THE REVELATION

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the concept of “extreme” couponing — the meticulously planned effort to match clipped and online coupons with weekly store deals and coupon doubling to end up paying next to nothing on your total grocery bill.

If you haven’t, you’re in for a jaw-dropping revelation. There are people out there saving as much as 99% on their family grocery bills on a regular basis, and creating stock piles in their pantries, basements and garages that put mini-mart shelves to shame. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is — and apparently, a lot of people know about it! In fact, TLC has a new reality series dedicated to this phenomenon.

Of course, I was not one of those informed people — until this week. Up to this point, I’d heard talk of books, Web sites, and a “krazy coupon lady” teaching how to maximize coupon savings. Then I started hearing about some impressive bottom-line savings from my own friends. I finally chimed in to a recent Facebook couponing boast — I mean “post” — to ask the obvious question: “How did you do it?” I (and the other 20 or so curious commenters) didn’t get an answer that day, so once again I put it back on the backburner.

Then this week, I caught an episode of “Extreme Couponing” while channel-surfing, and I was schooled in the art of mega-savings. It’s not nearly enough to shop with a store discount card and grab a few shelf-display coupons as you go (which is usually the best that I can do). It’s more than just bringing the Sunday paper’s best coupon clippings along for the ride, and even going the extra mile to print coupons off the Internet. It even goes beyond comparing the weekly store circulars to see which store has what on sale this week and splitting up your shopping trip to maximize each store’s deals.

All of these savings strategies do come into play, but with extreme couponing, you combine these techniques into a caculated, aisle-by-aisle shopping plan that can take hours to execute but can amount to savings of hundreds to thousands of dollars every month. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? It also makes bottom-line sense for a lot of families to invest some time in this project. When you divide the massive savings by the hours spent on an extreme couponing excursion, it pays better than most part-time jobs.

For me, the real bottom line is this: If I don’t have to pay as much for it, why should I?

Realistically, I don’t forsee being able to carve out enough time to make my couponing effort as extreme as the women I saw on TLC — and the stock-piling was a little “crazy lady” for me. But you have to admit, it feels pretty great to score big savings when you shop, right? I love that feeling of victory when I’ve saved crazy amounts of money on things I really wanted, and it’s even better when it’s something I really needed. What better way to start being a good steward of my finances than with the daily necessities?

THE PLAN

Today I decided to dip my toes into the pond of extreme savings. However, my first experiment wasn’t very well conceived: For starters, I’m not really sure why I thought this would be a good day to give it a try. My husband just left for a business trip to China this morning, and with no obvious commitments on the schedule until the late afternoon, I thought I could squeeze in a first run at coupon-centric shopping. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

First, I sat down at the desk to map out my plan. No wait, first I need to have coupons! Oh, and I also need those weekly store circulars, but where did they end up? So far, not so good. Luckily, I was quickly rescued by a Google search, which uncovered a list of Web sites that do a little bit of the coupon-matching homework for you.

I started with CouponMom.com, and in minutes, I had a list of the best weekly deals matched up with online or newspaper coupons — in order of percentage of savings — on my computer screen for both grocery stores I’d planned to shop at. Voila, that was easy! I’ll just click on the links to the online coupons, print those out, and then pick up a paper at the store for the rest. No problem!

But of course, there was a problem — or two, or three.

First snag: Most of the online coupon links take you to sites like Coupons.com and SmartSource.com, where you have to install their “coupon printer” app first in order to print the coupons. For some reason, my Mac refused to install the Mac-based printer app. I wasted about 20 minutes uninstalling and reinstalling before deciding this old PowerBook G4 was not going to cooperate today. Time was ticking away, so I decided to go back to the list and see if any coupons came from sites that didn’t require this special printer app…

Second snag: I finally found a Web site that didn’t require the printer app — victory! — but it did require a more recent version of Java than my Firefox browser was apparently running. I tried upgrading my Java — while enjoying my second cup of Java — but about halfway through that second cup, the Java upgrade failed. Boo! Hiss! I know the G4 is an old beater, but come on… I am starting to take it personally.

After wasting another 20 minutes or so on that one, I move on to a new Web site — ShopAtHome.com — where you can “attach” online coupons to your store discount cards. Like the other sites, you’re presented with pages of coupons that you can sort through and select the ones you want, but instead of printing them out at the end, they get uploaded to your store discount card account, and when you check out at the store, the coupon is automatically deducted from your bill — along with any additional discount the store is already offering.

This is brilliant — no printing coupons, no apps! I am back in business. I quickly click through the available offerings for the best coupons that match up with my shopping list and the original store deals print-out from CouponMom.com. Looks like I won’t save as much as I could have had those initial recommended coupons printed out, but I will still save a lot more than I normally would.

Luckily, I also remember that I just received a mailer from King Soopers — one of the stores on my list — with a stack of “preferred customer” coupons they send out about once a quarter. Those are usually pretty good, so I ruffle through my desk to find it and am pleasantly surprised to see there are some more overlapping savings with the items on my list — score! I pop those into my purse, along with the printed shopping lists that ID which items have additional coupons uploaded to my store cards, and I’m finally ready to shop.

Third snag: Oops, it’s now 3pm, and it’s time for those afternoon plans. The coupon experiment will have to wait a few hours.

THE EXPERIMENT

I decide to limit the experiment to just one store today, given that it’s now after 6pm and I have three hyped-up daughters along for the ride. At least no one will be hungry, I thought — we just came from a pizza party. I look over the list and quickly make a second edit, deciding to focus on the most important needs first that still maximize the savings for a single shopping trip, and save the rest for later.

Even with that shorter list, I found myself in the self-check line two hours later with too many items to be in the self-check line. But the store was pretty empty and no one was waiting, so I decided to stay in the self-check so I could monitor the check-out process and make sure we’re getting all the right deals.

Did I mention that we’d been in the store two hours already? If you’ve ever shopped with three kids before, you’ll know that there’s a reason I skipped over the shopping experience itself — it was not fun, to say the least. And the pre-shopping meal apparently wasn’t enough: Toward the end of our trip, my three-year-old poked a hole in a bag of bagels — that I was not going to buy — and pulled out a bite. Lesson No. 1: Do this without the kids next time!

Back to the check-out counter: One of my big scores of the evening was going to be the store’s “buy four General Mills cereals, get a $5 gift card” special — because I’d planned to do that transaction first, using an additional coupon per box of cereal and selecting those four cereals that were already on sale, then use that $5 gift card off a second transaction with the rest of my items. I also had a preferred customer coupon for $1 off three boxes of GM cereal, and according to the Coupon pundits, I should be able to use that too (since it wasn’t a repeat coupon on a single item).

I rang up the four boxes, the online coupons attached to my card kicked in, the store sale prices kicked in, and I hit the “coupon” button to use the one printed preferred customer coupon. In self-check, this requires a store clerk to come up and enter your coupon for you. However, the clerk manning the self-service area tonight told me I couldn’t also use the store coupon — even though it was not a repeat coupon and it was for three items together, not one item being couponed twice. I remember what I just saw on “Extreme Couponing” this week, and I am sure he must be wrong: How else do those ladies dwindle down a $550 shopping trip to just $5, including tax?

We went back and forth about it a few times until I caught sight of my three-year-old pulling more bites out of that bag of bagels I was now on the hook for, so I quickly gave up the fight. Lesson No. 2: Find out what the deal is with using different coupons on the same item. I think I’m right, but I need to be better prepared for a battle next time.

I finished checking out without using that additional $1 coupon, then I told him I was done so that he could issue me that $5 store gift card. He looked perplexed, because I still had about 20 items in my cart. So I explained that I wanted to use the gift card now — on the rest of my items — because, well why not?

He handed me the gift card, and I pulled out the rest of my coupons and got down to business completing my check-out. With the kids visibly coming undone at this point, he softened up and came over to help me load the bags into my cart.

As we made small talk, I mentioned I would use that rejected $1 coupon next time I was in the store while the GM cereals were still on sale, so I could also get an additional $5 gift card — and at last, he understood. He smiled and said, “You know, it’s better to use a regular check-out line if you want all those deals to be worked in together — their registers will automatically issue those deals while they ring it up. That doesn’t happen automatically in the self-serve line.”

Lesson No. 3: Make friends with a few supportive store clerks and always use their lines. My experience tonight revealed that extreme couponing also requires some partners in “crime” to make sure they are helping you maximize all those coupons and deals together — someone who knows what you’re trying to do and wants to help you do it.

Time to make some new friends!

THE RESULTS

In all honestly, I probably spent a total of four hours on today’s experiment — two at home prepping my coupons and battling with my computer, and two at the store wandering back and forth (with the kids pulling me in all directions) because I didn’t have a shopping plan — and saved exactly $41.91 on what would have been a $100.53 shopping trip. So I “earned” about as much as I pay my high-school babysitter, a little more than $10/hr. Not very extreme, but not too shabby.

However, I did also strategically plan to make meals that utilized the best-priced items available at my grocery stores this week — instead of planning the meals first and then buying what I needed to execute them. If I calculated the cost of making meals I might have normally planned to make and compared it with the cost of the meals I will make with the $58.62 in groceries I purchased today, I bet I have saved an additional 30-40% over what I would normally spend. (Sorry, I’m not going to spend another minute calculating that out for argument’s sake!)

If I can really feed the family this week while my husband is out of town, and have some staple foods left over for when he gets back — all for less than $60 — then that will be a big savings over what my usually random shopping and cooking habits cost us. I’ll be curious to compare four weeks of strategic shopping with four weeks of random shopping and see what the difference is.

Until then, I think I’m ready for a refresher course in couponing. I’ll have to try and catch another episode of “Extreme Couponing” this week, and go back to the Web sites to read up on the couponing rules. Next time, I hope to have a better plan, a better computer (I’ll use my husband’s laptop when he returns), a better shopping experience (peacefully walking the aisles without kids), and a better bottom-line result.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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