Monday, September 5, 2011

Going to the Extreme (Couponing, That Is)

You've probably heard about the newest rage to hit the grocery stores:  extreme couponing.  Popularized by the TLC television show of the same name, it is where people use various couponing and discounting strategies to purchase loads of groceries for pennies on the dollar.  After watching the show with my wife on a couple of occasions, I must say that I became quite intrigued with the concept.  I like saving money as much as the next person, but the people shown on the show make me look like a rank amateur.  Therefore, I set off to see if I could learn a thing or two from these pros.  Fortunately, there are a lot of websites out there dedicated to this new rage.  I am purposefully refraining from posting links to these sites for reasons that will become apparent later in this article.  However, a quick google search will reveal some of the more popular sites.

Extreme couponing is quite simple in concept.  For the most part, it consists of four key ingredients:

1. Clip lots of coupons:  This one is pretty obvious.  The best extreme couponers can find coupons from all over the place:  the local paper, Internet websites, home mailers, social networking sites, those little printers that print coupons right at checkout, attached to the products themselves, and so on.  What I've learned is that coupons are everywhere!  Not only that, extreme couponers will obtain multiple copies of the same coupon.  Sometimes that means buying six or more copies of the local newspaper, but they claim that it is worth it.

2. Use the coupons when items go on sale:  Most people use coupons as soon as possible.  However, extreme couponers save them for when the product is on sale at its rock bottom price.  Investors will note that this is the "buy low" rule applied to groceries.  Makes complete sense.

3. Take advantage of store policies:  Extreme couponers will take advantage of things like coupon doubling and stacking.  Coupon doubling is where a store will double the savings of a manufacturer's coupon, up to a certain limit.  Stacking is where you use a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon on the same item at the same time.  In some cases, the value of the coupons might exceed the sale price of the product itself.  Some stores allow you to use this credit balance towards the rest of your purchase, which an extreme couponers dream come true.  Of course, every store has different policies regarding doubling, stacking, and credit balances.  Therefore, it pays to know what they are before you shop.

4. Stock up:  When events converge to offer an amazing deal, extreme couponers stock up.  They use as many coupons as possible to buy as many of the items as possible.  Then they store the extra items away for when they are needed.  Obviously, some items (think toilet paper) are easier to keep for long periods of time than others (think milk).  Therefore, you better be prepared to use the items.  Unless you are getting paid to buy the items, any deal where you can't use the item is not a deal at all.

Armed with all of this information, I set off to find my own extreme coupon deals!

The first one that I tried was a deal where you could get free single serving bottles of orange juice that was on sale for a dollar by using a dollar coupon available on the Internet.  I drink orange juice all the time.  Therefore, this deal seemed like a no-brainer to me.  Since this particular web site only allowed you to print two coupons from any computer, I ended up printing two copies from my computer, my wife's computer, and our netbook.  Armed with six dollar off coupons, I headed off to the store to claim my six bottles of free OJ.  Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one who knew about this deal.  When I got to the store, there was an empty shelf where (I assume) the bottles of orange juice had been.  As a consolation prize, I bought a gallon jug of OJ using my dollar off coupon, and at the register, the machine printed a $1.50 off OJ coupon for my next visit.  I guess it wasn't a total loss!

Lesson #1:  If a deal is posted on the Internet, it is likely that everybody knows about it.  By the time you find out, it is too late!  That is why I am refraining to reveal my sources on these deals.  (Note that this is similar to what I had said about picking stocks in a previous article).

The second deal that I tried was a buy-one-get-one-50%-off deal on vitamins combined with two $3 off coupons printed from the Internet.  Normally, a 50 count bottle costs $10.  With this deal, I could get 100 vitamins for $9 ($10 for the first bottle of 50 + $5 for the second bottle - $6 for the two coupons).  Armed with coupons in hand, I visited the store.  This time I was in luck because the store still had plenty of the vitamins on sale.  I swiped two just in case the old man behind me was looking to store the same deal, I ran up to the register.  I handed the two coupons to the cashier, and she gave me a look.  She said that since the second bottle was free, I could only use one coupon, not two.  The store didn't allow coupons on free items.  She was an older lady with an air of authority, so I figured that I had misread something and the vitamins were part of a BOGO deal (that's buy-one-get-one free in extreme coupon speak).  I took the coupon back and smiled inwardly at my good luck.  Now I was getting $20 worth of vitamins for $7!  Yippe!  Unfortunately, the authoritative cashier was mistaken.  After I got home and looked at the receipt, I saw that the second bottle was not free - it was 50% off just I had read.

The only consolation was that I got another $2 off coupon for vitamins at the register.  Yay...

Lesson #2:  Don't trust the cashier, regardless of how authoritative he or she might appear.  They don't know all of the sales as well as they think they do.

My conclusion is that extreme couponing is not as simple as it looks.  I'll keep trying to score more deals, but I realize that I still have a long way to go before you see me on TV.

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