5 secret strategies of 'aggressive' couponers

Story by Carrie Kirby
(Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Sat, Jan 22, 2011
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Call us "extreme couponers" or "crazy coupon ladies." Just don't call us late for dinner, because we'll be the ones bringing extras of everything, which we bought for pennies on the dollar.

After the recent TLC special "Extreme Couponing" portrayed four enthusiastic couponers as potential head cases, grocery savings expert Jill Cataldo reached for adjectives other than "extreme" to describe how she uses coupons.

"I would definitely consider myself aggressive. Extreme, no," said Cataldo. She teaches "Super-Couponing" workshops and sells a DVD course (found at jillcataldo.com) to help beginners learn the coupon tricks necessary to slash grocery bills.

Joanie Demer, a Northern California couponer, was shown in "Extreme Couponing" Dumpster diving for newspaper inserts with her small child. She described her coupon use as "strategic" but said she doesn't mind if people think she's a little unbalanced — after all, her Web site is thekrazycouponlady.com. On the show, she slashed a $600 register total to $2.64. "I think the ones paying full price are crazy," she said with a laugh.

As the Frugalista, I count myself among shoppers like Cataldo and Demer who use coupons more effectively than most people do, with big benefits. Here are some of the secrets that extreme — ahem, aggressive — couponers use to get those jaw-dropping savings:

Time the market. The price of most grocery items will vary widely over a 12-week cycle. Cataldo used a particular brand of hummus as an example: On a recent week it was selling for $5.49 at one store and $1 at another supermarket. When you have a $1 coupon, she said, use it when the hummus is $1; don't waste it when the hummus costs more than $5.

Feel free to use a lot of coupons at once, even if they are identical. After Demer appeared on "Extreme Couponing," she got questions from viewers who were puzzled that she could clip the same coupon from many copies of the Sunday paper, then use them all in one transaction. People, sometimes even cashiers, incorrectly interpret the words "one coupon per purchase" printed on most coupons to mean that you can use only one per trip to the checkout.

"One coupon per purchase just means one coupon per item," Demer said. "All it's saying is that you can't use two 50-cent coupons on one can of beans."

Stack store coupons with manufacturers coupons. Demer explained that the coupons in the Sunday paper are almost all manufacturers' coupons, issued by the companies that make the goods. Many stores publish their own coupons, on their Web sites or in their ads. While you can use only one manufacturer's coupon per item, you can also use one store coupon per item.

"Target is the best national store to do that at, because they've got their printable coupons online," Demer said.

Build a stockpile — within reason. One of the most extreme things shown on "Extreme Couponing" was the amount of products shoppers were stockpiling. Nathan Engels, founder of the Web forum weusecoupons.com, said he had 1,500 sticks of deodorant in his garage. Cataldo said that's one difference between her and the extreme couponers: She hasn't converted her garage into a warehouse. "I have two sets of plastic shelves ... in my basement, plus another fridge and freezer," Cataldo said. Demer and Cataldo agreed that keeping a reasonable stockpile helps shoppers get the best prices by allowing them to wait to buy an item until a low price and a high-value coupon are both available.

Don't feel sorry for the store. When Cataldo used a $1 coupon on a tub of hummus on sale for $1, she got the item free. But the store still got paid $1, because manufacturers reimburse stores for every coupon used, plus a handling fee.

"Some cashiers might treat you badly, almost like you're taking the coupon out of their paycheck," Demer said.

But knowing that they're not shortchanging the store, Demer said, couponers should hold their heads high and enjoy the savings.

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