15 Secrets You Need to Know to Avoid Going Broke at the Grocery Store

It’s a nice sentiment: clipping a few pieces of paper and saving big on key staples during your next shopping outing. Who wouldn’t fall in love with the idea of paying very little for a lot of stuff? But as many couponing reality shows suggest, only the most dedicated prevail when it comes to extreme couponing.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a member of some secret club to gain access to the best kept couponing secrets. We can all be extreme couponers in our own right just by adhering to a few key principles. So how can you cut back on your spending and still keep your sanity in check? Let’s take a quick look at the best couponing secrets to get you started saving money the right way.

1. Forge a friendly relationship with your cashier

young man with a beard taking a credit card
A cashier can make or break your savings attempt. | iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz

The secret to your success as a couponer largely depends on the cashier scanning each coupon you present them. Make an effort to establish a working relationship with one cashier at each of your preferred stores, so they’re more likely to be patient during your transactions.
Remember annoying actions — such as refusing to go to customer service to voice your complaints about price discrepancies, yelling at the clerk, or showing up unprepared with an unruly pile of coupons — are no way to make friends with your cashier.
Next: A picture’s not worth anything.

2. The pictures are there to fool you

Pay close attention to the pictures on coupons. | iStock.com

Incorporating visual content into ads is an effective marketing tool. But did you know the images printed on certain coupons don’t always match up with the advertised deal? Tracie of Penny Pinchin Mom advises couponers to “completely disregard” the photo printed above the wording. “Many manufacturers will put a photo of the most expensive item in the product line, in hopes you will use it only for that item,” she writes. It’s for this reason you should only trust the printed wording to determine what product is actually on sale.
Next: Where you can find the rarest coupons available

3. Watch out for the rare coupons

woman checking list in a store
The best coupons can be found on your receipt. | iStock.com

The best couponers have a trained eye to determine the difference between a good deal and a great deal. Certain products, such as meat, dairy, and fresh produce, don’t go on sale as often as other items do.
Joanie Demer of The Krazy Coupon Lady suggests Catalinas — or the coupons printed on your receipts — are a “goldmine for rare coupons on meat and produce.” So while other careless shoppers are tossing their receipts in the trash, you could be stacking savings on pricey grocery items.
Next: The most wonderful time of the year

4. Hurry up and wait

howie mandel
You must decide: Deal or no deal? | NBC

The savviest of couponers know to rely on clipping couponing alone will leave money on the table. Cindy Livesey of Living Rich With Coupons says to really save money, you need to know the best time to use your coupons and when you can expect to pay some of the lowest prices of the year. For example, diet foods, cold medicine, and holiday products consistently are on sale in January, whereas charcoal, allergy medicine, and hand wipes are marked down in the summer.
Next: No inventory, no problem

5. You can still score a deal even if the store is out of stock

Supermarket goods shelf
Ask for a rain check. | iStock.com/12963734

The Federal Trade Commission requires grocery stores and retailers that sell food to have the advertised product in stock during the entire time period of the deal. If the grocery store doesn’t have a phrase on the ad that denotes limited availability, such as “while supplies last,” the store must offer you a rain check if no inventory is available. It could also offer a similar product with similar value or other compensation. But either way, you as the consumer will get a deal.
Next: There’s a major downside to couponing.

6. Avoid getting blinded by the deal

person in store
Not all deals are worth it. | Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Sainsburys

It might be tempting to throw every discounted item into your cart for the savings alone. But careless cart-tossing could cost you more than you bargained for if you neglect common sense.
For one, research shows most supermarket coupons promote unhealthy foods, which might be good for your wallet but unfortunate for your waistline. A 2014 study by Health Day found processed snack foods, such as chips, crackers, and desserts, accounted for 35% of all coupons, while 14% were for frozen dinners and prepared meals. Compare that to a mere 3% of coupons for discounted fresh fruits and vegetables, and it’s easy to see why discretion is best.
Next: There’s no room for loyalty in couponing.

7. The generic might be cheaper

grocery aisle
Item placement is key. | iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia

The most successful couponers have shed their brand loyalty in exchange for extreme savings. Although it’s certainly acceptable to remain steadfast in your allegiance to a few brands, devout faithfulness across the board will cost you in the long run.
One of the best kept couponing secrets is sometimes the generic deals and clearance specials will beat the deal available to you with a name-brand coupon. Remember grocery stores strategically place pricier items at eye level, hoping you’ll fall for the decoy. But running a quick comparison among brands will help you determine whether using the coupon is even worth it.
Next: Why you should ask the right questions

8. Ask the right questions

Woman with shopping list
Ask questions the right way. | iStock.com/Cathy Yeulet

Part of developing a relationship with store employees is asking the right questions as you run through your checkout process. Asking whether they can explain store policies to you or help you find an item that appears to be out of stock will go a lot more smoothly if you do so with a smile on your face. Apprehensive clerks are more inclined to run through how a deal works with you if you show your willingness to help make their job easier, too.
Next: How to swap coupons like a pro

9. Swap out a coupon at 1 location to redeem it at your favorite store

target cart
Many coupons are not store specific. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Many coupons are not store specific, which means you can redeem a coupon from one store at another that better suits your family. The Krazy Coupon Lady notes, “Some retailers like Walmart pay to have their names printed on manufacturer coupons, but this doesn’t mean you can’t use them at other stores.”
Once again, the secret to effective couponing is to read the fine print. If a coupons states, “Redeemable only at …” you must redeem it at the store listed. If not, then you’re free to use your Walmart coupon at the Target right down the street to score the same deal.
Next: The only good time to be a hoarder

10. Become a hoarder

Money Stuffed in the Mattresses
Hoard your groceries and your money. | iStock.com

No, really. In the case of extreme couponing, hoarding items you’ve scored a deal on is widely beneficial. When you create a pantry reserve of various items, you actually save time and effort. Hoarding items with long expiration dates helps you avoid one-off trips to the grocery store for a last-minute dinner ingredient. As a thrifty couponer, you can eliminate ever paying full price for items when you buy in multiples during a killer sale.
Next: Why you should be picky about your sales

11. Not every deal is created equal

bottles of coca-cola
The biggest savings occur when you combine a sale and a coupon. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

David Bibby from Money Crashers advises shoppers to be picky about the coupons they use as some don’t represent real savings. “Just because an item is on sale doesn’t mean it is a good sale,” Bibby writes. “An item that’s usually $2.99, and has a sale price of two items for $5, isn’t much of a sale. Wait for a better sale to splurge and use your coupons.”
The quickest way to coupon failure is wasting your hard-earned money buying an item simply because it’s discounted in some way. Learn to bide your time and pass on deals that don’t represent true savings.
Next: The importance of fine print

12. Price matching works for coupons, too

Woman checking shopping list on her smartphone
Familiarize yourself with your store policies. | iStock.com/grinvalds

Lots of stores accept competitors’ coupons or have a price-matching policy that allows coupon aficionados to shop around for the best deals. However, some store policies differ from others, and their fine print can derail your plans for a day of savings.
For instance, Bi-Lo only allows couponers to double up to five coupons and to use just 10 competitor coupons per day. Kroger only accepts pharmacy competitor coupons. If you aren’t aware of the details, you could find yourself paying more than you planned during check-out.
Next: Get by with a little help from your friends.

13. Use your friends to gain access to all the coupons

senior cuts coupons
Hoard your friends’ coupons. | iStock.com/ConnieTBallash

The most obvious couponing hack is to stack as many coupons as you can to get the biggest discount. Receiving multiple Sunday papers will surely help stacking efforts in sheer volume, but you should also enlist the support of your friends when seeking out extra coupons. You are only as strong as your network of coupon clippers, so ask everyone to toss unwanted coupons your way. Then, return the favor by trading coupons with other family and friends in your network.
Next: The next couponing secret will require a bit of initiative.

14. (Shamelessly) ask for coupons

A set of programs from famous brands of social networking
It never hurts to ask. | iStock.com/Prykhodov

Sometimes the key to scoring more coupons is to, well, ask for them. As Meghan Williams of The Penny Hoarder writes, not all hope is lost for those who want to maintain brand loyalty while still saving some cash on the side. She follows her favorite brands on Twitter and Facebook for additional access to coupons and special savings. She also suggests emailing brands directly to provide positive feedback and request coupons. Brands, such as Aleve, Folgers and Kraft, have been known to reply to coupon requests just by asking.
Next: The No. 1 rule of couponing

15. Understand the cardinal rule of couponing

grocery store ad
Pounce when items are on sale. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Bibby of Money Crashers passionately explains the two tenants of extreme couponing: Only buy items that are on sale, and combine that sale with one or more coupons. The benefit of a $1-off coupon is lost on a full-priced box of cereal, but when you match that coupon with the sale price you land a much better deal. Your best bet is to wait for a “two for” sale, and score double the savings you normally would.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.