TV shows like TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” make saving an astounding amount of money at the checkout line with coupons look easy. But the cameras don’t show the hours of drudgery and driving that go into making those savings happen, especially during the learning curve and early years — that’s right, years.
Extreme couponer Stacy Fout of Lavon, Texas, has slashed her grocery bill from $600 to $200 per month for her family of five based on the stockpile of supplies she’s built up over six years of couponing. “Eventually, my stockpile got to the point where I could just shop for stockpiling and perishable items,” she said. “There have been weeks where I can get everything we need with like $30 — the milk, the bread, stuff like that.”
Fout’s long-range approach has slashed the time she spends couponing and shopping, but she said she can’t imagine giving it up completely. “It becomes a lifestyle,” she said. “It becomes a game to see what all you could save on. … I know I’ll never have to pay for toothpaste again. I know I’ll never have to pay more than three cents a load for my laundry detergent again, because I know how to work the deals to get that.”
How did Fout reach her enviable balance of effort versus reward? Keep reading to find out what goes into achieving big savings with extreme couponing.
1. The learning curve is front-loaded and steep. Couponing will devour many more hours than your savings are worth until you get a handle on organization. After six years, Fout has reduced her prep time to four to six hours per week researching coupons, making lists and then going store to store. “If you’re not strategic in planning it, you can spend more gas than it’s worth,” she said.
2. Brace for anger and resentment from cashiers and other shoppers. Processing coupons takes time that cashiers (who are rated on their checkout times) and customers in line behind you may resent. Smooth things over by shopping during off hours, giving a friendly warning to people behind you to choose another aisle and developing relationships with friendly cashiers.
3. You need to give up brand loyalty. Getting the best deals means buying whatever brand is featured in the coupons you have on hand.
4. Your success may be measured by your storage space. Unless you have somewhere to store bulk deals, your couponing success will be restricted to what you can fit into your pantry. Fout stockpiles her purchases in a closet under the stairs and two freezers on her back porch.
5. The game can become an addiction. Where is the line between stockpiling and hoarding? One couponer notoriously stockpiled 60 free diabetes monitors — even though she didn’t have diabetes.
6. Few “regular” shoppers take advantage of available coupon savings. The average coupon savings offered to Americans in 2013 was $1,617, but consumers only took advantage of about $3.7 billion of these savings — $11.60 per person, according to Inmar‘s 2014 Coupon Trends report.
7. Dyed-in-the-wool couponers remain relatively rare. According to Inmar’s report, only 20 percent of consumers use coupons every time they shop. By comparison, roughly one-quarter each put themselves in the “usually,” “about half the time” or “rarely” categories. Only 4 percent said they never use coupons.
8. Those amazing extreme coupon savings shown on TV are a set-up. Stores that participate in shows like “Extreme Couponing” frequently bypass usual coupon restrictions — such as limits on coupon doubling — during filming. Real people won’t be able to achieve comparable savings.
9. Reality shows about extreme couponing have dinged coupon values. Shows such as “Extreme Couponing” have prompted stores to set stricter limits on coupons. Many stores have banned double coupons or taken steps to prevent customers from buying too much at once.
10. Stores aren’t obligated to accept coupons. Most stores accept coupons because they want your business, but they are not legally obligated to do so, according to the Coupon Information Corp. Stores that have taken a hit from coupon fraud or even overzealous coupon stacking may refuse to accept any or all coupons at their discretion.
11. Some popular extreme couponing practices are unethical or illegal. Shady tactics include photocopying coupons (counterfeiting — a criminal offense), decoding (using a coupon for something other than the intended product — fraud similar to shoplifting), selling coupons (a violation of nontransferability clauses), obtaining newspaper coupon inserts without paying (theft) and reselling stockpiles (against sales and health and safety codes).
12. Coupon fraud has become big crime. Authorities have exposed coupon fraud schemes to the tune of more than $750 million. In 2013, an Arizona woman was sentenced to two years in prison plus $5 million in restitution payments for masterminding a $40 million counterfeit coupon ring.
13. Coupon fraud could send you to prison for as long as 17 years. The Coupon Information Corp. reports that sentences of three to five years and penalties of $200,000 are not uncommon for coupon fraud. The highest consequences reported to date are 17 years in prison and $5 million in penalties.
14. Coupon shoppers don’t clip because they’re having trouble making ends meet. More than a fifth of coupon shoppers have annual household incomes over $100,000, according to recent research. Sixty percent of coupon shoppers come from homes with annual household incomes over $50,000.
“We’re not needing anything; we’re not wanting for anything,” said Fout, who works part time and whose husband is employed as an engineer. “It’s not that I do it now for the purpose of the money savings. Now I do it because why would I pay more when I know how to do it and pay less?”
15. Smartphone coupon use is surging. Projections show that more than 74 million Americans will use smartphone mobile coupons this year.
16. Shoppers gather coupons in multiple ways. Shoppers use an average of 5.8 methods to find coupons. Online, that includes coupon websites, brand websites, retailer websites, search engines and social media.
17. Printed coupons still reign. Despite the growing popularity of digital coupons, 70 percent of couponers still use print-based coupons such as those in the Sunday paper, according to an April 2015 study from GfK Custom Research and News America Marketing.
18. Digital coupons influence more purchases than sales or vouchers. With all types of digital promotions gaining ground, digital coupons remain most likely to actually influence purchase decisions, over sales and daily deal vouchers, according to a 2014 RetailMeNot survey of American shoppers.
19. Almost every smartphone user is becoming a couponer. A 2015 Mobile Commerce Daily report found that 96% of mobile users surveyed will search for digital coupons to find the best deals when shopping online.
20. Real men coupon, too. Times have changed. More than half of men — 51 percent — now serve as the primary shoppers for their households, reports Daymon Worldwide. They’re coupon-savvy, too. Fifteen percent of male shoppers say they’ve clipped coupons; 9 percent have looked for coupons in store circulars; and 9 percent have downloaded digital coupons while they’re shopping.
21. Food companies and grocery stores love couponers. Coupons still represent incredibly cheap advertising for food manufacturers, and grocery stores that accept them bank the full face value plus 8 cents handling per coupon redeemed — a valuable source of revenue.
22. Meeting the management can save an extreme couponing relationship. When questions arise over coupon use and store policies, a meeting with the store manager is inevitable. Experienced extreme couponers set the tone by introducing themselves first and establishing a good relationship.
23. Even cutting-edge extreme couponers eventually streamline their couponing. “As a busy working mom straddling KCL and home, I have less time for shopping than I did five years ago,” write the couponers behind the Krazy Coupon Lady. “While I may not need to coupon to survive, I’m still interested in saving money.”
24. Experienced couponers let someone else do the hard work. Savvy couponers don’t waste time figuring out how to combine coupons with items on sale. They let someone else make these matchups— usually database sites like CouponMom.com or CouponDivas.com that link directly to coupons.
25. Smart couponers know “original prices” aren’t always the bottom line. Stores often try to lure shoppers looking for a great deal by marking sale items with unrealistically high “original prices” to make the current price seem like a better deal.
26. You can attract new coupon offers by abandoning orders in your online shopping cart. Online retailers who want to close the sale may send you an email with a coupon or offer for items you’ve left languishing in your online shopping cart.
27. Score more coupons by being a supportive fan. Manufacturers and stores will often send you coupons when you follow them on social media, sign up for their newsletters or join their brand clubs.
28. You can learn couponing techniques in college. Study the principles of extreme couponing in classes from colleges like Jackson State University.
29. Your expired coupons can help a military family. Expired coupons get extra life for members of the military stationed overseas, who get several extra months to redeem them.
30. Turn your biggest couponing coups into charitable contributions. Share the wealth by donating goods you can’t use to a charitable group. One Colorado food pantry hired an extreme couponer to snag goods at the best prices.