ll see it or set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget about it.
Forgetting that Size Matters
Just because you need something that matches an item in a coupon doesn’t mean you need it in the coupon’s required quantity. Double-check before you add it to your cart.
“It’s easy to look at a coupon for a product you like and overlook that it is good only for the largest size, say dish soap,” said Gigi Lehman, editor of Living on the Cheap. “Almost all coupons will say they aren’t good on trial or travel size, but some say good only on a package with more than 16 of whatever product in it. You also don’t want to get tripped up by the exclusion list, which may forbid the use of a coupon on certain products within that brand, which are typically the lower-end, lesser expensive products. Read the fine print, so you know exactly what you can and can’t buy.”
Being Misled by the Picture
Making decisions based on a passing glance at the coupon’s picture is a guaranteed ticket to buyer’s remorse.
“Buying the wrong item is a pretty common mistake coupon users make,” said Lisa Thompson, savings expert for Coupons.com. “Pay close attention to the offer requirements — even read the words. Sometimes if you only rely on the image on the coupon or offer, you’ll end up buying a product that’s not actually eligible for the discount.”
Another mistake is to assume the item in the picture is the only item that the coupon is good for.
“Usually manufacturers use an image of their most expensive item or items on a coupon,” Lehman said. “Check to see what products the coupon really covers.”
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