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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Couponing But Not Going Extremes

Couponing, but not going to any extremes.

If you haven't seen the TLC show "Extreme Couponing," immediately set your TiVo, record the next 10 episodes and prepare to be awed.

In the show, shoppers go to great lengths - think rummaging through Dumpsters for discarded coupons and spending seven hours at a grocery store - to score big deals.

Often, they rack up thousands of dollars at the cash register only to see that cost whittled down to nothing, thanks to a few hundred coupons, store discounts and lots of savvy planning.

Each nail-biting episode features the shoppers arguing with unsupportive relatives, squabbling with other customers and panicking as the cash register clicks down toward zero.

To get the best per-unit price and to maximize their coupons, the shoppers often must buy cartloads of stuff, which then goes into their "stockpiles," usually basements full of barbecue sauce, air fresheners, ramen noodles and any other product for which you could possibly think, why on Earth do I need 100 bottles of that?

The fiendish hoarding and poor shopping etiquette is a turn-off. But when someone gets $700 worth of groceries for $5, I have to wonder whether I'm missing out. I may not be up for extreme couponing, but could I do better when shopping for my family?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a moderate cost plan for the average family of four is almost $800 a month on groceries, which squares with my typical shopping trip. I can't get out of the grocery store without spending at least $200. At a place like Whole Foods, that buys me a pound of meat and a couple of strawberries. Surely, there's room to improve.

For advice, I turned to the South Bay's couponing expert, Lachmi Malhotra, who teaches a South Bay Adult School class on getting the best bargains.

Lachmi is a bit horrified when I tell her my shopping strategy, which amounts to roaming the aisles and haphazardly throwing items into my cart, whatever looks good, no attention to price. My grocery store sends me coupons for products I buy all the time, and I still don't use them.

Yes, she says, definitely room to improve.

Lachmi suggests we meet at a local grocery store so she can show me the ropes. I'm amazed when she proposes Whole Foods. I had no idea Whole Foods even accepted coupons. And was it possible we'd score any big deals there?

The first step, Lachmi tells me, is to get organized. Any serious couponer has a coupon book, usually a big binder organized by category, making it easy to find the right coupon when you're at the register. Next, before setting foot in the store, use an online site like www.couponmom.com to find the best grocery deals and sales in your area. These sites also tell you how to use your coupons to maximize your value.

But that's too easy, I say, thinking of those "Extreme Couponing" women who spend 40 hours a week on elaborate spreadsheets.

"It's so easy," Lachmi says. With a 15-month-old daughter at home, Lachmi doesn't have time to make it complicated. Her enthusiasm gives me hope.

In Whole Foods, Lachmi tells me about "stacking," or using a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon to get double savings. She selects four boxes of low-sodium vegetable broth on sale, two for $5.

Then she grabs a couple of cans of tomatoes, also on sale. We head to the register. The six items ring up to $13. Lachmi pulls out the coupons. I hold my breath as the discounts rack up, a dollar here, a dollar there. Final tab: $4. Not bad.

An accountant by trade, Lachmi started couponing when she quit work to be a stay-at-home mom. Without her additional income, the family needed to buckle down. Through organization and careful planning, Lachmi had soon slashed her monthly bills from $3,000 to $600, and she spends only about two hours a week searching for deals and coupons. She has a small stockpile, a few extra bottles of laundry detergent for example, but she doesn't buy what she won't use.

I liked Lachmi's common-sense approach. After saying goodbye, I was so excited about couponing that I immediately drove to Target to buy a binder and inserts, paying full price for each item.

That weekend, I clipped coupons, organized my new binder and headed to the grocery store. I'd forgotten to make a shopping list, contradicting Lachmi's No. 1 rule. But I'm all about baby steps.

Instantly, I scored big by "stacking" coupons for sliced cheese, getting each item for less than 50 cents. On the next aisle, I snagged some Greek yogurts for practically nothing thanks to a great sale and a coupon. Then I came to the pasta aisle. I needed pasta.

Between the coupons and the store discount, I was looking at less than a dollar a box if I bought 10 boxes. Ten boxes? Do I really need 10 boxes of pasta? I sighed and dumped farfalles, rigatonis, and macaronis into the cart.

At the register, I proudly handed over my coupons. The cashier swiped away, and the total ticked downward. Final savings: $50, about 20 percent of the bill. A big improvement over my last shopping expedition but not great by couponing standards. Plus, I now had to store 10 boxes of pasta.

But I'm not giving up yet. Saving money in these tough economic times is always a win, and who knows when that $50 will come in handy? Now I just need to find a coupon for pasta sauce.

Source: www.dailybreeze.com/lifeandculture/ci_19415081

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