Coupon clippers slash spending
In today’s tough economy, shoppers are looking to save pennies anywhere they can – and suddenly, clipping coupons is the cool thing to do.
Central Ohio resident Marcy Robison began her website, www.stretchingabuck.com, in 2008 after deciding to stay home with her children.
“I knew I wanted to do something for myself and I couldn’t figure out what to do,” she said, recalling that she was driving her friends and family crazy by sending them emails about all the savings she was getting at stores. She decided to start a blog, figuring, “If people want to read it, they will. If they don’t, oh well.”
Since then, the site has grown in popularity, with thousands of readers nationwide checking in weekly to find her coupon match-ups to stores such as Kroger, Meijer, Giant Eagle, Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens and more.
The TLC (The Learning Channel) show “Extreme Couponing,” which profiles shoppers and the savings they can receive by using coupons, has only drawn more visitors to her site.
“It’s evolved into a business, which I never would have dreamed in a million years.”
Where to begin?
Blacklick resident Ilene O’Neall started using coupons about a year ago after seeing “Extreme Couponing” on TV.
“I thought if they can do it, I probably can, too,” she said.
She estimates she spends a couple of hours a week in her couponing efforts, resulting in savings of about $500 a month.
“Before that, I was just like anybody else – if we needed something I would go to the store and buy it, whether it was on sale or not,” she said.
Now, she has learned to watch the sales cycles and match them with her coupons. She stocks up on a three- to four-month supply of the items her family uses most often.
“Most hygiene items and toiletries are where I save the most, but definitely groceries as well,” she said. “And now I can buy the name brand instead of the store brand.”
Robison advises those new to couponing to start small.
“The best tip I can give anyone is to pair a coupon with a sale whenever possible,” she said. “And start small – don’t overwhelm yourself.”
Robison said it can almost be a full- or part-time job, with those raking in the biggest savings spending 40 hours a week or more on matching coupons and driving from store to store.
“It’s a challenge,” she said. “You have to weigh time versus money.”
First-timers should start with a simple strategy, Robison advised, focusing on saving on groceries, household items or toiletries, and mastering the coupon policy at one store before moving on to another.
“Even if you just want to focus on one thing, there are always ways to save,” Robison said.
Where do you find coupons?
O’Neall has three newspapers delivered to her home every Sunday, and asks friends and family to save coupons for her whenever possible. In addition, she occasionally orders coupons from eBay or a coupon clipping service.
Robison noted there is a wealth of printable coupons available on the Internet, even though studies have shown 90 percent of the coupons used are clipped from newspapers.
“Target and Meijer offer a lot of great store-specific coupons on their site,” Robison noted, and added that customers may match manufacturer coupons with those store coupons for even bigger savings.
In addition, Robison said, many organic and health food manufacturers - as well as produce companies - offer printable coupons, which disputes the idea that coupons are only available for “junk” food.
O’Neall even admits to poking around in recycling bins to find coupons from time to time, but avoids any bins labeled for fundraising purposes.
“I won’t jump in, but I will look around a little on the top,” she said.
Unlike the Dumpster diving coupon seekers seen on “Extreme Couponing,” she says she always brings extra paper to recycle to offset any coupon inserts she might take.
What’s it like to coupon?
The “Extreme Couponing” show has led many national stores to re-evaluate their coupon policies, and central Ohio is no exception.
“When the show first came out we definitely started to see the store make changes,” Robison said.
Many stores have begun to limit the number of coupons that can be used, either per transaction or per day. However, central Ohio is a still a great place to coupon, Robison said.
“We’re very lucky that our stores double coupons up to 99 cents,” she said. “That means that our 75-cent coupons double to $1.50. In most other places that same 75-cent coupon will only double up to $1 – if they even double coupons at all.”
Robison said Kroger stores run special promotions occasionally as well.
“Our Kroger stores here have randomly been running triple coupons every now and then,” she said.
O’Neall said the stricter policies can make it harder to coupon, but she has learned to break down her purchases into separate transactions - or return to the store the next day - to maximize her savings.
“People will always find a way around it,” she said. “If you want it that bad, you’ll figure out a way to do it.”
She recalled an instance where she purchased 100 boxes of cat food - and she doesn’t even have a cat. By using coupons, she made $1.50 off each box because the store allowed the difference to be applied to the rest of her purchases, and she had 100 boxes to donate to a cat shelter.
It required multiple trips to the store because it didn’t have that many boxes on the shelf, but she said it was well worth it because of the good feeling it gave her.
“I never would have thought about helping out a cat shelter before,” she said.
In addition, she has blessed others by donating cleaning supplies and paper goods to her son’s school, and creating care packages for the troops with trial size items.
“When you don’t have anything into it, you are that much more prone to give it away,” she said.
Do people think you’re crazy?
O’Neall and Robison both recommend the “binder system” for storing coupons, which allows them to quickly look at the coupons they have collected. A zip-up style three-ring binder is suggested, with the inside filled with baseball card or money card holders to sort the coupons. Others prefer an “envelope” filing system with each category of coupons in a separate envelope.
“You have to be organized,” O’Neall said. “If you are not organized it is not going to go well at all.”
The binder can be a little attention-getting sometimes, O’Neall admitted.
“People always stop me and ask about it,” she said. “Most of them want to know how to do it for themselves.”
Every now and then she will run into a cashier who is having a bad day and complains about the amount of coupons she is using, but for the most part, cashiers are just as excited as she about the savings.
“I think the cashiers are kind of getting used to it,” O’Neall said. “I try to go when it is less busy. And if people try to get in line behind me, I warn them I have a lot of coupons.”
Robison predicts that couponing will continue to be popular.
“Grocery prices are going up again,” Robison said. “Everybody is noticing that.”
O’Neall’s only regret is not learning how to play the coupon game sooner.
“It makes you wish you could go back in time,” O’Neall said. “Think about all the money you would save.”