Warning: I am not the sort of person who extreme coupons. I don’t have 67 flea collars for a dog I don’t have because the deal was just that great. I tend to take a more moderate approach wherein I weigh coupons and deals by the following metrics:
- Does it make sense for me? For my family? For us as consumers?
- Does the coupon/rebate deal bring it more in line with the cost of comparable products?
After all, not all deals are created equal. And while I’m not an expert on much of anything beyond R.E.M. lyrics and the 1999 Florida State football team, here’s my process for managing meal planning, list making, couponing, and rebating for a family of five on a fairly tight budget.
I work full time, as does my husband, and we have three kids under the age of 8. We grocery shop biweekly, primarily at Costco and Winn-Dixie, with the occasional jaunt to local grocery stores, Rouses and Breaux Mart. There’s the occasional Fresh Market, Whole Foods and Trader’s Joes fun, but those are pretty contingent upon deals—we’ll get there later.
How I plan:
I usually start by crowdsourcing with my husband and our children, the army of darkness. Once I have a sense of their cravings, I create a master list of meals—not all will get made this week or even next, but I’ve got a handy list to reference later.
From there, I start to organize meals by shared ingredients. For example, if I’m buying a bunch of kale, can I use it in multiple meals over a two week period (it really does last that long in the fridge, I promise!)?
Then I start to check the ads. Most of us are busy, whether or not we’re parents, and sifting through the newspaper grocery ads can get pretty onerous after a while.
Hack 1: Find someone who will do the heavy lifting for you. The folks behind Southern Savers, for example, comb through weekly ad previews and pair them with both printable coupons AND online rebate options. They don’t just cover grocery deals, either – they’ll update you on BOGO Redbox deals, on Amazon flash sales, and more.
The next task, obviously, is to compare your meal list and overlap with the ad of the stores where you shop. We don’t eat out much, because no one should be subjected to my three year-old in public for more than 30 minutes, so that means I have to budget for kids’ snacks and lunches, family breakfasts and dinners, and healthy lunches for my husband and me.
(Plus, the army of darkness is still in that place of existence in which they have terrible food taste, so I find myself subversively sneaking healthy food into their awful dietary demands.)
Winn-Dixie’s website allows me to add both store and manufacturer coupons to my rewards card, which is also the case with other major chains like Publix. Then it’s time to find the vaunted double-dip: that place where coupons and rebates overlap.
And did you know about $2.99 Tuesdays at The Fresh Market, where you can get in-house ground beef and chicken breasts for only $2.99 a pound?
Hack 2: Get your rebate on. What was once the realm of our parachute material jumping wearing, mall walking grandmothers is now a ten minute process on your smart phone. Here are my faves, and why I use them:
iBotta: iBotta rebates have paid for a new microwave, my husband’s birthday present, my Sephora BB cream of choice, and countless movies and Target outings. Our Amazon Prime Day and Target one-day sale budgets were largely predicated on our iBotta earnings stockpile, which led to some pretty sweet purchases. iBotta uses your location to offer local store options, with segmented grocery options. iBotta also offers in-app purchase rewards, from Gap to Target. You can have rewards transferred to Venmo or PayPal, and to myriad gift card options.
Checkout51: Like iBotta, Checkout51 offers local grocery rebates, and when you cash out at the minimum $20 threshold, they send you a check. Fun mini-hack: if you buy an item one week, the next week your account will unlock produce bonus options.
SavingStar: a little more limited in supported products, SavingStar still offers items that we use, from yogurt to cheese slices. On a perfect day, their rebates overlap with other couponing and rebating sites, with the effect that your purchased item then is…well, free. You can cash out with funds sent to your bank or PayPal account, or with a gift card. I once purchased Starbucks gift cards for every daycare teacher my kids had using SavingStar rewards.
Fetch Rewards: Fetch grew out of MobiSave, and operates on an accrued points system (1,000 points = $1). Want to sign up and get bonus points (insert “I want my $2” image from Better Off Dead here)? Download the app and use my referral code: YN1MU.
Hack 3: Don’t skimp on the in-app discounts. Target recently revamped its Cartwheel program to integrate it with the Target app as Circle. Designed to encourage in-store shopping, it tracks your purchasing behavior to customize offers that suit your shopping needs, from toilet paper to Avengers toys. Plus, you can combine these discounts with manufacturer coupons, and often stack them against weekly ad discounts and gift card offers. On Target’s one-day sale this July (it’s designed to compete with Prime Day), I was able to stack a number of deals together and spent under $100 – while also accruing $25 in gift cards, all on items we genuinely use.
Costco, Winn-Dixie, CVS and Whole Foods all offer special in-app discounts, from coupons loaded on to your rewards card to bar codes you can scan as an Amazon Prime member. (And while it’s easy to joke about CVS’ Tolstoy-length receipts, the rewards are very real – I recently bought a box of Huggies pullups for only $7 after leveraging rewards and in-app coupons.)
On a fun note, Groupon and LivingSocial offer vouchers incentivized Sam’s Club and Costco memberships at incredible prices annually, so keep an eye out if you’re interested in a big box club.
Hack 4: Don’t kill yourself on couponing. Couponing is only worth the effort if the dollars saved make sense for the limited personal time you’re allotting –think of it as a cost-benefit analysis. The one major piece of advice I would offer here is to jump on coupons as quickly as possible, because manufacturers only allot so many per item. Here are some great couponing sites:
Lozo: Simply manually enter your grocery list, and Lozo does the search for you.
Coupons.com: The gold standard, really. It’s easily searchable and the printing process is pretty painless.
Hack 5: Enjoy the perks of the necessary evil that is shopping. I recommend installing the Honey extension on your browser, for a couple of reasons:
-You earn rebates and bonuses, which translate to gift cards.
-You get to track the prices of items on a number of sites, and Honey will notify you when the price drops to the amount you specify.
-Honey also collects and automatically applies crowdsourced promo codes before your online checkout, which saves you both time AND money.
In short, do it.
Another option is Shopkick, which allows you to earn “kicks” by activating the app when you enter stores like Target. You can also earn kicks for scanning the barcodes of select items, and even more for purchasing them. For some stores, like Ulta and TJ Maxx, your linked credit or debit card purchase will earn you tons of rewards. You can cash them out for fun things like AMC gift cards. Select online shopping also counts.
Let me also introduce you to Brad’s Deals, which sends you a digest of the best online sales based on your interests. It’s how I found replacement Fiesta ware for dirt cheap at Macy’s, and how I bought a new Kate Spade work bag and wallet for under $160 shipped.
Hack 6: YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSS, rewards programs. Do you live in the footprint of SE Grocers (Bi-Lo, Harvey’s, Winn-Dixie, etc.)? With Plenti now defunct, they’ve returned to a gas and groceries rewards program. Here’s the best part: you can stack your SE Grocer rewards with your FuelRewards from Shell, for even more impact. While I often take advantage of Costco’s insanely inexpensive gas prices, there are three Shell stations within a mile of my suburban office, and rewards bring the cost down substantially. Sign up here for FuelRewards regardless – as with other programs, you can link a card for local shopping and dining and earn even cheaper gas.
If you’re a movie buff, here’s a fun trick – using iBotta, launch the Fandango app. From Fandango, add your loyalty cards from AMC, Regal, etc. You’ll then get the benefit of a) cash back, b) Fandango rewards (free movie tickets OR home streaming rentals – which is clutch when you’re too exhausted and broke to leave the house for date night) and c) your own theater’s rewards program (oh hey, AMC Premiere!).
(P.S. AMC also offers $5 tickets on Tuesdays, creating stacks upon stacks upon staaaaaaaaaaaacks.)
Do what makes sense for you – if you have a chest freezer or a huge pantry, stock up. If you don’t, don’t. But you’d be surprised what sitting down and planning for an hour can both save you and earn you, making that trip to the movie theater more affordable.
How do we ultimately save money?
-We do a lot of meal planning to avoid waste and to curtail extra trips to the store.
-I try to spend some time on weekly food prep on Sunday afternoons (as much as I can muster, given my limited mental and physical bandwidth) so make the work and school week less daunting.
-We do have a pantry and chest freezer, both of which have been massive gamechangers for us.
-We try to overlap ingredients for meals, from grains to produce and proteins.
-We buy items we use daily in bulk.
-We carve out an hour every week to keep our list, meal plan, and rebates/coupons up to date, which ultimately saves us time in the long run.
Questions? Things I should add? Let me know!