Sometimes things go all out of order. ;) This Friday I wanted to write a post that backtracks a bit and tells more about how to make $5 meals a more regular occurence for your family. Most of my "Five Dollar Fridays" are meals that you can make for that price only if you are getting some of your items on sale...and often with coupons as well.
One of the first tricks to making $5 meals a reality is having a well-stocked pantry. When you find something on sale for a great price, stock up! I have extra shelves in my laundry room and an extra refrigerator outside to store my surpluses. One of the best ways to get your pantry stocked is often (but not always) through couponing.
The rest of this post will focus on couponing. I have used coupons on and off for about 15 years. Sometimes effectively, sometimes not so much. It wasn't until about four years ago that I really learned that there is an art to using coupons and it is basically this - save your coupon until the item goes on sale (hopefully for its "rock bottom price") and you maximize your savings, especially if you shop at a store that doubles and triple coupons. My store triples coupons that are $.35 or less and doubles coupons that are $.50 or less. This really helps rack up the savings even more quickly.
I wanted to share two things about couponing before beginning... First, you can coupon and keep to healthy items. It is definitely more challenging and you typically won't have the stories that some have of walking out of a store with $100 in merchandise for $6 (or something similar ;) but you can get big benefits from couponing and still feed your family healthfully. Second is that, like with many things, you will get out what you put in. Those women who do have the amazing stories of feeding their family of 6 on $20 a week are typically women who spend many, many hours doing this and often shop multiple stores. I don't have that kind of time. You can still coupon without spending hours and hours a week. I spend about 10 minutes a week cutting out coupons and an extra 30-45 minutes a week at the store looking for my best deals. Now how to get started...
First you need to obtain coupons. If your store accepts computer-printed versions then you won't have to spend a dime to get yours. The coupons that come in the weekly newspapers can be printed right at home and redeemed at your local store. (Smart Source, Red Plum and coupon.com are just a few to get you started. There are literally 100's more!) None of my local stores accept these anymore, so if you are like me you'll have to get coupons somewhere else. I get the Sunday paper delivered to my house for $1 a week; it's $2 at the store. This is well worth the cost for me because if I average just a $1 savings per week then I've broken even. The reality is I save far, far more than that. :)
After cutting my coupons each week I also swap what's left with a friend who coupons but we tend to use very different items. I also used to go by Starbucks each Sunday night and pull coupons out of their newspaper share bin. Many people read the Sunday paper but have no interest in the coupons. They drop the whole stack in the newspaper bin to share with another patron - or for someone like me to get their coupons. ;) I don't do this much anymore just due to time restraints. You can be creative though. Maybe see if you have a neighbor or family member who takes the paper but doesn't coupon. :) Getting multiple copies of the same coupons is not only okay but is desired. I read recently on a site where a mom had 6 copies of the paper delivered to her house each week. Wow!
Next you need a place to organize your coupons. I use a simple file box designed for index cards. I have it divided into these categories: personal (products for mom), personal (shampoo, shaving, soap, deodorant), sweet snacks, savory snacks, cans/boxes, condiments, breakfast, baking isle, meat, dairy/eggs, frozen, medications/vitamins, refrigerated section/produce. You may need to add a section for baby, cleaning, laundry or even more. My box looks just like the one in this post about organizing coupons except I do mine by the categories and not alphabetically like theirs. The linked post shows other ideas for how you can organize your stash. :)
Now it's time to coupon. When I started really getting into coupons I used the Grocery Game website. You pay for their services but at the time it was a great investment. You can get a four week trial for free if, after reading this, you are interested. You pay for each list you want from each store. That list will tell you what is on sale, if there is a coupon to pair with that sale, which flyer it came from (ex: SmartSource, Red Plum, P & G) as well as which week it was in the paper. They will also indicate if this is a regular sale or an item's "rock bottom" price (meaning stock up if you can because it won't be this cheap for awhile again).
GG was invaluable to me and I used it for a solid year. It taught me what those sales trends in my store were (not that they come out and tell you; it's just something you pick up on as you do this) and really helped me master the art of couponing while holding my hand a bit. Now I can do it on my own now that I know my preferred store's sale trends. :) Coupon Mom is another site like GG but it's free. You have to sign up but there is no cost. And her videos are wonderful to help learn how to use her lists and the coupon database. It's not quite as user-friendly in my experience, but the fact that you don't pay can quickly make up for that.
If you choose not to use one of these list sites you can still be an effective "couponer"! Plan on having your grocery trips take you up to twice as long while you are figuring out this coupon thing. Go to an isle (for example the soap/shampoo isle) and peek at what coupons you have. Walk the isle and see if any sale items match a coupon you have. If so, great. If not, keep looking.
Buy some items at a grocery warehouse if possible: I have a membership to a wholesale warehouse through dh's work, and I shop there once a month. The prices I get for first cold pressed olive oil, raw almonds, five pound blocks of cheese and frozen fruit beat even my store's sale prices and there are rarely coupons for those anyway. I also get dh's contact solution, maple syrup, a few healthy snacks and laundry detergent.
Other Tips: Don't worry as much about about brand loyalty. If you typically buy Gillette razors but you can get Shick for a deep discount, go for it! Also don't worry about whether or not you need an item. If it's on sale for 50% or more of its typical price, stock up big. My store only allows you to use three similar coupons per week and they will double/triple only the first one. Be aware of this because it will affect your final cost. Also keep an eye out for "catalinas" - those coupons they print off at the register. And watch for manufacturer's coupons attatched to some of the items you buy that can be redeemed that day at checkout.
A few examples from my recent grocery list: Pillsbury pie crusts are usually $3.09 at my store. Last week they were on sale for $2.49 each. Plus there was a special bonus advertised that if you got any four items from a specific Pillsbury list then you got an additional $4 off your grocery order bringing each pie crust down to $1.49 each. Then, attached to the pie crust boxes were different manufacturer's coupons for assorted Pillsbury products. I made sure to get the boxes that had pie crust coupons that were for $1 off 2 pie crusts. That brought each pie crust to $.99 each. Then at the register a catalina printed for $1 off my next grocery order. That means I basically got each box of pie crust for $.66 each. Pretty good and I can freeze the extras and pop them out each time I want to make a chicken pot pie to take to a new mommy!
Another example is Muir Glen oganic spaghetti sauce. It is normally $5.79 a jar. The past few weeks it has been on sale "2/$6.00". On the jars there were coupons for $1 off two Muir Glen products. That brings the final cost down to $2.50 a jar for organic sauce. I know you can buy other sauces for $1.00 but I really try to stay with organic and/or healthier options still avoiding hfcs, additive, preservatives and dyes (the above pie crust examply being a detour because pie crust is my cooking nemesis!).
I haven't paid more than $.20 for deodorant in years. I prefer Suave but will use any brand. The small size is $1.19. This week it was on sale for $.88 and I had a $.50 off coupon. That coupon was doubled meaning I got the product for free. Similarly I haven't paid for hand soap in years either. I save Dial and Softsoap coupons that are for $.50 off one item. When they go on sale a few times a year for 10/$10 I stock up and don't buy it the rest of the year.
There are tons and tons of websites that do a better job of explaining this than me. Here are helpful links where you can learn more:
How to organize your coupons:
How to Organize Coupons (Binder)
Places to find more inexpensive meals for your family:
A funny story about Erin's site ($5 Dinners): When I came up with the idea for Five Dollar Fridays I thought I was so creative! A week or two into this new concept (or so I thought) of mine, a friend emailed to tell me that there was a mom out there who had been doing this for a very long time...and doing it very well I might add. ;)
I hope this post encourages you to try out couponing. I love that I am stretching every penny we have to make the most of every cent God gives us. I choose to see it like a game and see how much I can save each week. It can be really fun and truly addictive.