Eat Well, Spend Less: Simple Steps To Get Started Using Coupons

For the new few weeks, I’m teaming up with a group of bloggers to bring you a series titled…

Eat Well, Spend Less

We’ll be talking about different strategies for feeding our families healthy, delicious food without breaking the bank, and I think it’s going to be a great series as we all have vastly different styles and systems!

We’re each covering a different aspect this week, and my topic is “basic couponing”. (I’ll be linking to the others tomorrow, so come back for more!)

Now, in this post about basic couponing, I’m not going to tell you how to get free toothpaste or how to get 500 boxes of cereal for 50¢ like you might see on the TV series Extreme Couponing.

I’m fact, I’m not even going to talk about using coupons until the very end of this post.  There are other things that must be in place before using coupons can save you money.

You see, a couple of years ago, I realized something about a lot of “super-couponers”: they had closets full of free shampoo, but they were still spending just as much money on groceries. They got the high from super-couponing, but it wasn’t really saving them money overall.

I think there are some basic things that you must understand and implement before you can start saving money with coupons, so I’m going to focus on those things first, instead of just telling you how to get free stuff.

Ready? Here we go!

1. Make A Price List

Ah, yes – you remember Great Aunt Sue’s spiral-bound notebook where she painstakingly kept track of grocery prices, writing down the price of tomato sauce and dozens of other items faithfully every week, and always warning about the skyrocketing price of groceries?

I’m not suggesting you go to effort of creating a price list like Aunt Sue’s, but I think it’s well worth the effort to do this: go to the grocery store that you normally shop at and write down the prices of everything you normally buy.  If you shop at a warehouse club like Sam’s or Costco, be sure to do the same there.

You are just trying to get a general idea of what you normally pay for groceries; don’t worry about getting all fancy and doing a spreadsheet that sorts by aisle.  Simple, and basic – you’ll really only need to do this once.

Once you have your list, you can then start on step 2.

2. Stock Up When The Price Is Right

Now that you have a general idea of what you’d typically pay for common grocery items you buy, you have a gauge to know when something’s lower than you’re accustomed to paying.

If you see that you’re used to paying about 88¢ per pound for pasta at Sam’s Club, and your store puts it on sale for 49¢ (like we had at King Soopers recently!), then you’ll know it’s time to stock up – buy as much as you think you’ll need for a few months.

Ultimately, yes, the goal is to get the lowest price you possibly can, but until you know what that is, you’ll probably find it helpful to simply look back at your “this is what I’m used to paying” price list to see how good of a deal something is to you personally.

Most sales run in 2-3 month cycles, so you can stock up on many items with just a 2-3 month supply.  There are, however, sales that are more like annual or bi-annual sales, so you may want to be prepared to stock up more on a deal that seems really hot.

On our network of sites in Denver and Colorado Springs, we use a deal rating system to help you know what’s a good deal and what’s not.  You can read more about how it works, and check out the grocery deals for the many stores we cover!

3. Shop At All The Stores In Your Area

Yes, yes – I know you don’t have time to shop at five different stores every week to get the best deal.  I’m not telling you to do that.

What I am telling you is to start looking at the ads for all the stores in your area, and then choose two to shop at each week.  It doesn’t have to be the same two each week – you are just looking for which store has the best prices on the stuff you need.

One week, you’ll find good meat and produce deals at Store 1, and a good deal on some pantry staples at Store 2.  Shop at those stores that week.  The next week, Store 1 won’t have any good deals, but Store 2 does, and Store 3 might have some good deals as well.

I typically shop at 2 stores per week (almost always King Soopers, and then rotating between Safeway and Albertsons as the second store) and Jeremy stops by Sunflower Market for me every week or two.  I’ll also hit Rancho Liborio, a Hispanic market, if I can plan some errands in that area, as they are a bit of a drive for me.

By being willing to rotate your shopping based on who has good deals on a particular week, you’ll open yourself up to much bigger savings potential than if you’re stuck shopping one store.

Check for ethnic markets, bread outlets, and scratch and dent stores in your area – you may find that they’re worth a stop on occasion to pick up certain items!

4. Plan Your Menus Based On What’s On Sale

Every housewife knows that in order to be frugal, you must plan a weekly menu.

However, that’s only the first step in saving money.  If you plan your menu at random, just choosing the things you feel like eating that week, you’ll be saving money on eating out, but you won’t really saving as much money as you could.

Instead, make a slight adjustment in your mindset and look at the grocery ads first to see what’s on sale – then plan your menus based on the items that are on sale for a great price that week.

Otherwise, you’ll end up planning your menu and then buying things at full price, when you could have bought something that was on sale for half-off.

5. Clip Coupons

Well, I should probably mention coupons in this post about basic couponing, huh?  The above principles are very important to have in place before you start using coupons, though – and indeed, the above principles alone can save you tons of money, even without clipping coupons!

But if you want to maximize your savings, you’ll want to clip coupons.  I suggest subscribing to your local Sunday paper, finding a way to organize your coupons that works for you – start with something small and basic at first, even a small expandable folder that fits in your purse is fine at first (though you’ll likely quickly outgrow it).

Then, clip all the coupons for the products that you think you could ever possibly use.  If you absolutely will not use Colgate toothpaste, then skip those coupons – but make sure to clip the ones for Crest!

As you’re going through the weekly grocery ads, start matching up coupons to the items that are on sale.  Oh, who am I kidding: there are already dozens of blogs doing this every week for you!  I would suggest finding a blog that covers the stores that you shop at; you can find a couple of resources to help you find local blogs over at Grocery University.

Your goal is to match a coupon with an item that’s on sale for a great deal – you generally won’t be using coupons on items that aren’t on sale, you want to wait to use them until they’re already on sale.

Play your cards – I mean, your coupons – at the right time and you’ll save big.  Remember to use that price list you made as a guide so you know when something’s a good deal!

In Summary

Now, I know that’s a very basic explanation of how to use coupons themselves.  I know you’re thinking, “But what about double coupons?  How do those work?  What’s a catalina?”

If you’re really interested in learning more about how to use coupons, you can check out my audio series, Grocery University, in which I talk non-stop for almost two-and-a-half hours about maximizing your savings with coupons, along with some of the other foundational principles mentioned above

But, you don’t have to buy Grocery University to start saving money on your groceries today!  I firmly believe that the first four steps above to help you save tons on your grocery budget, even if you never clip a coupon!  And I believe that you’ll never truly be able to “Eat Well, Spend Less” if you don’t have those basic strategies in place in a way that works for your family.

On Tuesday, I’ll be linking to the other bloggers participating in the Eat Well, Spend Less series.  I can’t wait to hear what they have to say on their assigned topics; we’re all from vastly different parts of the country, different budgets, and different lifestyles, and I know we’ll all be learning from each other.

I’d love to hear what you think about the above basic strategies.  Everyone’s family is different, and I’d love to have you share what principles have been foundational to you in keeping your grocery budget in check!


  1. Sharon W says:

    What a great post! I’ve been couponing and following your blog for over a year, but didn’t realize that you shop at 2 grocery stores per week. I’d love to cut back to two stores most weeks. And only making one trip to each store, each week!

    I keep hearing about menu planning and it is one of my goals to start doing that this year. My problem? I don’t cook most nights of the week, so I feel overwhelmed at the thought of planning meals for every night. Though I suppose I could just list out whatever we have on hand in the fridge that we’ll be eating anyways. Won’t I look so organized, that I planned to have “make your own sandwich night” on the menu for that week ;)

    I can’t wait to read more in this series.

    • Well, like I said in the post, Jeremy does stop at Sunflower Market for me, so that helps a lot. I’ve gotten over REQUIRING myself to get the absolute lowest price on everything I buy, so that’s freed me up to “only” shop at 2 stores. (I’m going to expand on that more later this week, as I had an email from a reader that prompted me to write a post about how to know when it’s worth it to make another stop at another store.)

      Shh, Sharon – I will let you in on a secret. ;) I really do not plan for 7 meals a week, either! I am pretty good at improvising based on what we have, so I often “sketch out” a meal plan rather than make any hard-and-fast rules. I buy what’s on sale, and then often make the meals fully come together later – something that is MUCH easier to do when you have a full pantry.

      I don’t think you HAVE to menu plan a textbook way, but it is helpful to keep your budget on track, especially if you tend to struggle with impulse buying.

    • I regularly plan a sandwich night, pizza night, taco night. It’s okay that they’re “no brainer” menus. I don’t even assign a day to each menu. I often just cross it off after we’ve eaten it. And I usu plan more than 7 just in case something doesn’t sound good that night. Meal Planning will save you tons!

      Do you read Menu Plan Monday at ?

  2. Cherry C says:

    Sharon, if you plan the menu ahead, then you just pull stuff out of the freezer each night for the next day, plop it in the crock pot in the morning and come home to a great meal all prepared! Your house will smell great too! It can be easy to cook well for your family!

    • This is a great suggestion, Cherry! There aren’t a lot of one-dish dinners on our rotation of meals (too casserole-like for us, especially Jeremy, LOL!), but I do often prep two meals at once and freeze one of them to use later (which is another reason I don’t usually plan seven full days of meals – maybe I need to expand on this post again!)

      And,even if the WHOLE meal isn’t in the crockpot, it’s helpful if at least the main dish is!

    • Hey Cherry! Would you send me some of your crock-pot ideas? I know Chris and I would LOVE some new meals…

      PS – if you’re heading our way, let us know, so we can catch up again.


  3. Carrie – thanks so much for putting forth the effort to help so many of us with how to be better stewards of our finances and foodstuffs!

    I’ve a sort of unrelated question for you – how do you help to teach someone about meal planning and coupons when they look at it as a “huge mindblowing thing”???

    PS – thanks again for always reporting the great deals for us! I love knowing that I can find awesome delas for my family to still enjoy fun things while we’re working toward being debt-free.

    • Hi, Kris! Honestly, I really would just walk them through the stuff in this post. It’s really NOT that complicated, but it does seem that way if they haven’t sat down and taken a few minutes to read a complete strategy – something more than just “here’s how to get something free after double coupon”. (Grocery U would be good, but I really would just start with the stuff in this post)

    • Oh, and – I don’t think the goal should be to learn how to use coupons – that’s a means to an end. The goal should be to use your money wisely, so maybe changing the mindset from “learning how to use coupons” to “spend my money more wisely” or even, “feed my family better food while spending the same amount of money” might be helpful?

      • Carrie, I love that you don’t teach that couponing is the end all be all of shopping and saving. I often help a friend maximize their savings on a sale+coupons+catalina deal, but they don’t know how to do it the next time. I started working on feeding my family more healthy several years ago, and it began with just getting us all to the table at the same time. Then we added more fresh fruits and veggies, and stopped buying so many prepared items-frozen and boxed. It’s amazing to me that our large family eats well for as little as we do! Truly, I feel like moving in the right direction is the important thing. Baby steps eventually get us where we want to be and so much of using our resources wisely is buying what we actually eat. Thanks for being so reasonable in your wisdom, and understanding that saving doesn’t always have to mean 50% off or better, just a few better choices here and there build good habits until we get to where we really want to be.

  4. I go for my Veggies to Racho Liberio an the Meat is the chaper also most of the times and since Thursday is my Dry Cleaner run anyway so I run there first. My second Store is King Soopers on the North side now since they are not considered a “Value” Store, had Problems with the one on south Academy last week for the Amy Mac & Cheese, they don’t carry that. Then I go back Home. Like the new Series and waiting for the new one tomorrow :-)

  5. I love this post! I’m trying to save on our grocery bill, but it’s really difficult here in Italy. I mainly shop at our Commissary on the Air Force Base, but ever so often I venture down to the local market or the town grocery store. EVERYTHING is different brands and such when I shop on the Italian economy. I try to get my produce locally, but even that is more expensive with the Euro exchange rate if I’m not careful. I’ve done ok lately with grabbing our staples when they go on sale, and I’ve kept my bill low by meal planning, but I’m definitely going to venture into the coupon world. We have a network of ladies here who share coupons, and get them mailed to us from the States. Thanks for your advice, I’m going to be back for more advice later!

    • Thanks, Angie! If you’re ever in need of coupons to use at the commissary, let me know – I know several people that would love to get them to you!

  6. Hi! Just dropping by to tell you I included this post in my weekly round-up. Thank you for always having great quality posts to choose from.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this! I have been struggling to find the courage to start couponing – it sounds like a good idea, but I already struggle with paper clutter, and the thought of adding more (and let’s face it, that’s what would happen around here) makes me sick to my stomach. I am so excited to read your practical suggestions on where to start – I am going to make a master price list to start filling in the next time I go shopping, and I am going to check out the adds BEFORE I make my weekly menu (I usually don’t even look at them at all, just toss them in the recycling box as I walk in from the mail). I don’t know that I’ll ever be a couponer, but I think I can make some better choices for our budget using your suggestions.

    • Anna, I’m so glad this post gave you somewhere to start! For absolute maximum savings, coupons are best, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help out the family budget without coupons! You can do it! :)