Grocery shopping on steroids. That pretty much sums up the extreme couponing craze sweeping America and sweeping the Nielsen ratings, as well.
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More than 2 million viewers watched the premiere of Extreme Couponing when it aired on Discovery's TLC network in December 2010. In each episode, crazy-eyed coupon clippers converge upon their local grocery stores with bushels full of coupons, detailed shopping battle plans and a military precision reminiscent of the D-Day invasion.
Sure, it's interesting to watch, and those zany coupon fanatics definitely save some major money. But I always come away thinking: "I just don't have time for all of that. I could never be that organized. And think of all the paper cuts."
Given my passion for saving money but my desire to have time for a real life, too, I decided to consult my longtime penny-pinching pal Stephanie Nelson. She is the founder of CouponMom.com, the oldest and largest grocery deal site on the Internet, now with 5 million members (membership is free). There are a variety of online coupon sites such as the Everyday Savings Center on AARP.org, Red Plum and Coupons.com.
Stephanie has been couponing long before couponing was cool, but even she was caught off-guard by the rise in couponing not just as a way to save money, but as a cultural phenomenon akin to a professional sport. "It's not just due to the recession," Nelson says. "What's really surprising is the popularity of couponing among young people, including extreme couponing and social sites like Groupon and Living Social."
With $485 billion worth of coupons distributed in the U.S. last year — and the number keeps growing — I asked Nelson how a typical consumer can save by using coupons without going to extremes. Here are the Coupon Mom's top five tips:
1. Yes, you still need to subscribe to the Sunday paper. Even though electronic and other types of non-paper coupons are on the increase, Nelson says, between 80 and 90 percent of all coupons redeemed still come from the good old Sunday newspaper. You might even want to pick up more than one copy, or ask your neighbors for their coupon inserts if they're not planning to use them.
2. Use the right coupon, in the right store, at the right time. I've heard of pairing wines with different foods, but never thought of it in terms of couponing. "The key is to pair coupons with store specials on items that are already on sale that week," Nelson says. In order to match up coupons with store specials, Nelson says the quickest and easiest way is to simply type the name of your local grocery store(s) and the word "deals" into the search engine of your choice. You'll be surprised by the results.
3. There are usually a lot more coupons available on a store's website than in the newspaper or in the store's weekly sales circular. Again, the key is to go to the grocery store's website before you go shopping, and check for printable and downloadable coupons available only on the website. An increasing number of supermarket websites also allow you to download coupons directly to your loyalty or club card, so the savings are deducted automatically when the cashier swipes your card. No risk of paper cuts there.
4. Loyalty pays when it comes to shopping at drug stores. "Most people think of drug stores as an expensive place to shop for a lot of items — and they can be. If you make it a point to pick a favorite drug store chain in your area and shop there regularly, there are some real bargains to be had — including occasional free items, Nelson says. Enroll in the store's loyalty card program, which typically qualifies you for automatic rebates and coupons that can be used on top of the store's weekly specials and other sales.
5. Contact the manufacturer of your favorite products. What if you never see coupons for your favorite brands or products, even things like organic products and food staples? "We did a little experiment at Coupon Mom and contacted the manufacturers of a wide range of products that are rarely advertised using coupons," Nelson said. "When we contacted them via their websites and simply asked about coupons, nearly 60 percent responded by sending us some type of 'consumer relations coupons' for their products, including some that sent coupons for free products."
As Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero famously said, "Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide." I didn't' know they had coupons way back then.
Also of interest: Join the Savings Challenge. >>
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.