Groupon picks winner to live off its coupons for a year

If nothing else, Josh Stevens should have some great stories to tell as he tries to survive for a year using nothing but free Groupon coupons. No cash, no personal possessions, and limited direct contact with friends and family.

Even if he doesn't win the $100,000 prize, Stevens, 28, believes he will have a great time using the company's coupons for free food, hotel rooms, bus rides and activities, such as skydiving, while traveling the country. His journey will start on May 10.

"It's not a bad way to go see the country for free," said Stevens, who Groupon chose from 20,000 applicants in its "Live Off Groupon" contest.

Groupon sells coupons for as much as 50% less than their worth in the retail environment. For example, a coupon for $30 worth of food at a restaurant is sold by Groupon for $15. The deals on the site usually last 24 hours, but are only sold if a certain number of people buy in. Buyers can then redeem the "Groupons" later -- sometimes as much as up to a year later.

Stevens, who lives in Chicago, where Groupon is based, stood out in his video pitch among six finalists. In a telephone interview with WalletPop last week, Stevens seemed outgoing, entertaining and up for the challenge. Groupon CEO Andrew Mason told WalletPop in February, that Stevens seemed like someone who is struggling to find their purpose.

He also stood out for his resourcefulness, said Julie Mossler, who oversees public relations for Groupon. The six finalists came to Chicago and were asked to visit three local places with Groupon coupons and write a blog post about it within three hours. Stevens hitched a ride on a mail truck to get to one of the locations, showing great ingenuity, Mossler said.

Stevens has held a few jobs since graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting in 2006, most recently as an enumerator for the Census Bureau, which he's quitting to take on the Groupon challenge. He was a corporate auditor but quit after learning he hated sitting in a cubicle all day. He later worked as a waiter, and discovered the pay was almost as much as he was making in auditing. He applied to a few grad schools to get his MBA, but the Groupon challenge caught his eye.

During the challenge, Stevens says he'll even have to get rid of his clothes and rely on Groupons to get by. His first outfit? Paper Groupons assembled into makeshift clothing. Stevens will carry a laptop, cellphone, camera and backpack, all provided by Groupon, so he can blog about his experiences.

Stevens said he'll miss his girlfriend, and sleeping in his own bed during the year that he will be spending living like a nomad. "She's really supportive," he said of his girlfriend, who he will only be allowed to see once in person during the contest. "I know she's a little sad that I'm going to be gone for a year."

Up to five personal visits from friends or family are allowed during the year, although he can stay with friends for a night as he runs into them on the road, Mossler said. Groupon has deals with a few hotel chains, so he'll be staying in hotel rooms for much of the year, but a fair amount of couch surfing will be required.

Bartering is allowed, so Stevens can trade Groupons for a night on a friend's couch, but he isn't allowed to exchange them for cash.

The rules also require him to visit at least 15 U.S. cities, so besides using Groupons for bus trips, he'll be hitchhiking a lot. "Josh is a pretty big guy," Mossler said. "You are probably not the smartest mugger on the planet if you pick Josh as a person to attack."

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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