How to get groceries for (almost) free

Coupon clipping is time-consuming, but the savings deliver ‘an exhilarating high’

How to get groceries for (almost) free

Getty Images; Istock; Photo Illustration By Bradley Reinhardt

Yes, it is possible to cut your grocery bill to pennies, according to a stay-at-home mom from Boston. In Kathy Spencer’s step-by-step guide, How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something For Nothing, she outlines how to whittle a $384 grocery bill down to $5, using a combination of manufacturers’ coupons and in-store promotions.

“I strongly suggest getting over any lingering coupon phobias,” Spencer advises bargain hunters. “I want you to think of those little squares of paper with the bar codes on them as cash. Personally, I can’t look at them any other way because using them has saved me, on average, over $60,000 a year.”

On the downside, shopping for free takes time. “I set aside several hours a week to collect online coupons, scan circulars and hit the stores. To me, this is time well spent considering, on average, I spend $20 a month on groceries. That’s right – twenty bucks. I bet that’s less than you paid for your last manicure.”

The weekend edition of your local newspaper is a good place to start looking for coupons. “They’re in that bundle of glossy inserts jammed in the middle of the paper. That’s your cash allowance for the week, so don’t throw it away.” In addition, Spencer tells readers to start visiting gas stations and convenience stores late on Sunday night or early Monday morning. “Most stores will let you remove the coupon insert from any unsold Sunday newspapers before they’re picked up on Monday morning and returned to the distributor.” Coupons can also be printed from websites such as Coupons.com.

Once you’re grocery shopping, look for “peelies”—coupons attached to items. “Don’t be fooled,” she writes. “You don’t need to buy the product to get the peelie.” Also, “look for tear pads, pads of manufacturer coupons within the stores.”

One time, Spencer used PetSmart coupons to score 40 bags of dog food for nothing. “Shoppers, that’s a $500 value. Since getting Harry, our yellow Labrador retriever, nearly four years ago, I’ve only bought dog food once—and he eats the good stuff.”

The key to these kinds of savings is to use store coupons along with manufacturers’ coupons. “Combining coupons, or stacking, can be an exhilarating high, and once you get the hang of it, you’re likely to feel like you’re on a winning streak at the blackjack table.”

Although many people believe coupons are mainly for processed junk food, Spencer says this is a myth. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve been greeted in public with something like, ‘You’re Kathy? I thought you’d be heavier and more grandmotherly.’ Translation: fat and nearly dead,” she writes. “News flash: not all deals apply to junk food or crap. I regularly have rows and rows of Healthy Choice soup cans lining my shelves and countless organic food items in my refrigerator.”
To get coupons for organic products, it’s best to go directly to your favourite brand or product website, she writes. Also, Whole Foods puts out a monthly newsletter with “high-value printable coupons.”

For beginner savers, start slow, she advises.  Head to the store with a notepad and pen, “scan the aisle for things priced under one or two bucks and write down these things.” Next, “go home and try to find coupons for these items from your coupon stash that will make those items free.”

Once you’ve mastered saving 20 per cent off your total grocery bill, Spencer writes, “aim lower. If you saved 20 per cent in January, challenge yourself to save 30 per cent in February. My personal grocery goal is [to spend] four bucks a week, $16 a month.”

Spencer, who has four kids, explains, “We live in a 2,800-sq.-foot colonial-style home on nearly three acres of land. We drive vehicles we paid for in cash. Our oldest is in college, and we have no credit-card debt. My husband works for the city making $45,000 a year. And yet to take a walk through our house, and sit down at our dinner table, you’d never know that, on paper, we’re considered low income. We live a life of abundance because I’ve discovered the secret to shopping for free.”


How to get groceries for (almost) free

  1. How do I get fresh vegetables and fruit for free? I have never seen a coupon for these. Or should I just eat 'Healthy Choice' soup?

  2. Most coupons I see have the caveat "can not be combined with any other offer"

  3. This is a worthless article, considering how your source is an american coupon clipper.

    • I agree! Canada doesn't have the same coupon system that the US has…they can double up and still use their store card as well. Why on earth would Macleans even bother with this- it's false thinking since it can't be done in Canada!

  4. There is no way that you can do that here in Canada. I have tried over and over again to save using coupons, especially after reading articles such as these. Write an article about a canadian coupon clipper that is doing the same thing.

  5. I live in a small Canadian city, the only double coupon days I have seen are at a drugstore called Pharmasave. They have these days 2 or 3 times a year

  6. I'm extremely dedicated to couponing and am quite smart about pairing coupons with sales, buying bulk, using overages, stacking coupons, collecting points for GCs, contacting manufacturers, etc and after 2 months of couponing have saved $6300……HOWEVER…..there is no way in Canada I could only spend $16-20/month on groceries (including meat, fresh veggies/fruit, dairy). It's unfortunate that a Canadian magazine would feature an American author extolling the virtues of couponing in America…..shame on Macleans! It would have been better for Macleans to feature various SmartCanucks.ca members from various parts of Canada to highlight their own personal CANADIAN experiences with coupon use to provide useful examples for people wanting to learn about couponing in Canada.

  7. Extremely unlikely – $4 per week – not even relatively believable, unless she's shopping in dumpsters…

  8. Many of the cuoons in my local store give you a discount but only if you buy two or more of the same item stocking up on one item is not practical for many with limited space. Cheers greg

    • exactly, the kinds of buy three / get one free, or 10-15 cents off coupons that I see are a good recipe for trimming a few % points off your bill (if you have room to store the surplus), but certainly don't get one's groceries FREE!

  9. I am so with everyone else who has commented so far. I actually grew up in New England and lived in Boston for 4 years where this woman the article is focused on lives and know exactly how she can successfully save with dedicated couponing there. Now that I live in Canada I've been so frustrated with what little is offered as far as couponing. One local grocery store won't take online printed coupons and even dared to question the one that came from their own Online Newsletter! This "Help" page was so completely unhelpful and a waste of time and space.

  10. I heard about another lady known as Coupon Mom in the states who spent $14 on groceries. I thought there is no way you can do this on a regular grocery bill in Canada. So I set out on a quest in November to see what I could learn about using coupons. I thought I was a Thrifty Shopper, but boy was I wrong. The SmartCanucks.ca website is where I learned most things. I still spend about $150 a week for a family of 4.(My donations to the food bank have also increase significantly) I now use from about $10-$50 coupons a week, some items are Free or under a $1 using coupons.

  11. This story has been told so many times, the problem is she is in the USA not in Canada so all the rules are different.

    I would challange you at Maclean's magazine to find someone in Canada who can save even 1/2 of what this lady saves.

  12. I am an avid couponer, and a Smart Canucks junkie (check out the site and you will get hooked: http://www.smartcanucks.ca) and I have saved incredible amounts of $$ on groceries since couponing. That being said, the cheapest grocery bill I have been able to accomplish was $40.00 for one month and average about $80.00-100.00 per month for a family of 3. Contrary to popular belief, there are fruit/veggie coupons out there (right now mostly on cereal boxes) as well as meat coupons (e.g. ground beef coupons on hamburger helper boxes). It IS possible to eat a well balanced diet while couponing, but you do have to be resourceful, spend time and at times travel to various stores which could eat up $ for gas if major stores are not all in proximity (luckily for me they are).

    • Wal Mart , Freshco , Zellers , No Frills all Price Match / Ad Match ..so you don't need to drive around & waste gas ..if you have one of these stores close to you ..just take the various flyer's & price match at one store to save time & gas

  13. Good luck try doing that in Canada!

  14. So the issue is simple:
    Because the manufacturers, the coupon sites, the retailers, and so forth are ripping us off!
    Oh, wait….
    In 200 years, no Canadian Government has ever addressed this issue!
    Because, our municipal, provincial/territorial, and federal governments are either ripping us off, or allowing us to be ripped off!!!!
    Because politicians pay themselves so well in salaries, benefits, and pensions, that they have no need to manage money, save via coupons, or worry about grocery and other shopping.
    and Macleans?
    Well, how many of their staffers are working poor or working class?
    There is:
    NOTHING wrong with Canada.
    There is:
    NOTHING wrong with Canadians.
    But our "Managers"….??? yeah. We have problems there!

  15. I live in the US in Maryland and have no idea how she does this in Boston. Coupons from fliers and other sources save anywhere from .25 to $1.00 typically. Even with doubling by some stores (for coupons less than $1) and stacking on multiple coupons where it is allowed, one is unlikely to save more than 40-50% as a best case scenario – and that is very rare. That is a long way from free or almost free. Ocasionally a grocer will offer a $10off coupon if you spend anywhere from $75-100 plus). Again, that is a long way from free or almost free after the discount is applied.

  16. I'm wondering how to make this work too. I live in the US. None of the grocery stores in my area allow 'doubling' and like you, I have never seen a coupon for fresh fruit or vegetables. I think these people get their 'high' off using coupons for crap they really don't even need…just because they have a coupon for it!!!

  17. Why would you publish this in a Canadian magazine when it des not apply to us?

  18. I have been supplimenting my income for years with coupons. Only buying items when they are on sale when using my coupons. Sometimes you can get things free or almost free BUT you almost always have to pay the taxes. That seems to be a Canadian "thing", you are charged the tax on the advertised price of each item, not the cost after the coupon has been deducted. There are very few stores who appreciate coupon users, you're often treated as though you're trying to steal from the store. I believe that the major grocery stores train their employees to hassel anyone who is using coupons.
    The only business I know of that has ever had a "double value coupon day" is Pharmasave (as already stated). But Pharmasave is so based on customer service that I'm not surprised.

    • I agree . The retail staff in Canada needs better training & they don't have to be so rude when you try to use a cpn

  19. Useless for Canada..one more reason i no longer subscribe to Macleans

  20. I call BS on this one. Taking a $384 grocery bill down to $5? Impossible. I second Philip’s challenge to reproduce these results!

    • It's not impossible with sales and stacking.

  21. I read all the comments…I too think you could have had a CANADIAN coupon queen…The article is mostly

    useless for us Canadian….

    I write a monthly FRENCH newsletter on the topic . There are great bargains out there.

    It seems to me that this article was written WITH the intention of sabotaging the trend.

    I hope I am wrong.

    • I would love to read that newsletter.

  22. You can't stack coupons in Canada the way you can in USA . Also most Canadian retailers don't accept coupons printed from online websites ( printables ) ..I have been to Sobeys , Metro , No Frills , Price Chopper & Food Basics they flat out refused to accept any cpn I had printed from a website on my home printer .

    Canadian retailers are way behind US retailers when it comes to coupon use & policies

  23. In Canada you can stack coupons in LONDON DRUGS ..check them out . Its a big chain in the western provinces .

    Good for toiletries , cosmetics , diapers , detergents , cleaning products etc

    • but that will hardly allow you to spend $16-$20/month on groceries including meat, fruit and veggies. We can't eat toothpaste and soap

  24. Exactly. This article is useless. Maclean's is a Canadian publication. Try writing about Canadian issues.

  25. First off I would like to say I agree with everyone when saying MacLean's shouldn't post an article related to American shopping habits in its Canadian based magazine. BUT I would like to say for all of those who say it's impossible to shop like that here is Canada that you're somewhat wrong. Yes we are NOT able to save as dramatically as they do to the south but we can still save quite a bit! I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy shopper and I have been “couponing” for about 3 years now, when my son was in diapers we rarely paid over $2 for his diapers, pampers and Huggies, not no name. We eat good healthy, fresh food not “junk food”. Our weekly household/grocery budget is about $50-60 a week and that's to feed 3 adults and a 3 year old plus food for our 5 pets, 2 dogs and 3 cats plus all our daily household products, cleaners, paper products, personal hygiene. I also stock up and do a lot of donations to local shelters and am able to help my friends and family when then need it.

    • Where do you find your coupons?

  26. I am a stay at home mom so I am lucky to have the extra time to put forth into this making it possible to be saving so much. Before I started couponing our grocery/household budget was around 650-700 a month (150-175 every week) It does take time an practice to be able to save a good amount but I consider this to be my job so I do put in the effort and it pays off.
    As for the stores not honoring your coupons or being rude about it I carry a copy of the stores coupon policy with me so if they argue I just pull it out and show them that they are supposed to be taking them since it is in their policies. Also you need to be polite and organized to help the cashiers out, if your rude to them chances are there going to be rude and irritated about your coupons. Lastly if you're having problems with a cashier taking your coupons simply asked to talk to the managers if the coupons are within the expiry dates, valid Canadian coupons, and are being used for the correct product they will have no problem taking them, they want to keep their customers happy and make the sale they know there getting their money back PLUS the shipping and handling fees.

  27. Yes this is possible in Canada! As I do it every weekend… you combine the store sales, coupons, and store policies to get your best deals… add in Raincheques and Price Matching.. and you can do pretty near anything…

    As for fresh fruit and veggies… there are coupons out there… typically on products to get you to purchase the processed item… but really… you want free.. grow your own!! OR do as I do for these other items… and use store Points programs for purchase of the items you don't normally find coupons for…

    It takes tons of time, and tons of patients… but in the first 2 months of this year I have used in excess of $3500 in coupons.. and put out less then $15/week per person in our house on food, homecare and personal care items… This is down from in excess of $250/ week just a couple years ago… and within our $15/week/person budget I have also stocked my cupboards with approx 1 years worth of our staple canned goods, personal care and home care items… but have a couple thousand dollars worth of items for donation.

  28. I think it is easy in Canada, I save about $40 a week in coupons on average and it is only for stuff we need. I avoid printables and only use a coupon when the item is on sale.

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