garage sales, paper


I know many readers will understand the thrill of the garage sale hunt. Fewer will understand that particular excitement I experience over paper products. My daughters and I hit several of the city-wide garage sales on Friday but it wasn’t until late in the day that I hit the mother lode. Katie, age 12, eyed me warily at first as I grabbed stickers and notebooks, and then she looked downright distraught as I piled arm load after arm load next to the checkout table.  “Mom, what are you doing? You’re going to spend way too much money at this sale.”  I just smiled. Packages of construction paper~10-cents, new packages of stickers~ 10-cents, new greeting cards with envelopes~ 5-cents each, cute notebooks~ 10-cents, a box of Current stationery~ 25 cents, plastic organizers with little drawers for Katie and Abby’s sticker collection~ $1.  I left with four bags of treasure and spent…Drumroll please…$13.

I laughed our loud when I got home and opened up the back of the van.

I could imagine David shaking his head, but smiling. He didn’t understand my penchant for all things paper, but he tolerated it. After all, there are worse habits a wife could indulge in,  ones that involved much more money; $300 purses come to mind. (my daughters and I had also wondered at the long waiting line at one sale as the garage doors opened. The women rushing to the table of Coach purses answered that question)

“Mary, do you think some couponers are actually hoarders?” a male friend asked me recently, and my mind’s eye flashed to my modest stockpiles of cereal, peanut butter and shampoo.

“It can get that way, like the extreme couponers I see on television,” I replied, then added truthfully, “But if I hoard anything it is stationery and paper.”


“Stationery?” his wife’s eyes immediately lit up. “I would love stationery! I can never find any nice stationery.”

I sent her a “care package” of stationery that week.

The only thing that dampened my enthusiasm for this sale was the absence of my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, also a paper addict. After a morning of garage sales, she ‘d returned to the hospital to be with Jacob during the last 24 hours of his latest chemotherapy treatment.

I think it is time to put together another paper “care package.”



Did you see the TLC Extreme Couponing show?

From my book in progress:

On December 29, 2010, producers of a TLC special program “Extreme Couponing” featured four coupon-obsessed savers who were challenged to get as much merchandise as they could for as little as possible. I’d been interviewed for the program, but after viewing it, I realized why I’d been passed over for inclusion.

I should have known that a reality program would portray any “extremist” in an unflattering light. One of the women in the program, Amanda, was portrayed as a hoarder who had enough toilet paper in her stockpile to last her and her husband 40 years. Nathan Engles, also known as “Mr. Coupon” online and among friends, had 1500 sticks of deodorant stockpiled in his garage. And “The Krazy Coupon Lady,” Joanie Diemer, was shown in a dumpster with her four-year-old son pilfering for coupons.

I’m sure most viewers would have been bored with my minimal stockpiles and modest garage sale profits. Still, the show’s biased premise haunted me for days. Was this the image of extreme couponers that readers of my book would be familiar with; people who stockpiled 3000 rolls of toilet paper and 1500 deodorants, outrageous amounts that they couldn’t possibly use in their own lifetime? What about the huge donations Nathan Engles regularly makes to a local church food bank?  Or the fact that Diemer teaches others to coupon? Her helpful book “Pick Another Checkout Lane, Honey” wasn’t even mentioned, nor was her website. Reality shows aren’t reality, but does the average television viewer know that? Was this the “reality” readers would have of extreme couponers?

During the months I conducted research and wrote this book, one of my sisters, briefly unemployed, joined me among the ranks of extreme couponers, giving me a cohort in the hunt for good deals. In November of 2010, a local Pamida store experimented with tripling coupons, allowing me the unexpected and never-before enjoyment of several triple-coupon sprees that filled my attic stairway with free products to sell at the next year’s garage sale. Also in November, my mother died after a courageous battle with cancer. While cleaning out her closet, we came across an unusually long, thin box. I gasped in amazement when my niece opened it up and pulled out a very familiar looking umbrella. It was an umbrella from the Gloria Vanderbilt company, still sealed in a plastic bag. For two empty flattened perfume boxes, they’d offered the lovely umbrella as a refund premium almost 20 years before. I’d had enough empty boxes in my files to have one sent to me and another to my mother. Here was the proof that she’d never even used it. I’ll never know if she’d thought it too beautiful to use in the rain, or had considered it worthless. Somehow it seemed appropriate that I discovered that past company premium while working on a book about coupons and refunding. Finding it abandoned in a closet gave me pause. Is “free” always a good deal?

As I watched the program I found myself alternately lusting after the bounty and the good deals these shoppers were able to get with their coupons, and disgusted by the huge stockpiles. I have seen Nathan Engles on Nightline and read Diemer’s book, so I know that both of them donate generously to charities. But the producers of this program concentrated on the huge amount of food and health and beauty items they had on their basement and garage shelves.  Amanda, the woman first featured in the special had two entire rooms dedicated to her stockpiling and it was spilling over into her husband’s “man cave.”  In my video clip for consideration for the program I was told to “blow them away” with my stockpiles, so I wasn’t surprised. Still, watching the program I had to ask myself some tough questions: Is “free” always a good deal? Is it always healthy and wise to stock up on something just because I can get it for pennies?  In writing my book and asking the who and the why of avid coupon users, I’m also delving into my own psyche.  And it isn’t always pretty.

“How can you still be writing?” someone asked me after reading my blog and learning about my grandson’s cancer.  How can I not? I wonder. That is what I do. I write.

How can you even think of planning a super shopping spree with all that your daughter and grandson are going through?” I have asked myself. Then I clip the coupons, organize the coupon box, and wait patiently for the next time the sale ads warrant a trip to Cedar Rapids or Dubuque, a day when I’m not taking care of my other two grandchildren.

This is what I do, what I’ve been doing for 30+ years, and though I have periods when I haven’t done much couponing at all, for the majority of my adult life grabbing the coupon box has been second nature. But watching the “Extreme Couponing” show definitely made me wonder at what point a “super shopper” crosses the line to “hoarder.”


Once, twice, three times…too many?

We did it again, and we seem to get better at it each time.  Due to a little advance notice and the opportunity to order coupons from ,yesterday David and I came away from a morning triple coupon spree at Pamida in Dyersville with two overflowing carts.  The store opened at 9:00, and we were the first ones through the door. My list was a little more varied this time around, due to a preview of the sale ad. I knew Olay body washes were going to be 50-cents each after coupons and Puffs tissues, Colgate Total, Suave deodorant, Werthers caramels, Butter Kernel vegetables, Dasani water and Betty Crocker cookie mixes would be free.  Tylenol would be 99-cents after coupons, Advil $1.79, Robitusson cough syrup $1.99, and Noiticeables 49-cents. The cans of Folgers coffee were a mere 79-cents. David and I each took a cart so we could do the most damage maximize our savings, since the ad stated “three like coupons per product.”  The cashier said we could do our orders together, however, so our morning trip netted us six of each free or cheap product and filled two carts.  We paid $52 for $320 worth of products, and that included a $13 clock and a box of hot cocoa that I didn’t have a coupon for.  I say our morning trip because after church and an afternoon spent with my siblings sorting at my mother’s house, we headed to Dyersville again after David and the kids came to pick me up. After all, we were halfway there, and I had more coupons to use.  Unfortunately, they hadn’t restocked the shelves so there was no Olay body wash or Suave deodorant. In the afternoon, we paid $25 for over $90 of merchandise.

I am so tempted to go again today.  The savings to be had with triple coupons are tremendous and well worth another trip to Dyersville, 28 miles away. November has been quite a month of savings for our family with these Pamida store triple coupon events.

And yet.

I don’t need it pointed out to me that I didn’t actually save anything if I bought items I wouldn’t have bought without the triple coupons.  I still paid something for the extra coupons (an average 10-cents each) and I still spent money.  A great deal of money, if you add up the last three Sundays of shopping. Looking at the picture from yesterday’s trip, I can easily pick out those products I would have purchased anyway: Folgers coffee, Tylenol, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, cough syrup. I wouldn’t have gotten the Werthers, cookie mix, Noticeables, Covergirl make-up or the boxed potatoes without coupons. I have plenty of toothpaste and shampoo in my cupboard already so I wouldn’t have bought those items right now if I was a normal shopper. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, I am not a normal shopper, I am an extreme couponer, and have been ever since I got married in 1979. Thats a long time to change bad habits, or good habits, depending upon who you ask.  I’ve been an at-home mother for almost 21 years, and have gotten creative about making money at home.  Besides selling some of my writing, I’ve been holding at least one garage sale a year, and some of this stockpiled stuff goes out for my garage sale. Paying a dime for something that sells for $1.50 is an investment for me, one that results in a decent profit during my garage sales.  Another thing I do with this extra stockpile is fill baskets for my adult children, and I’ve been informed that this is one of their favorite gifts.  While my baskets full of health and beauty and cleaning products might not cost me a great deal in dollars, they know it did cost me time in planning and implementing my shopping trips. I know their favorite products, too, which is why I had hoped to get more Olay ribbons body wash this trip. Even my grandson is going to go cuckoo for the bottles of L’oreal Kids shampoo that have the Toy Story characters on the front! I have also donated excess stockpiled items to various charities and/or sent Priority mailers of items to those in need. I would have a difficult time doing this without my couponing. Through the strategic use of coupons, I can send a $10 medium flat rate mailer filled with $40 worth of products to someone in need for maybe $12 total (counting the cost of the coupons and the postage!), and whenever I hear that the food pantry is in dire need, I can easily pull out some of my free toothbrushes and toothpaste to help them out.

I feel like a genius after paying $50 for two cartloads of merchandise. According to coupon detractors, I am fooling myself.  Factor in the time it took me to clip (and buy) the coupons, file them in my coupon box, read the ads, drive to the store, circle the aisles with my vulture-like stealth that hones in on good deals, and then stand in line while they are scanned and tripled…well, there are those that would say my valuable time was wasted, and that my use of coupons was directly responsible for rising prices.  I am currently writing the chapter of my book that details these claims.

Despite some evidence to the contrary in a few of these studies, I still feel savvy regarding my couponing habits, and find the use of coupons to be rewarding, both emotionally and monetarily. I enjoy couponing, and I love getting things free.

But another trip today? As tempted as I am, I know it would not be a good idea. It would involve the gas to get there and back and taking the chance that the shelves were restocked from yesterday, and in my experience, they usually are not, so it could be a wasted trip, or one that barely paid for the gas to get there.

And that just wouldn’t be smart shopping.