The Life Cycle Of A Couponer (Eat Well, Spend Less)

For this month’s Eat Well, Spend Less edition, we’re taking a look at how we’ve changed over the past year since we’ve being doing the series. 

I’d already started writing this post going back way farther than just one year, and thought it would be appropriate to show you my “life cycle” as a couponer – I hope it helps give you some perspective, no matter if you’re a super-couponer or a “regular” shopper!

Recently I spoke to a group of moms and one of the questions I was asked was How do you find the time to coupon-shop? which leads me to this post: The Life Cycle Of A Couponer.

When I started “couponing” five years ago or so, my habits were very different than they are now.  Here’s a look at the different phases I’ve been through, and I would love to hear what phase you’re in and where you’ve been in the past, too!

Phase 1: Excited New Couponer With One Child And No Plan

I first got interested in using coupons while reading my friend Crystal’s first blog (before she started  I thought, “hey, if she can do this, I can, too!” so I started clipping coupons and was pumped to be saving so much money.

I made frequent trips to many stores – after all, I was a new mom with not many friends in the town we were living in at the time.  This was my entertainment!  We almost always stopped at a drugstore or two on the way to church on Sunday, and I would sometimes get up at 6 AM to head to the grocery store so I could get in on the deals before they sold out.

Often, I would drive twenty minutes from Randalls (Safeway affiliate) to another Randalls to stock up on deals, as they only doubled/tripled one like coupon per transaction.  And, if there was a Walgreens or CVS on the way, I would most certainly stop in there to see if they had any more of their deals back in stock.

When I found out that most of the area schools had newspaper recycling bins, I was in coupon heaven.  I would drive around town looking for coupon inserts in the recycle bins, and often came away with dozens.

After spending hours each day reading money saving blogs and message boards, I would head out to stores like Walmart and Target in the hopes of finding deals that I’d heard about on other blogs.  Lots of time and gas were wasted on wild goose chases for sales that weren’t going on at our stores.

I was getting lots of free stuff and had cupboards that were overflowing, but I wasn’t really paying attention to how much I was spending, and I wasn’t applying a savings strategy to my meat and produce.  We were spending probably $200 a week on groceries for two adults and a baby.

Phase 2: Two Children & A Tight Budget

We moved, and had another baby.  Colorado Springs didn’t have a CVS (still bummed about that, years later!) but they did have more competition among grocery stores.  I started doing Walgreens deals a little more, and shopped around at more grocery stores.

I was still making quite a few stops a week, but didn’t head to Target to find phantom deals that I’d hear about on other blogs and there weren’t any more alarm clocks set at 6 AM to get to the store before the deals sold out.

Our budget was tight, and instead of a number, it was “spend as little as possible”.  (If you’re looking for an example when it comes to how to budget, I will be honest: I am not that person to look up to!)  Grocery shopping was still fun for me, and it was my primary hobby.

When I was four or five months pregnant with our third child, my husband got laid off from his job selling new homes and became a Realtor.  We went from a little bit of guaranteed monthly income + commissions to 100% commission so our budget was still “spend as little as possible”.  Couponing was a have-to-do thing to feed our family!

Phase 3: Realistic Couponer and Work-At-Home Mom To 3

I started Springs Bargains in December 2008 when I was nine months pregnant with our third child.  My goal was initially to generate a little bit of side income to help our family’s budget and also help spread the word that hey, my husband can help you buy a house! :)

Amazingly, God totally blessed Springs Bargains and it started to become a viable business of its own.  With three kids and running a full-time business from home, it became a lot harder to make trips to the store, so I pretty much stopped doing Walgreens’ Register Rewards deals at this point, except for a few spurts every now and then when I couldn’t resist the deals.

It was at this point that I started to realize that my time was becoming more valuable, and I was focusing more on being a realistic couponer, which to me means providing for my family’s needs and having a reasonably-sized stockpile of things I knew we would use, without spending hours each week preparing my coupons and driving around to ten stores.

Phase 4: Work-At-Home Mom To 4

Well, we had another child (at this point in the story, we’re up to four) in 2010 and my husband’s real estate business was going very well, as was Colorado Bargains (which now included both Springs Bargains and Denver Bargains).

Our budget wasn’t as tight, and I didn’t have as much time to coupon shop.  It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have time to clip coupons and find sales, it was just too big of an effort to get myself and all my kids to the stores!

Since the budget wasn’t as tight, and we really enjoy cooking and eating, I didn’t really keep track of how much I was spending.  But, I felt really guilty about how much I was spending even though I didn’t know how much it was!

Phase 5: Work-At-Home, Homeschooling, Food-loving Mom To 5

Last fall, we started homeschooling (my oldest is in first grade), and in February, I had our fifth child (a baby girl!).   We are busy, and I love it.

I have to be honest, I really do not do well at feeding my family when I’m pregnant, but as soon as the baby’s out, I usually get totally inspired in the kitchen.  This time has been no exception.  In the almost two months since Baby’s been here, I’ve been cooking up a storm.

Part of my inspiration is that new kitchen workhorse that I got for Christmas, but I’ve just been really enjoying being in the kitchen.  My husband really enjoys eating good food, too, so to be able to make him happy by putting a little extra effort into cooking is great.

But, that inspiration in the kitchen has also caused me to want to purchase more expensive foods that I didn’t used to purchase.  On the one hand, I’m fine with this, since I feel like it’s OK to spend a bit more on something that is not only nourishment for my family, but entertainment for me.  I’m a lot less likely to want to go out to eat if I have really yummy food to cook at home!

A recent cooking experiment (and success) - Waffle Cones! Recipe coming soon!

On the other hand, I was already feeling guilty about what I was spending – or what I didn’t know I was spending (see Phase 4).  So, at the beginning on this month, I decided to go to an all cash budget for groceries, just to see how it would work.

And, I’m totally floored by how much less I’ve spent with cash.  I’m not sure if it’s really the pain of handing over twenty dollar bills versus swiping a debit card, or if it’s just that I actually know how much I’m spending.  I took out $500 at the beginning of this month – I would have taken out $600 (for $150/week), but the ATM would only let me do $500 so I could still potentially take out another $100 if I needed to.

(I have been able to purchase some grocery items for very little using referral credits from Vitacost, so if you’re comparing numbers – please don’t!  There’s always a backstory on people’s grocery budgets: some get perks like Vitacost credits that they can use to purchase groceries, some get WIC supplements, some have a garden, some get free meat from their parent’s farm, etc.  The numbers are just numbers and shouldn’t make you feel successful or unsuccessful.)

We are halfway through April and I still have a little over $200 left (or $300 if I were to go and get that extra $100 from the ATM)!  It’s not like I haven’t bought food: we’ve been eating good, and I’ve bought 20 lbs of hormone-free ground beef from Ranch Foods and purchased a couple of roasts (not hormone free by any means, but whole cuts of beef are rare at our house these days!).  We’ve eaten chicken and pork chops and lots of cheese and I’ve only spent $300?!

So, at least right now, cash is where it’s at for me and groceries.  I feel free to purchase what I want, knowing that I’ll have to make do with whatever’s left if I splurge.  (I’ve done plenty of making do before!)

I don’t feel guilty when my total at the store is $80 because I can’t remember how much I’ve spent other places this week and think “howmuchhaveIspent, howmuchhaveIspent?!  I’mnotagoodgroceryshopper, I’mnotagoodgroceryshopper”.  I just hand over the cash and forget about it.

I’m still using coupons – for sure – but it’s a lot less than it used to be.  You know I’ve lamented that the deals just aren’t there as much anymore, and my family is changing.  Not only am I really enjoying cooking, my kids are getting bigger and yes, they have hollow legs.  A packaged granola bar just doesn’t cut it anymore, so I’m buying less processed foods and making my own.  A homemade granola bar made with whole wheat pastry flour and rolled oats is a lot more filling than Mr. Quaker’s – not to mention that it’s actually good for you.

Another thing that’s changed about our family is that with five kids (especially when one is a newborn), it’s just hard to get out of the house, which has cut down on those last-minute trips to the Wendy’s drive thru.  But, that also means that we have to have food at home to eat, which means spending more out of my grocery budget.   Even when we do get out of the house, I’m so much less likely to stop somewhere for a bite to eat if we have good food at home instead of “whatever you can find”.  So i’m investing a little more into lunches so we don’t dread 12:00 PM.

So, that’s where I’m at.  I’m not feeling guilty anymore about not being the bargain shopper that I’m “supposed” to be.  I’m enjoying my food and so is my family.  We’re eating more gourmet and healthier foods, which are fun to prepare, taste great, and fill us up.  I’m spending cash and I’m feeling good about it, rather than feeling guilty about the unknown.

How have you changed your grocery shopping habits?


  1. That is awesome!!!!! Good for you. You have inspired for sure!

  2. Your story sounds exactly like mine! I’ve found that the best use of my time and money is to cook from scratch as much as possible — not to drive around to tons of stores and read lots of coupon websites/blogs. We’ve also made the switch from stocking the freezer with tons of cheap meat when it goes on sale (often losing some to freezer burn) to cutting back significantly on the meat we eat, and buying good quality (grass fed/hormone free/local/however you want to define it) meat for an occasional special meal. I am shocked (in a good way) every week when they ring up my groceries…I’m finally staying well within my budget without putting too much time into it! I spend over an hour each week planning my meals — including breakfasts, lunches, snacks, etc. — and then I only go to one grocery store a week. Of course, I spend a lot more time cooking, but I’m learning to enjoy that :).

    Another benefit to cooking from scratch — I have less to carry in from the grocery store! Stocking up on packages of cereal, granola bars, etc. takes way more space than buying the simple ingredients (oatmeal, wheat flour, etc.).

    Thanks for sharing your story! Can’t wait for the waffle cone recipe!

  3. This is so my story minus four children. Since becoming a stay-at-home mom I cook so much more from scratch. And sometimes buying in bulk wins out over couponing. My time is worth a lot. It is very limited these days and so I really need to use it wisely. Thanks for letting us know we are not alone and it’s all okay.

  4. Sarah H. says:

    My story is kind of similar (just with fewer children). I first found your blog when my youngest was a baby, and I was mostly a stay at home mom with my kids in day care 1-2 days a week while I worked very part time for my husband. I had time to clip coupons and run around shopping the sales. Since then, my husband’s business struggled and I had to take the kids out of daycare and become a stay at home/working at home mom as my husband’s office assistant, which took a lot more time out of my day. Last year my oldest went into 1/2 day kindergarten, which took way more time out of my day than I expected. Now he’s in first grade and his little sister doesn’t have her big bro to entertain her. Lately I have barely clipped coupons. I still cringe when I get to the store and see something on sale that I know I have a coupon for at home. I haven’t been to the grocery store at all for over a week, and I rarely go to more than 1-2 stores in a week. I find that I frequently look at my list and decide it’s not worth my time to go to the store for just a couple of deals.

    • Oh goodness – you don’t even want to know how many times I have cringed at the fact that I know I have a coupon at home for something. I used to ALWAYS bring my coupon box to the store with me, but that is something I just cannot do when I have multiple kids with me. I try to remind myself that it’s just $1 (yes, it IS a dollar but in the scheme of spending $150/week or so on groceries it’s not worth getting stressed about unless I’m doing it over and over). Or even better, I just don’t buy the item at all because I can’t stand to do so knowing I have a coupon. And in that case, it’s a total win because I haven’t spent *any* money, which is better than getting a good discount. :)

  5. It was great to read your story. I’m right there with you, minus the working at home part (though it is certainly still a job to be home w/5 and homeschooling :). I’ve mostly given up coupons. I do still look through the flyers each week to see if there is some loss leader of something we actually use in large quantities, but Costco is my go-to stop each week. There is just not the time to get out to multiple stores each week and the time it takes me to recover from the stress of bringing many children to many stores. Eating out has really lost it appeal when I compare the cost to eating a more wholesome meal at home.

    Carrie, thanks for all your hard work you put into Springs Bargains. It is a great site with helpful information and I really appreciate your balanced approach and that you keep it real, as you have in this post as well.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I had to laugh at “the time it takes me to recover from the stress of bringing many children to many stores”. I am soooo with you on that one!

  6. I love this post – thanks! I only have one child but have moved through these stages as well. I was crazy when I first started using coupons – going to tons of stores like you said. That is when I was staying home with my son. I spent so much time on ‘bargains’ that I too spent way more money than I needed to. I have moved on and while I still use quite a few coupons, I am not nearly as obsessed as I used to be. I figure if I buy what is on sale and use as many coupons as I can, I am still doing pretty good. I also find that for certain things, Sams club is still cheaper for us and worth my time to not have to go to a bunch of store. Thanks again for the post!

  7. This is great, Carrie! I, too, have gone through a “life-cycle as a couponer”. That first phase was kind of like a honeymoon phase for me, I guess. Now, I’m definitely more realistic, and I make so much more of our food from scratch.

    I use coupons on paper stuff, toiletries, etc. — and organic coupons when I find them! I just don’t go overboard anymore! Thanks for sharing this post and being so honest!!

  8. This was a great post! I’m so glad you wrote it. I empathize with the feelings of guilt you expressed. It was also good to hear that you use coupons differently in different seasons. I feel like my couponing season is shifting right now, and sometimes I worry that I’m just being lazy. I think it’s more that life changes and with it my family’s needs, my available time and energy, and how I use coupons change too. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • I’m glad it encouraged you, Liz – and I’m glad to here I’m not the only one who feels guilty sometimes!

  9. Hi,
    I love that nobody’s perfect, because I have definitely gone through phases as well. I was deeply in
    debt at one time. After we paid the debt off, I got crazy. I wanted to be the most frugal person on the face of the earth. I was couponing and stockpiling so much, I lost sight of the fact that unless something apocalyptic happened we would really have a hard time eating all the food. We had food under beds , in closets, under out of the way tables in the den, not to mention an already, overflowing, large double door pantry with swing out shelves,and fully loaded cabinets. We had cases of non perishables even hidden under chairs in our living room. My husband asked me if I knew something he didn’t know. He said he was glad we were saving money, but he was sick of tripping over canned goods.I now realize that there will always be sales (they cycle) There will always be coupons . I now have a tamer, more realistic approach to shopping and it’s more fun, as well. I also agree that if you pay cash, you aren’t as likely to go over budget.

    • LOL! I struggle with knowing how much is an “appropriate” amount to stockpile, too. I must admit that I really do not have a good stockpile of much right now and I would like to work on that a bit, because a nice stockpile has been a great blessing to help us coast a bit when money is tight. But it’s so easy to buy too much and let it go to waste or just spend too much on “good deals”!

  10. This is so true! Right now I’m only clipping the coupons I know that I’ll use, and we’ve just gotten a membership to Costco to simplify my grocery shopping and how many trips I’m making to the store. I do need to get back into the cash budget though. That really kept me on track with how much I was spending. Thanks for “keeping it real” with us and helping us know that it’s OK to go through the different phases.

  11. Thanks for the great post, Carrie! It was fun to read about your couponing journey! I’ve been couponing for 2 years now and your website has been a tremendous help and blessing to my family these past 2 years.

    I seem to go in phases with the coupons-sometimes I’m super gung-ho about getting great coupon deals and other times it just feels like too much (I’m also a homeschooling mom with 4 children- 2 are school age and then I have a toddler and a baby). I usually have to spend a couple hours just planning my grocery trip before I ever even leave the house, so I can get in and out of the store as quickly as possible since my kids really hate grocery shopping with me! Recently, my super awesome mom volunteered to watch my kids on Friday mornings before she goes to work so I can run errands kid free! She’s also been spending a couple hours a week the past few weeks helping me with housework (she’s really great about getting the kids to help too!).

    Thanks for sharing about how much you budget and your advice about not comparing our budgets! It’s so easy to feel like a “frugal failure” when I hear about people with the same size family who are only spending $50 a week on groceries for their family. I have to always remind myself that I don’t know their situation-they may have a freezer full of meat so their budget doesn’t include meat, or they may not include personal care items or cleaning supplies, or they may not have kids in diapers like I do. I have to budget the amount of money that my husband and I feel is right for OUR family and not worry about what other people are budgeting.

    My husband built me several shelves in our laundry room for my stockpile when I started couponing. I’ve been pretty good about not stockpiling more than can fit on the shelves, and when it starts to overflow I start giving things away to friends and family. My favorite thing about using coupons is not only am I getting great deals for my family on things that we need but I can afford to GIVE things away!

    • I go through phases, too, Melissa! I try to make the most of those phases where I feel like clipping lots of coupons and making lots of trips, and then it’s easier to “coast” through those times when I don’t feel like doing anything.

      I am so not a low budget success story, LOL. :) I felt guilty about how much we spent for a long time, and then realized that really, IT’s NOT A BIG DEAL! Like you said, some people don’t count their annual half a cow purchase as part of their grocery budget, or some people don’t count things like diapers or toiletries. Or other people eat out all the time so of course their grocery budget is lower! :) It’s all about doing the best thing for your family, not how much you spend.

  12. I am pretty much in the same phase as many of you have mentioned. I was very excited about the deals I was getting for a while. Then my husband was laid off and I had to get a part time job, I homeschool, write a blog, do all the mom and wife stuff and it just got to be too much. This combined with the deals not being as great and my time being precious I have seriously cut back. I have started doing Bountiful Baskets and we recently joined Costco and this is simplifying my shopping which I desperately needed. I also have found in the last few months that I am overwhelmed with the clutter in my house and so I am gradually trying to get rid of things and to even use up a lot of my stockpile. I will still have a few things but I really don’t need the amount that I have accumulated.

  13. Hi! I just found your site and had fun reading this post. I’m a homeschooling mom to 7 children (ages 10, 7, 6, 4, 3, 1, and 3 months) and trying to keep the food budget in the one income family budget is a challenge. We’re averaging $125.00 a week for the 9 of us. No coupons, I just don’t have time and we don’t eat most of what coupons are offered for anyway. I’m looking forward to browsing your past posts. Thanks!

    • Well, $125/week is less than I spend and my kids are younger than yours, if that makes you feel good! ;)

  14. So fun to see your phases! Thanks for a great post-so encouraging!
    I’m finding myself looking through the ads to see which store has the best deals for the week and shopping at which ever has the best sales. With the price of gas and the value of my time it doesn’t make sense to shop at several stores. Thankfully with seasonal fruits and veggies we can still eat healthy without spending a ton.
    The coupons aren’t being used nearly as much here-the guilt creeps in-then I remind myself that my family is eating healthy and thriving-that’s all that really matters! I’ve had several people bawk when I say I hardly use them anymore because I used them all the time before-but it doesn’t matter what others think either! :)

    • Who would have ever thought “coupon guilt” would be such a common thing?! LOL. :)

  15. Thanks for the encouragment. I sometimes have a hard time reading other blogs that make me feel guilty for spending “so much” on my food. We budget about $500 for a family of six (kids are 14,11,7,and5). I am in the season of just getting back to using more coupons now that the kids are back in school and I have time to do it. We make most things from stratch but there are some things that we don’t go without for my sanity. We have had the lean years where every dime counted and now we enjoy the ability to splurge for the good cheese every once in awhile. I guess what I am learning is you have to shop for your family and not compare it to others. By the way I love Money saving mom. She saves my sanity some days also. Thanks for the great post.

    • You’re welcome. I feel guilty sometimes, too, but as long as you are doing the best that you can with what God’s given you – no matter how little or how much – that’s what counts! I kind of think it’s silly to force yourself into a lower grocery budget than you have to, just because you think it makes you look good. ;)