July 17, 2018

Anatomy of a Coupon: How to Read Coupons

Oct 6, 2009

coupon bar code reader

I am a person who likes to have all the information before I start something.  I like to know how and why things work.  Knowing how things work can give you confidence!  I believe that understanding how coupons work will empower you with knowledge and confidence so that you can be a better couponer!

Let’s talk about the different components of coupons.

Expiration Date:  All coupons have an expiration date.  Some have an expiration date that actually says “No expiration date.”  Stores usually will not accept coupons that do not have expiration dates.  You can use the coupon through the date of the expiration date.  If the coupon’s expiration date is 10/6/2009, you can use the coupon until 11:59 pm on 10/6/2009.

Value:  This simply tells you how much will be deducted from your purchase. If it says “Save $1 on 2 boxes of cereal” then you will save $1 total on your purchase (not $1 per box).

Wording:  This is the most important part of the coupon.  It is how you know what the coupon is for!  If the coupon says “save on ANY xyz product” then it truly can be used on any, not just what is pictured.

Picture:  The picture on the coupon can be useful if you have never heard of the product, and can help you locate the item on the shelf.  The picture helps build product recognition and is a great form of advertising for the manufacturer.  The picture is NOT what is important though.  The manufacturer’s generally put the newest or most expensive product in the picture, obviously hoping you will buy that product.  As long as you follow what is in the wording of the coupon, you can usually get the lowest priced product which is generally the better deal.

Fine Print:  The fine print is usually information for the retailers including the coupon redemption address.  There are usually one or two lines that are intended for the consumer though.  Limit one coupon per purchase? Coupons typically have some version of that statement.  I would like to explain each of them to you so that you can in turn explain them to your cashiers (which I can guarantee will happen at some point).

  • Limit one coupon per purchase.  Each qualifying item(s) is a purchase.  If the coupon is for $1 off 2 boxes of cereal and you buy 2 boxes, that is 1 purchase.  If you bought 2 more, that is another purchase and you can use another $1/2 coupon.  This is on just about every coupon.  It means you can not use 2 coupons on 1 product.
  • Limit one coupon per transaction.  This means you can only use one of each coupon per transaction.  Each transaction is concluded with a receipt.
  • Limit one coupon per day/visit.  You can only use one of those coupons per store visit.
  • Limit one coupon per person/customer/household. You can only use one of these coupons.

Many times I have had cashiers try to tell me these restrictions mean something they are not.  If it says per transaction, that’s what it means.  If the manufacturer meant person, that is what they would have written.

coupon barcode

In the above picture you can see a basic coupon bar code.  Most coupon bar codes are comprised of five parts and a total of 12 digits.

Barcode: A number systems character (NSC) of “5” identifies the coupon as a coupon. “99” is another coupon prefix.  The “99” is used for non-doubling coupons. If your coupon begins with a “5” then it will automatically double (if your store doubles coupons). If it begins with a “99” then it will not double.

Reading coupon bar codes, aka “Decoding” is rather controversial so I’ve decided to remove the portion of my post containing these details. If you decode coupons for the purpose of using them on items they are not intended for – you are stealing.  There is a great post over at Moms Need to Know about the Ethics of Coupon Bar Code Decoding.  I highly encourage everyone to read it.  She says pretty much everything I want to say about the topic.

Remember, manufacturer’s began using bar codes on coupons to speed up coupon redemption.  Don’t ruin couponing for others by taking advantage of the manufacturer’s generosity.


  1. Very useful and interesting information. Thanks!

  2. Wow, interesting! Thanks!

  3. Wow, Steph! What a great (and thorough) post! I never knew any of this, and often wondered just how I was supposed to know if I was purchasing the correct item. Now I do! Thanks, and GREAT job!!!
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..A Few Good Amazon Deals… =-.

  4. Thank you K for asking that and thank you Stephanie for the update! I have heard of coupon decoding, but wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. NOT that I would use this information for anything other than its intended purpose, but I am glad I am armed with this knowledge so I can now stick up for myself (and my coupons) when the cashier questions me.

    I have been turned down for the “per purchase” wording while trying to use several coupons for each corresponding product and the manager said I could only redeem ONE coupon. Instead of arguing, I said that I would take one item and let them put the rest back.

  5. Stephanie…

    Whew! Thanks….I thought I was missing something 🙂

  6. For the coupons that say “do not double/triple”, why don’t they put a “99” instead of a “5” on the Q? I have loads of Qs that say this but none have a “99” on them….?

    ….seems like a fairly easy thing for them to do?

  7. K,

    99 coupons are much more complicated and many registers don’t support them. I’m not sure why coupons write do not double/triple in the first place since the store pays for the doubled amount, not the manufacturer, so it shouldn’t affect them in any way.

    The 5 coupons will double/triple automatically regardless of the DND/T wording, unless the cashier manually inputs the coupon to avoid doubling.


  8. Great post, Steph!!

    I’ve always thought that the manufacturers putting “Do Not Double/Triple” on the coupons was to protect their behind if the store for some reason doesn’t double or triple and the customer tries to blame it on the manufacturer.

    I could totally be wrong, but that makes the most sense to me.
    .-= Rachel @ Surviving The Stores´s last blog ..How To Get More Coupons! =-.

  9. Thanks for the information!! Do you know what: “Limit one coupon per purchase/household” means? Does that mean only one per household or one per purchase? I’ve never seen those 2 stipulations together – – it’s on this weeks Mazola Cooking Oil coupon.

  10. Erica,

    I have seen a couple of those recently too and they are very strange. In that instance you would go with the household limit.


  11. This may be a different subject for you to cover, but I have always wondered how the store actually gets the money for the coupons from the manufacturer.

  12. It’s an economical fact that the coupons save great deal for suffering families. We should encourage everyone to participate in this. I personally save hundreds of dollars a month..

  13. Thank you for taking your time to post. I’ve stopped couponing for a bit but this has encouaged me to take it back up again with better knowledge. I have in the past made some mistakes and have always wondered why they took one stack of coupons and not another.

    Any help for you to make my life simple is greatly appreciated.

  14. Great article. I found the discount table helpful is there a similar table for the mfg id and family codes?

    Thanks dave

  15. On extreme couponing the people are saving a lot of money by collecting the same coupon on that one product, but most only allow one coupon per purchase. So how do they save all this money if the are only allowed to use the coupon once?

    • @Sally, One coupon per purchase means you can only use 1 $1/2 coupon on 2 items. Or 1 $2/1 coupon on 1 item. Each item is a purchase. So, if you have 5 $2/1 coupons, you can buy 5 items and use all 5 coupons.

      • @Stephanie, okay I’m confused then because I’ve always been able to use two coupons per purchase. For example, I have 2 coupons for $1 off 2 boxes. each box is a purchase and gets a coupon attached to it so I get $2 off two boxes. Each box is a purchase so they get their own coupon. I’ve always done this and never had an issue.

        • @Molly, No, only 1 coupon can be applied to each item. So if you are using a $1 off 2 coupon then that coupon is applied to BOTH boxes. You cannot use another coupon on either of those boxes.

        • @stephanie, I’m really not trying to be rude but I swear to you I’m right. Google “one coupon per purchase” and you will see hundreds of pages agreeing with me. For example, if my shopping trip consisted of only those two boxes in your example, then that would be one coupon per transaction. If I used two coupons like I described, then that would be one coupon per purchase because you are purchasing items. I promise promise I’m right.

          • i think if they are two seperate things like boxes of cereal and you get two dollar off coupons you could use one for each.. if coupon says 1 dollar off two boxes you can only use one am i right?

  16. I saw the same show…$600+ worth of groceries for like under $4. Also kept thinking to myself….can they really use all that food before it goes bad?

  17. i just know how to get started or that orginized!!! help

  18. This info was very helpful. Thank you.

  19. Kristen says:

    OK, I’m really new to couponing and thought I understood the gist of the coupon rules until I looked at the fine print on some of the items I’ve seen in today’s ads (P&G specifically). Most of them say “Limit One Coupon Per Purchase of products and quantities stated”.

    An example: I saw a coupon for $ off when purchasing deodorant, body wash, and something else together. I initially thought that I’d be able to use this coupon towards the something else and then apply a coupon for the deodorant to that and a coupon for the body wash to that–but now I’m confused. Help?

    Also, I live in a part of the country where there aren’t store loyalty/discount cards (CVS is moving into the area but there isn’t one near me yet) so I envy the savings that many of you get from those avenues!

  20. Teresa says:

    is it true that if you have a “buy product x and get product y for free” that you can then use another coupon on product x to reduce the cost of product x?

  21. Jennifer says:

    I have a hard time understanding when the coupon says get $1.00 on ONE and sometimes it is written like (1). What’s the difference between the two?

  22. I really enjoy your site; I am preparing to begin couponing. It looks like your link to the Moms Need to Know site is broken. I guess they also thought better of posting that info.

  23. Giovanna says:

    I am confused. There are coupons that say “one coupon per purchase” and there are coupons that say “one coupon per purchased item”.

    I have always thought that “one coupon per purchase” was another way of saying “one coupon per transaction”.

    Now having seeing coupons that say “one coupon per purchase item”, helps be think that “one coupon per purchase” is not the same thing, rather confirms by belief that is another way of saying “one coupon per transaction”.

    • Christina S. says:

      If you are purchasing 15 items and have 15 coupons that say one coupon per purchase, then you can use 15 coupons. If the coupon says one coupon per purchase per transaction or household, you can only use 1 per transaction.

  24. laura balzekas says:

    Hey, i was checking out the article because some of my coupons are confusing, and i was trying to figure out how to know if a product was included with the coupon before getting to the register. I didnt realize people even thought of cheating the system, thats just crazy!

  25. Hi ,

    Just a question i like to ask about coupon i have (save 75 c ON ANY colgate sensitive pro relief toothbrush) it means that i have to buy the toothbrush or if it says ON ANY i can use this coupon for any other colgate product .

    I thank you in advance.

    • If it says toothbrush – you have to buy the toothbrush. By “any” they mean any variety of the toothbrushes listed. It does not mean any colgate product.

  26. About decoding a coupon.. I’ve been working on both a grocery/inventory app for my network at home.. but also a companion coupon code matching routine… the coupon codes are referenced against the official grocers assoc db.. I have found that some, not all mnfctrs word or state a required amount to purchase.. that is not the actual coded requirements.. i.e. A Campbell’s Soup coupon for buy 2 and get 40 cent off is coded to require only 2 items for the 40 off.. but A shopper wouldn’t really know because it would simply scan and take off the 40 cent [for the record in the last 3 weeks I have been double checking my coupons… 2 out of 5 campbell’s coupons are well.. getting Purchasers to buy more to offset coupon use…]

  27. Hi I’m fairly new at the couponing stuff i’ve gone shopping with them before i actually jst came back from a trip i have a question and i dont know who to ask? I know the whole 1 coupon per purchase and all that. BUT what does limit of 4 like coupons in same shopping trip mean? is that only 4 of the same items in 1 trip or 4 of similar coupons on trip like P&G coupons? i ONLY buy 4 of the same items since that is the amount of newspaper i get so can i use many p&G coupons in same shopping transaction? Hope you understand my question? sorry i feel dumb i’m just so new at this.

    • It means you can only use 4 of those same coupons per shopping trip. So if you have 5 coupons for $1/2 Pantene products, you could only use 4 of those at one time and save the 5th coupon for another time.

  28. wow! it’s a great .
    I want to know can damaged coupon read?

  29. So is there a $ limit on the coupons that double?

    • Each store is different. Stores in my area will only double coupons that are $0.50 and under. In some areas, the stores will double coupons that are $1 and under.

  30. Hi my question is if i have 1 manufacture come that came in the newspaper insert like for an example a kellogg’s coupon $1/3 an i go to print a $1/3 on one of the coupons websites can i use both in one transaction or purchase?.thank you

    • No, you can only use 1 coupon per item (in this case, the $1/3 coupon applies to all 3 cereals) regardless of whether the coupon came from the newspaper or online.

  31. What if it says limit 4 or limit 2 deals

  32. I am new to couponing and trying to understand the wording. For example I have a coupon that states “Save .50 on any four cans of Chef Boyardee”. Does that mean that I save .50 off each can or is it .50 off the total purchase of four cans. The small print says “Limit one coupon per purchase”.

    Thanks for your help.

  33. I have a ? On how to read a coupon. Ok the coupon says limit one coupon per person. No more than 4 coupons (of any kind) for the same product in the same transaction. What does this mean??

    • It says per person? If it does then that is what you must follow. If you mean per purchase, then it means you can only use one coupon per purchase (each item, or set of items you buy is a purchase) and only 4 of that coupon in a transaction. So if you have 5 coupons for $1 off 2 Kraft cheese products, at most you can buy 8 Kraft cheese products and use 4 of the $1 off 2 coupons.

  34. Dale Lyons says:

    In your search for coupon information have you run across any standards for coupon widths? Working on a project that requires information on coupons.

    Thanks, Dale.

  35. Sierra Emery says:

    Hi, I am new at this and trying to figure out the best way to start couponing. I purchased the sunday paper for the first time and found that there really are not that many coupons in it. but anyways my qeustion is I have a walgreens coupon for some pain releif pills $4.00 off and the coupon reads limit 3. does that mean I can use three coupons on one product or three total on three different products?

    • Hi Sierra. Is the coupon found in one of the Walgreens coupon books? Or in-ad coupon? Usually the way Walgreens coupons work is that when you scan the coupon once at the register, it takes the value off of all the products you buy. So in this case, if you have a coupon for $4 of the purchase of 1 pain relief pills, and there’s a limit of 3, you can buy 3 products. When you scan the Walgreens coupon, it will take $4 off each pain relief product you buy. So $12 total will come off you bill. Since it’s a limit of 3, the coupon will only work for a max of 3 items. Make sense? 🙂 I hope that helps!

  36. I have a coupon from my dentist office that says, “$325 DENTURES PER ARCH regular price dentures starting at $325 per arch. Offer is valid for patients with or without insurance, is subject to changes and expires 12/31/12.” I am getting dentures, uppers now and bottoms in about six months or so. How does this coupon apply to me? Anyone know if it does? My uppers are more than $325.

  37. I’m knew to couponing and this maybe a silly question, but if I have a coupon that says its a manufacturers coupon then says (available at Walmart or redeemable at Walmart) does that mean I can only use that coupon at Walmart?

  38. I got a coupon says, save $1 off on any four VO5 shampoo or conditioner. What do that mean?

  39. I looked through all my coupons to see what could be doubled. I’m confused because I see some coupons with the barcode shown above. Then other coupons do not have the barcode broken down ex: 5 1234… Some show a barcode that reads 0012345-6789123. Do these double?

  40. Im a little confused! Im new to all of this and i guess the most confusion i have is the double and triple couponing! All of my coupons begin with “00”. I hope this isn’t a dumb question but does that mean they can not be doubled??

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