Mindy Torres knows a good deal when she sees one.
Colgate toothpaste can run as high as $3 per tube at local retailers, but on this particular Sunday at Harris Teeter in the Kings Contrivance Village Center, if you buy two tubes at $2 each, you get three free tubes.
“That means five toothpastes for $4, or 80 cents each,” she says. “A good deal, right?”
For most people, yes. A great deal, in fact.
But not for Torres, who pulls two dollar-off coupons from a large plastic file she brings shopping with her.
“This is a good deal,” explains the Ellicott City resident. “Five tubes of toothpaste for $2, or 40 cents each.”
Some quick math tells you she just saved 85 percent off the original price, and suddenly it makes perfect sense when she says she can feed her family of five for $50 a week.
Coupons have been around since the late 19th century. But the past two years have seen a jump in couponers thanks to a perfect storm: Shoppers looking to survive in a weakening economy found a proliferation of local and national blogs that revealed how they could use coupons to the maximum advantage. For example, which chains accepted competitor coupons or the secrets to coupon stacking — the combination of a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon.
The resulting craze spawned more coupon-centric websites, how-to workshops and even a television show, “Extreme Couponing” (although be careful mentioning it to serious couponers, who resent the sensationalized angle it promotes. More on that later.)
In 2011, 3.5 billion coupons were redeemed in the United States, up 6 percent from 2011 and almost 35 percent since 2007, according to NCH, a coupon processing company based in Deerfield, Ill. These shoppers redeemed $4.6 billion in savings, a 12 percent increase over the previous year and almost 60 percent more than five years ago.
Online, through Facebook groups and via word of mouth, couponing is gaining momentum, and Howard County is no exception.
“Doing your regular shopping and walking out after you only paid a fraction of the cost, it can be a real high.” says Columbia resident Kelly Neylan. “I mean, who doesn’t like to save money?”
Maggie Miller, an Eastern Shore resident who writes the Frugal Family Fun couponing blog, agrees.
“Who doesn’t want to have more, be more or do more?” she asks. “Once you really understand couponing and the money you can save, it can change your life.”
From carpet to car payments
When the economy began deteriorating a few years ago, one of the first signs it was hitting home for Neylan occurred when she saw a spike in grocery prices.
“The price of food began going up, and I started asking myself what I could do because my husband and I weren’t bringing in any extra money,” says Neylan, a mother of two who owns Lasting Light Yoga in Columbia. “I’d always used coupons to some degree, but about two years ago was when I ramped up and took it to a new level.”
She, like other aspiring couponers, educated herself on such sites as KrazyKouponLady.com and MyCouponTeacher.com. She created a coupon binder filled with baseball card organizers, and into each she slipped freshly clipped coupons organized by categories like dairy, frozen and cereal. She started slowly but soon gained enough confidence and savvy that she was shaving between 30 percent and 80 percent off her weekly food budget.
“My personal best so far was 81 percent,” she says, adding, “For example, I went shopping to get ready for a Super Bowl party, and instead of paying $561, after coupons my total came to roughly $220.”
And before you ask, she is not buying foods she’ll never eat just because they’re a bargain.
“If I don’t eat it, I don’t buy it. In fact, I don’t eat any processed food, so it’s not true that the only things you can get coupons for are things you’ll never eat,” she says.
Torres began couponing to offset medical costs and her family’s special diet requirements. She has celiac disease, which means her diet includes only gluten-free foods. “I also have a daughter who has a lot of allergies and uses a feeding tube,” she says.
Her shopping totals used to add up to $100 to $150 each week. Now she spends an average of $200 each month on food.
“What I save now on basic groceries allows me to spend more on the specialty foods we need,” she says. “Now I see people leaving the grocery store with carts full of food that they just paid $200 for and I think, ‘That used to be me.’ It’s just insane to do that when you don’t have to,” she says.
Beth Ivey, a mother of two from Columbia, began couponing in February 2011. She was so impressed by what she was able to save that she began setting the money aside each week.
“I wanted to make it more concrete to my family why I was doing this,” she says. Within six months Ivey had saved more than $1,000 — enough for new carpet in her living room and hallway.
Miller espouses saving with a goal in mind. “Some people need to save that money to get by, but for others, it goes into retirement or the college fund or a trip to Disney,” the blogger says. “If you can save $75 every week, that’s $300 — that’s a car payment.”
The cult of Harris Teeter
Ask most serious couponers where they do the bulk of their grocery shopping and for many the answer is Harris Teeter. The store doubles all coupons up to 99 cents, but during periodic Super Double Days, all coupons up to $1.99 are doubled.
“The first time I left Harris Teeter after a Super Double sale, I felt like I was stealing — the stuff was so cheap it almost felt like you’re doing something wrong,” says Ivey.
Most serious couponers get additional coupon inserts from friends, neighbors and co-workers, which means they can purchase multiple items at once. This is good for stockpiling things like shampoo or body wash, but most couponers will only purchase enough to carry their families through for a few months or, at most, one year.
Stockpiling is a sensitive issue after “Extreme Couponing” began glorifying couponers who clear shelves of items and have stockpiles in their homes worth upward of $10,000.
“There’s been a lot of negative media attention, and it’s important to know that shows like that do not portray the majority of couponers,” says Laura Harders, a Northern Virginia stay-at-home mom who is responsible for BeltwayBargainMoms.com, a website popular with Howard County residents because it details the weekly sales and coupon matchups in local stores like Giant.
“We’re not hoarding. We’re not cleaning out products so there’s none left for other shoppers,” she adds. “The majority of couponers are very positive and love to share tips about deals they found with others. Just look at the comments on the blogs. There’s a real mentality of ‘we’re all in this together.’ ”
Ivey characterizes the extreme couponers as “organized hoarders.”
“There’s a big difference between me and people like that,” she says. “I love sharing the wealth and giving stuff away to my friends and family members, and if I see a really good deal I pick things up to donate to the Elkridge Food Pantry.”
Torres maintains a small backup as well, particularly of cereal for her three kids. Last Christmas she used her couponing skills and made goodie baskets for her kids’ teachers.
“It’s funny, because when I used to come home from the grocery store my husband would always ask, ‘How much did you spend?’” she says. “Now he asks, ‘How much did you save?’”