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frugal & healthful grocery shopping…without coupons

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Over the past year, I tried couponing. I occasionally watched that TLC show “Extreme Couponing,” and I followed the coupon gurus Coupon Mom and Krazy Coupon Lady (even though I make it a point to keep my distance from people who spell crazy with a capital “K”). I dutifully kept my coupons organized in an accordion binder and bought a Sunday newspaper every week, telling myself I must be saving more than the $14 cost of the monthly subscription. Today, rather than sharing a step-by-step guide for how you too can become a couponer, I’m here to tell you why I stopped.
First I’ll share why I started couponing. I felt, and still feel, that it’s part of my tasks while staying at home with the girls to keep our grocery spending under control. Clipping coupons seemed like a logical choice, despite the activity holding no joy and considerable pride-eating on my part.I gagged as I flipped through ads for the most odd and unnecessary products I didn’t know still existed, like ceramic figurines of Elvis, Bacos, and Cookie Crisp cereal. I bored holes through cashiers’ heads as they told me (incorrectly) that my coupon couldn’t be used because of X-Y-Z reasons. You might say I became something of a cashier trainer. I grew to adore self-check-out lines.I pressed on. In the beginning, it was easy to grow excited when I would see my savings tallied on the receipt. Then, ever the conscientious researcher, I began scrutinizing my purchases. Over time, I noticed that though the coupons did save me some money, it often wasn’t that much more than I would have saved buying generic brands when they are on sale. Most of my coupons were bunched in a few of the accordion files, namely breakfast cereals and yogurt, toiletries, medicine, and a few cleaning products.While I am not one of those who normally falls victim to advertising of fake food products, I did notice our intake of junk food like Triscuits and Cheez-Its went up. However, I will debunk the myth that organic and natural products do not have coupons, as I routinely clipped coupons for Earth’s Best baby food, Stonyfield milk, and Tom’s of Maine deodorant and toothpaste.I decided a few months back that while the scales may tip slightly in favor of coupons financially, the joy I take in my daily life is precious and worth more than pennies saved. Cheerios are easy to buy in generic form, and we stopped eating other cereals because of the high cost and little nutritional value when compared to oatmeal. I also save more money buying a big tub of plain yogurt that I flavor myself (healthier too) than I ever did on those individual cups. I’m even considering cutting down on expensive toiletries and household cleaning products and switching to some homesteading classics like baking soda and vinegar. Interested in making your own cleaning products? Check out Frugally Sustainable’s how-to e-book guide (full disclosure: I make a percent of the profits by selling Andrea’s book on my site. But it’s great and only costs $4.95!).

Please understand I’m not knocking coupons or couponers; it simply wasn’t for me. Yesterday I stumbled upon a post by The Prairie Homesteader outlining some similar and some different reasons for her choice not to coupon. My journey wasn’t a complete waste of time. I’ve learned some great ideas. From the master-couponers, I gained the following wonderful tips:

1. Grocery stores sales happen cyclically, depending on what foods are popular that they need to move quickly off the shelves. If you buy in bulk, which I still do and wholeheartedly recommend, you can save a bunch by only buying products when they are on sale. Read more here

2.  Drugstore sales often match up with that week’s newspaper coupons, so sometimes more than one store has an item on sale. I look at this site for good sales before leaving the house.

3. Catalina coupons are the ones that print for free at the register. I still use these and the ones in the big free coupon book at the front of Walgreen’s.

4. Never ever buy diapers that are not on sale.Never! When I was a worker bee, I didn’t have time to shop so exclusively bought diapers online and thought I was saving money. It turns out I wasn’t. Most stores allow you to use both a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon (MFG), and there are often MFG coupons on the side of diaper boxes. Follow #2 and 3 above to see what store has diaper sales and bring Walgreen’s/box coupons.

5. Yesterday a friend posted on the blog with a great tip for a free online resource. Even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can check out Amazon’s Kindle on your computer for free! After downloading the app here, you can then download the e-book The Cheapskate’s Guide to Grocery Savings – How to Save a Bundle at Supermarkets. Some things I already knew, but it has some great tips I’ve never heard, like that you can potentially save money by shopping at butcher shops and seafood markets.

I will add one final tip that I didn’t learn from couponers but falls into the category of lowering your grocery spending. Eat seasonally, even locally if you can. Don’t assume your local farmer’s market is more expensive than a grocery store. I save money by shopping at a local farm with an indoor market and buy almost only winter fare such as cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. While we do occasionally splurge on cuties or grapes, most of our fruit is in can, frozen or jar form, the frozen being berries and homemade applesauce I stocked away this summer and fall.

Do you coupon? How do you save money on grocery and drugstore spending?

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of Pennywise Platter, Fight Back Friday, Frugal Friday, Monday Mania, the Patchwork Living Blogging Bee, and the Living Well Blog Hop.  It was written as Day #1 of the 23-Day Frugal Living Challenge

Update (1-9-12): Frugally Sustainable wrote an excellent post also describing ways to save on your grocery budget