There’s been some buzz this week in Michigan on so-called “extreme couponing” efforts as the Associated Press has been circulating an article about a Clinton Township college student who is a coupon whiz.

My newspaper column for today’s edition of The Monroe Evening News also will feature an interview with a former cast member of “Extreme Couponing” and some of her how-to’s.

As a result, there are questions popping up on our newspaper’s Facebook page to how one can coupon like that. However, the demand for coupon classes has dropped dramatically. It’s been months since I gave such a program, and I’ve not seen many announcements lately from other coupon experts in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio.

But don’t panic! You can look up basic lessons and detailed discussions in my coupon tips archives

For example, here is the script for a class I taught in February 2012 at Monroe County Community College’s Whitman Center. It explains where to get coupons, how to organize your coupons, what I think is a realistic goal for savings, and the complications of the grocery market along the Ohio/Michigan state line. Follow the links to get the background material.

Hello everybody!

My name is Paula Wethington.

I’m one of the reporters at The Monroe Evening News. My best-known project is the frugal living, personal finance blog and newspaper column called Monroe on a Budget. You’re getting the expanded version today of the presentation I call “Grocery Shopping on a Budget,” but most people call it the coupon class.

Monroe on a Budget started five years ago as an online project. While the web site still exists and is updated frequently throughout the week, Monroe on a Budget now also a newspaper column that appears every Monday in our newspaper.

Any topic that helps southeast Michigan families save money is fair game for discussion at Monroe on a Budget. For example, I hosted a series this week about college scholarships and financial aid. I’ve also written about garage and Mom 2 Mom sales, fashion and beauty ideas, and frugal ideas for holidays that won’t derail your budget.

The topic that most people request when I’m giving presentations is how to cut the grocery bill. Everybody eats, so everybody can relate to that concept.

The discussion point I always start with is: What is a reasonable grocery budget? The price point I use is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cost of Food at Home study. You have a copy of the chart.

Here’s the methodology: the USDA researches what Americans eat, and then reviews the food choices in comparison to nutritional guidelines. The result is a chart showing the cost of well-rounded diet at four different cost levels. The figures are updated every month to reflect current prices. This chart is the cost for all the food eaten, including restaurant food, but not paper products or cleaning supplies.

This study gets a lot of buzz every time I bring this concept up, and here’s why: the grocery budget I teach is to hit the USDA “thrifty” range or lower for your family size and demographic. Some people are shocked that the USDA thrifty chart is so low in comparison to their grocery bills. Other readers are shocked that it seems so high. But I settled on this chart as the guideline after reviewing what my grocery expenses were over the years that study was in effect. I think it’s pretty right on target.

Now since this is a community education class, and I need to take attendance for the college records, I’ll take a break. I want you to look that USDA chart and do the math as to where your family’s grocery budget would fall under “thrifty.” When I call out the names on the student roster, you tell me what “thrifty” would be for your family size and demographic. If you remember nothing else from my class today, I want you to understand a realistic monthly grocery budget. It has nothing to do with one day’s grocery receipt. There’s a lot more to it.

For my husband and I, the thrifty range would be $373.30 a month. When I reviewed our 2010 grocery bills against the Cost of Food study, we came in at about 80 percent of thrifty. It takes me a little bit of time to do that because I need to subtract out our cleaning supplies and paper goods from the food bills. We’re probably at 90 percent of thrifty now, but I’m OK with that.

For my daughter, who lives on her own now, the thrifty range is $159.60. When she moved out last fall, I pulled out this chart to help her figure out what her grocery bill should be. She told me later that she’s spending a little more than that. My daughter does know how to cook and how to grocery shop. But there’s a learning curve involved, especially when the nearest grocery store to her home is one that we don’t have here at home.

I include a variety of money-saving tips in my grocery classes, but the couponing details get the most attention. So we’ll start with that.

The way I use coupons is pretty much the same way I used coupons 25 years ago. It works in Monroe. It works when I shop in Toledo. It will also work whether or not you have a newspaper subscription, and whether or not you have a computer with a printer.

My method is clip, sort, giveaway.

The first step is to clip every coupon that comes into your house, whether it is from the Sunday papers, the women’s magazines, in the mail, or handmedowns from other families.

I will tell you this is not how couponing is frequently taught today, but stay with me. This is the method I’ve used for 25 years, long before the Internet became part of the mix.

I’ve timed it and it takes only 15 minutes to cut and sort the coupons that are typically found in one Sunday newspaper. That means it takes me a half hour to clip the two Sunday papers that land on my front porch every week. I get the Detroit Free Press in addition to The Monroe Evening News.

One difference in couponing today as compared to how it was done a generation ago is that today’s couponers are likely to get multiple papers. But your coupon collection should be in proportion to your family size. The best guideline I’ve heard on this is one newspaper per household member. I picked up that idea from another blogger, but it makes perfect sense. There are only two people in my home. I only need two newspapers. I can get the other coupons I want through a later step.

After you clip your coupons, sort them into two piles. This also will not take long. The “keep” pile is for every product you might use if you see a good price. Don’t be concerned about what the prices are usually for that product. The question is would you use it before that coupon expires if you had a good opportunity?

The other coupons go into your giveaway pile. If you won’t buy the product before that coupon expires, you don’t need to keep the coupon. Therefore, the only coupons you sort into your coupon box, coupon binder or file cabinet are the coupons you actually might use. And that makes your coupon collection much easier to manage.

What do you do with the leftover coupons? You give them away, or, if you like, you swap them around.

Some of my co-workers and I have a swap box that we send from one desk to another during the week. This process is what some people call a coupon train. I know of meetups that have taken place in Monroe, Downriver, Bedford, and Toledo so shoppers can swap coupons. I also know of two or three churches in the Monroe and Downriver areas that have coupon clubs or coupon libraries.

But the trick that I think is one of Monroe County’s best-kept secrets are the coupon swap boxes at the libraries. They can be found at Bedford, Dorsch, Erie, Ida, Navarre, Rasey, Summerfield-Petersburg, Frenchtown-Dixie and Milan Public libraries. Just stop by any of those libraries during business hours. You can trade, drop off or pick up coupons that others have contributed.

For example, when my swap mates and I are done picking through our coupon box, I take the rest to Dorsch Library. There still are a lot of good coupons left even after we all take what we need. None of us need the diaper coupons, for example.

Have you heard about people digging through paper recycling bins to find coupon books, or stealing coupon inserts from the newspapers? Yes. I’ve seen the video clips and read the headlines from across the country. One of my friends told me she saw a scavenger poking through the newspapers in her curbside recycling bin. There’s no reason for anyone in the Monroe area to do that when coupons are available at the libraries for free.

Now how does someone organize coupons? I use the coupon box method. It’s the system you might remember from the 1970s or 1980s. All of my coupons fit into an index card box with index cards as dividers. This box and the cards cost me all of $2. I’ve seen several other variations on this system either sold as coupon caddies or office products that can be repurposed as one, and most cost less than $8 to set up.

The other method that is popular today is a binder. I have seen people shop with binders, and I have a sample binder here to show you. Those who use a binder method tell me it’s easier for them to find the coupons they want. I will tell you that it costs about $15 to $30 in office supplies to set your system up that way, especially if you want a zippered binder. You also may need to go on the Internet to order insert pages with small pockets for coupons.

But use whatever method helps you get the coupons to the checkout lane. That’s the bottom line.

Your handout today includes a list of coupon blogs in Michigan and Ohio, although there are many other links on Monroe on a Budget that include Facebook pages about couponing, and sites that focus more on personal finance or frugal living topics.

I don’t tell you to read a coupon blog to find the deals, although I do post grocery reports for the Monroe area and occasionally mention there are coupon matches.

The reason I don’t write the detailed shopping lists that are called coupon matchups is that it is impossible to write accurate lists for Monroe County. You’ll particularly notice this if you live in Bedford Township. Because of how the newspaper circulations and supermarket districts overlap, it is entirely possible to use a Michigan newspaper coupon at an Ohio supermarket sale, or an Ohio newspaper coupon at a Michigan supermarket sale, and have no idea that’s what you just did.

That is why the shopping list that someone wrote for a Detroit store, or a Toledo store, probably will not work the same way in Monroe, Dundee or Bedford. The coupons are zoned by region, the supermarket sales are zoned by region, and sometimes those zones mesh in strange ways along the state line. I have a packet that includes all the sales fliers I could find for this week in the Monroe and Toledo areas so you can see how the advertising zoning works; and I also have a binder that I created last spring that shows examples of coupon zoning.

Here’s the other reason: You can learn how to pick out the deals yourself.

The first step in that process is to read all the grocery and drugstore sales fliers that came in your newspapers and mail, even for the stores you don’t usually shop at. You want to know what the competition is doing because that’s how you know what the deals really are. For example, if you see Kraft mac and cheese often listed on “sale” at $1 a box, then I’m sure you will pay attention when the sale price is 88 cents.

The other detail to look for in the sales fliers include when the stores themselves tell you there is a coupon that will match to that week’s sales. Some experts had taught that you should not expect to find coupon matches to a grocery sale until a couple of weeks after a coupon had been circulating. But that conventional wisdom is out the door. CVS, Rite Aid and Meijer are among the area retailers where I’ve seen notes in recent months such as “see most Sunday papers for a coupon.” The week that the P&G coupon insert is in the paper has been a particularly good time to find those same P&G products on a sale, rebate or special offer.

For the rest of the deals, it’s pretty simple. If you keep only the coupons that you think you might use, it will be easy to remember or look up what you have. Then when you see a sales flier or a price on the shelf, at a store you are shopping at, you won’t need someone else to point out the deals. You’ll notice them yourself.

The next step is to become familiar with the coupon policies at the stores you shop at. Those policies will explain information such as whether the store will double coupons and under what guidelines. You may see coupon policies spelled out in the print ads, but that doesn’t always happen. In some cases, you will need to look them up on the store’s web site or ask for a copy at a customer service desk.

I went to the grocery and drug store web sites a few days ago and downloaded as many coupon policies as I could find. You can look them up in one of my binders. (Note: I also link to as many as possible on my grocery database).

But this is generally what is happening: Most stores that double coupons in the Monroe and Toledo areas will double coupons up to 50 cents. (Note in Feb. 2013: the script also mentioned some 99-cent doubles that were then available in the Toledo area, but I’m not sure what the current policies are at those stores.)

Another concept that I’ll explain today is the idea of a price book and that can help you understand the sales cycles.

What’s a sales cycle? It’s the fact that a different mix of products will be on sale any given week at any given store. It’s a commonly taught guideline that most grocery items go on sale at some point during a three-month cycle.

My sister-in-law has mastered the art of watching the sales at her local Giant Eagle store. She knows what week to buy paper goods, when to buy cleaning supplies, and when to buy cereal. Now while I haven’t mastered any store to that detail, I do point out out seasonal promotions when they pop up. They include kid-friendly foods during back-to-school time, picnic supplies during May and baking supplies just before Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Note in Feb. 2013: the sales cycle is a very important step that will be discussed in my newspaper column this week.)

A price book is a way to learn how the sales cycle works. I haven’t done it for everyday groceries because it’s incredibly time consuming. But I have done it for the holiday merchandise and you can see some examples on my blog.

Most people who work the price book system have a notebook or a stack of index cards in which they write the actual selling prices of specific items they want to track. Then next week, they check the prices again. Then next week, they check the prices again. When they notice the price being on the lower range, that’s when they try to time their purchases.

It’s fair to say that price book is a money-saving concept that can be used whether or not you coupon.

One misconception about couponing involves the savings that you might get. I have quite a collection of newspaper and magazine articles on that topic. The most amazing one is from the Detroit Free Press and it shows a coupon expert who saved 91 percent during a trip to Meijer in Allen Park.

The problem is: one shopping trip is not your monthly grocery budget. You may need specific groceries that didn’t happen to be on sale that week. How do you handle those purchases?

The concepts of a pantry list and stockpiling will get you out of a “just in time” inventory cycle. With stockpiling, you will buy extra of a product you frequently use when you notice the sales. The pantry list will be the groceries you want to stockpile if you get the chance.

You can find recommended pantry lists in cookbooks or on the Internet, such as one I’ve seen on the Whole Foods website. You may have also heard of Darla Jaros, who has been giving programs in Michigan and Ohio about her cook-from-scratch grocery menus that rely on a pantry list. But here is my guideline for the pantry concept. Make a list of the 10 to 15 foods your family enjoys most. Then write down every ingredient needed to make those foods. That’s your pantry list.

Here is one example: if your family likes Hamburger Helper, then you would be smart to pick up three or four boxes when you see it on the 10 for $10 sale. That doesn’t mean you’ll eat Hamburger Helper three or four days in a row. You’ll probably eat one box this week, one box next week, one box the following week. But each box cost only $1. That’s way better than spending more than $2 a box.

You may not notice much of a difference in the grocery bill as you start a stockpile. But it will cut your grocery bill in the long run. Remember that I’m teaching you to focus on your monthly grocery expenses instead of any one day’s receipt. A stockpile also will provide emergency reserves should your cash flow take a hit for reasons such as unemployment or bills piling up faster than the paychecks arrive.

What’s the limit of a stockpile? It’s whatever groceries and personal care items than you can keep in useful rotation. After you learn how to watch the sales cycles, and as you keep track of how fast your family uses a particular item, you’ll learn how much of any one item you will want to buy when you do see that “rock bottom price.”

Here is another concept that seems confusing at first, and it involves money up front to get savings later.

Let’s say you bought diapers at one of those sales at Target in which you get a $5 gift card back. You can’t use that gift card that day. It can be used on your next purchase, and that’s perfectly fine. You just need to remember to bring that gift card with you when you shop. Now, you’ve saved some money.

The Catalina coupons or Extra Care Bucks offers you get at checkout for your next purchase also provide savings at a later time.

But if your focus is on the monthly grocery bill rather than any one day’s receipt, you’ll like that savings on your next visit.

There are money-saving tricks that some families use that I personally don’t do for one reason or another. There are no hunters in my family. I’m not interested in starting a garden. And I don’t intend to get a deep freezer to buy meat by the case. But they are worth considering. They work very well for a lot of families.

One of the tricks I wish I could use more often is to buy bread at the bakery thrift stores such as Aunt Millie’s here in Temperance or the Wonder Bread stores in the Toledo area. I paid about $1 a loaf at a Wonder Bread thrift store two weeks ago. It’s also possible on occasion to pay $1 for a loaf of Meijer brand or Kroger brand bread. But would you rather eat store brand bread, or name brand bread, for that same dollar? (Note in Feb. 2013: Aunt Millie’s is now Nickles Bakery, and the Wonder Bread stores have closed)

We covered of information in a short amount of time today, and my handouts were just the USDA chart and a list of web sites. Don’t panic. I post my coupon class scripts on Monroe on a Budget after I give a program, so that people can look up links later or review what they missed. The show and tell items on my display table also can answer some questions

Here are my social media links if you want to write them down. My web site is at monroeonabudget.com. My Facebook page is facebook.com/monroeonabudget. I also have Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube accounts as Monroe on a Budget.

Do you have any questions in the meantime?

The discussion included coupon policies at the area stores, how to understand what products a particular coupon can be used on, the fact there are coupons even on “healthy food,” the details behind the coupon inserts in the Sunday papers, and shopping at the bread stores.

One of the participants asked if I had an advanced class in extreme couponing methods. No. This is the expanded edition of what I normally teach in my one-hour programs. Some techniques other coupon experts teach just don’t work well in Monroe County; other times, a better alternative is available to my local readers.

 

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