Don't Call Them 'Extreme Couponers': Meet the Coupon Enthusiasts
They don't dumpster-dive for newspaper circulars, nor clock 40 hours a week clipping stacks of coupons and hunting them down online. Nor do they cash in counterfeit coupons trying to score 77 bottles of ketchup for $6.93.
They are frugal shoppers, but they bristle at comparisons to fervent bargain hunters like those featured on the TLC show Extreme Couponing -- a phrase that, to them, describes hucksters out to game the system.
Those extreme couponers are still essentially a fringe group, but the Great Recession has given rise to a savvy new breed of mainstream shoppers who've finely honed the art of couponing.
For many, necessity was indeed the mother of invention. But some have simply come to love the high -- and revel in the sport -- of getting a good deal.
Here are a few of their stories.
Clipping Her Way Out of Financial Trouble
Dana Mammoser of Genoa, Ill., started couponing in 2010.
The 48-year-old mother of four sons used to run a thriving home day care, but then the recession hit. "When everybody lost their job, what do you think happened to my business?' she asked rhetorically. "Nobody needed day care."
Mammoser and her husband, a park maintenance director, had to find new ways to save. Three of the Mammoser's boys still live at home, and they're aged 16 to 21, "so they can really eat," she says.
Facebook opened her eyes to sites like KrazyCouponlady.com, SuperCouponing.com and DealSeekingMom.com. The sites aggregate myriad coupon offers on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
Over time, she developed a strategy: She spends an hour on Sundays cutting out coupons from The Chicago Tribune inserts, and devotes a good three hours on Wednesdays to scanning the ads in the local newspaper for sales at regional grocers like Jewel-Osco (SVU) and Hy-Vee, matching coupons with sale items to boost the discounts.
Mammoser also belongs to a local couponing swap group on Facebook. On the site, she posts requests to her pet-free savings buddies for dog food coupons for her pooches, Tank and Mac. "Once, I received 15 $1 Pedigree coupons. It was like getting a treasure in the mail," she says.
Finally, Mammoser saves big by buying in bulk. As stores limit the number of coupons they'll apply to a single transaction, she'll go through the checkout counter several times during one shopping trip. "I'll do what I have to do to get the savings," she says.
Couponing has paid off big for the Mammosers. The family now saves about $500 a month on groceries. "It's changed my life," she says. What's more, the family can now afford name-brand products like Doritos and Oreos instead of the store brands. "I used to never buy the good stuff," she says.
Couponing has also brought Mammoser an unexpected source of fulfillment. She discovered Coups for Troops, and now collects expired coupons for families in financial need at military bases in Japan. Coupons can be used at military commissaries up to six months past their expiration date.
In February alone, she collected $40,000 worth of coupons and shipped off a box that weighed 20 pounds. "It made me feel so warm and fuzzy inside," she says.
Couponing as a Way of Life
Freelance graphic designer Roy Honegger of Lake Zurich, Ill., looks on couponing's current fad wryly. "I lived this way long before it became a trendy cultural phenomenon," he says.
A father of three, Honegger's income has "been historically modest," he says. "For me, it wasn't a matter of 'I lost my job, after making a six-figure salary,'" he says. "I have to do this to make money go as far as it can."
Honegger will buy extra newspapers if the manufacturer coupons in a given Sunday's circulars are particularly juicy. He pads the savings with online coupons and promotional codes from sites like FatWallet.com and Coupons.com, plus the coupons he earns from grocery and drug store loyalty programs. He also scores coupons from his mother in law.
Honegger grew up in a frugal family, and his mother always shopped for bargains. During his college years in Milwaukee, he'd regularly dumpster dive for coupons at the local recycling center.
But that was 20 years ago, he says. These days, couponing is just one expression of Honegger's longtime philosophy of never paying full retail -- the same practice that leads him to buy day-old bread at the Entenmann's outlet store. "It's a matter of discipline."
Still, the growing culture of couponing has caught up with Honegger, something that becomes most apparent when compelling coupon offers lead him to bare store shelves. With more consumers in on the game, "I've thought, 'Uh oh -- they're on to me now,'" he says.
And when it comes to eating out with friends, "I almost never got to a restaurant if I don't have a coupon or restaurant loyalty card," he says. So if friends want to go to Chili's, but Honegger has a coupon for T.G.I.Friday's, he'll try to convince them to go there instead. "That's part of the discipline," he says.
Do Honegger's thrifty ways create sticky social situations? Not really, he says. "My friends realize that, to some extent, yep, I'm a cheapskate." Yet they're also "thankful, grateful and surprised" when he saves them money, too.
He's been asked if a windfall would prompt a change in his frugal ways. Probably not, Honegger says. "I'm trying to be a conscious consumer and not just buy for the sake of buying. Why be careless with your money?"
The Thrill of the Bargain
Dr. Keith Werner, a chiropractor from Oradell, N.J., hasn't paid for mustard in 10 years.
French's mustard regularly goes on sale for 99 cents. Dr. Werner always has a 50-cent coupon for the yellow mustard, and knows his local supermarket doubles coupons under $1. So Dr. Werner typically cuts $1 off the price of a 99-cent bottle. Hence, "I'm paying nothing, zero," he says.
Dr. Werner has run a healthy practice for 30 years and doesn't have to coupon to make ends meet, but like golf, it's one of his passions.
"It's like a hobby," he says. "I like the challenge." Still, says the father of three daughters, while "I don't do it for financial reasons, in today's economy, a little bit always helps."
Every Sunday morning, starting at about 8 a.m., Dr. Werner spends nearly three hours sowing the seeds of his couponing successes. He takes his time. Couponing can't be rushed, he says.
His formula includes clipping coupons from the Bergen Record and the New York Post, which carry a lot of the same coupons, to wring deals out of bulk buying.
At the checkout counter, he also earns coupons for buying multiples of an item. And he sweetens his pot with coupons from Entertainment, the discount book, which saves him $40 a year at supermarkets like A&P and Pathmark.
The cumulative result: He saves $40 to $65 a week on groceries. On one recent supermarket trip, Dr. Werner scored his highest couponing toll ever. "My savings was $100 in one visit."
The ritual has also made him somewhat of a shopping expert. For one thing, he has learned, the buying-in-bulk savings touted by the warehouse clubs aren't such great deals after all. "My wife is a big Costco fan. That's crazy. With my coupons, I get [groceries] cheaper," he says.
The School of Couponing
Dawn Woodruff, a customer service specialist from Westminster, Colo., and mother of a 2½-year-old son, started couponing about three months ago.
"One day my husband and I were cleaning the house and we had the television on for background noise. Something on the TV caught my attention," she says. "There was a lady named Kathy Spencer who was talking about how she created a method that could help people save money on groceries, clothing, etc, by couponing. The book she was trying to sell was called How To Shop for Free."
The timing was fortuitous. Woodruff and her husband, an IT administrator for an environmental lab, "were looking for ways to cut back our expenses so we could put more money into savings and pay down some of our debt," she says.
"I decided to buy her book and found some good tips that helped me create my method of couponing."
Using CouponMom.com as a guide, Woodruff now stockpiles newspaper and online coupons. "My goal is to never buy commonly used items at regular price ever again," she says.
The site tracks grocery sales at big box stores like Target (TGT), Walmart (WMT) and the big supermarket chains, directing shoppers to those coupons that can be combined with a sale.
"You can click on the 'Grocery Deals by State' link on the top menu, select the state you're in, and click on the stores you want to review for deals currently going on," she says. "I love this website because it's free, you can create a printed or emailed shopping list, and the list will tell you which coupons to clip."
Woodruff now regularly shaves 40% off her grocery bill. In addition to the savings benefit, "I enjoy it because it's a game to me," she says. "I get a high when I score on great deals for super cheap."
Tricks of the Trade
Like Woodruff, Shauna Lewis of Rochelle, Ill., was a couponing newbie but ended up becoming a student of the craft -- something she wouldn't have expected. "I was one of those people who said, 'I don't have time for that. I'm not going to drive all over the place to find the best deals,'" says the day care provider.
But she was struck by how much her coupon-savvy friend was saving on groceries while in the Woodruff household, "money was tight." Lewis and her husband, a teacher, are raising an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old.
So she checked out a Chicago seminar by couponing guru Jill Cataldo. "I got hooked," she says.
Now Lewis, schooled in the tricks of the trade -- from maximizing double coupons and store-rewards coupons to mining sites like Cataldo's and Smartsource.com -- saves between $40 to $50 on groceries a week.
Couponing has also freed up "fun money" for family trips to the museum and the movies, Lewis says.
"Last summer, we took the kids on vacation: It was the first vacation where we didn't rack up credit card debt," she says.