The two biggest sources of coupons are the Sunday newspaper and the internet. I actually buy two papers every week to get twice the coupons. It's useful when there's a buy-one-get-one-free sale on something and your store allows you to use a coupon on each item. If you buy more than one paper a week, check to see if your paper sells a double edition. In Dallas, the Sunday paper is $3, but they have a double pack for $5. Also, some dollar stores carry the paper for $1. If you buy the paper and it doesn't have the coupons in it, don't be afraid to take it back. I always check for the coupons before I totally take apart the paper. Sometimes I'll even check in the store before I buy them to be sure.
The coupon inserts in the paper are printed by three different companies – Smartsource (SS), Redplum (RP), and P&G (PG). Bloggers usually refer to where a coupon was found by the insert company and the date; for example, SS 1/17. There won't be coupons in the paper every single week; typically holiday weekends get skipped. Look on my left sidebar for the coupon schedule for this year. The coupons in the paper are typically good for 2-3 months, so it will take you around that long to build up a "coupon base" and be able to match most of the coupons that long-time couponers have. There isn’t any catch-up time for internet coupons, though, since you can print them anytime.
Figure out what you buy most often and search for coupons for it. There is a link to printable internet coupons on my left sidebar as well, which is a good place to start. Another location to check is the manufacturer's webpage. Sometimes they have coupons online, or if you sign up for their newsletter you can get coupons. (I recommend setting up a junk email account for the newsletters and coupons that you need to register for. I check mine about once a week for emails with coupons.) Google is your friend when you're looking for a specific brand. I generally only print internet coupons when I know that I will use them since they take ink and paper. To get a general idea of what’s available, a few good places to browse are Smartsource and Coupons.com.
Most coupons that you get from the newspaper and the internet are manufacturer's coupons. That means that the manufacturer of the product will refund the store the amount of the coupon (plus a small handling fee). For most large chain stores, the coupons get sent to a central location where someone assembles and mails them to the address on the bottom of the coupon to be refunded. Knowing this helps me not feel bad if I buy something close to or at zero dollars; both the store and the manufacturer are still making money from the sale.
You'll notice in the small writing that coupons say "Limit one coupon per purchase" or "Limit one coupon per item purchased." This means you can use one coupon for each item you are purchasing; if you purchase two items, you can use two coupons. Per purchase is not the same as per transaction, i.e. you don't have to split up your purchases. You might have to teach cashiers the difference.
Some grocery stores will double or triple coupons. This means that they take off double or triple the amount stated on the coupon. Some stores state their coupon policy in their weekly ad or online; if you can’t find it there, just ask an employee in the store. That would mean if, for example, a box of oatmeal is on sale for $1.50 and you have a $0.50 coupon that doubles, you would only pay $0.50. If you had a $0.75 coupon that doubles, you would get it for free. In Texas, tax is calculated after coupons, so you wouldn't even pay tax - the item would be totally free. Some states calculate tax before coupons, so you'd just pay tax.
Some stores will only double or triple one of each like coupon. This means if you want two boxes of oatmeal and have two $0.50 coupons, if you buy everything at once, only one of the coupons would double to $1, and the other one would stay $0.50. (It's really dumb.) The only way to get both of them to double is to pay for them separately (separate transactions). I do this when I really want the items, but it's a pain, both for the consumer and the cashier. Some stores will double an unlimited number of like coupons. This means you could do the above scenario in one transaction and both would double automatically.
Some cashiers, and even managers, aren’t trained properly on the coupon policy for their store. I've had to deal with the “one coupon per purchase is not the same as per transaction” problem multiple times, along with some other strange reasons why a cashier didn’t want to take my coupon. I haven't had a ton of trouble, but you might run into some places that aren't trained or try to make your life difficult when you use coupons. I’ve learned from experience which locations to avoid. A store doesn’t have to take your coupon, so I try to be really nice and explain why I should be able to use my coupon. Worst case, they won't take it, and I don't buy that product. If there's another close location, I take my coupon there and see if they'll take it. There's a really hilarious thread on Slickdeals that has all kinds of stories on why cashiers have refused coupons. I spent a few days reading through it once and laughed out loud multiple times.
Some stores also have store coupons. Depending on the store, they may accept only one coupon of any kind per item, or they may accept one manufacturer's and one store coupon per item. Target, CVS, and Walgreens will take one of each coupon per item. Using a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon on one item is called "stacking." It can save you a lot of money! An example is a recent sale on Quaker oatmeal at Walgreens. With the in-ad (Walgreen's) coupon, the oatmeal is $1.50 each. Then you use a printable manufacturer's coupon for $1 off to get it for $0.50.
A few stores also do price matching, which every once in a while can get you a good deal. Target and Walmart both do price matching from any competitor's ad. For an example, a few months ago Chex Mix was on sale at Walgreens for $1.50. I brought the ad to Target because Target had an internet store coupon for $0.50 off Chex mix, and there was an internet manufacturer’s coupon for $1 off, so each bag was free.
Sometimes you'll have a coupon whose value is higher than the price of the item. Last week I bought a box of Puffs for $0.96 and I had a $1 coupon. Usually the register will beep when this happens. Sometimes the cashier will override it and give you the entire $1 off, but usually they will adjust the coupon down to the price of the item so that it takes off $0.96. They also might refuse to take the coupon, but I haven’t had that happen to me.
You can print up to 2 of most internet coupons. Most sites have you install a browser add-on in order to print coupons; some internet coupons are pdfs. Some stores will accept expired coupons (the reimbursement centers accept them up to 2 or 3 months past their date), but I haven't found any that do. It varies per store. I do my best to stick to the rules and follow what coupons say. People who bend the rules end up making it more difficult for the rest of us because stores begin to take fewer types of coupons. HEB, a local grocery store, won't take any internet coupons that “beep” at the register because they had too much coupon fraud.
Lastly, don't worry about couponing perfectly; there is no such thing. We all make mistakes, especially at the beginning, and get better with time. I still sometimes accidentally try to use an expired coupon, forget a coupon at home, lose one in the store, or something else that makes my trip not go perfectly. And that’s ok! Relax and enjoy your shopping trips. Couponing can be so much fun!
Next up in the series will be storing your coupons. Stay tuned!