Meal Planning on a Food Stamp Budget

adsI’m getting excited to begin my year on a food stamp budget in just under a week! In preparation, I’ve begun looking at the Jan 1 sales in my area. As you can see in this photo, I like to go through each store ad (mailed to me) and circle items I know to be at a good price. Then I see if I can tie them all into meals.

As you can see in the photo, pasta, hamburger meat, cottage cheese, quality pasta sauce (I splurge the extra dollars for good sauce) are all on sale. I thought this was a great start to Lasagna! My husband and children prefer a recipe that uses cottage cheese rather than ricotta. And what’s healthier than red pasta sauce, eggs and cottage cheese! The pasta and mozzarella are okay in moderation.

I also found shrimp at a yearly low of $3.99 a pound! You can’t get any healthier than shrimp! Since lemons are also on sale, I’m hoping to find a great lemon shrimp recipe–and I’ll probably make a Cajun shrimp and rice dish, too.

Finally, I saw Planters Trail Mix, Pace and several other good snack items were on sale. I’m gathering coupons now for these items. I use the coupon database at SoutherSavers.com to search for available coupons. To view upcoming coupons, I use SundayCouponPreview.com. Finally, you can usually find coupons on Ebay–though you have to buy them in bulk to be worthwhile. If it’s an item you use a lot of and has a long shelf life–this could be a good option.

Note: you are not actually buying the coupons, as that is illegal. You are paying the person for their time to collect and sort the free coupons. It’s a loophole I guess.

So that’s three dinners already planned for the first week–and all three will come out under $12 total after coupons and sales.

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Don’t get Duped! Tips for following Coupon Blogs

Coupon bloggers help save me time each week by doing the “match-up” work for me. They go through the store ads and find any available coupons that match the advertised sales. The good ones let their readers know which deals are the best, based on their knowledge of price points.

I cannot stress enough that frugal shopping cannot be done with out learning price points. A sale tag and a coupon doesn’t always equal a good deal.

Coupon bloggers also get tips on unadvertised deals from their readers.  Sometimes it’s these strange finds by readers that are the best deals of all.

But beware— I’ve wasted a lot of time and money in the beginning after falling for the “hurry! This won’t last!” traps of the coupon bloggers. They’re not doing all this work for sheer fun—they make money on the coupons printed by readers, as well as affiliate sales.

Here are some tips on how to follow coupon bloggers and not be duped:

  1. Prioritize. Bloggers post some really hot deals, but not every one is worth a trip to the store. Let your demand for the product guide your decision to buy it. As I mentioned above, they get paid for coupons you print from their site and other purchases you make from online store links they post. Once in a while, they post really great deals—but some of it’s just junk. Don’t end up spending more in an effort to spend less! You might be able to get 100 packs of gum for $0.25 each, but did you really have $25 to spend on gum this week?
  2. Don’t print every coupon. Many times what’s available online is also available in the newspapers. So check your existing coupons and the upcoming coupons before printing more of the same. Also, just because it’s a “rare!” or “hot” coupon doesn’t mean you need it. If it’s not a product you like or need…save your ink.
  3. Use Social Media. I follow my favorite blogs on Facebook—I find it’s the best way to keep up on any good deal tip-offs. I’m considering switching to Twitter though, as Facebook does not show all of the posts—only those it thinks you want to see. If you never like, comment or click through on a bloggers posts…it stops showing them on your wall. It’s all based on some crazy algorithm they think is helpful to the user experience. Urg.
  4. Timing is everything. I’ve mentioned before that for the drug store match-ups (Walgreens; CVS; Rite Aid), I follow Hip2save.com. The most important day to check Collin’s blog is on Saturdays (after about 4 pm). That’s when she posts her store match-ups and when I start pulling and printing coupons in preparation to hit the store.

Now if you really want to get extreme, and you have the time, there are a few more things you can do using blogs and forums. I typically don’t have the time.

  1. Search in google for ad scans of upcoming store ads. You’ll need to search by date. For instance, “Walgreens ad scan 8/26”. As long as you put the right publish date in (always a Sunday for the drug stores), you should be able to look at ads 2-3 weeks in advance. And often times, there are coupons online that disappear by the time the new week begins, so looking ahead increases your chance of getting certain coupons in advance of the sale. 
  2. Along the same lines, there are coupon forums that have threads dedicated to matching up upcoming ads. Users collaboratively post the best upcoming deals they see. Afullcup.com is one such website. Slickdeals.net also has forums. Just beware–slickdeals attracts a lot of shady characters.
  3. Read the facebook walls of the larger coupon blogs. I can’t stand couponmom.com (her website makes you log in and it’s a hot mess database that’s not at all helpful), BUT she does have a large following. That means her facebook wall is full of folks sharing deals they’ve found. If you peruse the wall once a day–you’ll find some good deals. The disadvantage is that not all of the folks that share are all that ethical–so it’s up to you to sort out the coupon abuse from the legit deals.

What you need to get started using coupons

Let’s start with the most basic part of beginning couponing: the supplies. This is what I recommend.

  • A Sunday only newspaper subscription (be sure it is a paper that carries Red Plum, Smart Source and P&G coupons). Don’t ever pay more than the price of paying for one at the store. If you keep your eyes open, you might find a deal on Groupon. I just signed up for 26 Sunday papers for $17!
  • I purchase 0-5 additional newspapers per week. To figure out how many more I want to buy, I check Sunday Coupon Preview to find out how many inserts there will be and get an idea of the coupon quality. If the paper has 0-1 insert, I sometimes pass on purchasing any additional. If there will be 2 coupon inserts, I might buy 2-4 papers depending on the quality of the coupons. For papers with 3-5 inserts, I buy 4-5 more. Note: photocopying coupons is illegal and considered theft by stores. They do not get reimbursed from the manufacturer for illegally reproduced coupons.
  • A coupon binder with dollar bill or card holders. I use a zip-up 3-ring Mead binder. I don’t spend tons of time organizing it–I just out my coupons and stick them in a slot. Each Saturday night, I spend about 10 min to remove any expired coupons.
  • A simple printer. You’ll have some expense with the ink, but it’s worth it (I buy recycled ink cartridges online). Just be sure to set it on fast draft/black ink only. Most of the coupons I print come from coupons.com; redplum.com and smartsource.com. Most require you to download a coupon printer thing to your computer—it’s a must do. Online coupons are very important to have as they usually are higher value than those in the newspaper.
  • Book mark SouthernSavers.com Coupon Database. It’s a very up-to-date, searchable database of current (legit) coupons available online or in previous newspapers. So if you know you need Axe body spray, but you don’t know if you have a coupon, just search “Axe”.

Note: With most of the coupon websites,  you get to print each coupon twice.  If you have more than one computer in the house, you can get twice the coupons. The print limits are per computer, not household.