Reader mail: Know when to hold 'em!

Here's a question from a reader like you who's learning how to use coupons to save money at the grocery store:

Q: "I have to disagree with you about holding onto coupons until stores put the item on a good sale. Great idea, but as you might have noticed, coupons today have a very short life span. You said grocery stores' best sales on certain items rarely coincide with coupons available that week. I don't believe you should hold onto coupons and wait for a better sale because the coupons will expire. Best to grab the deal when you can and use the coupon, otherwise it's a waste of time cutting those coupons out."

A: This is one of the most common misconceptions about coupons: assuming that they expire too soon to make holding onto them worthwhile. The average coupon has an expiration date three months out. Some expire sooner, some expire later, but it's wrong to assume that they all expire very quickly. I have coupon inserts that are more than eight months old that still have current, unexpired coupons in them -- proof that it's not only important to hold onto all of our inserts until every coupon inside expires, but also proof that not all coupons expire quickly.

Using coupons the same week you get them is almost always a big mistake. Stores know exactly which products will be featured in the coupon inserts for the current week, and most stores will intentionally leave these items at a higher price. The reason? Stores know how most people use coupons. Most people will cut coupons out of this week's paper and use them the same week. But these shoppers usually pay a much higher price on a given product, even with a coupon, than if they had waited for a better sale and then used the coupon.

About six weeks ago, I received a $1 coupon with an expiration date three months out, good for a certain brand of soup. This soup was $3.29 the week the coupon arrived. If I used the coupon that week, I'd pay $2.29, still much more than I like to pay for a can of soup. But with three months' time to watch for a better sale, I waited. And this week, the soup went on sale for $1 a can. My coupon is still more than a month away from expiring, but by waiting a few weeks, I took the soup home for free! Had I used it the week I'd gotten it, I would still have paid more than two dollars for the soup. Free is much better.

After one of my coupon classes, a man came up to me and told me that he had an "aha!" coupon moment. He was an avid poker player, and he equated knowing when to "play" your coupon to knowing when to play a certain card in a hand of poker. I like this analogy a lot, because coupon shopping can definitely feel like a game at times ... and it's a game that's fun to win. A $1 coupon is worth a lot more paired with a $1 sale price than it is with a $3.29 regular price.

As for your point about using a coupon the week you cut it out so that it's not a "waste of time," I'd suggest that you not be so quick to clip. I never cut coupons that I'm not going to use immediately. I use a "clipless" system to manage my coupons (more on this at www.supercouponing.com under "Getting Started.") I'm not cutting a coupon out until the week I actually need it. If the coupon in my insert does not line up with a good sale before it expires, I haven't wasted any time at all clipping it, looking it up or carrying it around. I use as little time and effort as possible to manage my coupons and you can, too.

It's much easier to take only the coupons you need to the store in the first place, secure in the knowledge that, like my card-playing student, you are "playing" your coupons at exactly the right time to maximize savings.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail your couponing coups and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.