Coupons 101: The Basic Rules of Couponing

If you are new to the world of coupon shopping, it can be very overwhelming at first. Manufacturer coupons, store coupons, BOGO, WYB — it’s a crazy world of acronyms and fine print. Fortunately, the learning curve is fairly short – especially when you have me here to help! Read this little primer and you should be good to go!

Manufacturer Coupons
Manufacturer coupons are paid for by … you guessed it… the manufacturers.  Not only do they pay to create and distribute the coupons, they also reimburse the store for the face value of the coupon, plus a postage fee. The most common source of manufacturer coupons is the Sunday paper, but there are lots of other places to find them as well. Check out my post on 10 Places to Find Kosher Coupons.

One Per Transaction
Sometimes a manufacturer coupon will have “One per transaction” written on it, and that little expression trips up a lot of people. They assume they can only use one coupon for their whole order.

Nope! It actually means that you can only use one manufacturer coupon per item in your order. This verbiage is intended to prevent you from using multiple coupons on a single item. Simply put: If you have 10 COUPONS for Cheerios, you have to buy 10 BOXES of Cheerios.

Do Not Double or Triple
Some coupons say “do not double or triple” up at the top near the expiration date. This means that the manufacturer will not reimburse the store for double or triple the face value. Sometimes stores will double the coupon anyway, which means they are “eating” the cost of the doubling.

Expiration Date
You might be able to “get away with” using an expired coupon, but it’s pretty unethical to do so intentionally. The store may not get reimbursed for the face value of the coupon — especially if it is long past the expiration date. The only exception is if you are shopping at military commissaries, where expired coupons are accepted.

BOGO, which can also be written as B1G1, means Buy One Get One. Most often a BOGO refers to Buy One Get One Free, but it can also mean BOGO 1/2 off.  Assuming it’s BOGOFree, the coupon entitles you to one free product when you purchase a second of the same product. The BOGO coupon pertains to the free product, so most stores will also allow you to use another coupon on the product you are paying for.

For example, let’s say you are buying cereal, which costs $2.50 box. You have a BOGO(F) coupon and a $1/1 off coupon. The BOGO pays for the first box of cereal and the $1 goes toward the second box. After coupons, you will pay $1.50 for both boxes.

At most stores, you can also combine a BOGO coupon with a BOGO sale to get TWO products for free.

Again, take the cereal. The in-store promotion makes the second box of cereal free. And your coupon makes the first one free!

Combining Coupons with Sales
As I explained in my Coupons Misconceptions Series, the best way to maximize your savings (and minimize your out-of-pocket expenses) is to combine coupons with sales. If you have multiple copies of the same coupon, you can do the deal multiple times to really stockpile.

Sometimes stores will limit the number of items you can buy if the deal is especially good (for example, “limit 5”). You may need to go back a couple of times to get the most bang for your buck, but if the deal is good enough — like my HyVee cereal for pennies a box — it’s worth it!

Printable Coupons
In addition to the coupons that come in your weekly newspapers, you can also get printable manufacturer coupons online.  Manufacturers set print limits for their online coupons — usually two per computer. You can get additional copies by using other computers to print more, but you should never photocopy a printable coupon.

Each printable coupon has a unique bar code at the bottom. So, while a store may accept a copied coupon (since it doesn’t realize it’s a copy), they probably won’t get reimbursed for it. And if this happens enough, the store will probably stop taking printable coupons. Photocopying is fraud. Don’t do it!

PDF Printable Coupons
Occasionally, a manufacturer will put out a PDF file with its coupon on it. This means that you can save the coupon to your desktop and print off as many copies as you would like. While there are legitimate PDFs, these coupons are often fraudulent, so tread lightly if a friend forwards you a printable campaign.

Store Coupons
In addition to manufacturer coupons, you can also save on the products you love by using store coupons. Not all stores issue proprietary coupons, but a number of them do. Two good examples are Whole Foods, which releases a batch of coupons every other month in the Whole Deal magazine (download them here), and Target, which has oodles of printable store coupons on their website.

Stacking Coupons
The beauty of store coupons is that you can “stack” them — i.e. use them in conjunction with — manufacturer coupons to seriously up your savings quotient. Remember when I said that you can’t use more than one coupon per product (“one per transaction”)? Well, the exception to that rule is when you stack a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon: 2 coupons, 1 product, big savings!

A good example of stacking manufacturer with store coupons is the current deal at Target on Seventh Generation cleaning products.

Seventh Generation Liquid Dish Soap or Spray Cleaner ~ $2.69
Use $1/1 Target coupon here
Stack with $1/1 manufacturer coupon in the 10/29 Red Plum or here
= $.69 after stacked coupons!

Hopefully this little primer clears up some of the most common questions about using coupons. Do you have a question about “coupon rules” that I haven’t covered? Leave it in the comments section and I’ll be sure to answer!


  1. just got the barilla coupons you pointed us towards a few weeks ago. I thought it was only going to be one, but it was 6 or 8 BOGO coupons for the barilla plus pasta. What a gold mine!

  2. Yes! We just got ours yesterday as well. Even that little dinner game thing is cute. And one free box plus 5 BOGO is amazing indeed! Combine those BOGOs with a sale and a $1/1 Q and I’m thinking free Barilla!

  3. This is an amazing post, thank you Mara! Do you know if coupons are stackable with BJ’s coupons? Because on the BJ’s c it says ‘manufacturer in club coupon’.

  4. A quick comment about using expired coupons at the commissary…. it is ONLY OVERSEAS commissaries that accept expired coupons. Anything stateside is subject to the expiration date like a regular store.

  5. I just started and sent roommate to store with coupon that says limit four. He bought four and checker only gave the reduced on one. Did I need a coupon for each one? Thank you jackie

    • Yes, unless the coupon is a “Buy One Get One Free” or a “Save $x on x products” type coupon, you need one coupon per product.

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