Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coupons made easier

Last year, as some readers may recall, I conducted an experiment to see whether it would be worth subscribing to the local Sunday newspaper just to get the coupon savings. The answer, I found, was "probably not"; most of the coupons in the paper were the same ones I already got in the free "Smart Source" insert that came with each week's store circulars, and few of these were for products I'd ever buy. I concluded that taking up couponing as a hobby was unlikely to be worthwhile for me, and despite a run of unusual good luck with coupons a few weeks later, I haven't had cause to alter this view much in the past year.

Consequently, when I first heard about a site called CouponMom, I didn't bother to look into it, since I assumed it would be oriented towards hard-core couponers. However, last week I stumbled across a reference to it somewhere that talked about how much easier it made the couponing process, and I wondered whether this site might have value after all. So I checked it out, and I found that this site really does have the potential to make a regular coupon habit worthwhile, even for casual users like me.

First, a bit of background on how couponing works. As serious couponers already know, if all you do is clip coupons and use them on whatever happens to be on your shopping list, you won't save much. The real savings are in combining coupons with sales. When you start with a product that's already being sold at an extra-low price, and then add on the extra savings from a coupon—which may be doubled, depending on your store—that's a triple whammy that can reduce the cost of the item by 60, 80, or even 100 percent. And if you manage to do this consistently, every time you shop, then you can take a big bite out of your grocery bill.

So far, so good. The problem is—or has been, for me—that stackable deals like these just don't pop up very often. Sales are certainly common, and we take advantage of them regularly, but we seldom, if ever, have a coupon that we can stack with the sale. And since those deals are few and far between, it hasn't really seemed worthwhile to do the legwork needed to find them—meticulously going through each week's sale fliers and comparing them with a stack of coupon inserts to see if I happen to have the needed coupon.

That's where CouponMom comes in. This site takes a lot of the work—really, almost all of it—out of coupon matching. Once you set up a free account, you can search the site for deals on specific items you need, or you can ask to see a list of the best grocery deals in your state. It will show you a list—which you can sort by store, by type of item, or by total savings—that shows you which sales at your local stores can be combined with coupons, and where those coupons can be found. If it's an electronic coupon site, there will be a link right on the page that you can click to get and print the coupon. If it's a coupon insert, like Smart Source or Red Plum, it will show you the date on which the coupon appeared. This saves an immense amount of time, because you needn't actually clip any coupons until you need them; you can just save your coupon inserts as they arrive, sorted by date, and when you see a deal that you want, you just pull out the appropriate insert, clip the appropriate coupon, and off to the store you go. You can even print out your shopping list directly from the site, showing which items you plan to get and what the final price should be for each one. Paper-clip your coupons directly to this list, and all the organization is done for you.

The site also has a special section for drugstore deals, which tend to be more complicated than supermarket deals, since they often involve not only combining coupons with sales, but also factoring in the drugstore chain's own special savings programs, such as ExtraCare Bucks at CVS and UP rewards at Rite Aid. These more complex deals are also much more profitable, often resulting in products that are free or even money-makers (where you end up, after all savings and rewards, with more money than you actually spent). And the site can help you find store coupons, such as Target's, that can be stacked with manufacturer coupons to maximize savings.

CouponMom isn't the only site of its kind, but it's the first one I've seen that doesn't charge for membership (it's paid for by ads). So even if it turns out that you don't save anything by joining, you haven't lost anything either. And it takes only a few minutes each week (probably on Sunday, when the site updates), to check out the "extreme deals" page and make a list. So even if, like me, you can only take advantage of a few deals, the cost and effort involved is so low that there's really no reason not to do it.

Sadly, I discovered this site's benefits at the worst possible time. For months, I'd been diligently saving stacks of coupon inserts, because other coupon sites had assured me that if you simply waited a month or two, that was when the coupons would start stacking up with sales to give you free or nearly-free items. But after several months of this, I found that I'd never once gone back to the stack to retrieve a coupon I hadn't clipped initially, so I concluded that it wasn't worth storing them and tossed the lot in the bin. Therefore, several of the deals currently listed on CouponMom aren't available to me because they call for coupons from the January Smart Source coupon packets, all of which went out with last week's recycling pickup. But I will start saving my coupon inserts once again—this time without even bothering to flip through them first, since CouponMom can do the work for me—and in another month or two, I should once again have a pile that I can delve into and extract coupons from as they become useful.
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