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).


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!