Using a coupon at the opportune moment is key to saving big on groceries. If I have a $1 coupon for toothpaste, I don't want to use it when the toothpaste is selling for its full $2.99 price. I'll hold onto it until the price dips to $1. A dollar coupon matched to a dollar sale makes the toothpaste the best price of all: free!
But when you're new to couponing, how do you know what the best prices are? Is this week's sale on cereal a good time to use a coupon for that product, or should I wait for an even deeper discount in the future?
Modern coupon shoppers have many tools that help them plot the best time to buy. But before the advent of online coupon assistance, traditional couponers tracked store sales by creating a price book.
A price book is exactly that: a book of prices on the items you buy most, week by week, noting the highs and lows. In time, a cycle of pricing, low to high, will emerge for every product.
It's a lot of work to maintain a price book. To begin, write "Week One" on the first page of a notebook, take it to your local store and walk around with it, writing down the prices of everything you plan to buy on this trip and any trip in the next three months. Make note of the brand, size and price of a product, such as "Raisin Bran, 14 ounces, $1.99."
Next week, turn the page and copy the same list of products. Note the changes in sale prices from the previous week - "Raisin Bran, 14 ounces, $2.49." Most supermarkets operate on a 12-week cycle, during which time prices on all products in the store will hit both a high and low. After maintaining the book for three months, go back and create a master page, such as "Raisin Bran, 14 ounces - High: $3.79, Low: $1.69."
Now that you've got a physical guide, you can use it to recognize when the price of an item falls into the buy now range. Each cycle may vary, but you will develop a sense of the lowest price for the items you most frequently buy. Then you can match your coupons to those low-priced sales, and reduce the prices even more.
But that's a lot of work! Most of us don't have the time or patience to maintain a price book. The good news? We don't have to. There are many websites that track sales cycles, match coupons for items you want and show the total percent of savings. When you see a savings of 50 percent or more on an item, it's time to buy! These match-up sites also tell you exactly which coupon to use to cut the price even more and where it may be found, either by showing the week the coupon ran in the newspaper insert or by providing a link to an online coupon.
Here are some popular grocery list match-up sites:
This site has match-up lists for major supermarkets, drugstores and general merchandise stores around the country. It even assigns you an "angel," or mentor, who can help you use the site.
Free match-up lists for stores in all 50 states, using coupons from newspapers or the Internet.
• Other match-up sites include grocerygame.com, grocerysmarts.com and groceryguide.com.
Knowing the best week to buy doesn't get much easier than this! If you can save half or more when purchasing an item you need, it's the right time to buy. These sites are match coupons to sales for you, saving time. Simply click the items you wish to buy this week and print a shopping list. Gather the appropriate coupons that the list calls for, and head to the store!
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Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her website, www.jillcataldo.com. Email your couponing victories and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.