Wednesday, August 19, 2009

An Interview with Coupon Queen Kathy Spencer

My "First Person" feature with coupon guru Kathy Spencer was published in this week's Boston Globe Magazine... click on the picture (or the link) to take a closer look.

Of course, space being the way it is in a print publication, the long interview was cut back to a smaller Q&A. Wondering how this mom from Boxford, Massachusetts, manages to feed a family of four (plus pets!) for pennies a day? Here's the longer version of our chat:

When and why did you start couponing? Does it really make a difference?
I started using coupons as sa child, But no it doesnt make a difference when you start , you just need to start! Once you start you willl be amazed at how much you can get for free if you put in a little time and effort.

Please tell us a bit about "How to Shop for Free." How many members do you have, what's the best part about it, what's the most important thing you've learned from it?
I started How to Shop for Free on Yahoo July 3, 2007. I started the group because I was always being asked where the deals were that I was getting and how did I do it. So I started HTSFF thinking it would be a easy way for me to keep all the info in one place so my friends family and online friends could see what and how I did what I did. I thought the group would average 10 to 20 of us, but it soon grew too large for Yahoo, with 3,873 current members and growing by the day.

Last year I opened How to Shop for Free on Big Tent because it was a much more organized place to set up topics and keep everything neat and organized. [Note from Lylah: You can read my interview with Big Tent founder and CEO Donna Novitsky at Work It, Mom!] Currently I think we have about 1,500 members on Big Tent, which is also growing by the day. We decided to charge a $1 annual fee to join that group mainly to keep out spammers and people that arent really interested and so far it has worked out great.

The best part about the group is the friendships that have formed online and off. Its really a great group of caring people. The majority of the group donated 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. 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.

We have had members go from spending $300 a week on food down to $40 in a matter of weeks. The trick is stockpiling, when its free or almost free I say, "Stockpile it!" Look at the expiration and figure out how much you think you will need between that time frame and stock up!

There are all different levels of coupon shoppers in the group. Some get it really fast and others need more help. The group is very helpful and kind to newbies and we all work together to answer questions and help each other out.

I have learned alot from having the group. Mainly that there are alot of really nice people out there that need a little help and coupons have made a huge difference in there life. I never thought (or wanted to) I would make real friends online ... especially considering that what we teach our kids not to do! But I have met the greatest people from having this group and I am so greatful that I have. The group as a whole is very generous always eager to donate there proudly stacked stockpiles. It has also passed down to there children and taught the little ones to be smart shoppers and donate. Its really great! My children love to donate and especially love the Staples penny sales where they can buy a bag full of stuff for under a quater and donate it to the local Community Giving Tree where it goes to help less forunate children have school supplies.

A lot of couple fight over money. Take the $200- to $300-a-week grocery bill out of that and how much happier could that make you?

What led you to think of saving money as a source of income?
A few yeas ago my husband became very sick unexpectedly. At that time he was up for a promotion at work, which would have given him a bigger paycheck but would have caused him to be at work a lot more and have a lot less family time. At the time, we thought the added pay was what we should to to help us financially, but once he became sick it made me realize how much he actually did around the house and how much time he had to spend quality time with us. That made me think if the promotion, was really worth it?

Financially, yes, it was, but was that what we really wanted for our family? In between trips to the doctors, I ran into the store to get some juice that was on sale for $1. I had three $1-off coupons and that made it free. That's when I started thinking... what if I had 10 coupons? What about 20? How many bottles of juice would I buy in a year? Basically that one trip at that one moment in my life made me really rethink the whole coupon thing. I started thinking of how much extra money would hemake if he got the promotion versus how much money could I save us if I figured this all out.

I quickly taught myself to stockpile and stockpile coupons. I started pairing sales with coupons and getting whatever worked out free and as much as it as I could. I went from buying the cheap laundry soap to getting stockpiles of free Tide and All. Instead of generic tootpaste I was getting Crest and Colgate and all the newest and best lines of health and beauty items. In no time at all, we were stocked. I had the scheduale down of what season everything went on sale and how much I will need till the next sale. I also learned that CVS offered a $25 gift card coupon for new prescriptions. Unfortunately my husband was very sick ,but when he got better he was happy to here we made $150 in free gift cards for all the different perscriptions they had him on. We had a $5 copay at the time, so that made us $120 profit.

Needless to say he did not end up with the promotion and we are doing fine financially thanks to my coupon addiction. We are much happier as a family having him home with us and not working 24/7. Besides, if he did, who would watch the kids while I shopped?

Where do you get all of your coupons? Do you subscribe to multiple papers?
I get them from newspapers, grocery stores, manufacturers websites, printables, and even buy some on eBay. Coupons are everywhere, you just need to train your eyes to spot them.

With so many coupons out there for processed junk food, how do you keep a healthy diet and still save money?
There actually are lots of coupons for healthy food. Most organic food companys have coupons, too. I also can make money at the grocery store by rolling a deal and that will give me store money that I can use to buy fresh friuits and vegetables for free

Do you teach any classes or seminars about couponing, outside of your online groups?
Yes, I have done seminars for non profit groups and small groups of friends that just want to plan a get together, I also do one on one shopping trips as well as group shopping trips for those that need hands on help to "get it."

How much do you spend on groceries each week?
I spend under $10 a week. My average bill is $4 and occasionally I even go negative and have to add in a candy bar. There are six of us in my house -- I am married with four children, aged 3 to 18. I also have a dog, two cats, and a bunny, and they eat for free, too!

How much time do you spend clipping coupons and scanning circulars?
Not as much time as you would think. I keep my coupons unclipped in the inserts they came in and filed by date they came out. When I need a coupon I just pull it from the file and cut them at once. I would guess that I spend two to three hours tops searching ads and online deals a week. the best part about being in a groupon group is that if you miss a deal theres always someone that will post a great deal that you missed.

Do you think there's such a thing as a free lunch?
Absolutely!!! You can get free breakfast and supper too, as well as many other things! I just got my two free park-and ride-tickets in the mail for Yorks Wild Animal Kingdom. I got them for free from a Shaws supermarket promotion that if you bought 10 items they sent you two tickets. I got the 10 items, used coupons so the 10 items were completely free, and that got me the tickets for free!

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