After couponing for a few years, I decided in 2010 to see if all that work was adding up to real money. And if it was, could I use those savings for, you know, something fun?
Was it enough savings to pay for something I would otherwise have a hard time justifying in our family budget? Maybe something on my bucket list?
So I decided to track my savings for a year. I created an Excel spreadsheet with the stores where I shopped in the first column and the 12 months across the top.
After putting away the groceries, I made it a habit of going to my computer and entering the amount spent on my monthly budget page, then tracked the amount saved in coupons on my spreadsheet. I decided to track only the savings I accrued as a result of cutting coupons or sending in rebates.
By November, I had saved more than $2,900. As luck would have it, our church bulletin that month included an invitation to participate in a pilgrimage to Italy in October.
There it was. My bucket list luxury and the reason I had been tracking the coupon savings.
I signed up immediately and recruited my sister, Jeanne, to go, too. By the end of the year, I had saved $3,754. The cost of the pilgrimage: $3,498.
The trip fulfilled a lifelong desire to see the Vatican and all of the historic sites related to Christianity. We visited more than 50 churches.
I was honored to do the Mass readings in the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four main basilicas in Rome. I attended a papal audience and visited Greccio, the site of the first nativity scene in 1223. I also visited Assisi, where Saints Francis and Clare were born, and went to Siena and Florence.
It was a trip of a lifetime. Our group of 35 pilgrims, several from St. Paul's in St. Petersburg and Nativity Parish in Brandon, had a reunion before Christmas to share stories and savor the experience.
It was so much fun preparing for the trip knowing that I was paying for it through my couponing efforts — which turned out to be better than a second job.
So, of course, I continued the tracking practice last year. My savings: $4,302.
And my newest bucket list item? My husband and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in September, so we're thinking that deserves a special celebration — a cruise? The Grand Canyon? The Redwood Forest?
Oh, the possibilities.
Turn your coupon savings into a bucket list item, too. Just follow some of these tips:
A step-by-step guide to make coupons work
Gather and organize. Every Sunday, I gather the newspaper coupon fliers, write the date on the top left corner of each flier and place them in a dated file folder. I also purchase entertainment books late in the year when they are less expensive but still have grocery store coupons that are useful. Stacking manufacturer and store coupons leads to big savings, especially on BOGOs. Company websites often have coupons.
Focus and prepare. I invest about two (sometimes three) hours preparing for my shopping trips. I use websites that dissect the weekly ad from the grocery stores and list where to find the coupons by the date of the Sunday paper. SouthernSavers.com is my favorite.
Set up a supply closet or pantry area. My supply closet allows us to purchase items when they are on sale rather than just when we need them. Be aware of the shelf life of items and of your space limitations. Be sure you don't get too carried away with the "thrill of the bargain" and end up with more stuff than your family can use or tolerate.
Get to know your store manager and know their policies. Jen and I are on a first-name basis at Publix, and she is more than helpful when I need assistance finding an item or even getting a rain check for me if the item is not available.
Track your savings. A simple spreadsheet and the discipline to enter the savings after shopping is all you need to watch the savings add up.
Inside: More tips
Shop when the store is less crowded. I try to shop early in the morning or later in the evening. It makes the experience of shopping more enjoyable, and I am less concerned about holding people up as the cashier rings up my coupons.
Be organized when you go to the register. I have a pretty elaborate coupon folder by category, and I pull the coupons into a separate envelope as I put the item in the basket. You will see me in the aisle getting my coupons ready before I get in line. Bring a calculator and scissors.
Think coupons in all your purchases. Whenever I am preparing to make a purchase, I look for a coupon online, on company websites or in the paper. Department stores, pet stores, fast food, etc.
Reward yourself with something special. A trip to Italy? Maybe. Let's face it, sometimes just staying out of debt and within your budget is a reward worth celebrating.
What tips do you have for saving money in this awful economy? Share your secrets for publication in a forthcoming feature. Send an email to email@example.com, check us out on Facebook at Here's the Deal Tampa Bay, or follow us on Twitter at @HeresTheDealFL.