High-tech coupon clipping: Playing the Grocery Game

I have an on-again/off-again relationship with couponing. I save the coupon inserts that come in my Sunday paper, but clipping and sorting them is a chore that keeps getting bumped to the bottom of my to-do list. Expiry dates come and go, and I wind up paying full price for items I had coupons for.

From time to time, I've been inspired by someone's testimony to step it up a notch. By strategically matching promotional sales with manufacturer and store coupons, many savvy shoppers say they save hugely. I don't dispute it, but whenever I've attempted to do the same, it took me so much time to get all my couponing ducks in a row, the hourly rate was hardly worth it.

Enter the Grocery Game, an online subscription service that is supposed to do all the thinking for you. For $4.95, I signed up for a four-week trial subscription, which gives me access to a weekly couponing plan of attack. The service matches local sales to locally circulated coupons. Lists vary from state to state. As an Arkansas subscriber, I can choose from one or both of the major supermarket and drugstore chains. I chose both.

According to the "game rules," it will take about 12 weeks of saving coupon inserts before your coupon file and the list are fully in sync, but even newbies should realize some savings right away. For once, procrastination proved to be my friend: I had more than 12 week's worth of Sunday inserts already stashed in a pile. I was able to hit the ground running. In the first week, I was able to score big with deeply discounted staple items and even some freebies. The "rules" recommend stockpiling to take advantage of cyclical promotions: having a 12-week supply of staple items bought at reduced prices is considered the sweet spot. Grocery gamers don't want to run out of something in between coupons and sales, and be forced to pay full price.

After the trial period, the subscription rate is 15.00 quarterly. Savings on my first shopping trip more than paid for the trial, plus a year's subscription. I define savings as discounts I wouldn't otherwise get on items I would normally buy. Some flexibility here helps. For example, with three children in school and pre-school, cereals and cereal bars are staple items. By only choosing brands from the list, I was able to stock up on $1 boxes of cereals, and snack bars for $1 and $2 a box. And while none of them were organic or sugar-free, they were nutritionally acceptable by this mom's middle-of-the-road standards.

Which brings me to a common complaint about couponing: most coupons are for processed, pre-packaged food. It's true. And how far I've fallen from my original nutritional ideals (my firstborn's first birthday cake was whole wheat, organic and fruit-juice sweetened; the third child's was made of dyed and sweetened chemicals) is a post for another day. But not all coupons are for astronaut food, and the lists also point out specials for whole foods, too. True, you can glean this from glancing through your grocery store sales flyer, but the list tells you whether it's worth it to buy just what you need at present, or if it's time to stock up, because the deal won't come around again for a while.

And maybe you don't eat brand-name O's made from oats for breakfast, but you might wash your hair with brand-name shampoo. Last Sunday, I stocked up on seven bottles of shampoo that were the brands we normally use, regularly priced at around $3.50 a bottle, and two multipacks of bath soap, normally around $2.50. The total at non-sale prices would have been around $30.00. By combining the sales and coupons, I forked over 17.86 (I was ambushed by a $1 pack of candy at the checkout). Pretty good, but here's the clincher: I got four register-generated $4.00 credits toward my next shopping trip at the drugstore. Provided I use them towards things I would otherwise buy, it means I paid .86 for seven bottles of brand-name shampoo and seven bars of soap, that would normally cost me $35.00.

The drawbacks: coupon rules are more convoluted than tax law, and while the Grocery Game simplifies it a lot, it doesn't take all the reckoning out of it. I still spend much too much time lining up my strategy. For example, my $4 credits from above can only be used one per transaction. Will I really make four separate trips back to the drugstore before they expire in two weeks? Perhaps. Some of my favorite cosmetics are on the list this week, and by combining the register credits and manufacturer coupons with sales, I can stock up on deeply discounted mascara and tinted moisturizer that I know I will have to buy anyway when I run out, because honey, I have tried them all and these are my brands. That might be worth the four-mile round trip.

Not every deal is. I am hoping I will become more efficient at deciding how to adapt the game list to my needs and priorities. From reading the site's message boards, it's obvious that couponing is a vocation and a passion for some. It's not for me. There's a movement to return to a paradigm where a majority of a person's time and energy were spent foraging for food. They can go back without me. I'd rather use my talents elsewhere. I'm better at writing than I am at hunting and gathering.

But will someone bring me lunch?

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