4 couponing lessons I've learned after 12 years of practice

Saving money is one of my favorite activities, and I've learned a lot over the years.
Small deals can add up to big savings over time.
Small deals can add up to big savings over time.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

My first exposure to the world of couponing came at a very young age. My mom has always been an avid deal hunter and she'd often take me and my sister along on her shopping trips. Growing up, I didn't quite understand why she was always cutting coupons out of the newspaper, but as I got older and began spending my own money, I quickly realized how useful couponing could be.

There's something about the thrill of the chase and hunting for deals that has always excited me, and after years of couponing I've got a pretty nice routine down. My strategy these days combines both paper and digital coupons and now that I have my own house, saving money has become more important than ever.

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Researching deals and finding coupons can take a lot of work, but it gets easier over time, and it definitely pays off (quite literally). After years of seeking out deals, I've saved quite a bit of dough and have picked up a whole lot of couponing insight. Here are four lessons every beginner deal seeker should know.

Lesson No. 1: You should (almost) always sign up for the store newsletter

We all get a lot of emails every day, and the thought of signing up for a bunch of store newsletters to save a few bucks might not sound like it's worth the inbox clutter. But in my time couponing, I've found that it's (almost) always worth signing up for a store's email newsletter or downloading their app.

Yes, it's annoying to get daily emails from some of the more overeager stores and brands, but it takes one second to click delete and go on with my day. And, besides, the money I save by briefly scanning through promotional emails far outweighs the inconvenience of having to clear out my inbox.

Store apps are also a treasure trove of coupons and they often offer targeted deals based on your coupon-clipping habits and recent purchases. So if you find yourself hitting up a few stores or sites regularly, it's worth keeping an eye on their deals.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. It may not be worth signing up for an email newsletter for that random site you once bought a gift from for your sister's birthday or another once-in-a-blue-moon occasion. Or if you do for the immediate incentive, don't forget to unsubscribe shortly afterward so their messages don't clutter your inbox.

Lesson No. 2: Buy in bulk whenever possible

Whether your household goes through a lot of dishwasher pods or uses up a ton of paper towels, we all have a few go-to items we need on a regular basis. For me, it's cereal. My fiancé and I both eat a lot of it and I try to avoid paying full retail for a box whenever I can.

Luckily, cereal deals are common and you can often find a coupon for them. It seems like 2-3 times a year a grocery store sale aligns with an impressive cereal coupon and the combined savings are hard to pass up. When an instance like this rolls around, I gather my crew of couponers (my sister, my mom and my fiancé) and get to work scooping up the deals. To help me avoid paying full retail, I like to have at least a few months worth of cereal at any given time, so I tend to stock up during sales. All those boxes take up a lot of space in my pantry, but the savings are worth it in the end!

Lesson No. 3: When it comes to couponing, there's strength in numbers

Since my mom trained us to hunt for deals from a young age, my sister and I are on the exact same page about couponing. For the most part, we both shop at the same stores, get the same store newsletters and have the same store apps downloaded onto our phones. But there are a few stores she follows more regularly than I do and vice versa. That helps expand our savings potential because we can give each other a heads up about great deals that the other may have missed. It also means she might get a better coupon deal than I did when a store does a flash sale and sends out coupons in various percentages off.

I've also converted my fiancé into a couponer, much to his initial dismay. He was a reluctant participant at first, but now he understands the process and realizes just how much money we can save so he humors me. Yes, I'm a lucky gal!

Lesson No. 4: Learn to be your own coupon advocate

Couponing isn't just about finding deals; a big part of it is making sure your coupons actually get applied. There are a lot of exclusions for some coupons, but if you're confident that it should have gone through, don't hesitate to politely ask if the cashier could double check if it worked correctly.

When I was young and my mom would do this, I would feel a little uncomfortable because I felt like we were holding up the line. But now that I'm older, I do the same exact thing. I'm always super polite about it and know when to give up so I'm not taking up too much of the cashier's time. But 50 cents off a box of cereal here and there adds up a lot over time so I'd always rather ask than miss out. And most of the time, it turns out that the computer was wrong and the coupon could be applied. It pays to be your own advocate!