3 ways you're couponing all wrong (and how to coupon correctly)

Couponing Mom Buys $10,000 Worth of Gifts for Disadvantaged
Couponing Mom Buys $10,000 Worth of Gifts for Disadvantaged

You know that it's smart to use coupons when buying anything. But if you aren't really into the coupon mindset, you may find yourself only sort of using them, which may be worse than not using them at all.

That is, if you clip coupons or download them but frequently forget to bring them to the store or buy the item, you're wasting time. If you feel time is money, you can see how things are working out for you.

So what might you be doing wrong? You're couponing incorrectly if ...

You aren't using apps and websites. Sure, the Sunday newspaper's coupon circulars are indispensable, but they're hardly the only coupon game in town. For instance, FatWallet.com has an app that lets you access in-store coupons and apply them at the store checkout. Cellfire is an app designed to send coupons to your loyalty cards, and if you create your grocery list with Grocery IQ, it will look for coupons for the items on your list.

Lisa Sims, author of "Stretching a Dollar to Save and Make Thousands: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Doing More With Less," likes the mobile app Favado, which helps shoppers determine what the best deals are in local stores.

She also likes southernsavers.com, which is a website that focuses on stores in the South, but you can find plenty of national coupons here, too, if you're living in, say, the Pacific Northwest or Midwest and feeling left out. CouponFollow.com is a coupon search engine. You've probably heard of CouponCabin.com, CouponSherpa.com, Coupons.com and RetailMeNot.com, all well-known sites for couponers.

The bottom line here is that if you aren't using at least one or two apps and websites, your couponing is probably stuck in the 20th century. Not that the 20th century is all bad; your local Sunday newspaper is still likely a treasure trove for coupons.

Coupon love is blinding you. Sims says that a common error you may be making is buying something you don't need simply because you have a coupon.

"One thing that has contributed to this is the show 'Extreme Couponing.' The goal is not to clear the shelf of products that you will not use but to get the best deal on the items that you use frequently," she says.

And, sure, you're smarter than that, but you should ask yourself one critical question, says Kendal Perez, a spokeswoman with CouponSherpa.com: Would you buy this item without the coupon?

"Even if you can save a few bucks, buying something for which you would never pay full price is a waste of money," Perez says.

You aren't doing your coupon math. Even if you would buy the product if it was being offered for full price, you should still do some number crunching and make sure this coupon is truly a bargain, assuming you're not completely brand loyal and another alternative would do. Don't forget to investigate other comparable brands, says Teri Gault, CEO of TheGroceryGame.com, a grocery savings website.

She points out that if you're in a supermarket, and you have a coupon, there may be a comparable brand that's on sale and cheaper than the coupon.

"A good sale is usually 50 percent off," she says. "Adding a coupon to a sale reaps an average of 67 percent savings, so the coupon is just the frosting on the cake of savings. If the coupon item's brand isn't on sale, and another brand is, the sale item without a coupon will usually be the better deal."

Check out this 'couponing specialist' who teachers others how to master their coupons:

So what should you be doing? You're couponing correctly if ...

You have a coupon organizing system. It isn't only a matter of using apps and websites. You have to use them correctly, in a way that you can keep track of what coupons you're clipping, printing and downloading.

When it comes to clipping coupons, Sims says "most couponers use a large binder with plastic baseball card holders to organize their coupons in categories so that they can locate coupons quickly."

But if that seems too cumbersome, Perez suggests clipping your coupons and attaching them to your shopping list. Assuming you're organized enough to routinely have a shopping list, that's not a bad way to make sure you're not leaving coupons behind.

You're familiar with how the stores operate. Yes, you're busy, and even if you go to a supermarket or department store so often that it feels like a second home, you may not notice or care that there's a certain rhythm to what goes on sale when. But you'd be smart to start caring.

"I pay attention to the grocery store sales cycle and know that every eight to nine weeks, the sales will repeat and [I] prepare to have my coupons ready to use for those items again," Sims says.

Because the best use of a coupon is when you use it at a time when that food or merchandise is on sale.

You don't worry about the coupon stigma. Perez says this is a common issue.

"Some people don't want to coupon because they think it makes them look cheap," she says. "Plus, it takes extra time at checkout, and this can lead some consumers to feel embarrassed when people in line get impatient."

If you're organized, though, Perez says you'll be faster at the checkout line. And there should be nothing embarrassing about saving money, she adds.

In fact, Sims says that when she calculates how much she has saved using coupons, she takes the money and deposits it into a savings account.

Besides, chances are, any shoppers watching you with a stack of coupons probably aren't glowering because they wish you would hurry up. They probably wish they had brought coupons themselves.

More from U.S. News:
Travel expenses to budget for now
How your home changes when you telework
Bye-bye no child left behind