Coupon clippers don't have much to celebrate these days. Anyone who was hoping 2023 would bring a resurgence in coupon-filled Sunday newspaper inserts has so far been disappointed. Inserts with manufacturer's coupons are thinner, or even nonexistent, leaving consumers struggling to find new ways to save on food or personal care or household products.
That doesn't mean that all opportunities to save have disappeared, though. You just might have to get a little creative in hunting for deals. I asked some top couponers and savings experts for tips on how to score a bargain. Here are some of their best ideas, along with a few of my own.
1. Locate the clearance/manager's specials section
Most stores have an area for heavily discounted discontinued brands and/or damaged goods. Larger stores may also place clearance shelves within each section such as toiletries, toys or cleaning products. Avoid dented cans, but nicked boxes (such as cereal) should be fine as long as the actual contents remain unscathed.
Also look for price tags that say "discontinued" or "close out," which can yield savings of 20 to 60 percent, says Adam Schwartz of CouponSurfer.com. Stock up there and check other locations of the same retailer for the discount.
2. New packaging equals discounts
This may be a little hard to spot and it may not always mean the old packaging is discounted, either, but it's worth keeping an eye out when an item's packaging changes. Sometimes retailers will discount the old look to clear it out, says Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com.
3. Learn your store's clearance schedule
No two retailers, or even two of the same retailer's locations, are the same. Befriend store employees to learn when the stores mark items down (and when the freshest shipments arrive). "My meat department managers let me know when they go through the meat case and mark them down - one store does it first shift and another does it last. This lets me be one of the first to get the newest markdowns," said Jessie Alonzo of Moola Saving Mom. Target generally marks down items each day Monday through Friday, with different departments taking a day. I've found the yellow clearance tags can provide clues to the schedule. Look for a date (for example, 03/07) near the bottom. If March 7 was a Tuesday, odds are that department does markdowns each Tuesday. According to Joanie Demer, co-owner of The Krazy Coupon Lady, Walmart doesn't have a set markdown schedule, but you'll find the best selection of clearance items during the first five days of the month.
4. Celebrate post-holiday deals
Most after-holiday clearance sales start the day after the holiday, but some retailers mark down holiday items one or two weeks prior. And it's not just holiday decorations or candy. Manufacturers roll out all sorts of seasonal products (think candy cane body wash, heart-shaped lip balm or pumpkin spice air freshener) that they are desperate to offload. Most major retailers discount holiday merchandise by 50 percent the day after the holiday, then bump it to 70 to 75 percent a week later and up to 90 percent in the weeks that follow.
5. Jump on seasonal sales
"Spring is a good time to look out for sales on household cleaning and organizing supplies as we see lots of retailers rolling out sales during the popular spring cleaning rush," says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert. As long as you have space to store large packages of paper products and cleaning supplies, this is a good time to scope out sales. Otherwise, go in on bulk deals with friends or another family, then split them up.
6. Bulk buy in small quantities
Gigi Lehman, editor of Living On the Cheap, hits the bulk-bin aisle for savings. "Although people think of buying in bulk as buying in quantities larger than the usual package size, my favorite way to save is to buy exactly the amount I need, especially with expensive items like spices," Lehman said. "For example, a .75-ounce jar of whole allspice costs $3.83 at my grocery. When I needed some to make mulled wine, I went to the bulk aisle and bought the small amount I needed for just 9 cents."
7. Trim meat costs
Buying a larger piece of meat and cutting it yourself or asking the meat department to cut it for you is a quick way to save, says Alonzo. "A whole pork tenderloin is often on sale at my supermarket for $1.79 per pound at the same time the boneless pork chops are on sale for $6.49 per pound. The meat department is always able to cut the loin into perfect chops. Then I can package them into family-size portions and freeze - while saving a lot of money."
8. Soon-to-be-bad items are good
Fresh food - such as meat, chicken, fish and dairy products - nearing its "sell by" date may be marked down by 50 to 70 percent. For baked goods you'll typically save around 70 cents to $2 per item; on meats it's anywhere from $2 to $15; and prepackaged salads and veggies may be reduced up to $1, says Lexy Rogers, author of "Break Bread on a Budget." Just make sure you cook, eat or freeze what you buy right away.
9. Ask for price matching
Target's online prices often beat their in-store prices, so either order online for in-store pickup, or show the online price on your smartphone to the cashier for an instant price match, says Edgar Dworsky of Consumer World. This technique sometimes works at other big box retailers.
10. Be an early bird
"I like to shop close to store opening, after last night's items have been price cut," says Rogers. Most stores get their shipment around the middle of the day and hope sale items have been purchased to make space for the new items.
11. Shop around
If you have the luxury, hit more than one store every month, says Ashley Schuering, the blogger behind Confessions of a Grocery Addict. "Different retailers have different strengths. Costco is my go-to for bulk purchases like rice and flour, while Aldi is my daily store since it has the best prices on my most used pantry items, fruits, veggies and meats. Publix has awesome BOGOs all the time, and Kroger sends out good coupons."
12. Use digital coupons
While paper coupons may be disappearing, digital coupons are still an option. Stores like Target, as well as grocery retailers such as Publix and Kroger, have digital savings offers. Your account is usually tied to your phone number (and it doesn't need to be a smartphone) so you can simply key that in during checkout to redeem coupons and other special promotions, says Ramhold.