Shopping with coupons.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Oct. 27 2009 7:32 AM

Supermarket Sweep

Using coupons to get free groceries.

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.

Clipping coupons.
Is clipping coupons worth it?

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?

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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.