Whatever you do, do NOT get in the checkout line behind this kind of shopper.
Hard-core couponers are in it to win it — for free, if at all humanly possible. They plot their grocery-store trips with the precision of military commanders. They load up three or four shopping carts at a time. They test the mettle — and the congeniality — of cashiers by having them tally dozens of discounts on their behalf.
And what do they get in exchange? Hundreds of dollars’ worth of merchandise for as little as $5 to $10, the applause of onlookers — and a surge of adrenaline that can be downright addicting.
“You come to realize that you should never really pay full price for anything — ever!” said Tiffany Ivanovsky, 35, who lives just north of Houston, Texas, and is part of a growing and dedicated subculture of “super couponers.”
In this economy, high-level couponing exploits are generating so much interest that they’re about to become the focus of a new reality TV show. Ivanovsky’s zeal for saving money caught the eye of TLC producers and landed her a spot on the series “Extreme Couponing,” which premieres Wednesday night.
Ivanovsky never anticipated this much attention. A few years back she started using coupons in earnest — and in a state of panic — after her husband lost his job.
“Today I save $1,000 a month just on groceries and toiletries,” she said. “That, to me, is a great part-time job.”
The thing is, Ivanovsky already has a full-time job as the director of a preschool. Not only that, she has seven kids ranging in age from 8 months to 13 years old. How does she find the time to clip even a single coupon?
Short answer: She makes time because it’s proven to be so helpful for her family’s budget.
“I probably spend two to three hours total a week cutting out coupons and looking online for more,” she said. “That’s really not that bad. You can do it at night after the kids are in bed. ...
“I also believe in bribery! My older children will help me cut coupons out. It’s worth a dollar to me to have them do that.”
How much mustard does one family need?
The“Extreme Couponing” show is — as billed — extreme. The couponers featured on the show have had to rearrange their homes, garages, vehicles and entire lives to make room for the mountains of toilet paper, razors, shampoo, jarred peanuts and canned corn they’re stockpiling. Plenty of American consumers have grown accustomed to shopping in bulk — but this is more like shopping in anticipation of a coming apocalypse.
“I kind of feel like sometimes the walls are just closing in on me,” Ivanovsky admitted on “Extreme Couponing” when describing the stash she keeps at her Texas home. “My children call our home the Ivanovsky Mini-Mart just because you’re going to find all kinds of groceries all over the entire house.”
Why the excessive stockpiling? The super-couponer mentality goes something like this:
—Time the purchase of a certain grocery item so you’re buying it only when it’s on sale.
—Combine that sale with a coupon that can be doubled in value. Or, shop during the sale and stack a manufacturer’s coupon with a store coupon.
—In many cases, the combined discounts will result in a free product. Wheeeeee!
—Haul as many of those freebies home as you can carry — and then you won’t ever need to buy that item again for three to 12 months.
Since grocery-store sales tend to be cyclical, with many items being discounted at least once every three months or so, it doesn’t take too long for a super couponer’s inventory to begin resembling that of — well, a grocery store.
This extreme portrayal of couponers as hoarders makes Collin Morgan more than a little uneasy. The founder of the coupon site Hip2Save.com said the vast majority of coupon users she knows are simply trying to save money in smart ways and buy only what they need.
“I’ve learned over time that there are so many stages of couponing,” Morgan said. “[The show] is showing that first stage, when you do get a little bit obsessed. When I first started I couldn’t have enough shampoo or toothpaste ... and you do get a really big high from it.
“But then I realized so much more balance is needed. I got to the point where I could say, ‘I don’t need to go to five different stores today and try to get all these deals because I want to spend time with my kids or have other priorities.’ ”
Determined stockpilers say their shopping and storage patterns can have unexpected benefits — for all kinds of people. Ivanovsky said she’ll pick up products for free, even if her family doesn’t need them, because she figures she can donate them. “During Hurricane Ike, we were able to donate over $1,200 worth of toiletry items to my children’s school,” she wrote on her blog, MyLitter.com.
In like manner, 12-year-old Emma McDaniel has been bitten by the coupon bug, and she’s been making headlines for her money-saving prowess — and her generosity. McDaniel has donated thousands of dollars’ worth of goods to needy children in her home state of South Carolina.
“I’m couponing for everybody,” she said in a local television interview. “I’m couponing to give back.”
Nicole Bamber, a publicist for the cable TV network TLC, said network executives were astonished by the popularity of an initial one-hour special of “Extreme Couponing” that aired back in December. The special had 2.1 million viewers and created a huge buzz online.
“It was very unexpected,” Bamber said. “It kind of took off and went viral. I think, because of the economy, it’s trendy to save money right now. People aren’t embarrassed about it.”
With interest so high, TLC decided to air 12 more episodes of “Extreme Couponing.” The first two episodes premiere at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
How to get started
Like so many people out there, are you intrigued by the couponing movement but convinced you don’t want to install special shelving systems in your home to store groceries? Not to worry. It isn’t hard to start small and get in the habit of saving money by tapping into some of the pros’ cleverest tricks. For instance:
—Use the sale-plus-coupon-stacking method described above. Try it just once, with one item, to get the feel for how the process works.
—Try scouring the Sunday paper one time for coupons you might actually use. If you hate clipping, just throw entire ads into a folder. If you hate this process altogether, read the next step.
—Take a few minutes to print out coupons you might actually use. Just visit the websites of manufacturers you like, click on the “coupons” tab, and start printing. You can do this for a huge array of products, including organic and all-natural foods. Morgan of Hip2Save.com mentioned that Horizon Organic Milk offers great coupons online.
—If you can’t find coupons on a company’s website, dash off a quick, one- to two-sentence email to the company and request free samples and coupons. They almost certainly will show up in the mail.
—Create special — “fake,” if you will — email and Facebook accounts just for couponing. This will help you protect your privacy and keep the emails you receive from companies all in one place.
—Visit companies’ Facebook pages and “like” certain products with your newfound, fake Facebook identity. (This will prevent your mother and your boss from learning that you “like” K-Y Jelly, for example.) By liking certain products, you’ll gain access to all sorts of coupons and free samples. Remember that you can go in and “unlike” something once you’re done.
—Join rewards programs at drugstores. Ivanovsky said she avoided shopping at drugstores for years because she thought their prices were too high — until she learned about the rewards programs at places like CVS and Walgreens. Now that she’s figured out how to use the programs, she’ll go through the checkout line multiple times in a row at those stores. Why? We’ll let Ivanovsky explain:
“OK, so at CVS, they give you ‘ExtraCare Bucks,’ or ECBs, when you buy certain things. Your ECBs show up at the bottom of your receipt, and they’re like cash. I view them as gift cards. You can keep rolling those ECBs from one purchase to the next purchase. At that same CVS I will go through the checkout line five different times. I keep getting more ‘cash’ and using it to buy more stuff right then. I’ll get $60 to $80 worth of products and only pay $6 to $8. ...
“Grocery stores have the same thing on their receipts. They’re called catalinas, and a lot of those are the same as cash also. Just look at your receipt! You can walk back in right then and get a gallon of milk or whatever.”