When I first started coupon shopping, I came across a great cereal deal, and I bought 20 boxes. My friends asked me if I was going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
All that cereal was for my stockpile, of course. The stockpile is what divides the serious frugalista from the casual coupon clipper. We keep stockpiles of nonperishable items in pantries, in plastic tubs under the stairs, in garages, or even under the bed.
"Stockpiling makes financial sense," said Nathan Engels, who with his wife Lacy runs the Web site WeUseCoupons.com. He should know. Engels has walked television crews through the huge stockpile of everything from body wash to salad dressing that fills the garage of his Cincinnati home.
The idea seems crazy. Storing dozens — or in Engels' case, thousands — of grocery and drugstore items sounds a little like building a bomb shelter or saving all your fingernail clippings. Most of us wouldn't want to give over the square footage that the Engels household gives to deodorant and pasta sauce. But my more modest stockpile — two Rubbermaid pantries, a couple of tubs and a chest freezer, all in the basement — has helped me stick to my weekly grocery budget. Now that grocery prices are on the rise, I'm paying more attention to keeping staples in stock.
Engels uses the example of toothpaste to explain why stockpiling is more canny than crazy: Ordinary shoppers pay $3 a tube, but bargain shoppers can find it free several times a year by combining sales, drugstore rewards and coupons. The couponer's goal is to get enough toothpaste when it's free to last until the next stock-up opportunity. Call it a stock-up-ortunity.
"Why pay for something tomorrow when it's free today?" Engels said. "When it's free today, buy a lot."
Tips for building a useful stockpile:
Find a good place to pile your stock. No matter how little you pay, the money — and effort — is wasted if the goods are damaged by water, pests or pantry-raiding children. I always use waterproof containers that seal.
Keep it organized. If you don't know what you have, it will end up expiring before you use it. Engels uses a simple organization system: He groups products on shelves, with the soonest-to-expire in front.
Build your stockpile slowly. After all, you have to wait for the really good deals.
"I didn't get 20,000 items in my garage yesterday," Engels said. "I got them over months."
Working slowly helps minimize newbie errors.
"I bought two dozen boxes of Cheerios, only to realize my kid didn't really like them," Shylo Bisnett commented on the Frugalista Facebook page..
The Frugalista made a mistake early on with breakfast cereal, too. Those 20 boxes that started my stockpile seemed like a great bargain at $1 each. But before my family ate through the Raisin Bran, I got better at couponing and lowered my target price to 50 cents per box; the last two boxes I bought were just a quarter each after coupons.
Keep it out of sight. Call it the Costco effect. If I put 15 boxes of Pop-Tarts in the kitchen cupboard, my family would keep the toaster running morning, noon and night. This can be intensified if money has been tight and treats scarce before Mom or Dad started couponing.
"When we get something new that's good quality, we tend to rip into it," Engels said.
He offers this advice: First, be patient, because the kids will eventually get tired of the exciting new food. Second — and this is the practice in the Frugalista household — keep the bulk of your stockpile out of sight. When we run out of an item in the kitchen, I "shop" my stockpile to replace it — way more convenient and cheaper than running out to the store.
Don't let naysayers bother you. Compulsive hoarding is a sad disorder heavily covered on cable TV. I guarantee that if you tell friends and family that you've got 20 pounds of macaroni in your pantry, someone will call you a hoarder. But if you are buying what your family will use before it gets stale and storing it in an orderly way that is not infringing on your living space, then your actions are smart, not sick.
"Do you buy your Christmas decorations every year brand new, or do you 'hoard' them and save them from year to year?" Engels asked. "All I do is similar to that."
Carrie Kirby is a mom and the self-proclaimed Frugalista. Write to her at email@example.com