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Extreme couponers: ‘You save money but you work hard for that money’

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Jennifer Murray of East Millinocket looks through her coupons as she shops for items on sale at Target in Bangor Tuesday afternoon, June 7, 2011 Murray spends as much as ten hours researching coupons before a major shopping trip.

Jennifer Murray tossed an $8 toothbrush into her cart. It was on sale for $5.99. Her Rite Aid Wellness Card would give her $2.99 in store credit. She had a $3 coupon. In other words, the toothbrush was free.

“Stuff gets expensive, and nowadays, anything more than having one kid is a big family,” said Murray, 38, who lives with her three daughters and boyfriend in East Millinocket. “If I can stretch a dollar, I’m going to mcoake it go as far as I can.”

Her Wednesday shopping trip included Rite Aid, Walmart and Target, all in Bangor, and resembled experiences featured on “Extreme Couponing,” a TLC series about extreme coupon users — known as couponers — that first aired in April.

In a Rite Aid aisle, she popped caps off Old Spice body wash, smelling and taking her time, then scooped eight bottles from the shelf.

Murray wouldn’t pay more than a few cents for the body wash, or the hand soap, or the Gillette razors, or the cholesterol tests she would donate to her church, because in addition to a shopping list she held a white mailing envelope filled with coupons.

“I love to shop, that’s the God’s honest truth, and I don’t have a lot of money,” said Murray, who started using coupons at a CVS store in Florida before she moved to Maine four years ago. She later learned about the deals at Rite Aid and became increasingly good at spotting sales and earning rewards.

Maine’s guru of extreme couponing

It takes skill and time to learn the ins and outs of the couponing world. Murray started couponing at Rite Aid but has yet to feel comfortable navigating the deals of Shaw’s grocery stores. She aspires to be able to buy groceries like Maine’s famous extreme couponer, Christie Corns of Portland.

Corns appeared on TLC in May as an extreme couponer, one that matches sales with coupons to pay just pennies on the dollar for all of her groceries.

“Since TLC started ‘Extreme Couponing,’ there are a lot more couponers out there,” said Corns. “I noticed this because, as a frequent shopper, I know I could usually go out and get the sales items, but now the sales are cleared of sales items.”

In fact, after years of decline, coupon redemption increased 27 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to a study by Inmar Inc., a company that processes coupon transactions. The increase in coupon use coincided with the U.S. financial crisis, but despite signs of economic recovery, coupon redemption held steady, with 3.3 billion coupons redeemed annually, in 2010.

Capitalizing on the trend, TLC’s reality show features couponers who are so enthusiastic about saving money that they hoot and holler at the register, study store floor plans and convert their garages and spare rooms into organized storage sites.

“I have a full-time job; I have two kids; and I still have been able to teach myself how to do this,” said Corns, 33, in a recent phone interview. “Last August, I was a scared, single mom and thinking, ‘Can I make it?’ And just months later, I’m as financially fit as I’ve ever been. I want to teach other people to be able to do this, too.”

Thriftiness takes time and resources

Corns estimates that she spends 10 hours a week finding and organizing coupons, usually after her children are tucked into bed. Her favorite websites are weusecoupons.com and slickdeals.net, which offer printable coupons and direct-to-you manufacturer deals.

Many extreme couponers pay companies to send them packets of coupons that apply to their consumer needs, and Murray has even purchased coupons on eBay. But the cost of purchasing coupons needs to be included when calculating total savings.

Most serious couponers, including Corns, rely on weekend newspapers for coupon inserts and sale fliers.

Murray recently called the Bangor Daily News to have 10 weekend newspapers delivered to her every week, and she’s not the first person to call the circulation department with that request. The BDN, however, doesn’t offer that special service. So at 9 a.m. each Saturday, Murray travels to the Millinocket Rite Aid to purchase about 16 copies of the newspaper to stock up on the coupon inserts tucked inside.

Buying that many newspapers for coupons only makes sense if you’re going to save more money in coupons than you spent purchasing the newspapers.

The BDN, which offers coupon books from three groups, has outsold last year by more than 1,000 copies in the last two weekends.

People also have called the BDN to get extra coupons out of old papers, which is prohibited by coupon distributing companies.

The amount of time Murray spends on shopping preparation depends on how good the sales are that week. If it’s a good sales week, she can spend up to 10 hours on the computer researching deals. For the small Bangor trip on Wednesday, she spent only one or two hours researching deals.

To save time, Murray doesn’t clip coupons until she figures out what’s on sale and knows exactly which products to search for.

“Once you start doing it, you notice coupons everywhere — inside the box of Pasta Roni — we get them from all over the place,” said Mandie Sawyer, 31, of Belfast, who started clipping coupons with a friend when she read a newspaper article about Corns a few months ago. “They add up, and the next thing you know, you have tons and tons.”

Most extreme couponers organize coupons in a binder, but have different methods. Some organize coupons by store aisle; Sawyer organizes them by product type — butter, shampoo, frozen foods.

“You save money on items, but you work hard for that money,” said Sawyer.

Next weekend, Sawyer will hold a couponing party with her co-workers, mother, sister and Corns as a guest of honor. They’ll swap coupons and listen to Corns’ advice about finding the best deals.

The use of digital coupons also is on the rise, said University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator and family budgeting specialist Jane Conroy. According to a recent survey, nearly a quarter of all U.S. adults said their household uses emailed coupons, up from 12 percent in 2005. On the other hand, 68 percent of U.S. adults said their household uses print coupons, a number that has remained relatively unchanged over the past five years.

The five coupon-clipping sites coupons.com, couponcabin.com, couponmom.com, retailmenot.com and smartsource.com are recommended by Kelli B. Grant, SmartMoney.com’s senior consumer reporter.

When searching for free coupons online, it’s important to consider how much personal information to give up in order to get them. Several sites ask for your name, ZIP code and email address.

Above all other deal-finding strategies, Corns recommends people find a blogger in their area who identifies deals by pairing coupons with store sales.

“Us bloggers do the hard work for you,” said Corns, who shares Maine deals with followers of her website www.ilovetogossip.com. “The thing is, as nerdy as it sounds, coupons have changed my life.”

Stockpiling — smart or selfish?

The stockpile is the key to long-term savings, said Corns. Because of her stash of groceries, she never will pay full price for anything.

Corns estimates that she has four months’ worth of food and more than a year’s worth of beauty supplies and paper goods in her two-bedroom apartment. She had to make space for 35 extra bottles of shampoo, so she converted a closet into a storage area and has two industrial shelves in her bedroom, which she admits isn’t exactly romantic.

Some of the extreme couponers featured on TLC, people with much larger stockpiles, will transform their garage into a space that looks like a minisupermarket. They store hundreds of rolls of toilet paper in their children’s bedrooms and let the groceries invade their home, leading to a perception of extreme couponers that bothers Corns.

“There’s a negative perception, in general — like being called hoarders or that we’re crazy,” she said.

The only occasion during which Corns will buy something that she isn’t going to use is if she will walk out of the store with more money than when she walked in. Recently, she purchased Similac baby formula on sale for $3.87 at Walmart and had a coupon for $5 off. She gained $1.13 in cash and gave the formula to a friend.

Murray, similarly, won’t purchase something her family won’t use, and she has limited her stockpile to one closet and tote bags under the family’s air hockey table — but she didn’t always show restraint.

“It can be a compulsion to shop and get deals,” said Murray. “When I first started, I was like: Holy crap, I need to get 100 things of Old Spice — like it would never go on sale again. But it goes on sale again. Just because you can get 1,000 widgets for free doesn’t mean you have to get them.”

In the few years that Murray has been using coupons, she has noticed a distinct sale cycle for products. When a sale and coupon pop up together to equal a great deal, Murray usually purchases two to three months’ worth of the product — just enough to hold her family over until the sale returns.

However, when people stockpile products, even enough for a few months, there usually isn’t enough to go around.

“If you’re going to do it, buy a few [of the sales item],” said Jim Bertolino of Brewer, who uses coupons regularly and often has traveled to the store for a deal only to find an empty shelf. “Even the guy on ‘Extreme Couponing’ who donates stuff — that’s really cool and nice, but there might be a single mom down the road who wanted to get a dollar off on soap but can’t because he took them all. That’s not cool.”

Bertolino and his fiancee, Jess Cambridge, watch “Extreme Couponing” and keep their own coupon binder, but he says that he’s not going to ask his children to jump into a Dumpster to scavenge for extra clippings, a tactic that has been documented on the show.

Unwritten couponing etiquette

In Millinocket, Murray knows all of her fellow coupon enthusiasts.

“I don’t think any one person up there is a shelf cleaner,” she said. “It’s all good. Missing out on a deal isn’t going to kill me.”

In fact, Murray is reluctant to clear a shelf even if only a couple of the sale item are left. Sometimes she waits until the sale is almost over and then clears the shelf.

“If someone is behind me, then I go to the back of the line for this,” said Murray, as she piled her merchandise onto the Rite Aid counter and handed the cashier her coupons in a specific order: store coupons first and then manufacturer coupons.

“That’s how they have to scan them,” she explained.

After using the coupons and her Rite Aid wellness card, Murray paid $8.25 for $131.26 worth of merchandise. Next stop: Walmart.

Types of treasure

“Oh, look! They aren’t the cool ones, but I can get some cool-kids ones at Target and I won’t be sporting Shrek,” Murray said, tossing two boxes of plain Nexcare bandages into the Walmart cart.

She did, indeed, find Shrek band-aids at Target. And because of her $1 off coupons, she got them for free in both stores.

It’s a lot easier to buy health and beauty supplies with coupons than fresh produce and meat, said Corns. She’ll never pay a penny for things such as toothpaste, dental floss, razors or shampoo because of the frequent sale-coupon match-ups.

Two weeks ago, Murray’s children came home with $50 from the school for the family to go on a shopping spree for Ronald McDonald House. Murray took it as a challenge and spent $48.05 for merchandise that at full price would have amounted to $287.36. The personal care items filled the back seat of her four-door GMC pickup.

Murray doesn’t get as good deals on food, but at Walmart she used manufacturer coupons to take $1 off seasoning for her summer grilling and $1 off bones for Striker, her “moose of a German shepherd.”

Though it’s easier to get personal care items for free, Corns manages to purchase groceries from Shaw’s for next to nothing. The key is collecting as many coupons as you can. For people who eat only organic or gluten-free food, Corns suggests finding coupons on company websites.

Checkout line

“A million things can happen at the checkout — you can have a kid tugging on your clothes and wanting to buy a candy bar, the people behind you talking to you — I keep myself organized so that when the cashier says, ‘OK, it’s going to be $3.25,’ I’m also expecting it to be $3.25,” said Corns.

To quell anger before it begins, Corns heads off the cashier and fellow customers from the start by disclosing that she’s “one of those crazy coupon ladies” and apologizing. She also keeps a low profile while shopping by leaving her coupon binder in the car and bringing into the store only what she needs. She has noticed customers rolling their eyes at people who prop open their coupon binders on shopping carts.

On “Extreme Couponers,” shoppers talk of the thrill of standing in the checkout line while the cashier scans coupon after coupon, dropping the bill lower and lower. Surrounding customers cheer with the exuberant “coupon queen” when the final total is announced.

But the checkout counter isn’t all fun and excitement. It’s not uncommon to see couponers disagree with cashiers and even managers about store policies concerning coupons, sales and matching prices. Murray carries a printed copy of store policies with her when she shops to settle any disagreements, but even then, there may be differences of opinion about the meaning of words in the policies.

Walmart guards against counterfeit coupons by having a system that prompts the cashier for supervisor verification if a customer uses $50 or more in coupons in one transaction.

Murray once used so many coupons at the Brewer Rite Aid that the cashier suspected her of being a secret shopper from corporate, checking that employees knew the coupon policies.

The discomfort that can result from using a stack of coupons is worth it to Murray because it allows her to purchase formerly unattainable items for her family. Any money they save goes right back into their everyday budget of living expenses.

Her shopping trip in Bangor was short and sweet. She spent $27.22. She saved $143.39.

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