Secrets and strategies of extreme couponers

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The extreme couponing fad may be over. In recent years, many stores have changed their policies, making it harder to pay $40 for a $300 grocery bill, and TLC's "Extreme Couponing" hasn't aired an original episode since 2012.

But that doesn't mean there aren't still extreme couponers or folks who are extremely interested in couponing. If you've always been curious about couponing and want to be better at it – or even go to the extremes – here are some things to consider.

Time is money, and it takes a lot of time to be an extreme couponer. For many people, extreme couponing isn't something they can sustain. They burn out.

"My wife and I previously did some extreme couponing, and we have stopped," says Jacob Lumby, a Texas resident who has taught retirement and insurance courses at Texas Tech University and runs the blog Cashcowcouple.com.

"While it was sometimes fun and rewarding, it was time consuming," Lumby says. "You have to source the coupons, get them, cut them out, track them all, then look a little crazy at the grocery store. In the end, our time is probably worth more elsewhere, and that's one less thing to worry about."

Petrina Hamm, of North Carolina, is a former extreme couponer. "I'm actually a bit embarrassed to admit this, but once upon a time, I did the whole crazy couponing thing," she says. "We're talking buying multiple copies of the Sunday paper; participating in buy, sell and trade [coupon] groups; and meticulously planning out trips to maximize savings."

But she, too, stopped. "It was way too much work – clipping, researching the deals, planning the trips to comply with each store's rules on coupon usage," says Hamm, a mother of four and the owner of an online fitness training site.

And she says that while she felt a little pained to stop, it was nice to save time at the grocery aisle. It used to be a regular thing for a coupon to beep on the scanner and not process, requiring the cashier to scrutinize the legalese on the coupon to determine if it could be used. Giving that up was "pretty liberating," she says.

But you may enjoy the time. Yet if you really like couponing, then who cares how much time you put into it? "It's a lifestyle," says Sheree Johnson, a New York City resident who works at a marketing firm.

She's been an extreme couponer for years. "I spend half my day on Sunday organizing the coupons within my coupon book by expiration date and going through each circular to find sales where I can stack coupons on the sale to save more," she says.

Johnson's strategy is to begin in the morning. "Usually, I have a system," she says. "I gather all my coupons that I've collected throughout the week, including printouts from online, and place them on my ottoman. Turn on some music and proceed to clip the coupons I want to keep. I place the coupons that I don't want in a Ziploc bag that I donate to people."

That effort typically saves her $200 a week.

You may feel like a mini-hoarder at times. One of the tripwires of being an extreme couponer is that you risk purchasing many items you don't really need. Some of the hoarding may work out well. Hamm says that during her extreme coupon days, she wound up with stashes of toilet paper, toothpaste and canned goods. But she also says it "led to having a stockpile of junk food in the house."

When you're someone who lost 90 pounds in a year and then became a fitness trainer, that's not exactly what you want, she says.

It always helps to have a system. It doesn't matter what it is, coupon experts say. Just pick something that works for you.

For instance, Joanie Demer, co-founder of TheKrazyCouponLady.com, not surprisingly uses coupons but she says that even she doesn't go overboard.

"I'll admit there was a day when I shopped multi-stores and made multiple trips per week," she says. "I found that wasn't sustainable, so a few years ago, I scaled back to one store."

Now, Johnson has her couponing down to a science. She sorts her coupons according to the expiration date and according to what's low in the pantry. She reads through store circulars to see who has the best sales, and where she can stack the manufacturer coupons on top of the sales.

"It's not double couponing, but it's the closest that I can come to double couponing while in New York City," Johnson says. "I circle the items that I'm going to purchase with a thick permanent marker so it stands out when I go shopping. If I come across coupons that I am not going to use, I usually place them in my coupon book – sorted by expiration month – so I never lose it."

And if you don't have a system but are looking for one, Spirulina Sims, author of "Never Pay Full Price: Financially Free by Couponing," which came out in May, has several suggestions, including:

  • Get on social media, such as Facebook or Instagram. "Follow people who are extreme couponers," she says, suggesting you use hashtags like, #extremecouponer, #coupon community, #couponing and #couponing101. Many extreme couponers are social to boot, and may let you in on how they find the best deals.
  • Look for coupon sites. There's the aforementioned TheKrazyCouponLady.com, but also sites like Coupons.com and Couponsclippers.com, two of Sim's favorites. Your first source, however, should actually be your old-fashioned Sunday paper, she says – advice that should make newspaper editors nationwide happy.
  • Set a budget. If you're going to a store armed with stacks of coupons, know how much you want to spend first. "It will help you save more and you can track your spending habits and finances," Sims says.

After all, you're going to all of this work to help improve your bank account, right? If you devote a lot of time to couponing but don't set a budget, you won't just spend a lot of time – you'll spend a lot of money. Which misses the whole point of couponing.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report


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