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Sneaky coupon tricks: 6 hacks to help you fight back

Don't let the fine print stop you from saving.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 26, 2009 3:47AM

A recent Safeway ad had a coupon for a dozen eggs for $1, a swell deal these days. I consider eggs a fridge staple because they make a quick and cheap light supper. Besides, finals are coming up, and I always fortify myself with bacon, eggs and toast on exam mornings.


However, the coupon's fine print -- there's always fine print -- said shoppers needed to spend at least $10 to use the dollar-a-dozen coupon. The thing was, I didn't need $10 worth of stuff. Just eggs. But I wasn't about to let a teeny-tiny disclaimer keep me from getting cheap protein. I have a frugal hack for just such an occasion. 


Generally I get around the "minimum purchase" by buying a grocery store gift card in that amount, and using it on subsequent shopping trips. This time I needed stamps ($8.40) so I simply cruised the store for $1.60 worth of nonperishables for my stealth stock-up plan. Dill pickles were on sale two jars for $4, and I had two $1-off coupons for that brand. With the stamps, that totaled $10.40, qualifying me to buy the $1 eggs. 

Minuscule disclaimers like "minimum $10 purchase" are one reason some folks distrust coupons. (Other people love them; ask the woman who saved $1,100 with coupons last year whether it was worth it.) However, the stores are within their rights to set limits on their loss leaders. It's up to consumers to learn to play the game, and maybe come up with a few sneaky tricks of our own.


Frugal hack No. 1: To fulfill a minimum-purchase requirement, buy a gift card or sale-priced nonperishables (with coupons if possible).


Better than the dollar store
In the same shopping complex as the Safeway is a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft store, which offers a 40%-off coupon in its Sunday newspaper ads. (Being on their mailing list gets me more coupons.) Michaels, another sewing/crafts store, also runs Sunday ads. Both stores have a selection of $1 items, and some locations will accept the other guy's coupons.


On this particular trip, I got a miniature Pirates of the Caribbean puzzle for my great-nephew's Christmas stocking. Next on my list is a frog-shaped bath mitt for another great-nephew's stocking. (It's not for me. Honest.) In the past I've bought scrapbook supplies for a crafty relative, art note cards for my gift stash, and gloves for the homeless shelter. Each item cost only 60 cents plus tax.


Frugal hack No. 2: Use Jo-Ann and Michaels coupons in the dollar section. Get on their mailing lists for extra coupons.


After Jo-Ann, I hit the Albertsons supermarket on my way home. (I'm lucky enough to live within a couple of miles of numerous grocers, pharmacies, and discount and dollar stores.) It occurred to me to ask if they accept competitors' coupons. They do.


For weeks I'd been carrying around a Safeway printed-at-the-register coupon for $2 off Scott toilet paper. Four-packs were $3.49 at Safeway but $2.19 at Albertsons, so I redeemed it there and got four rolls of toilet paper for 19 cents plus tax. 


Frugal hack No. 3: Ask if your store takes competitors' coupons. Use them wherever the price is best.


That wasn't the lowest price I've ever paid, incidentally. Recently a coupon for $1 off any Scott toilet paper printed out at the cash register at Albertsons, and four-packs were on sale for a buck that week. That meant I got a four-pack for just 9 cents in sales tax. On a subsequent trip I found a second coupon that someone hadn't bothered to pick up, so I got another four-pack for 9 cents. These were added to my stash of deeply discounted toilet tissue, currently at 60 rolls (most of which are the double-roll size). 


Yes, I know that hoarding can be a form of mental illness. But it's not as though this stuff has an expiration date. And have you priced toilet paper lately? To me, it just makes sense to stock up when you see an irresistible deal -- and free is pretty hard to turn down. 


Frugal hack No. 4: Watch for print-at-register coupons, including ones that other people leave behind.


Talk shopping to me
Some stores, like Home Depot and Walgreens, offer cash prizes to take phone surveys about your shopping experiences. An 800 number is printed on store receipts. I do these even though the odds of winning are probably slim. 


However, I've sometimes encountered a sure-thing prize, also from Albertsons: take a two-minute survey and receive a code redeemable for a free loaf of French bread. Naturally I was willing, since French bread turns leftover soup into a nice supper and also makes fabulous toast. 


But here's the beauty part: When I redeemed the code for the free bread, another survey offer printed out. And when I redeemed that one later on, a third one printed out. This is better than the used bread store.


Frugal hack No. 5: Keep an eye out for prizes.


Instant rebate, no stamp needed
In addition to its monthly rebate program, Walgreens offers a "rebate" that prints out as a coupon. When you buy a certain number of advertised specials you get this "Register Reward" good for your next visit; I've gotten $2 and $5 coupons this way. The CVS chain's "ExtraCare Rewards" program gives these rewards every three months, based on how much you've bought each quarter. (Back in Oak Park, Ill., I lived just one block away from a CVS but that chain doesn't operate here in Seattle. Sigh.)


The Walgreens rewards have relatively short expiration dates, leading me to come up with my own definition of "next" visit. First I buy only the things I need to get the reward. Then I pay for the rest of my items in a separate transaction, using the coupon I was just awarded. 


Not a single cashier has demurred; in fact, a store manager once rang me up in this fashion. If any objection were to arise, I'd simply put my purchases in the car and come back in to finish shopping -- my "next" visit.


When possible, use manufacturer's coupons in conjunction with the reward program. For example, this week with coupons and the instant rebate I could get two Gillette Fusion razors (power or manual) plus a can of shave gel for $6.45. Not that I need two razors or shave gel, but I could either donate them to a shelter or use them as stocking stuffers for the grownups in my family. A Pirates of the Caribbean puzzle or a frog bath mitt both sound like more fun, though.


Frugal hack No. 6: If a store offers instant rebates, try to use the coupon the same day. If you can't, pay close attention to its expiration date. Use manufacturer's coupons to make these deals even better.


Published June 4, 2008

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