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Secrets of Couponers

Secrets of a Coupon Queen: How to Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

Couponing can seem overwhelming, but it's so rewarding. LearnVest shares the inside scoop from an avid couponer.

We've always been intrigued by the idea of couponing.

Extreme Couponers make it look rewarding and fun. We had a mom try it who reported back that it was time-consuming. But we wanted to ask someone who actually knows how to do couponing right.

So we found an expert who spends just a couple hours a week couponing, and saves anywhere from 50 to 70 percent off her groceries. Oh, and did we mention this expert is only 20 years old?

Related: How to Combine Coupons (and Save Big!)

Brandi LaBarre is a student at University of Maryland who runs the blog Savvy Student Shopper, where she shares her saving insights and coupons with families and other money savers like her. Best of all, she's not a crazy couponer — just a girl on a tight budget!

Read on for more.

According to a nationwide survey by LearnVest and Chase Blueprint, 41 percent of women rank groceries among their top three expenditures — only rent and utilities rank higher. That's why it's so important to maximize your food dollars, and couponing is a time-honored strategy for doing just that.

The way we coupon, though, has been evolving. So we grilled this young savant on the ins and outs of savings, so we could share her expertise with you:

LV: How long have you been couponing?
Brandi: Since I was a little girl I've been cutting coupons and sorting them to help my mother. It wasn't until three years ago, though, that I started getting really serious about it. Now I'm a better couponer than my mom.

Who are you grocery shopping for?
I shop for two households. I live in an off-campus apartment with three boys, one of them my boyfriend. But the couponing happens when I go home almost every weekend to my parents' house, which is 45 minutes away from school. I'll do grocery shopping for my family of four, including me, my parents, and my younger sister, plus a dog and two cats! I take my portion back to school with me.

You do the grocery shopping now, instead of your mom?
We work together. If Safeway has a deal, I'll email her and I know she'll be able to get it that week. But she always comes to me, because I know a little more, especially about Internet deals. If I can't make it home that weekend, I'll send her everything and she can do the shopping.

So how much do you spend on groceries?
My family of four spends an average of $75 a week on groceries and household products. This number ranges depending on the sales, who does the shopping (me or my mom), how busy we are that week, how many shopping trips we make, and upcoming holidays or parties. We have a flexible grocery budget because sales and coupons always determine our shopping list.

How much do you save?
I always strive to save 50 percent on the grocery budget. Again, sometimes it's more, sometimes it's less. When buying a lot of meat and produce, our percentage is lower. We usually spend less than $5 a week on household goods and health and beauty products. They are the easiest to save on — I can get them free or very cheap with coupons (CVS is awesome!). When I have a well-rounded shopping trip (meats, produce, health and beauty, cleaning, and pet food all included), saving 60 percent or more is a really good trip.

We've seen other extreme couponers save a lot more.
Obviously, you can save more, but you don't always need to. Sometimes you can get a whole bunch of toothbrushes for free, and that will bring your savings up. But that doesn't necessarily mean you had a well-rounded trip, because you just bought a bunch of toothbrushes.

Don't worry about how much you are "saving," because in the end what you're spending is what is coming out of your pocket. Just get what you need and get it at the lowest price possible.

Couponers can be a little hoard-ish. Do you ever buy more than you need?
If there's a really good sale, and we're getting cereal for $.30 cents a box, I'm going to buy more for my family, or my grandparents. My grandparents love coming by to get their goodie bags! We do stockpile in the basement. It's almost like a food savings account. If we have a rough week, we don't have to worry because we have chicken in the freezer, and cereal downstairs.

Every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas we give away stuff, and not even just food — beauty products, too. We'll go through our stock and slim down and give it to people who need it.

Do you think couponing has gotten easier with the Internet?
It's so easy to coupon now, I feel like people don't have an excuse not to anymore. You can plan a money-saving shopping trip in an hour. A couple hours a week can save you so much money.

So, let's get to where you get your deals. How do you find coupons?
I find my coupons from the local newspaper (I get two delivered every weekend, plus a free local one), from friends and family (sometimes they'll save them for me!); websites like Coupons.com, RedPlum.com, and CouponNetwork.com; and brand Facebook pages (like Ocean Spray, for instance). I wouldn't recommend straying from the major coupon sites and the companies' websites and Facebook pages, because you can end up printing bogus coupons.

OK, break down how you do a good shopping trip for us.
First, I'll stop into Safeway (they've got great deals and it's near me) and I'll pick up a coupon book. Even though the deals are online, I like to sit down on the floor and circle things that I like.

Once I'm done searching online and in circulars, I gather my coupons and make sure I have the right amount. For example, if I want to buy four boxes of cereal, I need four coupons, and I make sure to write down that I can only buy four boxes on my grocery list. Then I clip them together and put them in a reusable bag so it's ready to grab on my way to the grocery store.

Once at the store, I stick to my list. When you're on a budget, you can't afford to buy stuff you didn't plan for.

At the register, I hand over my coupons individually, because I'm afraid they'll miss or lose some. Coupons are your money; if they drop a coupon, that's like dropping a dollar on the ground.

Finally, after I pay, I check to make sure the receipt is right and the amount is what I expected. If it seems wrong, I'll figure out why. Then I'll go to customer service and try to get my money back. (They are not nice about it, but oh well.)

How long does a shopping trip take?
A shopping trip for a couponer always takes longer than for the average person. When you first start couponing, you don't realize how time-consuming it is to shop with coupons. I would put it at 45 minutes for myself, but for a beginner, if it's a big trip, expect to be there an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

Do you think anyone can coupon?
No. You definitely have to be a certain kind of person. I encourage everyone to try it, but . . . you have to have patience. It takes a long time to plan everything. You might only save $20 the first time, but if you keep going, you'll save more and more. And that $20, $30, $40, you realize it starts adding up. But it's not an instant gratification thing. And you have to be willing to stick to your budget. I've seen people walk into a store and just grab this and that. How can you pay $4 for a box of cereal? I just don't get it.

Check out more from LearnVest:

How I Saved My Family $600 a Month on Groceries

The Insane World of "Extreme Couponing"

Extreme Couponing Makes Saving Money an Obsession

5 Coupon Apps to Save You Time and Money

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