Couponing is big news today, thanks to a downturn in the economy and the popularity of a new TLC television program that premiered in December of 2010. Extreme Couponing has been so popular with viewers it was recently picked up for a
second season. The reality show has spawned an upsurge in avid couponers all over the United States.
For 32 years I carried a coupon box every time I went shopping and never once saw another coupon box or binder. Not once. Coupon wallets and envelopes of coupons, yes, but never a box or binder. In the last few months I’ve seen women with coupon binders almost every time I shop in Dubuque or Cedar Rapids.
But there’s nothing new about coupons. They’ve been around since the late 1880’s when a druggist came up with the brilliant marketing maneuver of giving out certificates for a free glass of a new beverage that was selling less than nine glasses a day. It wasn’t long before that drink, Coca-Cola, became a household name. A few years later C.W. Post distributed a one-cent coupon to introduce Grape Nuts cereal, with other companies soon following suit. The real boon to coupon use came during the Depression when it was essential for families to find ways to stretch their dollar. By 1965, half of all American households were clipping coupons and by the end of the twentieth century couponing had become a natural way of life for most families, so much so that in 1998 the United States designated September as National Coupon Month.
But it was only recently, with the advent of a reality television program that featured women, men and even sets of twins doing tremendous feats with their binders full of coupons that couponing became cool.
When Yadira Rodriguez of Sharp Entertainment contacted me last year for possible inclusion in a reality television program featuring couponers, I was intrigued. After all, I had been an avid couponer for over 30 years and was writing a book about couponing, combining my own personal experience with an ethnographic research and historical perspective of coupon use. My stockpiling was legendary in my circle of family and friends and my frequent blog postings about couponing led the producers of the show to me, but it was where I lived that ultimately kept me from making the final cut for the program.
Yes, it was living in a small town in Iowa that eventually eliminated me from the reality show’s rosters. Iowa fans of the Extreme Couponing program might be wondering if they, too, could ‘super shop’ like the participants of this program. My answer to that question is a resounding no. You can’t. Why? There are several reasons, but the main one is because you live in Iowa where double coupon stores are virtually unheard of.
The couponers featured on Extreme Couponing are shopping at stores that have double coupon promotions, which is why they can get so many items for nothing but tax. Doubling coupons inevitably leads to a certain amount of products that are either free or very cheap. Just ask Kmart. When Iowa K-Mart stores experimented with doubling coupons up to $2 in 2008, my husband and I regularly walked out of the store with over $200 worth of merchandize for less than $15. Initially K-Mart allowed the use of 75 coupons doubled per person each trip. We took full advantage of that, taking two carts each trip and using 75 coupons each. We still made the trip when the limit was 25 coupons. Now K-mart’s infrequent double coupon opportunities are limited to 5 coupons, or up to 99-cents, when everyone knows most coupons are $1 or more. We don’t bother traveling for that miniscule savings.
Another reason most Iowans can’t replicate the Extreme Couponing shopping trips is that very few stores could accommodate such large orders. Note that the shoppers featured on the program fill several carts with merchandise because they are buying certain products in large quantities; 50 mustards, 60 boxes of Total cereal, 100 toothbrushes. How many stores do you frequent that stock that many of one product? Those shoppers are calling the store managers ahead of time to make sure a large quantity of sale items will be available, ordering dozens, or even cases, ahead of time. Even if you found a store manager willing to do that, you’d have to have that many coupons on hand. Where did the 50 mustard coupons come from? One show participant claimed her extra
coupon inserts came “from God.” Another climbed into recycling bins with her 5-year-old son to retrieve extra inserts. There are coupon clipping services on the Web where you can actually purchase coupons if you are intent on saving money, but then you’d need to account for the money spent on obtaining the coupons. For one woman on the show, that was $70 in coupon handling fees alone just for one trip to the store. Some families only spend $70 a week to feed their families, and this woman spent $70 just on the coupons. Sure, she had four cartloads of groceries to show for it, but 100 deodorants and 50 mustards isn’t going to go very far in feeding a house full of hungry children. Logistics aside, most of us don’t have 30 hours a week to devote to clipping and sorting
coupons and searching the web for printable coupons and the best deals. Nor would we really want to.
So, maybe in small town Iowa we can’t replicate the shopping sprees that are shown on Extreme Couponing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still save money using coupons, or do similar coupon transactions on a smaller scale. Even in Iowa, I regularly walk out of stores with bags full of cheap or free merchandise. How? I strategically combine coupons with sale prices. For example, in a recent shopping trip to Target I bought 16 Schick razors. The razors were on sale for $6.49, and for each two I purchased I got a $5 Target gift card. I used $4 coupons on each razor, paying $38.96 after coupons and receiving $40 in gift cards to use later. I also bought two tubes of Colgate Max toothpaste on sale for $2.49, using both a $1 Target coupon and a $1 manufacturer coupon (most stores allow customers to use a manufacturer coupon on top of their store coupons), paying just 49-cents for each tube. I also bought Johnson & Johnson first aid kits priced at 92-cents and used coupons for $1.50 off two Red Cross products to pay just 17-cents each. I do infinitely better with health and beauty products at Walgreens and Target than with food products but can still find grocery store deals good enough to stockpile with. When Fareway recently had a sale on Oscar Mayer hot dogs and included in their
ad a store coupon for $1.50 off three, I used manufacturer’s coupons on top of that to get the hot dogs for less than 50-cents a pack. I did even better at Hy-Vee the same week when they had Oscar Mayer bologna on sale for 99-cents a pack and for each three purchased, a Catalina coupon popped out of the register for $3 off the next order. Those are just two examples of how I do my own version of mini-coupon sprees. I look forward to regular “free sprees” at Walmart, too, picking up things like Reach dental
floss and Carefree panty liners that with the everyday low price and high-value coupons combined are completely free. In the 30 years that I have been an avid couponer, there are some things I have never paid more than a quarter for, including
toothbrushes and toothpaste. Items that avid couponers never pay full price for are cereal, shampoo, deodorant and razors, because the coupons and sales on them are so plentiful.
My advice for anyone interesting in couponing?
- Gather up coupons. Subscribe to a newspaper and ask friends and family to save their coupons for you. There are coupon clipping services online that will clip the coupons and send them to you for a handling fee. Online coupons are offered on several sites and even onproduct manufacturer’s websites. Look for pads of coupons on the shelves at your grocery store and in the red blinkie machines hooked to shelves. Start looking for peel-off coupons attached to the products themselves. Remember
coupon etiquette: Don’t take more coupons than you will use, and leave some for other customers.
- Stockpile when something you regularly purchase goes on sale. My family uses a lot of peanut butter and Lipton tea so when coupons are distributed in the coupon inserts for those products, Icollect 10 or more of them and then wait for a sale.
- Organize your coupons. At first a coupon clutch wallet or even long white envelopes rubber-banded together inside your purse will suffice, but at some point you might want a plastic box with a lid or a coupon binder. I used the same Rubbermaid check box for 30 years and just recently transferred everything to a binder with plastic baseball-card holder type pages for organizing my coupons, with unexpected results. All of a sudden, cashiers are asking me if I’m ‘one of those people,’ and not in a friendly manner. But it is easier to use and I put a lot of time and money into making it, so I’ll stick with it.
- Learn to combine sale prices with coupons and take your coupons everywhere in case you run across a clearance cart or shelf of merchandise that will be free with a coupon. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t buy something just because you have a coupon, a common mistake for anyone just getting started. It is fine to plan a few meals around your free peanut butter and cheap hotdogs, but don’t buy three Totino’s pizzas just because you have a $1 coupon. It’s cheaper, and healthier to make homemade pizza.
Couponing isn’t rocket science. There are coupon classes offered throughout the country as well as DVD’s, books, and online tutorials that teach couponing. YouTube features dozens of videos that show you how to make a coupon binder or that detail super shopping sprees that you can replicate at Walgreens, Target or CVS, but you can figure it out yourself. I did. You can save a lot of money by using coupons wisely. But if you think you are going to save 90% off your grocery bill with coupons here in Iowa, that
just isn’t reality.
Here are some helpful resources for anyone interested in saving money with coupons:
The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half, by StephanieNelson, Avery Books, 2009.
Pick AnotherCheckout Lane, Honey: Save Big Money & Make the Grocery Aisle Your Catwalk, by
Joanie Demer, Aviva, 2009.
(for ordering coupons) http://www.thecouponclippers.com/
(to keep updated on current deals)