Couponing takes too long.

This is one of the biggest coupon misconceptions out there. And there’s a reason it’s so pervasive — because there is an big dose of reality to the myth.

When I first started couponing, I was easily spending at least two hours just writing down all the drugstore deals and figuring out my shopping lists. TWO HOURS. For one trip to CVS. Oy vey!

And yet, I kept reading on all the coupon bloggers how it only takes them 15 minutes a week to scan the circulars, make their meal plan and grocery list, and pull their coupons. So what gave with my 2 hours?

Finally, I realized that (a) there is a learning curve to couponing, (b) I was being a bit too obsessive, and (c) I needed to simplify my system.

Master the Learning Curve

When you first start shopping with coupons, it can take a long time just to figure out how to make your menu plan around what’s on sale in the circular, let alone find all the coupons and write everything down. Add to that a few trips to the drug stores or Target, and it can seriously seem like a full-time job. If that’s happening to you, let me please recommend that you take a step back and start smaller.

Focus on one slice of your overall grocery and household budget first. Maybe that’s your toiletries and cleaning supplies, most of which you can get with coupons at CVS, Walgreens or Target. Or maybe it’s your produce, which you’ve decided to purchase through a CSA. Or perhaps it’s participating in a co-op for your costly kosher cheese or meat. In any case, focus on one area in which you can make an appreciable difference in your budget and master the skills for that area.

For me, I focused on the drug store game. I spent several months figuring out how to do it quickly and efficiently, all the while building up an impressive stock pile of diapers, wipes, toiletries and cleaning supplies.

Now, I am stocked for more than six months on most items — and well over a year for dental hygiene. In the last 6 months, I’ve redirected my focus to the grocery store. Combining kashrut with coupons was too much for me at first, but now I’ve learned how to pinpoint certain products or categories of foods and stock up on those. It no longer feels overwhelming and now I spend only about 30 minutes a week organizing my shopping trips! I’ve mastered the learning curve :), and you will, too!

Manage the Obsession

Like a new hobby, couponing and bargain shopping can quickly become a full-out obsession. I was reading dozens of blogs, adding more every week, and trying to chase for fear I’d never be able to get free dental floss again.

Way too intense! In order to manage my obsession, I have limited my Google reader to three national coupon bloggers (Money Saving Mom, The Thrifty Mama and Common Sense with Money), plus two local coupon bloggers. I also gave up shopping at Walgreens (I don’t find them to be very coupon-friendly, and the restrictions on their Register Rewards bug me!), so I only shop at one drug store: CVS. And, despite my husband’s encouragement to get every last drop of free toothpaste out there, I don’t bother doing a deal if I’m already well stocked ’til 2011.

Simplify the System

If it’s been a few months and you’ve managed your obsession and mastered the learning curve, you will hopefully begin to feel that your couponing is more than worth the investment. But if you’re still spending hours on it every week, that may be a sign that you need to really simplify your system. For me, this means filing the coupon inserts rather than clipping every coupon.

If you’re still just getting your coupon legs on, I’d recommend spending more time on meal planning and playing the drug store game and less time on creating a fancy coupon system. As the days go on, you’ll figure out what makes the most sense for you and be able to create a coupon system that streamlines your shopping efforts.

So how long does it really take me?

I know most coupon bloggers say it takes them no more than 20 minutes to scan the circulars, pull their coupons and make their lists. I don’t doubt that they are being truthful, but for me — even after more than 2 years of couponing — that’s not the case. I spend anywhere from 30 – 60+ minutes a week organizing my trips for CVS, Target and two or three grocery stores. I don’t usually hit all 5 stores most weeks, but if the deals are smoking hot, I may go out of my way to do so. Of course, there are weeks that I don’t shop at all.

For me, 30-60 minutes a week is a reasonable amount of time to spend on couponing. And when I save up to 90% on my receipts, I’d say it’s more than worth the return on my investment!

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that using coupons doesn’t have to take too long. What tips have you discovered for keeping your couponing from taking over your life? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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