One woman challenges herself to live off coupons for a week. Here's what she learned along the way.
Photo by Sharon Dominick Photography/iStock
I recently took up a new sport: I coupon. It’s not the kind of activity I was looking to get into, but the timing was right. When I decided to leave my day job (and steady paycheque) to freelance after my second daughter was born, my big-spender husband Peter and I agreed to tighten our purse strings.
Admittedly, saving is not something we’ve excelled at in the past. But I have high hopes for couponing; it’s in my blood. I grew up in a one-income household, and while my father worked to provide for five of us, my mother worked to stretch the dough. She’d scour the local newspapers and would base our meals on the coupons she’d collected.
Couponing does seem simple, and it’s not like I’ve never used a coupon before. So at the risk of becoming addicted (like the folks on the TV show Extreme Couponing) and hoarding hundreds of rolls of toilet paper in the kids’ bedroom closets, I challenged myself to live off coupons as much as possible for one week. Here’s what I spent, saved and learned, as well as tips to help you get the best deals from our panel of expert couponing moms: Ruth Ann Swansburg, founder of monctoncouponlady.com
; Nadine Chappellaz, founder of savemoneyinwinnipeg.com
; and Jessie Alonzo, founder of moolasavingmom.com
Tip #1: Start small >>>
Once you start hunting coupons, you’ll find them everywhere. “At first everyone complains they can’t find them, but once you start looking, you wonder how you ever missed them,” Chappellaz says. “Even $5 o your grocery bill every week is $260 in savings a year, and that can be from just two or three coupons a week.” Whether you find them online (open a separate email account for daily-deal sites and manufacturers’ off ers so your inbox doesn’t get clogged. I learned this the hard way), in local papers, flyers, junk mail, on Facebook and Twitter, tear pads at the grocery store, on receipts, product packaging, in magazines, or by participating in coupon chains and swaps, you’ll find loads of deals out there. Swansburg recommends choosing three things you want to start stocking up on (deodorant, shampoo and body wash, for example) and clip as many coupons for those items as you can find. And instead of cutting or printing out every coupon, focus on what you’re actually likely to use so you don’t become overwhelmed with piles of paper. Keeping that rule in mind, I immediately recycle coupons for half-price duct cleaning and a free home appraisal, as well as 79 percent off tattoo removal (I don’t have one) and $20 off leather pants (I shouldn’t have those).
GET ORGANIZED AND BE PREPARED
On day two of my challenge I went to the supermarket armed with a bag full of loose coupons and a grocery list. By the time I got to the checkout I was sweating buckets while rummaging through my purse. Not a good tactic, Chappellaz says. “I use a binder with sports-card sheets to organize and sort my coupons, and I label the pages for sections we use most, like cereal, dairy, meat and snacks,” she says. Or you can sort them by order of the aisles in the supermarket. Another option is to keep all your grocery coupons in one envelope and bring an empty envelope with you. When you pick something up that you have a coupon for, simply put it in the emp ty envelope so you have them organized for the cashier. I might’ve garnered a few eye-rolls and sighs from shoppers behind me in line, but I did manage to save 75 cents o ff bread, $1 o ff chicken broth, 75 cents off mustard, $2 off two packages of pan liners (a brand I normally don’t buy), 75 cents off ricotta, 75 cents off a box of macaroni and cheese, and 50 cents off a bottle of my go-to shampoo. All that hoopla at the checkout saved me $6.50. We’re not talking big bucks, but, if I saved that much every week for a year, the extra $338 in our bank account isn’t too shabby.
PIGGYBACK ON SALES
A week after I bought my 50-cents-off shampoo at the grocery store, it went on sale at the drugstore for 50 cents o ff. If I’d waited to use my coupon alongside the sale, I would’ve been a dollar richer. Swansburg, who o ffers classes on maximizing savings using coupons, says most products are on a four- to six-week sale cycle, so hold onto your coupons until you can save the most when cashing them in. “I spend about two hours a week going through the flyers and coupon matching. Pairing the sales with the coupons is by far the most time-consuming aspect of coupon usage,” she says, “but it’s the best way to save and stock up.” Keep an eye out for offers that reward shoppers with deals on future purchases. Old Navy and The Children’s Place sometimes have these, for example. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you use your freebie coupons and discounts on sale items.
Tip #4: Don’t hoard >>>
It’s pretty easy to get carried away using coupons, so the experts say it’s best to accumulate only items the family will use. “When my local store had an instant savings promotion and I had coupons for those items, I stocked up on about 40 jars of Ragu pasta sauce,” Alonzo says. “Spaghetti and meatballs is a staple dinner in our house, so those 40 jars will last us about a year.” Hoarding is much easier if your local retailers allow “stacking” (redeeming more than one coupon on a single item). Most retailers in the United States allow customers to do it, while most Canadian stores don’t. (Though check your local chains; stacking is accepted at western drugstore London Drugs.) “Extreme couponing leads to extreme hoarding. I don’t buy things just because I have a coupon,” says Chappellaz. “I do have a stockpile, but it’s very modest and contains only items we actually use. I won’t buy things just because they’re
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
While I reined in my spending using coupons for the week, I still have some work to do. “It takes time to get used to it and to find what works for you, but it’s worth the effort,” Swansburg says. “Once you know what you’re doing, it will become second nature and doesn’t take up much time at all.” The good news is that I’m paying more attention to deals, and I figure I’ll end up with a couple thousand dollars saved in our bank account in a year from now if I stick to scoping the sales and coupon matching. I finally appreciate all that work my mom put into schlepping around a wallet full of coupons, and I’m definitely developing her keen radar for sni ffing out deals. (Not a bad superpower to have.)
Up next, find out how Lisa’s week ended >>>
On day five I picked up my mail and found a voucher to my favourite, guil ty-pleasure handbag brand o ffering me $100 o my next in-store purchase. But since the name of this game is to save money, I found my inner frugalista and decided not to be swayed by something I don’t really need (even if it is an awesome o ffer). I did, however, need ca ffeine. And since I didn’t have a coupon for a grande non-fat, extra-hot Caramel Macchiato, I went to McDonald’s to get a latte for a dollar o ff on a promo. Baby steps.