Stephanie Nelson enjoyed a successful career in corporate America and dreamed of being able to balance both work and motherhood. That dream didn't last long. She resigned from her job in marketing shortly after the birth of her son -- cutting her family's income in half and drastically altering their lifestyle. Instead of picking up whatever she wanted at the grocery store, Nelson, who most Americans now know as the Coupon Mom, became a "strategic shopper" and based what she bought on the coupons she cut. Now Nelson, a mother of two boys, runs her own website which helps others "unravel the marketing and merchandising techniques used by grocery stores." Her method is based on three principles: 1. Know your grocery prices. 2. Know your store savings programs. 3. Know your grocery coupons. Nelson writes that $315 billion dollars are wasted in discarded grocery coupons. Her message is simple: start cutting and you may reclaim some of that money.
Read an excerpt of 'Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom' below.
America knows me as the Coupon Mom. One minute I was discovering ways to save money for my family at the grocery store, and the next I was the Coupon Mom on national television. I now teach people how to save money on their groceries -- lots of money every week. Week after week.
It seems like only yesterday, but ten years ago I was working in a corporate job and struggling with the desire to be at home with my new son. Quitting my job was financially impossible. After all, my husband and I had the perfect plan: we would buy a new home and have a baby; after a few months I would go back to work, hire a babysitter, and progress smoothly in my career without a hitch.
Once I held my son, however, I knew I had to be home with him full time. Finding a way to do that became my challenge.
I took the plunge and resigned from my job. Our household income was cut in half, so to keep my new job as a stay-at-home mom, I needed to find ways to reduce our spending in all areas. It didn't take long to realize that the area with the greatest savings potential was at the grocery store. I didn't know it at the time, but food -- groceries -- is the second or third largest household spending category for most families. I did not go back to the corporate world. Ten years later I am still a stay-at-home wife and mother.
Having come from a career in consumer sales and marketing I found that "unraveling" the marketing and merchandising techniques used by grocery stores and manufacturers was a lot of fun -- like solving a puzzle. And my method worked! In fact, it worked so well that I decided to start a website where I could help others start saving money on groceries too. Over the past five years this project has been far more interesting and rewarding than any corporate job I ever held, and it still allowed me to be home with my sons (yes, we had a second child).
Now I want to teach you how to become a "strategic shopper" like me, using the system I created. You will use your store's weekly sales ads, the coupons in your Sunday newspaper, and my website CouponMom.com, where I do all the hard work for you and millions of other shoppers across the U.S. every week.
My strategy is based on simple principles that work in every area of the country, not only in the big cities. And don't worry -- you won't have to compromise your quality standards to save money on groceries.
Here's the key: saving money on groceries is not about changing the way you eat, it's about changing the way you buy the foods you like. You will learn new, easy shopping strategies, but you won't sacrifice healthy choices for the sake of saving money.
This is not another grocery savings book recommending a complicated coupon organization system that takes hours each month to maintain. And it is not necessary for you to go to several stores each week to find the best grocery prices. The typical shopper is much too busy to invest that kind of time in grocery shopping. Instead, Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom is for busy people like you and me who want to save money but need to do it efficiently.
The key to saving money on groceries is to understand the three basic principles of strategic shopping:
1. Know your grocery prices
2. Know your store's savings programs
3. Know your grocery coupons
Once you understand how these three principles work and how to combine them to save even more, you will cut your grocery spending dramatically no matter where you buy groceries. Plus, you'll get a bonus. I'll also show you how to become a strategic giver! In my quest to save my family money, I discovered needs in my own community. I didn't realize it, but the cupboards of my local food pantry were bare. I decided then and there that on my next shopping trip I would use my coupon strategies to add a few extra bargains to my cart. Delivering those items to the food pantry changed my life.
I began teaching my friends and family how to purchase food for charity by combining grocery coupons and low prices. The remarkable success of these efforts led me to create Cut Out Hunger, and my website makes it easy for people to save dramatically not only on their own groceries, but also for items to donate to charity -- all for just pennies.
I am reminded of the saying that if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for the rest of his life. And in our case, at a very low price.
I don't have a fish to give you, but if you're ready to learn how to buy high-quality food at a low cost for the rest of your life, get in the boat!
Chapter 2Top Ten Coupon Myths
Before we go further, we need to talk about something. You don't like using coupons. Maybe you even hate using coupons. Unless you are part of the 15 percent of shoppers who use coupons religiously, you likely have a logical reason for not shopping with coupons.
I've used coupons for over a decade, and for the past five years I've spoken to thousands of people about using coupons to save money and donate food to charity. I have learned what people don't like about coupons, and in some cases, I agree with their objections. Invariably shoppers across the country object to the same challenges and share common misconceptions about coupons.
When checking out at the grocery store, other shoppers frequently look at me incredulously and ask, "You really like coupons, don't you?" I like to reply, "Well actually, I really like my money. Using coupons is one way to have more of it."
In 2004 shoppers saved almost $3 billion with grocery coupons, a substantial sum. However, the number that gets my attention is the $315-billion worth of grocery coupons that were thrown away. In spite of massive advertising and promotion by the grocery and coupon industries, fewer than 2 percent of coupons are converted into real money. In my opinion, coupon redemption is low because clipping and using coupons is time-consuming for people who are already busy. But we also know that more than 2 percent of people in our country have real financial needs and could benefit from some of that $315 billion being thrown away. So what's the solution?
I believe the answer to helping more people save money is to make it easier for people to use grocery coupons. Organizing coupon information and identifying good coupon deals for people is the key. My website has successfully helped thousands of people save millions of dollars since its inception in March 2001.
Whether your personal goal is to save $10 or $100 a week on your groceries, you can achieve your grocery-savings objective much easier than you can imagine. I started CouponMom.com in an effort to make it easier for non-coupon-users to shop for charity with coupons. I even tested it using eight-year-olds. It is not impossible. But first, let's examine the most common challenges of using coupons and how my program can help you save real money.
My family doesn't use the products that have grocery coupons. We don't eat processed foods.
It's not true that coupons are only for processed, unhealthy foods. In fact, many coupons are available for fresh items like cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, milk, and occasionally fresh produce. There are many coupons for common frozen foods -- vegetables, ice cream (is this processed? Most households eat it!), pizzas, bagels, and many convenience foods. I wouldn't buy dry cereal without a coupon; and peanut butter, condiments, baking mixes, coffee, tea, crackers, cookies, snacks, pasta sauces, pasta, rice, and fruit juices commonly have coupons.
Coupons also follow food trends, so now companies issue more coupons for organic foods and products designed for special dietary needs. Finally, a high percentage of grocery coupons fall into the categories of household cleaning products, paper products, and personal-care products such as shampoo and toothpaste. In fact, 47 percent of coupons issued are for nonfood items. There are more coupons issued for household cleaning products than any other type of coupon2.
It takes too much time to clip and organize coupons.
I hear you! I also hate cutting out and organizing hundreds of coupons, so I don't. But I do save thousands of dollars a year on groceries. My system eliminates 90 percent of the manual labor, frustration, and drudgery of coupon organization, while still allowing you to save big money. I came up with a searchable, sortable online database of all the coupons issued in the Sunday newspaper. Think of it as the Dewey decimal system of grocery coupons.
To maximize your coupon savings you really need to save all the grocery coupons each week. You never know what will be on sale in the future, making the item free or practically free with a coupon. However, there can be up to two hundred coupons a week in the Sunday paper, which would take hours each month to cut out, organize, and search through every time you need a coupon. You would also have to spend a lot of time regularly checking your entire coupon collection for expired coupons.
My website makes it possible to save all of the coupons without having to cut them out until you need them. It even takes care of deleting expired coupon offers from the database automatically. Realistically, even the most diligent coupon user only uses 10 percent of the coupons issued. Voila -- just cut out the few coupons you need each week, and you'll save real money with 90 percent less effort.
"I stumbled across your site quite by accident. I love that I can organize the list and the coupon lists as I see fit. I already had a great personal system for organizing my coupons, and combining that with your list takes a lot of strain out of my shopping. I love Cut Out Hunger, and I've told everyone about it."~ Carol
I don't use grocery coupons because it's cheaper to just buy the store brands and use my store discount card.
Although buying store brands and using the store's discount card are important components of strategic shopping, in many cases a name-brand item on sale with a coupon is much less expensive than the store brand. I agree that it may not make sense to buy a name-brand product with a coupon if the store brand is less expensive and of equal quality, but that's not always the case.
Using the store discount card does not take the place of saving even more with coupons. Shoppers can get low sale prices with the store discount card and then use a grocery coupon to bring the item's price down even lower; the two strategies are not mutually exclusive. Finally, you may not be aware of the new coupon programs available that help you save money on some store brands! I'll teach you about that easy program too.
When I first appeared on Good Morning America in April 2004, the producers wanted to test the theory that store brands are always cheaper, so they set up a real shopping competition between their reporter, Lara Spencer, and me. We had identical shopping lists in terms of the types of items. Lara's strategy was to buy the lowest-priced items, whether they were name brand or store brand, without using coupons. My strategy was to use my Best-Deals List, buying name-brand items with grocery coupons. Lara's final total was $78, while mine was $35. And this was in one of America's most expensive cities, in a store I had never set foot in before. Lara even asked local shoppers to help her find the best deals and lowest prices for her listed items, and they knew all about their own store!
I don't have the time to go to different grocery stores to save money.
It may be true that going to several grocery stores a week to buy each store's lowest-priced deals will save money overall, but the average shopper struggles to find the time to get to one grocery store once a week. My strategic-shopping approach focuses on the easiest methods for shoppers to save the most money in the least amount of time. The objective is to learn how to maximize grocery savings at their preferred store by understanding: (1) price ranges for their own specific grocery items, (2) how the store's savings programs work, and (3) how to combine them with coupons to save money easily and efficiently.
After years of tracking prices at several stores within the same city, I have learned that the same grocery deals generally cycle through every major supermarket in a city. In other words, shoppers do not need to go to every store in one week to get the best deals; they could just shop at one or two preferred stores and wait for the sales to cycle through their own store.
The key is simply knowing how to put the best deals together at your own store by understanding specific savings program strategies. I'll explain exactly what questions to ask regarding your store's savings programs and how to use them. You'll be amazed how much you'll save without going to several stores.
It isn't worth it to use coupons to save 20 or 30 cents.
Any one of us would bend over and pick up a quarter we saw lying on the ground. The reality is, the average coupon is worth far more than 20 cents (93 cents was the average face value of coupons distributed in 2003) and if your supermarket doubles or triples coupons, the value is much higher. The bulk of all coupons distributed have a face value of $1, and 7 percent of coupons have a face value of $23.
In fact, the average face value of coupons increased by 9.4 percent from 2003 to 2004, which is higher than the Consumer-Price-Index growth. With one hundred to two hundred coupons distributed in the Sunday paper every week, it is likely that most coupon users would take advantage of several coupons, not just one. Regular coupon users save far more than 20 or 30 cents. Industry research shows that they save an average of 11.5 percent off their total shopping bill.
To be effective with coupons I have to subscribe to a newspaper.
If you don't get the Sunday newspaper you can still save money with coupons by getting them from other sources (direct mailings, magazine inserts, the Internet, and other ideas I'll share later in the book). However, 82 percent of coupons issued are in the Sunday newspaper, representing $261 billion of the potential coupon savings available to shoppers. That is why my website provides specific online coupon databases of the Sunday newspaper coupons
If you want to take advantage of these savings, buy the paper and let yourself off the hook if you don't have time to read it. Just tell yourself you are buying the paper for the financial value of the coupons and then use the rest of it to line your cat box, make paper-mache piñatas or to wash your windows.
Most likely you'll appreciate being able to scan the headlines when you do have time, to check the movie schedule easily, and to see your children take an interest in reading the news or even the comics. Remember, the newspaper also carries many valuable coupons for restaurants and stores. Your coupon savings will far outweigh the cost of the newspaper. In fact, smart coupon users buy more than one copy of the Sunday paper!
"I was a total skeptic that I could cut my grocery bill. I took the Kroger ad and my coupons that I found within about 10 minutes (using your simplified system), and my husband, kids and I drove to Kroger (about 12 miles away). We bought almost $300 worth of groceries for $150. Plus I have a $10.00 rebate that I will be able to mail in, which brings the total to $140. I couldn't believe it. We applied for the Kroger-plus card while we were at the store. The lady behind me couldn't believe how much I saved and how much food, detergent, and soda I bought. My husband and I are going to start getting the Sunday newspaper and clipping coupons religiously." ~ Amanda, Michigan
I don't have time to go through all of the store ads to match sales with coupons.
The Internet has made it easy to share such information as weekly grocery deals. In fact, thousands of shoppers take advantage of subscription websites and shopping services that do the work of reviewing the sale items in store ads and matching them to that city's Sunday newspaper coupons. By eliminating the hour it takes to do this, far busier shoppers are able to save dramatically on their groceries just by using my website.
I cannot afford to donate food to charity.
My website is designed to help shoppers, even the busiest ones, save money easily by finding grocery deals in all categories. If a grocery deal is appropriate for a typical food pantry, the item will include the designation "Charity." When shoppers see these rock-bottom deals (which may even be free with a coupon) and their family doesn't use that item, it's easy to buy the item and save it in a box to donate to a local food pantry.
Many shoppers have reported being able to donate hundreds of dollars of food a year, or even a month, at virtually no cost to their families.
"I'm on a fixed income and it's been so wonderful to be able to not only save money for myself but to provide donations to the local Interfaith charity. Without your help, I wouldn't be able to do a fraction of the donating I do now." ~ Wendy, California
They save dramatically on their own groceries and experience the joy and satisfaction of helping families in their own backyard. CouponMom.com can help anyone, regardless of income, practice this kind of generosity.
Only poor people use coupons.
This perception of coupon users couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, there are more coupon users in higher income brackets than lower income brackets.
Over 80 percent of shoppers with household incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 a year report using coupons to grocery shop. Industry statistics also found that 74 percent of households earning more than $75,000 a year use grocery coupons. The lowest level of coupon use (70 percent) is in the $25,000-to-$50,000 annual income bracket4.
I do not know the reasons behind these statistics, but they definitely prove that coupon usage is simply a smart way for consumers of all income levels to save money. The reason CouponMom.com is free to users is to make it easier for families of all income levels to save money and donate food to charity. Families without computers can take advantage of free Internet access at public libraries to use the savings program.
You can save more at wholesale clubs and they don't accept coupons.
Shopping in bulk at wholesale clubs can be a good way to save money on many items. However, some items are much less expensive at traditional supermarkets when purchased with a coupon, particularly if the supermarket doubles coupons. This book will help you determine which shopping option makes the most sense for you, based on the grocery items you prefer and your geographic and time constraints.
Are you ready? It's time to start saving!