How to Use Coupon: Putting together Coupon Scenarios

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(Image credit: Kelly Schykulski)

This month I’m taking you through the basics of couponing through a series of lessons. If you’re just joining me, you can get caught up by going through the posts already published at my How to Use Coupon page. As a reminder, my goal is to help you understand how to best use coupons in a smart, sensible way that will help your family save on the items they will actually use. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the couponing world over the past few years, so I’m keeping that very much in mind as I walk through this series with you.

What is a Coupon Scenario?

Like most hobbies, couponing has its own lingo. I like to call it Couponese, and I work hard to avoid using much of it on this site because I know I have a fair amount of new and on-the-fence coupon users following me. However, for today’s lesson, I’m going to explain what’s meant by a common Couponese term: “Coupon Scenario.”

While couponers may differ on how they use this term, here’s my definition:

A coupon scenario is planning on paper first how to best use your coupons on a given sale.

Remember that a couponer is aiming to reduce their grocery costs by combining coupons with sales. Doing a little math ahead of time can help couponers make decisions about how to best achieve that.

One misconception is that couponers spend a lot of time in stores. The truth is they’ve often carefully planned their shopping trips ahead of time! I actually found myself spending less time in the store once I started couponing because I had a plan.

Simple Coupon Scenarios

If you start following this blog, you’ll notice that I provide coupon scenarios all the time in my weekly coupon matchup posts. Once a week, we look at the ads for AlbertsonsQFC, Fred Meyer, and Safeway and refer to coupon databases and share how to use coupons on those deals. Many of these are simple, and straight forward.

Here’s an example of a deal from today’s QFC ad:

Karo Syrup $2.50
$0.40/1 coupon from 9/30 Red Plum
Bottom line: $2.10

Karo syrup is on sale this week for $2.50. There is a $0.40 off 1 coupon you could use, and it’s found in the Red Plum insert that was issued on 9/30. Should you use it on this particular deal, you’d pay $2.10 out of pocket. Pretty simple, right? If you have more than one coupon, you could do the deal a few times over. But other than that, this is a pretty easy coupon deal.

Now let’s take an example that requires just a little bit more thought:

Suppose you had the two above coupons. The first is a store coupon and it reads “Ricola Cough Drops $0.99 limit 3.” This means you can buy up to 3 bags with this coupon and get them for $0.99 each. You also have a manufacturer’s coupon clipped from the Sunday paper. It reads “$1 off when you buy 2 Ricola Cough Drops.” The manufacturer’s coupon is non-negotiable. You MUST buy 2 bags to save $1. What you also know is that Walgreens will permit you to use both a store coupon and a manufacturer coupon.

Consider a moment the following four ways you could go about this deal:

Option 1: Buy only 1 bag
Use the in-ad $0.99 coupon
You pay: $0.99 for 1

Option 2: Buy 2 bags
Use the in-ad $0.99 coupon
AND the $1/2 manufacturer’s coupon
You pay: $0.98 for 2 ($0.49/each)

Option 3: Buy 3 bags
Use the in-ad $0.99 coupon
AND the $1/2 manufacturer’s coupon
You pay: $1.97 for 3 ($0.67/each)

Option 4: Buy 4 bags
Use the in-ad $0.99 coupon to save on 3
And pay one at full price of $1.69
Use (2) $1/2 manufacturer’s coupons
You pay: $2.66 for 4 ($0.67/each)

Which one is the best deal? If you’re looking solely at price, Option 2 is your best bet. However, there are times when one of the options might make better sense for your particular needs.

Coupon Scenarios on more Complicated Sales

Have you ever seen those “Mix and Match” sales at stores and wondered what those were about? The specifics of the sale may vary, but they basically function the same. The first thing you should always do is make sure to read the requirements of the sale. Here are a few examples:

“Save $5 instantly when you buy 10 participating products.” What it means: $5 will come off at checkout when you buy any combination of 10 participating products.
“Save $5 on your next shopping trip when you buy 5 participating products.” What it means: after you checkout the transaction with 5 participating products, you will receive a $5 coupon you can then redeem on your next grocery purchase.
“Buy 5 participating items and save $2 now and $3 later.” What it means: you’ll save $2 at checkout when you buy 5 participating items and you’ll ALSO receive a $3 coupon you can redeem on your next grocery purchase.
“10 for $10.” WARNING: this is not necessarily a mix & match sale, but a marketing ploy to get you to buy 10 items! Unless the fine print specifically states, “MUST buy 10,” you can buy any quantity you wish for $1 each.

Before you plan your coupon scenario, make sure you know how many items you need to buy and what you should expect at checkout.

Let’s look at a real life Mix & Match sale happening this week at QFC. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to list only 5 of the products (you can see the rest at my list). This particular sale reads “Receive a $5 coupon good on your next purchase when you buy 5 participating items.” This means you will receive a $5 coupon at checkout if you purchase any 5 items. Here are just 5 of the participating items (you can see the rest at my list):

Hamburger Helper $1.50
$0.75/3 printable coupon (direct link=Coupons.com)
$0.75/3 coupon from 10/7 GM
$0.75/3 coupon from 9/9 SmartSource
Bottom line: $0.25 each after catalina

Betty Crocker Mac & Cheese or Boxed Potatoes $1.00
$0.50/2 Betty Crocker Potatoes printable coupon (direct link=Coupons.com)
$0.50/2 Betty Crocker Potatoes coupon from 10/7 GM
Bottom line: as low as ($0.50) after catalina

Chex Mix or Bugles $2.00
$0.50/1 Chex Mix printable coupon
$0.50/2 Chex Mix coupon from 9/23 SmartSource
$0.50/2 Chex Mix coupon from 9/9 SmartSource
$1/2 Bugles or Chex Mix coupon from 9/23 SmartSource
Bottom line: as low as $0.50 after catalina

Old El Paso Taco Shells or Tortillas, 10-12 ct
or Enchilada Sauce, 10 oz $1.25
$0.60/3 coupon from 9/9 SmartSource
Bottom line: $0.05 after catalina

Betty Crocker Fruit Snacks or Treats $2.00
$0.50/2 coupon from 10/7 GM
Bottom line: $1.25 after catalina

Now suppose on the list above your family doesn’t eat Hamburger Helper, fine, bypass that one. But imagine you’re in charge of your kid’s soccer team snacks this week so the Chex Mix is looking good to you. Maybe you’re also thinking you could incorporate the Old El Paso items into your meal plan this week. (See how I’m thinking here – plan how you do the deals based on what you will actually use, NOT just on price alone!)

Given that, here is one scenario you could do:

Buy (2) Chex Mix $2 each
Buy (3) Old El Paso $1.25 each
Subtotal: $8.50
Next, use the following coupons which you have in your stash:
(2) $0.50/1 Chex Mix printable coupons
(1) $0.60/3 Old El Paso coupon
Your total at checkout: $6.90
You will then receive a $5 coupon back!
That’s like paying just $1.90 for all 5 items above.

What would you do with the $5 coupon you received? If you were me, you’d probably go back and get the remaining ingredients for your dinner that week, with a focus on items that are difficult to find coupons for such as produce.

Have a Plan B!

One thing that is worth stressing when doing a more complicated Mix & Match type of coupon scenario is that you should have a Plan B! Suppose you get to the store and you find only one bag of Chex Mix left, and you’d planned to buy 2. Sure, you can get a raincheck, but that doesn’t help you in that moment, does it?

Your Plan B can be different things. At times, I’ve told myself, if I can’t get item X, I’ll get item Y. Other times I’ve been so bent on wanting to get ONLY the items I’ve planned for that if I’ve found a bare shelf, I’ve decided to not do the deal at all. If you run into this sort of situation, feel free to ask your store when they plan to restock. If you have a particularly good relationship with your store, they *might* help you with a substitution. Always be prepared.

Is this Worth It?

The simplest coupon scenarios won’t eat much into your time. In fact, they should help structure your time in the store better and maybe even help you stay on top of your meal planning.

The more complicated coupon scenarios I will sometimes do if I feel the end result (the items I will get and the money spent) will be worth my time and effort. Let me make this clear: I am NOT out doing these complicated mix & match type trips on a weekly basis! And sometimes, not on a monthly basis! Some people love putting together elaborate coupon scenarios (drugstores are a perfect place to create these!) because they truly enjoy the challenge. That’s great; but that’s not me.

About a year ago I was standing in a Rite Aid, trying to work out the finer details of a cosmetics deal in the store (I had started the scenario at home, but soon realized I’d have to go there to finalize costs and coupons). I had my small daughter in tow, coupon binder in the cart, and calculator in hand. I was having a hard time making heads or tails of it and I ended up goofing the deal in checkout. So back to the cosmetics section I went. After checkout a second time and going home, I realized I still hadn’t done the deal the “best” way. Honestly, this is one of those situations where getting the “best” deal may not be worth my “best” time.

I’d prefer to not leave you on that dismal of a note, so let me share a trip when a little bit of planning and effort WAS worth my time. This trip was a couple years ago:

Total shelf value: $158.78
Sales saved me: $107.27
Coupons saved me: $21.80
Total Out of Pocket: $29.71 – 81% saved!!

I’d love to know what questions or comments you have on this topic. If you’ve been couponing awhile, has your thinking evolved on which sales you do? If you’re new, do you feel you have more information now to know how to use coupons?

5 thoughts on “How to Use Coupon: Putting together Coupon Scenarios”

  1. I’m one of those people who LOVE calculating out the complicated deals. Actually going to the store and completing the sale is another story; so much depends on the store’s stock and having a patient checker. I remember one time last year I was working on a Walgreens scenario in the vanpool on the way home from work. In the end it was going to take 10 transactions to complete (it was one of those weeks when there was free contact solution, crayola products and goodie hair products after Register rewards as well as a few other deals I wanted). I did go to the store and complete my plan but had a VERY patient checker and I would let her clear the line between my transactions. I haven’t tried any Walgreens deals since they changed to the new reward system, but I imagine this would greatly change many of these scenarios.

    • I can definitely see why for some people it would be fun! It’s also possible I’m approaching this as someone that’s soooo entrenched in coupons (running this blog means living in coupon world) that there are times I just want simple, simple, simple. 😉

      That 10 transaction scenario you just described? Bravo! I’d probably only attempt that after popping some aspirin! 😉

  2. I’m totally new and yes, you always have great ideas. I’ve just started couponing more in the past couple of months so I’m a total newbie. I have had to learn to just walk away and not get upset if the shelves are cleared, etc. lol

    Also for me, when I clarified what my goal was by using coupons, it helped me focus on the things that my family needs and wants and still meet a budget. I’m not stockpiling for months on end but just enough to hit the store cycles on items that my family won’t change, i.e. toliet paper.

    Recently, I was able to find Cottonelle 24 packs for as low as 4.99 or 4.88 instead of the 7.99 it usually is at the store. Then I tacked on a coupon for 1.55 and wham… super cheap toliet paper! I bought the max. 🙂 It’s the small changes that will help the budget.

    • I LOVE your comment and I think you’re being smart about this! Sometimes new couponers will get into it gung-ho and then crash and burn. You’re not likely to do that because you’re just focusing on the things that matter to your family.

      Nice score on the TP, BTW! I always love a good TP sale! 🙂

  3. I used to check the blogs for the store that had the lowest price but I found that when I made special trips across town the shelves were empty and I would leave the store empty handed. I just don’t have the time to chase deals like I used to. So now I only check the stores that I shop at regularly or can swing by after I drop my son off at school so I’m not wasting gas

    The other thing I think is important is knowing what the best regular price is for an item. With a store like Safeway or QFC they might do a 10 for 10 sale on an item that is normally only a $1 at Winco.

    Doing math in the store to make sure it is a good deal is important too. Once I was trying to do a deal for single bottles of a beverage and found that I could use the coupon for the six pack and it came out as a better deal (it was couple years ago so I don’t remember the exact product I remember the sarcastic comment another customer made as I stood there with my calculator.)

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