“I just thought that as a family we needed to learn how to save money,” said Wessels, founder of the online coupon site Frugal Finder. “So I started looking at our expenses.”
The married mother of four did some calculating and quickly discovered she was spending well over $200 per week on groceries. Certain they could do better, Wessels gathered her family and divided up the Sunday advertising section of the newspaper. The effort paid off, and today the family of six spends approximately $75 per week on groceries, including toiletries – all purchased at discount stores as well as high-end spots such as Whole Foods and Nob Hill Foods.
“Now we get six newspapers a week and we make our own piles,” laughed Wessels. “After a while it becomes a natural thing (to scan the papers and Internet for coupons) and you end up spending a half hour to an hour a week getting organized. Plus it’s really fun. When I get a good deal I can’t wait to come home and show my husband what I got.”
Crazy for coupons
Everyone loves the promise of something for nothing – or at least significant savings – and thanks to the recent economic downturn, discount divas are clipping and clicking in record numbers. According to the Nielsen Clearing House, 77 percent of all Americans use coupons in some capacity, nearly three times more than a few years ago. And a whopping 36 million Internet users are availing themselves of online discounts and deals.
But clipping coupons is nothing new, and in fact dates as far back as the 19th century. In 1894, the first coupons were distributed by the Coca-Cola Company, which issued hand-written invitations to consumers for free samples of their new soft drink. Only a year later, C.W. Post followed suit and began using coupons to sell his new breakfast cereal, Grape Nuts.
The 1930s saw mom-and-pop establishments offer coupons to regular customers who were struggling to make ends meet during the Depression. By the 1940s, chain supermarkets had also caught coupon fever and began issuing weekly tickets to their customers.
Computer coupons came onto the scene in the mid-1990s and allowed a mass market to take advantage of retail savings. Today, billions of coupons are cashed at the counter annually.
Joining the club
As a seasoned shopper at local discount stores, Leslie Gilbertson didn’t think she had much to learn about saving money on groceries and other items. But last year, the Brentwood resident discovered couponing and took her savings to a whole new level.
“I had always shopped at places like Winco and Grocery Outlet and stayed away from Safeway because I was sure that was the most ridiculous place to shop,” said Gilbertson. “But then I started to learn that if you pick and choose and use your coupons, you can shop everywhere and get great deals.
“Last week I went to Safeway and bought an 8-pound pork roast for 75 percent off the original $22 dollar price. I had no idea what I was going to do with a roast that size, but I ended up making pulled pork for a party I was going to, so it worked out perfectly.”
Where to begin
Although visions of discounts dance in the heads of all couponers, newcomers should take a more realistic approach. “When you’re first starting out, you should start small – focus on one thing, like groceries,” said Wessels. “And then once you get the hang of it and get your confidence up, you can expand your reach.”
Which is what Gilbertson did.
“Coupons are for everything,” she said. “They’re for mascara, toilet paper, band aids, whatever, and they’re not just for people with large families. If you have a lot of extra of something, you can donate it or save it for a gift.”
Online blog sites such as Wessels’ are also helpful because they can target specific items you need and take the guesswork out of finding deals. “A lot of people think couponing takes a lot of time,” said Wessels. “But if you follow a blog online, they do the work for you. For example, if you’re looking for an ad for Skippy peanut butter, you can plug in the name, and the blog will tell you where the deals are in your area. It takes a lot of the work out of couponing.”
Where to find them
Coupons are everywhere these days, including online and in print. Local businesses have taken advantage of Daily Deals marketing to advertise their products. Facebook and Twitter have also jumped on the bandwagon, alerting customers to up-to-the-minute deals on everything from restaurants and spas to special events and exotic getaways. Coupon exchange clubs have begun to pop up both online and in local communities where enthusiasts can barter and trade their coupons, meet new devotees and foster friendships; all in the name of bargains. And when it comes to bargains, Gilbertson advises shoppers to keep an open mind: “Look outside the box at stores other than grocery stores, like CVS and Rite Aid. The best deal I ever got was at CVS when I ended up with a free product by the time I used their savings card and a coupon.”
Although deals abound, there are some standard tricks to the coupon trade. Stores will often put a picture of a product on their coupon, but the deal might be good for not just that one item, but any product made by the specified manufacturer.
“Also, make sure you check the size of the item,” said Wessels. “Or see if it’s a two-for-one deal. Reading the requirements will save you a lot of time down the road.”
“Understand what the final savings will be once you figure in the discount and then decide it it’s right for you,” said Gilbertson. “And always watch your budget. You still need to make dinner tonight and put gas in your car and pay for all the everyday things that we do. So overspending on a product because it had a coupon doesn’t necessarily end up being a deal.”
Know when to hold ’em
Just because you have the coupon doesn’t mean you must use it. For example, if you wait to use a dollar-off coupon for toilet paper until the product goes on sale, the savings will be significantly larger.
“It’s really easy to be tempted to use the dollar-off coupon just because you have it,” said Gilbertson. “But it’s OK to hold onto them until there’s a sale. And if you miss a sale item, remember: all sales have a cycle; they’ll be back. You don’t have to go crazy and run to every drug store every time there’s a sale on something you use.”
The growing popularity of couponing, reflected by reality TV shows that feature “extreme” bargain hunters, has in some circles given couponing a bad name. But many coupon aficionados are quick to criticize the “extreme” approach.
“Extreme couponing is very much like hoarding,” said Wessels. “It’s about buying 50 bottles of mustard because it’s on sale or filling a room with paper products you’ll never use in your lifetime. But that’s not what most of us do.”
“No,” agreed Gilbertson. “Having whole rooms dedicated to stuff or making little paths through the house so you can walk around is not necessary. But you can take advantage of unused space. Store things under the bed or in places you don’t use. Most of us have those little dead spaces in our homes that we don’t use.”
It just feels good
In the end, according to Gilbertson, couponing feeds both the pocketbook and the soul. “I still shop at grocery outlets and it’s still fun,” she said. “At some point you get so good at saving that you don’t pay full price for anything. It just feels good. Who doesn’t like to get a deal?”
Couponing websites are too numerous to list here, but the following are some of the most popular: www.coupons.com, www.mommysavers.com, www.amazon.com, www.target.com and www.frugalfind.com. And don’t forget Facebook and Twitter, especially if you’re looking for specific items or products in your community.
Coupons 101: the basics
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of sorting through thousands of coupons online and in print. But a few simple tips will help get you organized and on the way to significant savings:
• Open a new e-mail account just for coupons and sign up for online deals. It’ll prevent your personal or work e-mail from getting choked by the inevitable stream of daily offers.
• Start a folder and organize your coupons by date, product, price and even location in the store. When you make your shopping list, you’ll have the information readily available.
• Know your prices. Check out regular retail prices on the items you have coupons for or use the most. Knowing the in-store cost will help you determine the worth of a coupon.
• Check store policies. This is critical. Some establishments don’t take coupons, while others allow them only in lieu of their own in-store savings. However, many places do welcome coupons on top of their on-sale prices and savings cards, and in those cases the takeaway can be significant.
• Start small and clip only the coupons you know you’ll use. Once you get the hang of the process, you can create other files for seldom-used products or items you know family or friends will enjoy.
• Supplement newspaper and magazine coupons with manufacturers’ online offers.