Crafty or Crazy?

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Here’s the deal (no pun intended).  I know something about spending money and not much about saving it. The areas in my life that are extreme have nothing to do with couponing. I’ve been guilty of standing in the grocery line, huffing and rolling my eyes, while a sweet thrifty lady painstakingly un-crumpled her wad of coupons—one by one—and laid them before the equally annoyed cashier. Long ago, I watched my mother doggedly paste S&H Green Stamps into her savings book and determined I would live a coupon free life.  However, aren’t the things we most strenuously resist the very things we need to surrender to? I’ve realized what’s crazy is not being “smart” about saving money. I decided to investigate couponing with an open mind.

I approached it like a traveler setting out for a foreign country. I needed: a) a little history and background; b) a list of selective sites and destinations; c) a vocabulary list to help me navigate; and d) a personal perspective from someone familiar with the territory.

Coca-Cola was the first company to issue complimentary coupons for free drinks. Between 1894 and 1913, one in nine Americans tasted Coca-Cola, for a total of 8.5 million free drinks. In 1909, coupons gained widespread use when C.W. Post used them to help sell his breakfast cereals and products. With the Internet, digital coupons exploded onto the scene. U.S. consumers use coupons to save in excess of five billion in goods and services each year.

Coupons were initially clipped from newspapers and magazines. Red Plum (RP) is still the most popular mailer and comes as an insert in the Sunday papers. Other mailers include SmartSource (SS) and Proctor & Gamble (PG).

Online coupons and mobile-app coupons are gaining wide popularity.  You can download free apps on your mobile phone from major retailers like Kroger, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Amazon, to name a few. The list of coupon sites is dizzying. I asked people for guidance. If a website was mentioned frequently, I paid attention. 

Here is my basic beginners' list:

Once I knew where to visit, I realized couponing comes with its own vocabulary and definitions.  There are different types of coupons, such as discounts, free shipping, buy-one get-one, trade-in for redemption, first-time customer coupons, free trial offer, launch offers, festival offers and free giveaways. 

There are two types of grocery coupons: manufacturer coupons and store coupons. A manufacturer’s coupon is a piece of paper with a discount for a specified product printed on it. To receive your discount you must purchase the product and the cashier will scan the coupon and the amount will be deducted from your purchase. Store coupons are coupon-based discounts offered for a particular item or group of items. The issuing store will accept its own “store coupons,” but some stores will also accept store coupons that are issued by competitors.

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I now needed a personal guide. I called on Leslie Brill, local couponing guru. She is a wife and mother of three—Carson 16, Henry 12 and Caroline 10—and what my female ancestors admiringly would call “a can-do woman.” (She replaced the blown-out speakers in her husband’s car by watching an instructional video on YouTube.)  Years ago, she told me she didn’t grocery shop without first coordinating her coupons with her shopping list. She said, “I love the challenge and thrill when I save as much as I spend…sometimes I save more!” I was speechless. 

Leslie is a lovely effervescent young woman who completely invalidated my baseless stereotypes about “couponers”. She is not a hoarder. She is not an obsessive-compulsive penny-pincher. She is not a recluse with no life.  If I wanted to understand what motivates someone to devote the time, energy and discipline to couponing. Leslie was the perfect woman. 

When Leslie married, she was working in the corporate world, with a 401(k) and health insurance. When she got pregnant, she and her husband Ed decided they wanted her to be a stay-at-home mom. Leslie was determined to find ways to financially compensate for leaving her job and she knew this required thinking outside the box. She said, “I wanted things for our family, so I had to find ways to make things pay for themselves and pay me instead of me paying for it.” 

She invested in small private properties, slung a tool belt on her hips and learned how to do the remodeling work—tile, drywall, paint, landscape. She spent time going to free classes at Home Depot with a baby on her back. When she finished remodeling a property, she rented it and invested in another one. “I was adamant about optimizing my return on every investment. Clipping coupons was another piece of my overall plan." Leslie said.

Leslie sees the world as a mathematical puzzle. Her big picture includes having money for her children’s college fund and retirement. She also likes fun, adventure and exposing her kids to new experiences. “Every penny I save on our daily needs—clothes, food, household necessities—can be invested towards those bigger goals and also allow us to have fun along the way” Leslie said. Her equation is simple: money saved on mundane necessities equals money for something bigger and more valuable. Who can argue with that kind of clarity?  Her mindset motivates the discipline.  I had my answer.  Envisioning a greater goal, purpose, or benefit is probably the prime motivation for spending the time, energy and discipline on couponing. 

Couponing is like exercise—or other disciplines—that reward you.  Sometimes it’s tedious; defining concrete goals can help maintain motivation. And like exercise, couponing requires an organized regimen to get the full benefits and results.

Some Basic Do’s & Don’ts of Couponing:

  • Have a plan and make a list when you go shopping.  Stick to it. No impulse buying.
  • Know your family’s habits and needs. Coupons can cost you money if you stockpile things you don’t need and use.
  • Read the small print on all coupons. “The big print giveth, the small print taketh away.”
  • Know coupon policies of the stores where you shop. Stand up for yourself! Many times the cashiers are misinformed. Ask nicely to speak to a manager. It is your money and you should not feel bad about being a smart shopper!
  • You don’t need to get EVERY deal.
  • Start slow and stay balanced. The drive to get the next deal (and worrying that you missed one) can be addictive and lead to an unbalanced life.
  • Organize your coupon folder.
  • Send in your rebates. If you can buy an item at a great price with a rebate and fail to send it in, you are losing money.
  • Be an efficient couponer: When you first get started you may spend more money and time than you expect. It’s important to factor in your costs for ink, paper, newspapers, gas and time to get an accurate picture of your savings.

The best part of a journey is reflecting on things you discovered. I am convinced couponing has the capacity to empower women.  It can develop the ability to be financially “smart” and provide a means to save money and reach financially based goals. Like all human pursuits, there are pitfalls; but the choice is always ours. I’ve wanted a new red front-load washer and dryer for a while.  That may be enough to launch me as the new coupon queen.

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