I am a Costco member. I use promo codes online and insist on relentless comparison shopping. I purchase clothes out of season to save cash. To put it kindly, I am careful with money. More directly, I am cheap. But there's one cost-cutting measure I thought I'd never try: couponing. The idea of attacking a newspaper with scissors made me shudder. I was sure all those bits of paper would just get lost and expire at the bottom of my purse. The whole process seemed so tedious and definitely not worth the effort for 25 cents off laundry detergent.
But then the recession hit. And I began hearing about a strategic sort of couponing that enables tightwads-who-blog to get cartfuls of groceries for tiny prices and even take home many items for free. I was intrigued: Could there be such a thing as free groceries?
I started at Super-Couponing.com, a site run by Jill Cataldo, a self-described coupon queen who writes a syndicated newspaper column. Here, I picked up the basic premise of scoring free stuff: combining store sales and coupons. For instance, if a tube of toothpaste is on sale for $1 and you have a coupon for $1 off, you get it gratis. Blogs like Cataldo's do the dirty work by matching up weekly grocery and drugstore sales with coupons and telling you exactly how to combine them for the best savings. There are countless similar blogs written by fervent women (and a few men) around the country that vary in site traffic and geographic focus, but share the same basic methodologies and taste in brightly colored Web design.
After disappearing into the coupon blogosphere for two solid days, I felt ready for my first outing. But I didn't feel confident enough to go it alone, so I arranged for a coach. I met couponer Pam Rea, a finance secretary for the local government, at her sprawling suburban Chicago Jewel-Osco store, the Midwestern outpost of Albertson's Inc. I had previously assumed that a couponing diet meant only boxed and processed foods, but Rea's yield seemed balanced. She picked up pork tenderloin, apples, bananas, and organic milk in addition to Pringles and frozen French toast sticks.
We finished in the pharmacy department and headed to the checkout line. I was afraid that using a lot of coupons would be deeply embarrassing. Would the cashier feel annoyed and act rude? Would a long line of impatient and unruly shoppers form behind me? Our young checker, Kelsie, was polite, if stone-faced, but I couldn't help but wince as she hand-entered a fistful of coupons one at a time. Before long, the woman who'd unloaded her chicken nuggets onto the belt behind us began shifting her weight from flip-flop to flip-flop and muttering mean nothings to another shopper.
When every item was scanned, Rea's total was $174.55. But after each coupon was validated, the number dropped—to $36.89, including $6.08 in taxes. She handed over $30 worth of store credits and charged the remaining 81 cents plus tax—which couponers must pay out of pocket—on her debit card. She'd saved $167.66. Not bad at all.
Rea got her receipt—it trailed almost all the way to the floor before it was ripped from the machine—and it was my turn. I went for what JillCataldo.com calls a "black belt deal"—using store credit coupons or "Catalinas." These spit out of a machine at the register when you buy certain items and can be used like cash on your next purchase. Catalinas are the key to getting free groceries since adept couponers "roll" them by starting a new transaction right away and putting the value toward the rest of their purchase.
The machine rewarded my $8.59 purchase of three cans of Progresso soup and six 10-ounce boxes of Green Giant frozen vegetables with $7 worth of Catalinas. Kelsie moved the rubber divider bar and we did it again with three more cans of soup and six more boxes of vegetables. I paid for them with the Catalinas and $3 on my credit card and got $7 worth of Catalinas back. The groceries weren't quite free, but they cost much less than the $44 they would have at regular prices. I felt elated. But it wasn't the frozen peas or reduced sodium vegetable soup I was excited about. Like eBay, couponing made shopping feel like gambling.
Unwilling to let my winning streak lapse, I ventured later that week to a Target near my apartment on Chicago's North Side. Target has a dubious reputation among couponers. Blog comments tell of uneven handling of coupons from location to location—the same deal (or "scenario," in the vernacular) works perfectly for one shopper but fails for others.
I was armed with four coupons for $2 off Healthy Choice frozen meals. At this point, I should explain that as I couponed, I tried to buy food similar to what I actually eat, which means I passed up deals for refrigerated biscuits, fiber yogurt, and the like. While my husband has been known to dabble in Trader Joe's frozen teriyaki bowls, Healthy Choice was stretching my parameters somewhat—I'd been seduced by the high-value coupon. The transaction, maybe unsurprisingly, ended up a mixed victory. I paid just 96 cents for four meals, or $7.50 off the stated price. But the next week around lunchtime I got a terse e-mail from my husband. "Disgusting," he wrote.
When visiting my parents the second week of my couponing trial, I made a trip to a Walgreens a couple of blocks from Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. For $3.39, I made off with a 4.5-ounce bag of True North nut crisps (a nut-cracker hybrid), a 15-ounce box of Kashi cereal, an 11.5-ounce box of Keebler cookies, and two packs of Trident gum. I also got a single individually wrapped caramel that my checker threw in to increase my total when the scanner wouldn't accept my Register Rewards—Walgreens' version of Catalinas.
As I couponed, I found that in a contest between my sense of shame and a cheap box of cookies, the cookies win. Checkers at all three stores were patient, if doubtful that my high jinks would work. I never took long enough to cause any major backups in line, and when trying to juggle my wallet, credit card, store savings card, notebook, and a stack of coupons, I didn't think to check for grimaces or other signs of exasperation behind me. That isn't to say couponers don't stand out. In Walgreens, I caught one twentysomething staring at me, eyes narrowed, as I shuffled through my coupons in the cereal aisle.
Before my maiden voyage, I thought the couponing process involved above-reasonable amounts of hassle. And if you read every site and chase every deal, it does. You can avoid getting overwhelmed, however, by skipping the large online forums and starting out at a blog written specifically for your region or one that tells you exactly what to do. Unless you're a bag lady or a pack rat, you probably don't have the months of newspaper coupon inserts that serious couponers stockpile, so turn to online coupons like those at Smartsource.com and Coupons.com. But beware: High-value coupons from a specific brand's Web site often require registration, including supplying your e-mail address and birthday, and sometimes even make you install a special coupon printing application.
Yet I must admit that I haven't started using coupons in my daily grocery shopping: I just don't know if I can add more work—painless though it may be—to my already demanding penny-pinching routine. After forgetting to use the Catalinas I'd earned with Rea for more than two weeks, I finally remembered to dig them out of my purse, transfer them to my wallet, and hand them over to pay for a basket of full-price produce. I was told they'd expired two days earlier.