I admit it. I loved the moderately outrageous Extreme Couponing on TLC (word: it is going to be made into a series, so there will be more extreme couponing madness for us all to enjoy vicariously). Yes, yes, I know that some of those folks are on the verge of being full-on hoarders. But I found it inspiring to see people save that much, and it seems like a fun challenge to seek out the best deals. And since Mark and I are trying to save money in a big way to buy our next place, it was only natural that I try my best to become a crazy coupon lady for a week. Even more proof that the universe wanted me to do this: the day I decided to try my hand at couponing, Living Social sent an offer for an entire year of Sunday LA Times -- complete with coupons -- for only $10. Done.
Of course, since we have only 1000 square feet of living space with no additional storage (except for a little space in the garage already filled with our tools and paint), I wouldn't be building a stockpile like a real extreme couponer. So let's not call what I did extreme couponing. Let's call it adventurous couponing.
Here's what I learned:
1. It is bizarrely fun
There is something strangely satisfying about saving huge percentages on food and drug store items. And on matching up store sales and store coupons with manufacturers' coupons to save a bundle. That's really the key to saving the huge amounts the folks on the show save: you read the stores' weekly circulars and note what's on sale, see if the store is also offering additional coupons for any of the items in the circular or on their website, and then you try to find manufacturers' coupons for the same item either in the Sunday newspaper, or on a print-it-yourself coupon site like coupons.com or smartsource.com. Example: Progresso soup, which is normally $2.99 a can at my local Von's (SoCal's version of Safeway), was on a club card sale for $1.50 (they try to trick you by calling it "2 for $3," but you don't have to buy two to get the deal), but there was also a store coupon in the circular for $1.11 per can. I found a $1 off of 2 coupon from the manufacturer online, and so got two cans for $.61 each. That's 80 percent off. Sooooo satisfying. Even more satisfying is when you get things entirely for free, but more on that later.
Check out those savings: 61%! Not extreme, but nothing to sneeze at.
My very favorite couponing moment: I paid $.53 for $20.53 worth of merchandise at Staples, thanks to a $20 off of $20 coupon they sent me (!!)
So I got some new pens for Mark, some Post-It flags, a stand-up stapler for my desk and a brand new binder to hold DIY ideas, which will supplement my design ideas binder... all for $.53 and possibly even a few dollars in Staples rewards for a future purchase
2. To get the very best deals, expect a learning curve
Not just a learning curve, but a coupon-collecting curve. You first have to learn all that stuff in #1 about combining store coupons with manufacturers coupons, known as "stacking" (and I haven't even gotten into Catalinas, which are those coupons that print out at checkout... you can add those on top of store and manufacturers' coupons). You also have to learn which stores will double your coupons (not every store in a chain has the same policy), and which stores offer e-coupons in addition to manufacturers' coupons (most don't let you use both on the same item). But after you learn all of that, you still have to get several weeks (or months) of coupons banked before you can truly get the best deals. Not every coupon runs every week, but if you have coupons from six weeks ago for your favorite item and that item goes on sale this week, then you're in business. I only really did this for a week, so I undoubtedly missed out on some deals. But once you get the hang of it all, it's actually super easy, so long as you stay organized. (See below.)
3. It is very time-consuming and messy
If you want to be a dedicated couponer, expect to spend a lot of time reading stores' websites, re-checking the coupon sites for newly added coupons and reading the many blogs written by couponers who share their great finds. (My favorite, written by my favorite of the four people profiled on Extreme Couponing, is Krazy Coupon Lady.) And expect to get yourself on every food manufacturer's mailing list, all in order to snag some coupons. Also, plan to get very friendly with your scissors, because you will be clipping... a LOT.
Our guest room floor on a Sunday morning, after the newspaper arrived
To save a lot, you have to read -- and compare -- the circulars for all the stores, which for me at least meant having space to spread out. It's also helpful to have all of your other coupons in front of you when you do this, so you know what kind of deals are possible. This means devoting quite a bit of space to the whole endeavor (extra hard when our kitchen renovation has virtually every inch of space already covered with displaced kitchen items), not to mention the time.
But the most important thing of all, and perhaps the toughest, is staying organized. To truly keep a handle on things, you have to sort coupons by type of food or drug store item, expiration date and preferably by brand. To give you some perspective, I estimate that I collected between 200 and 300 coupons in a little over a week, so it's rather a large task just to stay on top of it all, and truly impossible to just keep a mental tally of everything you have coupons for. Though I thought my system was a good one, I saw after making purchases for at least two items that I had missed out on using coupons I had with me, just because my system wasn't quite good enough. I could have saved another $1.55! :-)
4. You will definitely buy things you wouldn't ordinarily purchase
As any person who likes shopping knows, there is just something about a good deal that is hard to pass up. For instance, I ended up buying at least 11 boxes of cereal this week, just because I got such a ridiculous deal on them (most under $1, all under $1.50, and cereal in SoCal usually runs upwards of $4 a box). You'll also notice that a few of the cereals I bought are, um, not so healthy. But who can pass up a deal?! Suffice to say we have been eating cereal morning, noon and night.
I'm sure that if I stuck with this a little longer, I'd develop a bit more patience and not feel like I have to jump at every deal in the world. But as the extreme couponers say, to save the most money you have to buy in huge volume when the best deals happen, and that means building up that stockpile.
5. You will definitely end up with stuff you don't need, because it's hard to say no to free
My first free item, a Reach floss: $.97 at Target, with a $1 off coupon, for an end cost of $0 (I don't think I got $.03 as profit...)
Sometimes you get lucky when coupons are high and items are priced low, compared to each other. But that's a rarity. There is a singular source for most of the free stuff in a couponer's world.
There is this magical thing known as the BOGO ("buy one, get one," usually meaning "buy one, get one free"). By itself, a BOGO may or may not be that great a deal, because it means you still pay full price for one item, and you have to get two even if you only wanted one. But the magic happens if the store is offering a BOGO sale on an item at the same time that the manufacturer has a BOGO coupon out. The store sale will count for one item while the manufacturers' coupon will count for the other.. meaning that you get them both for free. And free will make you do crazy things.
After seeing a tip on one of the blogs, I learned that CVS was offering a BOGO on Orbit gum at the same time that a BOGO coupon was available online. I practically became a rabid beast trying to get to a CVS... and I don't even chew gum! In fact, I kind of hate it. But Mark likes it, and who even really cares if anyone likes it because it's free for crying out loud! This is how you start thinking almost immediately, even after leading a normal life with normal people thoughts and normal people values.
The worst case of it: I found myself at a store, so focused on finding a Stayfree product, because that store had a BOGO sale at the same time that I had a BOGO coupon. Thank goodness I snapped out of it just in time. As I was standing in front of the display, I thought to myself: "This is ridiculous. I will never use this, I don't know anyone who would, and it will just take up space. I don't need it." (Of course, in hindsight, I probably should have still gotten them and donated them to a women's shelter or something.) But still, it's crazy easy to get swept up in the idea of free and just start acquiring things. And then stockpiling them. And then hoarding them.
It's a slippery slope...
So, after my little week of adventurous couponing, will I keep going? I don't think so. It takes a lot of time and mental space to be good at couponing, and the fact that it's kind of fun to boot means that it can be quite consuming.
But, shopping this way for a week has definitely taught me a few things. For example, I now know that Albertson's is the most expensive grocery chain in my area, while Von's (Safeway) has the best deals. I never would have know this before, and would have assumed they were all the same. With drugstores, Walgreen's has the best deals, CVS has the best everyday prices, and Rite Aid has both the worst deals and the highest prices. All good to know, since I don't plan to go to every grocery store and every drugstore on a weekly basis from now on. This week has also shown me how overpriced so many items are. And it's made me a little embarrassed how many things I used to pay full price for. So I'm going to do my best to find a balance and look for deals without going overboard.
How about you? Have you ever tried serious couponing? Have you gotten caught up in the chase for something free?
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