The following is my script for a Couponing 101 workshop at Northline Baptist Church, Taylor, Mich., on March 8, 2011. It’s been my routine in the past year or so to post my program scripts on the blog, with embedded links in case the original audience or another reader wants to look up a particular topic.

Hello everybody! My name is Paula Wethington. I work as one of the reporters at The Monroe Evening News in Monroe, Mich. One of my projects is a blog called Monroe on a Budget.

You’ll find my site at monroeonabudget.com. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Anything to do with family finances in southeast Michigan is fair game for discussion on Monroe on a Budget. One of my articles last summer was on a cooking class held at the Fish and Loaves pantry here in Taylor. I’ve also talked about the Mom 2 Mom sales, how to plan ahead for bake sale donations, and how to stay organized if you apply for financial assistance.

But the most popular topic is saving money on groceries. I’ve been giving money-saving programs and classes in the Monroe, Toledo and Dundee areas for the past two years, and most of the sponsors are asking for the grocery lessons. This is my first time speaking in the Downriver area.

Monroe on a Budget is not a typical coupon blog, even when I am teaching coupon tips such as my recent Couponing 101 series. Here is why:

If you have taken a coupon class elsewhere, you will catch onto the fact that my method is very different than what everyone else is teaching these days. But my system is intended to work no matter where you get your coupons, and no matter what store you shop at. I also do not expect you to subscribe to shopping lists or look up the coupon announcements on the Internet every week.

The overlapping grocery market and Sunday newspaper deliveries that my local readers in Monroe, Carleton and Dundee have to work around are very similar to what you have to deal with in Taylor, Trenton and Brownstown. The bottom line is that in Monroe or Downriver, a DIY method works best.

I have an 8-week checklist that you can print from my blog if you want a step by step process to cut your grocery bill. But the basics are easy to explain:

First, clip all the coupons that come into their house. Clip them all, as soon as possible after they are distributed. This is one of the differences between my method and the one you will hear from other coupon teachers.

Given the cities where you live, most of the coupons you can easily get will come from the Detroit Free Press, the Downriver News Herald or The Monroe Evening News. You will also find coupons in the women’s magazines such as All You and Ladies Home Journal. If you decide to get more than one newspaper every Sunday, and many coupon clippers do that in order to have extra coupons as soon as possible, then pick a different regional newspaper so you have access to another mix of grocery ads and coupons.

Clipping coupons does not take much time to do. You can clip the coupons while watching TV, listening to music or surfing the Internet. Here’s a tip: Grade schoolers are perfectly capable of cutting coupons. Set the kids to the task.

Then you sort the coupons into two piles.

The first pile is your “keep” pile. This pile is for any coupon that you think you would use if the price is good between now and when that coupon expires. Sort them into your coupon box or a coupon binder. If you are not certain whether a binder or a box is the better way to go, think about this: which one are you most likely to actually carry into the supermarket and have with you in the shopping cart?

The second pile is also important. This is your give away or swap pile.

Now this is another tactic I teach that is very different from other coupon classes. For many years, I sent my giveaway coupons to the military family coupon drives. This project gets a lot of buzz because the overseas military commissaries will accept expired coupons within a certain time frame. But I’ve switched my tactic, and I ask you to consider this option instead:

Please distribute your leftover coupons, while they are still in date, to other Michigan families. We need to help each other out. Nobody is going to “adopt” any of our communities with a coupon drive.

You know about the unemployment rate in this region, and how long it is taking for some people who have been laid off to find new jobs. But here is a statistic you may not know: about 18.8 percent of the entire population in the state of Michigan now receives food stamps on the Michigan Bridge Card. And we’ve noticed a spike in Monroe as to the numbers of students who are on the free or reduced-price lunch program. You might be seeing that in your school districts, too.

So when you have picked out the coupons you want, and perhaps traded around with a friend or relative, then take the leftover coupons to a community coupon swap box. I know of several swap boxes in Monroe County, but I don’t know of any in the Downriver area. Maybe your church is willing to host such a box. Maybe your library or day care centers will. The point is to let the local families who can’t afford a Sunday newspaper have just much access to the coupons as everyone else.

The next thing you want to do is to become an expert in the price trends in the stores you like to shop at – and their competitors.

Yes, I am telling you to read as many sales fliers as possible for the stores in the neighborhoods where you live, work or send the kids to school. You know what grocery items your family likes and uses. Watch those prices as they trend up and down. You especially want to look at the fliers for stores you don’t frequently shop at. If you normally shop at Meijer, you want to know when Kroger’s prices are better – or vice versa. I have some of this week’s grocery and drugstore fliers with me so you can do some spot checking.

The other way to become your own family’s price expert is to watch the shelf tags on favorite products as you go about your errands. Do you have a prescription to pick up for a sick kid? Look at that laundry soap price. No, you don’t have to buy laundry soap when the kids are sick. But I want you to know when it’s time to buy laundry soap whether you found it at a good price – or whether you’d better put that soap back on the shelf and shop at another store. I am amazed as to how many times I have noticed a sales flier or a retail shelf sign bragging about a great deal, when the posted price is much higher than I saw elsewhere.

There are people who track pricing on to such an extent that they have created notebooks called price books. It’s worth a try for frequently used items, but it can be time consuming. One of the complications is that the package sizes change frequently. I’ve compiled price guides only for specific items such my recommended picks on the 10 for $10 sales.

The magazine and newspaper articles I have collected about grocery shopping include a story about a coupon expert who saved 90 percent last summer at the Meijer store in Allen Park. This was an example of extreme couponing. But it’s easy enough to take half off your grocery bill with a little bit of effort.

If you watch the shopping cart brags on my blog, you’ll see that I make my selections based on my family’s needs rather than playing coupon math games. Here is an example from June 3, 2010, at Kroger in Monroe, Mich. I spent $24.94 plus $5.10 in bottle receipts and gave the clerk eight coupons for this selection.

The third way my grocery method differs from what you may hear in other coupon classes is that I add other tricks into the mix.

One of my tips is buying groceries from Angel Food Ministries. If you are not familiar with this program, I have some sample menus and grocery pictures you can look at. Angel Food is a discount purchase program where you select from, and pay for, grocery boxes in advance. I have been buying Angel Food off and on for three years, and find that those groceries mix in very well with what I can buy for cheap at the supermarket. New Hope Assembly of God in Taylor is an Angel Food host site.

I also cook from scratch when possible and buy shares of meat off my parents when they put in their annual order to a butcher for a cow. And yes, I occasionally shop at Aldi. But that happens when I want something specifically from Aldi, rather than because I have no other option.

Now, given the fact we are all shopping for a real family, what is a reasonable grocery budget?

Here’s what I use as a guideline: the monthly food costs as compared to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cost of Food analysis. The goal I teach is to hit the USDA “thrifty” range, or lower, for your family size and demographic. This amount is for all the food you eat, including restaurants, but not your paper products or cleaning supplies.

You can go to the USDA web site and run the numbers for any size family. But here is an example: The thrifty cost of food range in December for a family of two adults and two small children was $511 a month. Does that sound high? There are families who spend nearly twice that much.

When I did an analysis of my 2010 grocery bills, my household expenses were 80 percent of thrifty for our demographics. I was proud of that statistic, given the fact I couldn’t spend much time chasing sales last year. But if you are just getting started on a grocery savings plan, or have to work around picky eaters or medical issues, then USDA thrifty is a reasonable target.

When you put money-saving tactics such as I teach to work on your grocery expenses, not only you can feed your family better food for less, but you will be able to build up your pantry shelf above and beyond what you need. Take those extras and put some of them in a food pantry donation box. Or give the groceries to a family member or friend who is struggling financially.

I do know that many of the readers who are landing on my blog these days are food stamp recipients who are looking for details such as the Michigan Bridge Card posting schedule for this year. But my original target audience was, and still includes, the families who are sitting at the median income bracket.

Median income for Michigan is about $50k a year. This is not a lot of money. But you will find that a family of four does not qualify for a lot of the well-known safety net programs until the income drops to about $42k a year. How would that family get by in the meantime?

Answer: They have to use every trick possible. And being resourceful with family finances is what I’m all about at Monroe on a Budget.

Do you have any questions for me today?

****

While I was working on the script, my friend who attends this church and the pastor’s wife were working on their own contributions to the program with a packet of handouts.

Here is one of their efforts. Look at this table full of groceries and see if you can guess how much they cost.

Here’s the deal: Those groceries were all purchased about noon time today in the Taylor area, using the sales fliers that are in effect this week, at Kroger, Target and Meijer and the shopping recommendations at Bargains to Bounty, which is one of the most popular coupon sites in the Detroit area.

They did not use printable coupons, knowing that some who were attending today do not have computers at home to print coupons. They did rely on a coupon collection that the church does have available for swapping and donating.

They spent $62.11 for a grocery bill that should have been $138.87.

And because all three of those stores are in the same neighborhood, that shopping trip took only about an hour with no more gas used up going to three stores as compared to going to one.

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