by Mary Beth Bishop
Especially in these tough economic times, moms and dads are using coupons to save 50 percent or more on groceries, cleaning products and even to secure discounts on family outings.
Rachael Mercer, a mother of four, uses coupons to spend an average of $40.48 per week at the grocery store on food, toiletries and cleaning supplies.
With two house payments strapping the family budget, saving is vital. Mercer began teaching her skills to others when a friend pointed out how many people in their church were struggling in the face of job loss or medical bills. Now she runs a coupon website and leads workshops on saving money.
The McDonough mom grew up in a home where coupons were saved and stored in a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox. As a high school junior, she took over the grocery shopping when her mom went back to work. She got to keep the savings – and that made an impression.
The search for deals extends beyond the grocery store to nearly everything she does. Her family, for example, took a free trip to the World of Coca-Cola by using rewards codes printed on Coca-Cola products.
And that may have been the drink that started the whole idea of using a thing called a coupon to get something for less –
or even free. Many experts, including the website grocery.com, trace the first coupons back to right here in Atlanta, where coupons were handed out in 1887 for free Coca-Cola samples.
Coupons.com named Atlanta as the top frugal city for 2011 and the two years before that as well; Atlanta residents are seven times more likely than those in other major cities to print coupons or save them onto a store loyalty card.
Why has Atlanta become such a savings mecca? The huge number of major retailers is one reason, according to Stephanie Nelson of couponmom.com, a top free site for deal hunters with more than 6 million members. Nelson tells us that the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution has “as many or maybe more” coupons than any other city relative to its population. Because of the high number of coupon users, Atlanta is a top choice for manufacturers when it comes to coupon distribution, says the mom of two who makes her home in Marietta.
Even as the hit TV show “Extreme Couponing” turns the practice into an over-the-top competition, there are plenty of parents out there who just want a way to stick to their household budgets – and afford nice things when possible. Americans in 2011 saved more than $4.6 billion by using coupons, according to figures from Inmar, which processes coupons for leading retailers. Experts say changes are on the horizon, including increased availability of coupons that can be downloaded onto mobile phones.
Aimee Brittain told Atlanta Parent that one time she gathered just the right combination of coupons to get a week’s worth of groceries for only 12 cents.
It was her daughter’s desire to try ballet that motivated Brittain, a single mom, to get serious about couponing. “I cut down on everything I possibly could, but it wasn’t enough” to cover ballet lessons, says the Fayetteville mom. She began to wonder what her late mother might have done to solve the problem. That got her thinking back to her own childhood, when the Sunday routine was “church, then lunch, then coupons.”
“The first month I saved 50 percent,” says Brittain. One week, when she had “absolutely no money,” she was able to celebrate her daughter Jordan’s birthday by using coupons and only paying 75 cents for cake mix, frosting and ice cream.
Now Jordan has traded in her ballet slippers for tumbling, and Brittain has her own couponing website.
Local couponing wizards say they save the most when they combine sales with coupons, sometimes using more than one coupon for a single item. Many stores will let you “stack” a store coupon with that of a manufacturer.
The biggest savers also take time to search the Internet and newspapers for deals and coupons. They plan their meals based on food items that are most affordable that week. A plethora of coupon websites makes savings easier to find.
Most moms we talked to say that the couponing process takes two to three hours a week. “That seems like a lot of time,” says Kellyann Cruz, a mother of three, “but when I see how much I save, to me it’s completely worth it.” She estimates that it took her about a year to get the hang of couponing so it worked to her best advantage. “I had a lot of hits and misses,” she says. Now she often buys brand-name products for less than store-brand products used to cost.
Coupons savings, Cruz says, have helped give her the chance to stay home with her children and still stick to the family budget. “We’re not ones who believe in putting a lot on credit cards,” says the Woodstock mom, whose children range in age from 1 to 7.
Nelson said moms can use websites like hers to spend just an hour a week planning their menus and savings. And the careful planning most likely will save them a trip back to the store to pick up a few more items to round out dinner menus. “You might save a hundred dollars, and you’ll get the time back by not having to race back to the store where you’ll inevitably spend more,” she says.
Nelson suggests that savers keep the two or three circulars that come in the Sunday paper, filing them away with the date marked on the front, and keeping each circular for a period of three months. Nelson’s site not only allows users to find the coupons that will save them the most, but tells them which circulars have the coupons that they’ll need. Many people also choose to print coupons directly from a website.
Kids are getting involved as well, and are learning lessons in the process. Lisa Richardson of Roswell says she always involved her three children, who would head down the grocery aisle and try to look for an item listed on a coupon.
Now her kids are teenagers and young adults who know to look for deals. “They see how expensive things are,” says Richardson, who has shown her children that coupons can be a lot more fun than a deal on soap or cereal. Once she and a friend found coupons for $3-off on makeup that was already marked down 75 percent. The result was an assortment of beauty products for her daughter to share with friends. When the cashier finished subtracting, some of the items were free.
Other moms have also found fun ways to involve their kids. Mercer’s 11-year-old removes expired coupons from the family’s stash. And the group plays a game at dinner to see how much the family paid for the meal. They talk about which coupons and sales factored into the price, and how much it might have cost them to eat out at a restaurant.
The system Nelson employs on her popular website was born out of the need to find an easy way to teach couponing to her son’s third-grade class. She suggests that parents choose a dollar amount that’s meaningful to a child, and challenge them to see how much they can buy for that amount of money. Kids, for instance, might be amazed at the massive haul of items their weekly allowance can buy.
Her son, now grown, was able to find 18 products for just $3.50 suitable for donations to needy families. Nelson started her site in 2001 as a way to show shoppers how they can contribute to hunger organizations in a cost efficient way.
Brittain says her 12-year-old daughter knows the routine of finding a coupon for a favorite snack. Her daughter will hunt for a specific coupon; once found, she will add it to her mother’s pile of coupons, then jot that item down on the grocery list posted on the fridge. “She knows if it’s on sale and I have a coupon, I’ll get it,” Brittain says.
For Richardson, the savings means a chance to spread the benefits around. “Friends give me coupons, so I’ll share with them if I get two-for-one items. It’s good karma to give back, and I also give to North Fulton Charities,” she says.
Sometimes her savings go for a date night with her husband at one of their favorite restaurants. Chances are she’ll have a coupon for the eatery, too.
Nelson, Brittain and Mercer offer savings advice at couponmom.com, prettyfrugaldiva.com and savingcentsably.com.
Richardson loves checking the Internet for deals. She suggests that frugal moms check out these additional sites.