After seven weeks of dabbling in the pool of extreme couponing, I was totally hooked on saving money and became even more inspired to share what I’ve learned, as well as to use couponing to help others (more on that later). As excited as I was to start helping others, I decided that first, I’d better assess what I’d accomplished and see if this experiment was really paying off. Guess what? It was — seriously — and I had already saved over $1,000 in four weeks! Read on…

THE TALLY

Once I hit the four-week mark, I decided to add up my total couponing expenses (what I purchased on each shopping trip, plus expenses like buying the newspaper) and compare it to what I spent last month on grocery and household items when I was still shopping with no list, no budget, and almost no coupons. Then I would calculate the actual value of what I purchased (a little harder than the first step, more on that later) to figure out exactly what I saved. Time to let the numbers speak for themselves and find out if I was really doing my family a favor by investing my limited time into this couponing endeavor.

My first revelation was seeing that I did actually spend a lot of money on my many couponing excursions. I found myself getting a little sweaty as the calculator started into the $800 range and I still had quite a few receipts sitting in front of me. When I would walk out of a store spending only $20 to $40 on an impressive haul, I thought my month’s total would be something like $500 max. As it turns out, I spent about $930 — and although I could see that the $930 was stretched really far with one glance at my stuffed pantry and overflowing refrigerator & freezer, I was still a little startled by this tally.

I realized right off the bat that this total also included stocking up on household/personal care items that we would normally buy one at a time, yet I had purchased multiples because of the huge savings opportunity. For example, I had purchased six Gillette ProFusion razors for my husband (with two blades each), which would have normally cost at least $10 a piece, but I picked them up for a net of 98 cents each (sale price of $9.99, minus $4 coupon, plus $5 Walgreens Register Rewards received on each!). So with that opportunity, I bought as many as I had coupons for. This adds up when you’re stocking up the bathroom cabinets as well as the cleaning supplies, pantry, etc.

My Stocked Pantry: Saved 50% or more on everything, including many free/almost free items!

Then I remembered what The Krazy Coupon Lady said: You’ll spend more at first because you are building up a “stock” from which you’ll continue to pull items for months and months after the initial purchase. When I started this adventure, the cupboard was bare — no kidding. Now, I was staring at shelves full of enough food and household items to last for months, with the addition of those few fresh items you need week to week. I wish I had taken a picture of the pantry when I started because a picture is truly worth a thousand words, but I remember well enough the reasons I bought those newspapers that Sunday in April: It seemed like we needed everything, yet there was little money left to spend on anything.

The other thing I realized is that I was still sort of shopping blind: No budgeted grocery amount to shoot for, plus the use of my debit card vs. cash meant there was no easy way to gauge where I was at in my spending unless I actually stopped to add it up. I was having too much fun saving 60%-90% on each transaction to take a breather and look at the big picture. Going forward, I know that setting a grocery/household budget is going to be key, along with a little “cushion” to take advantage of the occasional screaming deal. But no more $900+ months, I promised myself — time to rein it in!

THE SAVINGS

The next revelation was really eye-opening: What had I spent on groceries, household and personal care items in the four weeks leading up to my first couponing experience, and was I able to spend less this time?

I hopped online and discovered that my bank account only went back to the three prior weeks online (because we haven’t switched to online-only statements, oops!), but I didn’t feel like digging up the paper statements at that moment. So I decided to just tally up those three weeks and see how close I had come to spending what we normally spend, and if necessary, dig up the paper statements to get a more accurate account.

However, right away I could see that our willy-nilly shopping habits had been costing us a lot of money, to the tune of $300 more in only three weeks than I had just spent in my four weeks couponing — and that’s before I calculated the coupon savings for those shopping trips. No need to locate that paper statement now, I was already more than convinced that my strategic shopping had already saved us quite a bit of money! I also felt a little sick when I started to realize how irresponsible I have been all these years not to have any kind of handle on where the money has been going every month, and literally wasting thousands due to poor planning and money management.

Next it was time for some better news (hopefully!): Figuring out how much money I saved on the value of what I had purchased by coupon shopping. This was a little trickier, because although many stores include a “you saved X” at the bottom of your receipt — taking into account sale prices, club card reductions, and any coupons used — I realized right away that this amount isn’t always right.

For example, if you buy something at a clearance price, most registers ring up the item with the clearance price, but do not take the savings from the original price into account in the “you saved” tally. Target is especially flawed in this area, because the only savings considered in the receipt tally are the prices with the arrow-down symbol right next to them (usually the weekly promotion price) — plus they don’t count any Target gift cards used toward the balance as a savings. Also, if the clerk had to make a price adjustment because something didn’t ring up at the proper sale price (this happened to me several times at King Soopers), the adjusted price doesn’t reflect any discount or savings either.

So I decided that for this first account of savings — and to help me feel a lot better about how I’ve improved our situation — I would take the extra time to look over each receipt and figure it out  — clearance prices, adjustments, gift cards and all. Although it took me more time than I ever want to spend again to calculate my actual savings, I felt that it was important for me to measure this as close to the penny as possible so I could really evaluate my results.

I was ecstatic to discover that the actual value of what I had purchased was just under $2,200 — for a total savings of about $1,270, or an overall average of 58% saved in my first four weeks! Phew — it was really worth it! I saved a ton of money, and I had a lot of food, household and family essentials to show for it.

Spent only $1.50 (mostly tax) — almost $20 saved!

Now the overflowing pantry made a lot more sense: If I had purchased all of these items prior to couponing, that would have cost me more than double my original “budget” of what I could spend in any given month. And because my willy-nilly spending meant that I was saving little to nothing on those previous purchases, it became clear to me why even after $1,200+ spent the three weeks prior to couponing, the cupboard was still nearly bare.

A-ha moment: There is no way I can go back to the way I shopped before! This is big money saved, money that can go a long way for our family of five, and even if I take into account the extra time I spent learning and preparing for this first go-around (that I won’t have to spend again), the dollar value return for those hours I spent is still pretty impressive. Plus, now that I am stocked up on the monthly necessities, I will only purchase new items if they are an “extreme” deal (thus the term extreme couponing) — and each week, I am discovering you can find 20-30 items that are FREE or almost FREE at both local grocery stores and national chains. So going forward, I will spend much less each month than I did to get stocked up in the first place — and definitely much less than I spent before couponing.

Most of all, now that my eyes have been opened to how my prior shopping habits were seriously hurting our overall bottom line, I am determined to get it right this time. No more excuses!

THE POSSIBILITIES

Now comes the fun part: Being blessed with abundance means you have more to give when others are in need. Giving is an area that has long-challenged me, because even when things were great for us financially (two full-time incomes, just one child), I still felt like we were living pretty close to our means and that we didn’t have “the extra” to give whenever opportunities presented themselves. It became a “someday” situation: Someday, when I’m making more money, when all the bills are paid, when we have no debt, etc., then I can freely give when I feel led to. But we never seem to arrive at someday, do we?

However, I realized that if I spend a few extra minutes each week clipping additional coupons for things I may not use myself but could donate — and a few extra minutes at the store purchasing those items for next to nothing (or getting them FREE, or even making money back on them to purchase things I do need) — then that time spent produces much more value in the form of those actual donated products than if I simply donated money, and it was spent less effectively than what I could do with it.

A recent episode of TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” really opened up my eyes to the charitable possibilities of couponing. There has been a lot of big needs in the news lately. My girls recently asked me if we could do anything to help the Joplin tornado victims, and I knew that I wanted to but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it without donating money online. Just a few days later, a door opened: I learned of a local family who was driving a truckload of supplies to Joplin that week. Perfect opportunity to pitch in, especially when I knew I had plenty to give. Thanks to all the extreme deals I had taken advantage of those first four weeks, I was able to donate four boxes of personal care items and food without a second thought — and all it cost me was my time and the expense of buying the items at 80-90% off. What a fabulous reason to get your coupon plan into action!

The final revelation for me has been realizing that this couponing adventure has been about more than just extreme savings or following a trendy TV series: It’s another important step in a journey toward becoming a more responsible steward of the abundance I’ve been blessed with, and in turn, be able to give and share freely and purposefully.

I look forward to being a more useful vessel going forward!

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