How to Use Coupons: understanding how they work

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For the month of October, I’m revisiting how to get started using coupons. Since I started this journey several years ago, I’ve watched lots of changes in the couponing world. I’ve found myself change my opinion on certain topics, shift some of the deals I share here, and adjust my own shopping. Therefore, I wanted to put out a new series of “lessons” that provide realistic expectations and instruction of what you can achieve by using coupons.

In case you missed them, you can go back and read the prior posts:

  • Introduction
  • Your New Approach to Grocery Shopping
  • Stockpiling & Food Inventory
  • Understanding Store Sales Cycles

After several posts of lead up, yes, today I’d like to dive in and talk about how coupons work and how you can use them correctly.

Store and Manufacturer’s Coupons

First, it’s important to draw a distinction between store coupons and manufacturer’s coupons.

  1. Store coupons are issued from the store and can be only used at that store. The store is giving you the discount.
  2. Manufacturer’s coupons are issued from the manufacturer and can be used at any store that accepts them. The manufacturer is giving you the discount, and agrees to reimburse the store for giving you the discount.

Understanding Store Coupons

What store coupons look like

Above are images of store coupons. Store coupons usually have the logo and/or store name plainly printed on them and may also say “store coupon.” It should be very clear the coupon is intended for use at a particular store. You can generally find these in the weekly circular or in-stores, and on occasion, store websites or Facebook pages. Other times, you might find store coupons in the newspaper inserts. For instance, Target often releases store coupons in the Sunday paper.

A few important things to note about store coupons:

  • Store coupons can only be used at the store they are intended for. (With few exceptions as some stores *may* accept competitor’s coupons. Joann Fabric and Lowe’s immediately come to mind.)
  • Store coupons often have a short window of time to use them. The “good through” dates often coincide with weekly store ad cycles.
  • Store coupons sometimes will let you buy more than one item. For instance, the above Walgreens candy coupon reads “limit 6.” This means I can buy up to 6 candy bars and get them at the $0.49 price with this single coupon.
  • Most stores allow you to stack a store coupon with a manufacturer’s coupon. (Hang onto that thought a minute – I’ll explain that further!)

One comment I often hear is this: “but there are no coupons for things I need!” One of my replies is this: “try store coupons!” A perfect example is Fred Meyer. They’ve put out store coupons for potatoes, peanut butter, milk, canned beans, and meat before! For that reason, I do recommend getting on the mailing and email lists of stores you are apt to shop at. You can sometimes get coupons sent in the mail from the store you would not get otherwise.

Locating Manufacturer Coupons

What manufacturer coupons look like

Above are just a few examples of manufacturer coupons. Most coupons you will find in your Sunday newspaper or online are going to be manufacturer’s coupons. Manufacturer’s coupons usually state “manufacturer’s coupon” right on them. If there’s any doubt, look at the fine print. A true manufacturer’s coupon should have a note to the consumer on how to redeem the coupon (that’s you!) and a note to the retailer on where to submit for reimbursement (that’s for the store you end up using the coupon at).

The most common source for manufacturer’s coupons is the Sunday newspaper. You’ll find them in inserts that look like these:

Where do I get coupons?

There are three main inserts you’ll find: SmartSource, Red Plum (sometimes referred to as Valassis), and Procter & Gamble (also referred to simply as P&G). On any given week, the combination and amounts of the inserts will vary. Some weeks you might find a single SmartSource, other weeks you might find all three. Other weeks still you might find two SmartSource and two Red Plum inserts. One thing I can say with certainty: the first of the month tends to have better coupons and holiday weekends often have no inserts.

Other reliable sources of manufacturer coupons include:

  • Trusted coupon printing sites:,,
  • Manufacturer websites and more often, Facebook pages
  • In-stores on specially marked displays as tearpad coupons or “blinkie” coupons
  • In magazines (family & women’s lifestyle type magazines are good bets)
A few important things to note about manufacturer’s coupons:
  • There are many sources of manufacturer’s coupons.
  • Manufacturer’s coupons may be used at any store that will accept them (which includes most grocery, drug, and nationally-based chain stores).
  • Stores accept manufacturer’s coupons as a form of payment at checkout as they will be reimbursed from the manufacturer.
  • Manufacturers put out coupons to entice you to buy their product.

Remember, you can use manufacturer’s coupons at any store that will accept them! This means that you can decide where to redeem them for the best value. I’ll speak on leveraging your coupons in tomorrow’s post.

A Word About E-Coupons

One thing we are seeing more and more is stores going to electronic methods of couponing. Safeway, Fred Meyer, QFC, Albertsons, and Target all offer some form of coupon program where you can load coupons to your phone or loyalty card. To access these coupons, visit the store’s website and look for the coupon center. Register your card or phone, view the offers, and “add” them. These discounts will come off at the point of sale when you buy the correct items and use your card or phone at checkout.

What are ecoupons?

These coupons may be store coupons or manufacturer coupons. Even if they are manufacturer coupons, in many cases you’ll only be able to use them at the particular store your loyalty card is associated with.

Using Coupons Correctly and Confidently

Is there a learning curve to couponing? I think there definitely is a learning curve to finding the way of using coupons and sales that makes sense for your family, but understanding the basic mechanics shouldn’t be a huge time investment.

In fact, I recall distinctly the first week I learned to use coupons. I probably spent a couple hours or so just getting my head around everything and then planning my list, but I was able to save over 50% on my first couponing shopping trip! I have found that many new coupon users are able to experience a similar experience very, very quickly in.

So what do you need to know to get started? Here are the basic ground rules, taking into account new rules and recent changes:

  1. Always read the fine print of every coupon! In most scenarios, you are able to use one manufacturer’s coupon per item purchased. This means that if you have four coupons that read “save $1 on 1 cheese” you should be able to buy four cheeses and use all four coupons. However, I’m noticing more coupons that now have fine print that states things such as “limit 4 like coupons in a transaction,” “limit 1 per shopping trip,” and even on occasion, “limit 1 per customer.” Make sure you’ve taken the time to read through the fine print to ensure you’ll be able to have a smooth checkout.
  2. Always buy the correct items specified on the coupon! If the coupon is for Life cereal, no, you cannot make a substitution for Quaker Oat Squares. If it says it’s for the 11 oz can of tomatoes, no, you cannot buy the 8 oz can. On the flip side, pay attention to a coupon that states it can be used on ANY of a given product. For instance, if I have a coupon that reads, “Good on ANY of our yeast products,” I’m apt to find the least expensive version of the product possible!
  3. Never use copied, altered, or expired coupons! This should go without saying, but please, don’t ever photocopy a printable coupon 20 times and then try to redeem it at your store. That’s no good. Don’t try to pass a coupon in November that expired in August. I have sometimes heard from readers that have done things improperly simply because they were given misinformation. Please, if you have a question on any of these topics or any kind of “is this OK” scenario, feel free to leave a comment here or email me at angela @ thecouponproject dot com. The truth is coupon fraud (intentional or not) hurts everyone.
  4. Get to know your store’s coupon policy! Most stores have a coupon policy available on their website. I’ve compiled some local ones on my Store Coupon Policy page. Each store will vary on how they handle coupons, so I cannot emphasize this enough! Knowing the ground rules of couponing at each store means you’ll be aware of all the possible ways you can legitimately save there as well as avoid snafus at checkout.
  5. Use only one manufacturer’s coupon per purchase! Suppose you found a great frosting coupon in the paper. And then you later found one online. And then you got a third one in your mail. Score, right? WRONG! There is a limit of one manufacturer’s coupon per item, so choose which one you want to use.
YES! You can do this!

That’d be a NO, Charlie! You CAN’T do that!

Stacking Coupons

I’d like to go over a final concept with you for today’s post: stacking coupons. While I’ve just explained that you cannot use multiple manufacturer’s coupons for the purchase of a single item, you can in most cases stack a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon. To be sure, refer to your store’s coupon policy.

Here is an example of how this would work:

How to Stack Coupons

Here is how I would write the above deal on a post:

Ricola Cough Drops
$0.99 each with in-ad coupon (hint: that’s the store coupon!)
Stack with $1/2 coupon from the __________ insert (hint: that’s the manufacturer’s coupon)
Bottom line: $0.49 each when you buy 2 with stacked coupons (the manufacturer’s coupon requires you buy 2)

Make sense? 

I am sometimes asked how e-coupons fit into this equation. This is why it’s important you understand if the e-coupon is a store or manufacturer savings. If it’s a store coupon, you could stack a paper manufacturer’s coupon, and vice versa. If you’re not sure if the e-coupon is a store one or not, look at the specifics: is it for the store’s brand? Does it say “limit 3” (which would suggest a store coupon)? Does it give a general discount that would make you think it’s a store coupon (like “Save $3 on $15 worth of produce)?

This is very abbreviated instruction on this topic, so if you’d like more information, please read my post How to Stack Coupons (and how not to).

Getting Started

I know your head is likely swimming with information now. Have I overwhelmed you? If so, here’s my tip for today, particularly if you’re new. Pick ONE store, preferably the one you do most of your shopping at any way, and read and re-read their coupon policy. Try adding in a couple coupon deals to your normal shopping trip and gain confidence!

What other questions do you have about the basic mechanics of coupons? If you’ve been at this while, what other changes would you note to how to use coupons? Other great sources for finding legitimate coupons you’d add?

24 thoughts on “How to Use Coupons: understanding how they work”

  1. I work at Fred Meyer and one of the biggest problems we have is that some of our products have coupons hanging next to them that are manufacture coupons redeemable at Fred Meyer. Some customers think these are Fred Meyer coupons and therefore they can stack them with another manufacture coupon. But if it says manufacture coupon on it then it cannot be stacked with another manufacture coupon. Also FM has a limit of 5 like coupons per transaction and also a limit of 2 coupons per manufacture for internet printed coupons. They also will not take a coupon for a totally free item that is internet printed. They also will not take any internet printed coupons with a value higher then $5. As a cashier it is good to know what legit coupons look like. There are many things we look for on internet coupons like the dots in the expiration box, the picture of the product on the left side, the logo under the amount of the coupon and the serial number of the coupon. So people should not get mad at their cashier if they say they will not take a coupon. I had one a few days ago that didnt have the dots in the date, didnt have a picture or the logo thing under the price and I told the lady that I could not take it and she said it printed that way. Well I know as a consumer how these coupons are suppose to look and I have never had a coupon print like that.

  2. I’m pretty new to this extreme couponing business. I just have to say that your blog posts have been so helpful! Thanks so much for taking the time to explain everthing so clearly and for organizing the posts so that they are easy to follow. Just wanted you to know that your efforts are appreciated!

  3. Angela: Thank you so much for your post. I just finished reading it and taking notes. I have tried to coupon before and the savings was very little to say the least. I know have a new found passion for couponing. I can’t wait to get started and to start creating my stockpile. I did download some of your forms to use as that is what my new years resolution this year will be. I hope to save 50% on my grocery bills starting out as we have cut our grocery budget to $125 for our family of 4.

  4. I am still confused!!! Need to explain as if I was 5 yrs. old. I have a family of 7 and need help in saving and getting free items PLEASE!!!!

  5. Hi I started couponing I went to Walmart and saved a lot of money, I had to at 6.94 for everything I bought but when I added it up at home it added up to 21 and change, I’m not sure where I went wrong in my calculations but I think it may have been taxes?? Please help me understand if you can. Thank you -Margaret

  6. Hi im new to coupons, and would like to understand how to use them better. I already have a stock of coupons. Pliz help.. Thank u !!

  7. Hi im new to this world of couponing, and desperately need to understand how to use them. Im a stay home mom and will probably b for a while since I just had a baby and have toddler and a 5yr to attend to. So my husband is the only one bringing in the green paper at this time and is currently working 3 jobs now. I want to help him in some sort of way so I figured couponing is a good way to help. Ive started collecting some coupons but im confused by the Limit of 4 coupon per household per day. Does that mean i can only use 1 coupon for my entire transaction? Like not being able to use other coupons for same transaction? Also the limit one coupon per purchase? Does this mean i cant stack coupons? Please help!

  8. Hi,
    I’m still confused about how to use them. Im stay home mom family of 6 and would really like to help out my husband. Please help

  9. I use manufacturers coupon it say one coupon per purchase if I have five coupon can I use them all on the same thing I have a coupon for a 1.00 when u but teo gold peak tea what do I do

  10. Hi I want to know do we have coupons in south africa and when are they out so we can used them ? And tips as well to used them. Thank you

  11. I have some coupons that say $.98 each limit 8 save up to $1.25
    SO lets say I buy 8 would I save up to 1.25 each ($10) or would I save $1.25

    recently started couponing would love to have some clarity on this. Thanks A TON in advance!!

  12. Just a general question. When using the manufacturer’s coupon, should the coupon be used after the retail and sales tax are applied or should the coupon be applied first to the retail price and then the sales tax applied to the discounted price. There first method results in a slightly higher amount. Though small, when applied to all sales, it does add up.

  13. If a coupon states it is a Manufacturers Coupon on the top with an expiration date and the logo of a store is at the bottom of the coupon but does not state “good for use at ….” or “only at” can the coupon be used at any store?

  14. Yes, this descriptive coupon guide is pretty much obvious and common with daily couponers whether online and on store with some good facts. I have a question: how to track a company is providing a single coupon multiple time in an year; for instance: kohls offers 30% in 3-4 times an year… guide me to solve this issue.

    • Hmmm… I really don’t know. Unfortunately, that’s out of the scope of what I talk about here. This is a US-based blog. Good luck!

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