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Back To Basics: Reading Coupons And Barcodes

by Tara Kuczykowski on July 27, 2010 · 31 comments

What is a coupon? Simply put, a coupon is a piece of paper that entitles the bearer to receive a discount on a purchase. Some go so far as to call it a consumer's contract with the manufacturer, so it's important to understand the components that comprise a coupon and how they affect our usage of them as informed consumers.

And of course our ultimate goal is to be informed consumers so that we can spend our money wisely while adhering to a manufacturer's intended coupon use.

Components of a Coupon

:: Expiration Date -- Almost all coupons currently available will have an expiration date clearly labeled on the coupon and officially expires at 11:59 p.m. on the date printed on the coupon. You may find coupons from a few decades ago that have no expiration date. If you should stumble across some of these coupons, stores should still accept them provided the product is still being manufactured.

:: Value -- This conveys how much the coupon is worth, as well as how many products need to be purchased to qualify for the discount.

:: Image -- The image pictured on the coupon may or may not include all of the products eligible for the coupon savings. Inexperienced cashiers (and husbands in my case, LOL) may incorrectly assume that a coupon may only be redeemed for the item shown, but it's actually the coupon terms that dictate what products the coupon may be redeemed with.

:: Terms -- The terms or "fine print" of a coupon are what dictate what a coupon may be used for and are arguably the most important component. Key criteria you want to pay attention to are:

  • Limit one per purchase. -- Each product in an overall transaction is considered one purchase. A coupon with this language indicates that you may use one coupon per qualifying item in a transaction. Example: You have three $0.50/1 Ortega product coupons with the per purchase wording. You may purchase three Ortega products and use three coupons.
  • Limit one per transaction. -- This indicates that only one like coupon may be used in a single transaction. Example: You have three $0.50/1 Ortega product coupons with the per transaction wording. You may purchase three Ortega products, but you would only be allowed to redeem one coupon. In this instance, I'd advise that you split your purchases up into multiple transactions if possible.
  • Limit one per customer. -- One per customer means only one redemption is allowed per person, period. Sure you may be able to circumvent this by returning on a different day, but abusing coupons in this manner may make manufacturers think twice about offering them in the future. Note that most stores will consider each member of your family a customer.
  • Not valid on travel/trial size. -- If a coupon does not have this language and does not have any language describing specific sizes the coupon is intended on, then you are perfectly within the terms to redeem these coupons on travel or trial sizes of the products described. This is a fantastic way to try new products!
  • Do not double. -- The do not double wording is the one exception to the terms dictating coupon usage. Coupons that specify "do not double" will still double automatically at most stores, provided the first number in the barcode is a 5. This is because the store is offering the discount on the doubled portion, so it's at their discretion to allow the doubling. If the barcode starts with a 9, the coupon will not double automatically.

:: Barcode -- You can actually garner a lot of information from a coupon barcode. Some information can be useful in determining how a coupon should be used. However, decoding coupons for the purpose of using them on items other than those dictated in the terms is illegal and will not be promoted here on Deal Seeking Mom.

  • Number System Character --The NSC number on a manufacturer's coupon will always be a 5 or a 9 (or possibly 99). As I mentioned previously, coupons that start with a 5 will double automatically according to a store's double coupon policy even if the coupon states "do not double." Coupons that start with a 9 will never double automatically. If the coupon starts with any other number, it is a store coupon and eligibly for coupon stacking as applicable. Note that you may find coupons that start with a 5 or a 9 that says "redeemable at" or have a store logo on them. This is suggestive marketing. These are still manufacturer coupons and should be redeemable anywhere.
  • Manufacturer Code --This number corresponds to the manufacturer's code will correspond to the first five digits on the UPC code of a product.
  • Product Code --The product code is comprised of the family code and the value code. The first three digits are the family code and indicate the family of products the coupon is valid on. The number of zeroes in this code specifies how specific the coupon is. All zeroes would indicate all products, one or two zeroes is more specific, and no zeroes would indicate a very specific product. The last two digits indicate the value of the coupon. You can Google to find the codes and their corresponding values, but 00 and 01 are the most important to keep in mind. A value of 00 instructs the register to "beep" for manual input, and a value of 01 indicates a free item and will prompt the cashier to enter a product value.
  • Check Digit -- The check digit is calculated based on the other numbers in the barcode and is a safeguard that verifies that a coupon has been scanned correctly.

Fascinating stuff, isn't it? I think so at least. Up next I'll be sharing information about the coupon redemption process from the manufacturer's point of view.

Homework assignment: Pull a few manufacturer's and store coupons out of your stash and review the above components on them. Note the differences between the two types of coupons.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anny July 27, 2010 at 11:47 am

Thanks for the great lesson... you even taught a veteran couponer some new information.


2 Gina July 27, 2010 at 11:56 am

Thanks so much! I learned something new as well...while shopping at my local grocery store just last week, they had Whisk on sale $3.99. I used a coupon printed from for $1/1 any Whisk laundry. The self check out beeped and asked me to see the cashier. The store manager just happened to be standing there at the time. While the cashier said the coupon was for Target only, I quickly pointed out that it stated "Manufacture's Coupon" and NOT "Target coupon" at the top. The cashier wanted to refuse to take it but the store manager said, "It's for $1! Just accept it!" I see now that as you state above even though this particular coupon had printed on it (which is where I printed it from) AND the red "dot" logo for Target, this particular coupon was "suggestive marketing!" I'm glad my store accepted the coupon and I was able to get a bottle of 32 load Whisk for $2.99!


3 Emily July 27, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I'm glad you were able to use the Kroger refuses to accept any manufacturer's coupon with a different store's logo on it, even though I"ve pointed out to them that they are manufacturer's coupons and they do NOT state "redeemable ONLY at ....".


4 Chrissy July 27, 2010 at 12:43 pm

My Ingles won't either! I had a $3.00 off total order from Kraft catalina and it had Bi-lo on it, so they wouldn't. The manager wouldn't either. It said manufacturer's coupon at the top!


5 Holly July 27, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I am new to couponing and am still working it all out :o). I have a question about what you mean by doubling. Does this refer to doubling the coupon value? I am looking at a coupon for $1 off M&M's, it has a 5 as the NSC. But I have been told that my store (kroger) only doubles coupons up to .50 cent value. from what I read you said the register will double 5NSC automatically. Please help.


6 Kyla July 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

My experience with Kroger is they only double up to and including .50 coupons.


7 Emily July 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

My Kroger doubles coupons up to $0.99 (Central OH).


8 Tara Kuczykowski July 27, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Yep, Holly, I was referring to doubling the coupon value. The doubling policy will vary by store and sometimes even region, so you'll need to verify the policy for your local stores.


9 Sarah July 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

My husband got into it yesterday with a manager of Safeway - trying to use 5 B1G1 free Sobe coupons. They say one per purchase on them. My husband tried to explain that there was a difference between purchase and transaction - manager basically said, too bad - I'm only accepting 1 coupon.
I wish Safeway and others would put this info into their coupon policy so we have something to show the stubborn managers. Seem to have a different problem every time. First it was being accused of coupon fraud, then another location said they don't take internet coupons for free product (even though it was B1G1, they took that to mean free product coupon) and then it was the 1 per purchase wording. UUUGGGHHH!!! Get your act together people...


10 Laura July 27, 2010 at 5:00 pm

How frustrating. For situations such as these, I eventually smile and say, "Why don't you see if the register will let you scan all five? It usually rejects the coupons if it's limited to one per transaction." or "I understand what you're saying. In that case, can I make five separate transactions and use one coupon on each transaction?" 9 out of 10 times the cashier decides to accept all coupons "just this one time."


11 Gina July 27, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Sarah, your comment made me chuckle a little...that would have really been a site if you had had 50 bottles and they would have had to ring them each separate..LOL But then would have been told "There's a limit of 6!"


12 Sarah July 27, 2010 at 1:11 pm

They got lucky my husband only had 1 of the store coupons to go along with the b1g1 free lol Otherwise he might have done just that!! They did have a limit of 10 but 10 separate transactions would have been AWESOME!! lol


13 David July 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Why do most coupons have two sets of barcodes? The cashiers at the Kroger where we shop usually cover one of them with their fingers when they are scanning them. We have had many discussions about why there are two sets of barcodes on coupons, but no one I have talked to seems to know.


14 Tara Kuczykowski July 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm

The second barcode is something new that manufacturer's are trying to implement that will alleviate some of the issues that current barcodes have. The family codes may not be sufficient to cover the wide range of products that some of the larger manufacturer's have these days, so from what I understand, these will allow them to encode a broader range of information. I haven't been able to find a great deal of information on them yet, but I'll definitely share it when I do.


15 candace July 28, 2010 at 1:44 am

i have heard that the other barcode is what is used in Canada


16 Kristi July 27, 2010 at 2:04 pm

How do you tell if a b1g1 coupon can be used together with a coupon for the regular price item? Someone tried to explain this to me before in great detail, but I didn't get it. Can anyone give me a simple explanation so I don't have to guess next time I want to combine coupons?


17 Laura July 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I would love to know this, too! I've read stories of people using BOGO and cents off coupons together, but I've never been able to use both myself.


18 Tara Kuczykowski July 27, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I plan to explain "coupon logic" in an upcoming post, so I'll be sure to cover this. There's some debate as to the ethics of being able to combine a money off coupon with a B1G1 coupon, so I want to be sure to present all of the information.


19 Kristen July 27, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I'm glad to know that "one per purchase" means one coupon per item. I don't know how many cashier's I've had read the fine print and allow me to use only one of those coupons. Some will let me do separate transactions. Can we have these sent to the big stores and say "please distribute and educate your cashiers?" Wal-Mart is the WORST!


20 Tara Kuczykowski July 27, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Funny you should mention Walmart, Kristen. They're definitely starting to take notice of their couponing customers, and I know they're attempting to educate their cashiers better. It will take some time, but I have high hopes for them!


21 Patti July 27, 2010 at 4:23 pm

The people at Target need to read the "Limit one per purchase" part! LOL!!!


22 Joni July 27, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Hi, I am new to your site, but this was fascinating - and helpful - stuff! I am looking forward to your upcoming blog about the coupon redemption process from the other side of the cash register.


23 KimH July 27, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Thanks!! I've heard this info was out there but I wasnt too compelled to run out & find it out.. You make it very simple indeed.
But I've often wondered about the process after the retailer has it as well.
I've used many a coupon on the day it was expiring.. so I know the grocer still gets payed for that Q.. but I'd love to know the process!!

To all of you who have problems redeeming coupons.. .I ALWAYS will call the corporate office of the store I've had problems with. I refuse to let ignorance be an excuse for poor customer service.. however, there are some stores that can and do make their own store policies even though they're a national chain, such as Target.


24 Catherine July 28, 2010 at 12:28 am

I agree with the comments on cashiers need to be educated a bit more on coupon policies. I'm so glad to finally find out what one per purchase means...I saw the kroger ad of this week and I have 6 crest toothpaste and 2 oral b toothbrush coupons I have been holding onto. I'm gonna go see tomorrow if they will let me use it. Also I don't know if anyone got there coupon for the digiorno deep dish pizza product...I've looked everywhere but can't seem to find the product and the expiry date is coming up soon. I don't want a free pizza to go to waste. Also wandering if the stores will take it since it's just printed on a paper and most stores are skeptical of printed coupons.


25 Amy July 28, 2010 at 2:01 am

Catherine, I was able to find the DiGiorno pizza at Safeway, hope you can find it somewhere. The cashier tried to hassle me at first and asked me if I had printed the coupon myself, but I pointed out the security printing on the coupon (like a check), and then she was fine.


26 Jessie December 10, 2010 at 10:19 am

I love how easily everything is explained on this site! It helps a newbie like me understand so much in so little time!


27 michelle April 21, 2011 at 7:57 pm

What does it mean (Limit of 4 like coupons in same shopping trip.)


28 Tara Kuczykowski April 21, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Those are the new terms that are on many of the latest P&G coupons. It means that you can only use four of the same coupon in a single shopping trip.


29 michelle April 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Internet coupons are you only allow to print 1 or can you print more of the same item......So how does that work...


30 Tara Kuczykowski April 21, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Generally you can print two coupons per computer. The only way around this is to print from different computers.


31 michelle April 22, 2011 at 3:05 am

With the term (Limit of 4 like coupon in same shopping trip) let me try to understand. So if I have 5 coupons for ERA detergent I can only use 4 but if I also have 5 of Cheer Detergent can I also use 4 of those????


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