Friday, December 16, 2011

Savings Idea #4: Couponing without the Crazy

For most people, buying food and homegoods (diapers!) are the third biggest expense after their mortgage and car. It’s also the expense with the most flexibility. It's easy to see why people coupon, particularly after nearly a decade-long soggy economy.

Recently I got into the show Extreme Couponing, on TLC. It’s fascinating, and it’s full of tips on how to get the most mileage out of your food budget, and stuffed with drama onscreen and off. I had shied away from coupons for years, but one recent episode asserted that you can get more than junk food. So I tried it. And it’s true.

Those couponers on TLC are… more than a little crazy. All the ones I’ve seen would have to be classified as hoarders; first they hoard coupons then they hoard a year’s worth of goods. I’m not suggesting anyone clear out the garage and install library shelving so you too can have a $20,000 stash of goods bought at less than wholesale. But I do know after 5 week’s research and shopping that you can easily save 30-60% off items for which you have coupons, and here and there you can get an item free. Once I've had the store pay me to take an item home (they accepted a $1/2 coupon for a set of items, one of which turned out to be free at transaction's end; they paid me 50 cents to take it home).

According to the USDA, a family of four with children under 5-years-old spend $800 to $1000 monthly on food. Even on a thrifty plan, they spend $520 a month. With coupons and careful shopping, anyone, no matter their spending level, should be able to cut 30% off their grocers’ bill. In a week. Note that $800 a month x 30% saved = $240 a month saved, or about $3,000 a year. This seems like reasonable couponing to me. My goal is not to be an Extremist, but a Zen Couponer; if you rarely use coupons, consider yourself labeled: Dabbler.

The reason the Extreme Couponers on TLC attract attention is that they go to great – sometimes illegal – lengths to acquire coupons and cheap or free products. The illegal methods are anecdotally interesting, and include a method of using coupons for products other than those intended (coupon fraud resulted in a change in the UPC codes on coupons, to tie them to the intended items). Suffice it to say that trespassing and stealing your neighbor’s purchased subscription are illegal (criminal trespass and petty theft), as is buying coupons (which constitutes fraud in the coupon’s fine print). Dumpster diving may be illegal in your area. Certainly it's gross, and extreme.

Here’s the problem with hoarding coupons: it’s difficult to come by dozens of coupons for the same item, and pair them with the right deal before they expire. I’ve been clipping coupons since late October. The coupon cycle is 12 weeks. That is, most of my coupons expire Dec. 31, no matter when I clipped them. On January first, 90% of my coupons will make a very colorful ticker-tape parade for the babies' second New Year.

Before you get started, commit to Zen Couponing. To me this means having one place in my life where I exert organized control (did I mention I have twins?), and have a little fun while seeing how much I can squeeze out of a good deal for items I really want or need. Zen Couponing is fun; I do not stress over expired coupons, just let them float into the recycle bin; certainly Zen Couponers are savvy shoppers, but they are not so emotionally invested that losing out on one (or many) coupons feels like they "lost a family member", as one Extreme Couponer on TLC's show asserted. Expired coupons make fun confetti; that's all.

Zen Couponing, like many profitable hobbies, is fun, enlivening, and offers ample opportunities for rewards without the extremes reached by Extremists. Zen Couponers buy items they need whether they have a coupon or not, they do not go out of their way to make purchases they wouldn't normally make, and they maintain a small stockpile of dry goods and needful items.
I'm brand loyal. For anything that is going in (food, drink) or on (lotion, makeup, detergent) my body, I am particular. We use only Tide Free detergent, Dreft for the kids, and buy organic veggies, fruits, and meats. Every time I put the boys in something other than Pampers they get diaper rash. However, everything else is up for grabs. Toilet Tissue? Razors? Sponges? Who cares what brand of trash bag you use? You're just going to put trash in it.

In college, one of my professors (Sociology) told our class that almost any product has one of two to five manufacturers. Pick a product: TP, car, shampoo, trash bags, candy. Any product. The number of manufacturers making that product is between two and five. (Test Yourself: name more than 3 brands of anything.) Which means you're likely to find coupons for those major manufacturers' products regularly. Smaller companies, such as Earth's Best (I like their toddler foods and diapers), don't put out coupons, usually. But the large companies put out so many it's easy to create a large stockpile in just a few months.

My question is: Why would you want to?

No one needs 500 rolls of toilet paper in a basement storehouse, unless they’re running a mid-size business, or selling the excess to neighbors and eBayers. I actually wonder if many of TLC's Extremists are actually running small neighborhood stores out of their homes. It's assured no one needs 1000 razors to last them until the next big sale. A three-month supply is plenty for dry goods, a three-week supply is plenty for foods. Meat goes bad even in the freezer after 3 months. Why keep 12 years of detergent when you’ll be moving on from college in a few years? Why paint “The Joneses’ Store” on the door to your hoard of freebies? Why does the show’s announcer refer to these hoards as “minit-marts” and “in-home stores”? Hmmm.

Zen Couponing means keeping it small, manageable, organized, and still save half off goods you normally buy without devoting a room of your house to it. If you have the room for a store in your home -- a huge pantry, a large unused utility room, an empty bedroom -- go for it. Most of us would rather use the space.

The Extremists remind me of the Steven Wright joke: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

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