AUSTIN, Texas - On a recent grocery shopping trip, Rochelle Hamby and her husband filled up a shopping cart with items that included steaks and lobster. Her bill came out to $14.
Hamby's pantry looks like as it could survive a zombie apocalypse.
Using clipped-out newspaper coupons, deals she discovered online and her own aggressive shopping methods, she's filled the shelves with laundry detergent, toilet paper and soup. Her garage freezer is full of Angus sirloins and T-bone steaks, which, with a Wall Street trader's acuity, she stocked up on at rock-bottom prices.
"I could probably live on what I already have in my house for another year or two without purchasing anything except fresh produce," she said.
Hamby, who runs a Web site called divagirlsdeals.com and a Texas Yahoo coupon discussion group with more than 600 members, does not fit the stereotypical image of the penny-pinching, money-worrying coupon clipper.
A fun game
She sees pursuing discounts not as a necessary evil, but as a fun game of "How much can I save?" As many of us stress about rising gas prices, world food shortages or the sputtering economy, Hamby has risen to the challenge and is saving herself thousands of dollars, one 50-cent coupon at a time.
In recent months, Web sites that offer online coupons, blogs that help readers get the best out of drugstore loyalty programs and discussion forums where the best deals are discussed have been getting more attention from journalists and more traffic from viewers, some of the site owners say. That's not surprising, given that national money woes have increased. On sites with names like The Dollar Stretcher and Hot Coupon World, shoppers have formed communities that will tell you whether a deal is too good to be true ("Worst sippy cup ever!" one angry mom posts on Hot Coupon forum) or whether you should bother to fire up the printer (thumbs up to $1 off coupon for Skinny Cow Ice Cream).
Some bloggers have made a business out of deal hunting. Crystal Paine, a stay-at-home mother in Kansas City, Kan., was writing a personal blog about being a Christian mom three years ago. She noticed the shopping tips she was posting were getting a lot of attention, so she spun it into a separate site, Money Saving Mom. She gets about 20,000 visitors to her site per day.
"It's a pretty hot topic right now," Paine said of being a part of what she calls the "Frugal Blogosphere." "I make a very decent income off of it."
Paine sells advertising on her site to coupons.com and other Web sites who are targeting her readership. She spends 20 to 30 hours per week updating Money Saving Mom, which includes detailed information advice for using coupons at specific stores and tips for getting a family of four by on $40 a week.
Deal hunters such as Paine find stores that double or triple the value of coupons, "stack" store deals with manufacturer's coupons and take advantage of loyalty card programs at drugstores and some grocery stores.
Though there are plenty of sites that share online discount codes for high-definition TVs or Dell laptops, Paine chooses to focus on necessities.
'Everyone has to eat'
"A lot of people that read my site, that would be way out of their budget. Everyone has to eat. Everyone has to buy groceries," she said.
One of the most popular pages on Paine's Web site is called "CVS 101," a post in which she breaks down the best way to save money at the drugstore chain. (Full disclosure: My wife works for the mail-order pharmacy company Caremark LLC, which merged with CVS last year.)
Using deals found in CVS circulars, manufacturer's coupons and the store's own ExtraCare Bucks ("ECBs," as they're known to coupon bloggers), shoppers at CVS can get deep discounts.
ECBs are printed with a customer's receipt and must be used by a specific date. A typical ECB deal might be that when you buy $20 of Duracell batteries, you'd get $10 worth of ExtraCare Bucks. You could use those Bucks on your next visit, perhaps toward the purchase of another ECB-earning deal, thus "rolling over" your ECBs. Customers also earn ECBs each quarter as a percentage of the money spent in total at CVS.
The company said 50 million customers have signed up for ExtraCare and that it has made changes to its ExtraCare program based on feedback from bloggers. One such change was making more clear in store circulars the particulars of each deal. It has also curbed abuse that has risen from the electronic manipulation of coupons and stores that allowed "Superstacking," a way of using multiple cash-off coupons (say, using a coupon for $3 off a $15 purchase in addition to a coupon for $4 off a $20 purchase on the same order).
Walgreens also has become a popular destination of online-driven shoppers: The pharmacy chain has incorporated "EasySaver" catalog rebates and "Instant Value Coupons" in a monthly printed catalog as well as online coupons and Web-exclusive deals to its site.
Though many grocery chains have great deals, the fact that even the most successful of them are still regional makes Walgreens, CVS and national retailers like Target and Office Depot more popular for bloggers and forum dwellers.
Some of the work that goes into being a coupon shopper - the clipping, the sorting - might soon be eased. Some grocery chains are beginning to link online coupons with their store loyalty cards, eliminating the need to print or clip coupons.
And a recent MSN Money article predicted "the death of the coupon" as the future points to coupons you can carry around on your cell phone.