Coupons are a crapshoot. That's my opinion after two weeks of half-heartedly searching for offers that would trim our weekly grocery bill. In those two weeks, I saved myself a grand total of $1. One measly buck. Considering I was in dire need of a caffeine fix and promptly spent that dollar at the Wegmans in-store café, I'm back to zero savings.
My friend Jen recently posted her Facebook status as "Rocked the coupons today." I was curious for the details. Turned out she saved $60 on a $230 order at Weis, a local chain here in Pennsylvania that doubles coupons. The store was running a promotion for several weeks where shoppers earned points for purchases. Because she gets all her groceries and prescriptions at Weis, Jen amassed enough points to qualify for 15% off one order. Throw in the double coupons, and she saved 26% off her weekly haul. Yes, I'd say that qualifies as rocking the coupons.
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So why am I such a clod at this? I went to Jen for tips, and she told me she scans three coupon sites regularly: couponsurfer.com, couponsuzy.com and coupons.com. She'll get tricky occasionally and type a zip code from California or New York into the sites, because the coupons pop up differently in different areas of the country. If there's a brand she buys regularly, and she can't find a coupon for it, she'll Google the product along with the word "coupons." "I'd be surprised if I spend more than 10 minutes a week on this," she says.
OK, 10 minutes a week? That's the kind of time investment I can handle. Especially as I have a problem remembering to actually present my coupons to the cashier. I'm standing there at checkout, rescanning my list, trying to keep the kids from pulling each other's hair, and wondering why my reusable shopping bags are at home hanging neatly in the garage. I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten to actually pull the coupons out of my pocket. Maybe I don't need a coupon expert as much as I need a neurologist.
Today, I ran an experiment. I gave myself 10 minutes to search for coupons. But I'm sticking to my list, as retail consultant Paco Underhill advised me. If I can find a coupon for something on my list, great, but I'm not letting the coupons determine what I buy. Picky eaters that we've got around here, my possibilities are limited. The kids want Wheaties. They don't want Wheaties Fuel. (If you happen to want Wheaties Fuel, you can currently save $1.00 off a box at CoolSavings.com.)
Also, I refuse to buy more of something just to use a coupon. Save $1.00 on two pints of Ben & Jerry's? That would entice me to consume more ice cream than my hips need. Along those lines, why don't coupons ever apply to produce or meat? I'd gladly take a dollar off those organic strawberries.
I started with the Sunday paper coupons. Perfectly useless. Buy six yogurts to save 40 cents? No, thank you. Although, as Jen points out, if I shopped where they double coupons, that would save me 80 cents. I'm still not doing it.
Those 10 minutes stretched into 40. At the end of the experiment, I had coupons totaling $3.65. At this rate, I'm saving less than what I'd earn working a minimum-wage job. Plus I gave out my e-mail address more times than I would have liked, and went through one registration process that asked me to "please indicate the gender of the primary shopper." Ha! That's a good one.
So here's my new coupon strategy. Check the Sunday paper (2 minutes). Scan the brands on couponsurfer.com (2 minutes) to see if anything on my list comes up. And if anything does come up? Tape it to the back of my credit card, so I remember to use it.
If you've got better strategies for coupons, I'd be glad to hear them below. Did I mention that I have picky eaters?More on CBS MoneyWatch.com