Monday, July 27, 2009

Can you to save "real" money with coupons?

A few months ago I chatted with Kathy Spencer, founder of How to Shop for Free, for an interview with Work It, Mom. I've got a profile of her coming out in the Globe next month; in the meantime, we chatted again about whether one can really save money by clipping coupons -- the answer is over at The 36-Hour Day. Even if you don't think the savings can be significant, it's worth clipping them anyway -- your savings can make an impact on someone else's life.

I started clipping coupons when I was a dirt-poor college student, having to decide whether to spend and extra 60 cents on a couple of packages of Ramen noodles or use that money for bus fare to get to work. (Sounds terribly dramatic, but it's true. It was Syracuse, N.Y., and it was worth going without dinner in order to avoid a three-mile walk home in the snow at night). Back then, the quarters I scraped together went a long way -- a couple of coupons could yield savings equal to the amount needed to wash a load of laundry -- and so the sorting and clipping was definitely worth my time.

I still clip coupons, but now it's more an exercise in frugality, as well as a challenge to see how little I can pay for the things I usually buy anyway. Every once in a while I hit a jackpot -- a buy-one-get-one free item for which I have coupons, for instance -- and I find myself wondering: What if I did this all the time? Can you really save that much money with coupons?

Kathy Spencer says yes. And she can help teach you how.

The Boxford, Massachusetts mom spends less than $10 a week to feed her family of six -- plus several pets. "The trick is stockpiling," she told me, via email. "Look at the expiration and figure out how much you think you will need between that time frame and stock up!"

There are other tricks, of course. Kathy is the founder of the online couponing community How to Shop for Free, and she knows them all.

"Once you establish a stockpile, you can go weeks without stepping into a grocery store," she points out. Joining a community like hers can make a difference, too. "We all work together so the sales get posted and you can see what will work out free and not even have to look at the sale paper if you are lazy that week. We also post some sales a week in advance, which gives time to get coupons for them."

Wait a minute... "get coupons?" How?

Turns out you don't have to wait for the Sunday paper -- or buy several of them -- to get multiple coupons. You can buy them on eBay... just do a search for the product you're looking for. "You can buy coupons for your daily Dunkin Donuts or your favorite brand of makeup, or order 20 coupons for free cat chow and only pay a couple of bucks and get hundreds in savings," Kathy says.

Don't really need to save money by clipping coupons? Lucky you. But consider... you could buy items for next to nothing, and donate them to people who really do need help. Members at How to Shop for Free have donated surplus stockpiles to food pantries, neighbors, churches, family, and friends. "We just get too much for free and have to give it away! It has been amazing how many people have been helped just through coupons," Kathy says. "It just seems to snowball! The more people I helped, the more they help, and it goes on and on. No one should have to go hungry or have to choose heat versus food. My children love to donate and especially love the Staples penny sales, where they can buy a bag full of stuff for under a quarter and donate it to the local Community Giving Tree, where it goes to help less fortunate children have school supplies."

That last idea put coupon clipping in a whole new light for me. I'm going to take a closer look at the circular when my Sunday paper comes this weekend, and I'm taking Kathy's tips to heart.

Want to learn more about how to save money using coupons? I've pulled together a list of 10 easy ways to do it.

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