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My adventures as a coupon queen

  • Naomi Shulman at he kitchen table with her phone, computer and circulars, all places one would find coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman illustrates cutting coupons which can come in circulars as well as apps or on the computer. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman illustrates cutting coupons which can come in circulars as well as apps or on the computer. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman with items one might purchase when stacking or using coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman with items one might purchase when stacking or using coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Coupons in the circulars which usually come in the Sunday papers. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman with items one might purchase when stacking or using coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Coupons can also be used to purchase and donate food and personal care products to local food banks and shelters. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman with items one might purchase when stacking or using coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman with items one might purchase when stacking or using coupons. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naomi Shulman illustrates cutting coupons which can come in circulars as well as apps or on the computer. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Coupons in the circulars which usually come in the Sunday papers. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


Friday, September 21, 2018

Like many other middle-aged half-assed heads of household, I have a long, ambivalent relationship with coupons. In my childhood, they were the things that got thrown away when we picked up our Sunday paper. (This was before recycling. There was a day when all paper of all kinds ended up in the trash — and the supermarket circulars were definitely first to go. The sports section was next, which might tell you even more about the house I grew up in. But I digress.) In college, coupons were things that were tucked in with the letters my grandmother sent, along with clippings from Reader’s Digest. There was a day when if you wanted to share a funny story, you actually had to cut it out and send it in an actual paper envelope. In other news: I’m old.

Since those days of yore, coupons have mostly been out of sight and out of mind. I moved out of the dorms and set up house with my best friend, and then my boyfriend, and then my husband, and now I’m doing it on my own. Life has been great and not so great and then great again, and through it all, I’ve still had to eat. I’ve stocked my kitchen week after week, and pretty much every week the cashier has asked me if I have coupons, and the answer has almost always been no.

But there was a moment about ten years ago when a coupon craze hit. Do you remember it? It followed the Great Recession, naturally enough. Those of us who had never considered pennies very much worth pinching were now holding on to them far more tightly, and soon there were Krazy Coupon (Koupon?) Ladies hoarding multiple copies of Sunday newspaper circulars, all the better to save a truckload. Cable TV had a whole show devoted to it: Extreme Couponing. If episode upon episode of people going grocery shopping doesn’t sound riveting to you, consider this: it ran for THREE seasons.

 Along with millions of other Americans, I was laid off from my job in early 2009, and suddenly I was collecting unemployment and freaking out about how we were going to make ends meet. My friend Rachel clued me in to the newly revitalized world of the coupon, which extended beyond the print world and into smartphone apps and Facebook groups. For a while there I did the whole thing — I had a folder that divided the coupons by product type, expiration date, and store. And you know what? I did save some money. But frankly, not that much money. Yes, sometimes I’d come home with six months’ worth of spaghetti sauce or more brownie mix than I knew what to do with. But doing it properly required a lot more time and attention than I was willing to devote, especially since I was trying to make a living as a freelancer — which could often be a more-than-full-time gig. After a few months, the coupon folder ended up in the recycling bin.

Which brings me to today, and the moment my editor Katy said, “Do you realize there’s a new couponing class at GCC?” Well, no, I didn’t. And despite my failure to keep up with couponing the last time around, I was intrigued. I mean, I like to save a buck. What could this class teach me?

 

I’d never been to the Greenfield Community College main office before, which is where I met Sarah Mildren, the creator and teacher of the course — and an alumna of GCC herself. The course is part of the college’s Lifelong Learning series, which includes all sorts of classes that I’d never have imagined being offered, but once hearing about them, wished I could take. “There’s the extreme couponing,” Sarah explained, “and also Facebook for seniors, and Instagram and Snapchat for seniors.” I had a brief, hallucinatory flash of my daughters snapchatting with their Grandpa Alvin. “And do-it-yourself pet puzzles and games.” Um, what? “So, these are basically for enrichment for your pets — they’re puzzles and games that you play with your cat or dog.” Mildren’s background is in animal behavior — she got her degree from Hampshire College, transferring in from GCC. “GCC gave me an amazing foundation to build off from — everything I’ve done since I started here. It was very supportive place to get started at college.”

And now Mildren gets to give back to the institution that gave her her start, creating classes like the one that will be offered this fall. She didn’t give me all the tips and secrets that come with the course — it’s a two-session workshop, after all, spread over two weeks —  but she did explain a few important things. Number one, the landscape has changed from the days of the TV couponing show. Manufacturers got wise, limiting coupons to two or even one coupon per purchase, for example, and while stores used to offer double, even triple coupon days, that practice began to fall out of favor.

I kind of knew this already. My friend Rachel, the one whom I used to call the Coupon Queen, had told me as much. “You can’t get the deals we used to get,” she said, referring to the days when we used to trade coupons for products we knew we would use and alert one another to great specials at certain stores. Now Rachel gets more savings through subscriptions services online, like the Grove Collaborative for household products, Who Gives a Crap (yes!) for toilet paper, Chewy for pet supplies, and Amazon Prime for almost anything. Mildren agreed that the food deals that were available when she started couponing as a college student are pretty much a thing of the past. Another reason she no longer buys her groceries with coupons? Most of the best grocery deals are for processed foods, which Mildren avoids. As does Rachel, and as do I. So why bother couponing at all?

Well, because there are still deals to be had — especially at large chain drug stores, Mildren points out, which sell the kind of products that you find in the coupon circulars that plump up the weekend paper. But more than that, Mildren says, this can be a way to give back to the organizations you care about in the form of donations. “That’s my main motivation,” Mildren points out. Just because a certain food doesn’t appeal to her doesn’t mean a food bank wouldn’t gratefully receive it, and women’s and homeless shelters have a constant need for personal products. “Franklin County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” Mildren says. Plenty of folks in western Massachusetts can benefit from extra food and supplies. “Being able to make my donations bigger is my main motivation. Plus, I like shopping!”

I decided to give it a go. I sat down, grabbed some scissors, and literally clipped coupons for the first time in about ten years, looked at the circulars to see what was on sale and where, and the next time I walked downtown with my daughter Lila, I told her we needed  to pop into CVS “for a minute.”

First stop: the red coupon machine in the center of the store, which I had always walked past unconsciously. I flashed my CVS store card in front of it and presto, it spat out multiple coupons for things I had already clipped out of the paper. Then I checked the aisles to see which products were on sale, Mildren’s words echoing in my ears: “It’s all about layering.” Combining multiple discounts on top of sales and loyalty cards is the way to go — and when you get a great deal, you buy a lot of it, building a stockpile so that you don’t have to replenish your supply of, say, paper towels until you find another great deal.

 I quickly cruised the aisles of the downtown CVS. I had several coupons for Colgate toothpaste and Amlactin body lotion — neither happen to be my preferred brands, but if I couldn’t use them, I figured I’d donate them. I also had a promotion for anything by L’Oreal, and seemingly dozens of coupons for antihistamines. Turns out CVS was doing some kind of purge on allergy medication, too, so I ended up buying a metric ton of Claritin. (In my family, that stuff does not go to waste.) Mascara and feminine hygiene products (oh fine — tampons) rounded out the day’s haul.

 At the checkout, I handed the friendly young cashier my loyalty card and the CVS coupons. Then I began shuffling through my manufacturer coupons. The cashier pointed out that I had gotten the wrong size toothpaste; I ran back for a different tube, and it turned out that was the wrong size, too. It was at this point that I began feeling grateful there was no line behind me. “This quick trip is turning into a not-so-quick-trip,” Lila hissed at me. I ignored her, and instead said to the cashier, “This is for a story.” As though that explained everything.

 But the cashier didn't seem to mind. She nodded sagely as though people did this all the time — which, come to think of it, they probably do. Because once the savings started adding up on the register, I realized I’d been foolish not to be doing this myself, all along. The original bill was $89.17; with coupons and loyalty rewards strategically coordinated with store and manufacturer promotions, the total quickly began dropping, and finally rested at $60.37 for a waterpoof L’Oreal mascara, AmLactin alpha-hydroxy body lotion, a 60-count box of Claritin, OB tampons, and a tube of Colgate Optic White.

In other words, I saved a third of my total bill — and that was basically without even trying. “The more you do it, the more rewards points you earn, the more extra coupons the stores send to you,” Mildren explained. But I had walked in with almost no prep. I’d just taken a couple of Mildren’s tips and grabbed a handful of that week’s coupons. If I’d really brought my A-game, who knows how much I could have saved? Mildren has been known to save a couple hundred bucks in one trip. “Sometimes it can be stressful. You have to watch the registers to make sure you’re getting all the discounts you planned for, because the computer systems don’t always work right. You also have to have a good idea of store policies. You have to have a good plan before you even enter the store,” Mildren had told me. I had no plan, essentially, and it still worked pretty damn well.

 I can’t take Mildren’s couponing class, so I don’t know how much more information I’ll be missing out on. I’m not sure I’ll ever be the type of person who prepares for a shopping trip quite the way she does, anyway. But I am the kind of person who occasionally likes to support nonprofits, and I’m also the kind of person who likes lifelong learning. So my couponing foray was already worth it on two fronts, before the register even began its tally. Next time I go, though, maybe I’ll organize my coupons a little more — and leave the teenager at home. And maybe, when that same teenager heads off to college next year, I’ll send her a few coupons in the mail, just to keep my grandmother’s family tradition alive.

 Naomi Shulman's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her

@naomishulman.