It’s Saturday night at Giant Eagle — date night for Chane and Kelly Cline.
While their two youngsters play in the store’s Eagle’s Nest child care room, the East Canton couple strolls down the grocery store aisles, pairing coupons with sale items on their shopping list. He’s a deputy officer. She’s a flight attendant. Alone time is precious, and savings equally so, to the Clines — who credit their debt-free lifestyle, in part, to couponing.
“I love to see how much I save each trip,” says 33-year-old Chane, admitting that he’d never done the family grocery shopping until bitten by the extreme couponing bug several months ago. While the Clines’ version pales in comparison to the savings portrayed on TLC’s megahit “Extreme Couponing,” the Clines do shave about $150 from their monthly grocery expenses using coupons.
The Clines have joined the ranks of Greater Akronites who’ve kissed goodbye late-night runs to the grocery store or, worse, the convenience store, paying top dollar for everything from toilet paper to toothpaste. In the throes of a tough economy, lots of locals have decided that if shoppers on a reality TV show can use coupons to reduce $400 grocery bills to 20 bucks plus change, why can’t they?
Whether you love it, hate it or are morbidly fascinated by it, TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” has caused quite the stir since its well-timed December 2010 premiere, motivating consumers feeling the recession’s financial sting or the desire to ward it off to gut-check their grocery bills and to reconsider those coupon inserts falling from the Sunday paper.
“I saw the show and said, ‘I can do that,’ ” recalls Nikki Shearer. “My [grocery] bill now is between $50 and $60 a week, but that feeds our entire family of four.”
Like the Clines, 26-year-old Shearer of Medina has incorporated serious couponing into her shopping repertoire — and makes no apologies.
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing to save money,” says Shearer. “I think people should be embarrassed that they’re not saving money.”
Cline, on the other hand, admits to nothing. “If you’re a guy, keep it a secret,” he warns. “Other guys will make fun of you.”
Hey, Big Saver
The decorated “big spender” of yesterday loses the popularity contest to today’s big saver. These days, coupon use is explosive, so much so that shoppers saved $3.7 billion using them in 2010, the first rise in coupon use since 1992, according to the annual Topline U.S. CPG Coupon Facts.
Coupon use is even more explosive here in the Buckeye State: Ohio ranked the No. 1 coupon-using state in 2010, according to data collected by Coupons.com. What’s more, a 2009 Neilson Group survey revealed that a new breed of couponers has emerged: middle- to upper-class women younger than 54 with families and household incomes of $100,000 or more.
Among the 73 percent of consumers who report using coupons regularly, Sara Steigerwald of Osnaburg, near Canton, says it’s less of a hobby and more a way of life. After years of infertility treatments, the arrival of baby Mia and the desire to stay home with her newborn for the first year, Steigerwald says that necessity drove her to couponing five years ago.
“I always clipped coupons,” Steigerwald says. “But it wasn’t until my maternity leave when I realized serious couponing was a great way to … make our budget. The bills were still coming in, but lowering food costs was an easy fix. It’s a lifestyle change.”
That lifestyle includes Sunday morning jaunts to the local gas station or Giant Eagle, where Steigerwald snatches up four or five newspapers. She adds her home-delivered Canton Repository to the fold, pulls the coupon inserts and sets them aside to clip in her spare time. She then organizes her coupons in a binder by category: food, health and beauty, cleaning, paper products and miscellaneous.
Binder in tow, she heads to the market, where she uses coupons on sale items, doubles the coupon discounts at stores like Giant Eagle and adds Catalinas (register-printed coupons) to the mix. “It’s the perfect trifecta,” she says. “It’s constantly trying to make sure you get the best bargain for the buck.”
Now a mother of two daughters, back to work as a full-time teacher and with all-but-dissertation for her Ph.D., Steigerwald puts her coupon savings in college and wedding accounts for Mia and little sister Meghan. Though she may no longer need to practice extreme couponing, she maintains a value-oriented mindset shared by fellow shoppers. In fact, the Fourth Annual RedPlum Purse String Study released third quarter 2011 reveals that 96 percent of the 23,300 survey respondents would continue to use coupons even if they won the lottery.
Big savings inspired Chane Cline to step up his couponing strategy early on. “It was like a game just to see how much I saved,” says Cline, about the savings totals printed at the bottom of Giant Eagle receipts: sale-item savings, topped with double coupons, topped with fuel perks.
“If I save 50 percent, it’s a good shopping trip,” says Cline about food purchases. Over at Walgreens, he saves as much as 85 percent on household and personal items but has learned through experience to resist unnecessary purchases — recalling the Ben Gay surplus he snagged for 30 cents a tube.
“I work out five days a week, and even I don’t need that much,” he says.
Buying in Bulk vs. Hoarding
Though most products go on sale at least once every three months, a sale price may not be a great deal; pairing sale prices with brand-name product coupons (which usually appear quarterly) might give you a great deal. The best deals, however, usually come along once a year and are generally predictable — so knowing when rock-bottom prices and coupons will arrive is key.
In the know, Steigerwald buys a three- to four-month supply of specific products at a time. For example, in March — frozen food month — she purchased a supply to meet her family’s needs for the next few months, no more, no less.
“It’s not about feeding your stockpile. It’s about feeding your family. It’s not doing any good if it’s on a shelf looking like a trophy,” says Steigerwald, who shares coupons, shopping tips, savings resources and charitable giving options on her website, Sisters Shopping on a Shoestring (www.sistersshoppingonashoestring.com).
Steigerwald’s modest storage space consists of two shelves in addition to her kitchen cupboards. “If it doesn’t fit, it’s got to go. If you have extra, give it away,” she says.
The Clines also stock up on necessities, purchased in bulk on sale and with coupons and stored on three 6-foot plastic shelves — just enough to keep them in the black until the next promotion. “We don’t have our kids’ closets full,” says Cline.
University of Akron alumna Rachel Krych, 34 — a couponing columnist for “The Chronicle-Telegram” — makes it a point to touch on the topic of hoarding during the couponing classes she teaches.
“A lot of people do have huge stockpiles, but having a huge stockpile and hoarding can be completely different things,” explains Krych, citing an episode of “Extreme Couponing” during which a woman brought groceries home and threw them into a room, still in bags. “That would be hoarding, as opposed to keeping an organized stockpile. Personally, I don’t want toilet paper in my kids’ rooms and I want to be able to park in my garage.”
The FYI on OCD
Besides hoarding, extreme couponers often contend with another mislabel: OCD.
Steigerwald describes herself as a regimented shopper with a touch of OCD (Obsessive Coupon Disorder). But not to worry, says Ed Novak, an Akron-based professional clinical counselor. Novak says a little OCD (as in, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is perfectly normal.
“As a society, we tend to like OCD. I want my accountant, my surgeon, my mechanic to be OCD. It’s not a bad thing. We all have some degree of it,” says Novak, hinting that couponers get labeled OCD when they interrupt the flow of another’s day. “When [OCD] is in our favor, we sometimes have a tendency to [overlook] it. But when somebody has 20 tubes of toothpaste … or has five inches of coupons — and we have to wait in line behind them — then it becomes a concern.”
Steigerwald echoes Novak’s sentiment, advising couponers to practice moderation and consideration. “Never clear a shelf,” she says. “There’s always someone who needs a product more than you do.”
Sisters Shopping on a Shoestring, which Steigerwald and her sister-in-law started in 2010, draws about 21,000 visitors a month. Out of all the websites in cyberspace, Steigerwald’s site ranks about 25,000th — a significant leap from the 900,000th-ish spot where it started, and telling of population amid hard times.
“We hear a lot of stories from people out there hurt through the recession, losing jobs and medical coverage,” she says. “It puts a face on what we do and gives the site a purpose. It’s almost like a ministry.”
Stacy Smith of Bath knows the fallout of the economic downturn all too well. An executive recruiter, Smith says corporate hiring freezes diminished her workload and income, triggering her family’s need to pare expenses. A fixed mortgage and steady utility bills left Smith with one surefire target: her family’s food bill.
Like Steigerwald, Smith shops for local deals and saves 50 to 70 percent on average shopping trips for her family of three. She spends an hour or two a week clipping and organizing coupons and matching them with store specials. Stack a store coupon with a manufacturer’s coupon, double it, add a register reward and you’ve got a deal, she says.
“If you save $100 a month after investing two hours a week, you’re paying yourself,” says Smith, who never spends more than $1 for a box of cereal or $7 for a 33.9-ounce canister of Folgers coffee — adding that she’s no longer brand loyal. “Hefty or Glad? Does it really make a difference? I’ve tried out a lot of products I wouldn’t otherwise have tried and found them better than the products I was loyal to for a very long time.”
But abandoning brand favorites doesn’t mean comprising quality, says Smith, who began blogging her savings gospel in 2009. Her website, Saving in Akron (www.savinginakron.com), features organic deals and coupons, including $75 worth for products at Earth Fare at the time of this reporting.
On The Cheap
Both Smith and Steigerwald advise beginners to make coupon shopping fun and purposeful and, by all means, take it slow. Steigerwald says it took two solid years to get her stride, to learn how to maximize values at specific stores and to develop an eye for a good price.
“Don’t overwhelm yourself. Pick one store, and work that store until you understand it. Each store has its nuances,” says Smith, noting that promotion policies vary by store and some challenge bargain shoppers more than others. Aldi might offer produce prices at a steal, but doesn’t accept coupons. Likewise, the grocer doubling coupons might charge higher-than-average prices on produce.
While Smith’s and Steigerwald’s websites — along with the couponing classes they offer periodically — provide plenty of coupons, store flier specials with coupon matchups and links to freebies, the magnitude of savings portrayed on “Extreme Couponing” isn’t typical for Akron.
“It’s absolute fiction,” Smith says. “In our area in Ohio, no store would allow purchases of those quantities.”
Fiction or not, extreme or moderate, couponing isn’t for everyone. And who can blame antagonists for reasoning: Why cut coupons? Just cut me a deal!
“I personally hate couponing,” says Akronite Mary Ethridge. “It actually angers me. Just give me a god**** discount. Don’t make me get out my daughter’s second-grade safety scissors and do anything remotely resembling crafting, which I also hate.”