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Pick a Poison, Drop a Dime, Save a Smidge


Extreme couponers save money, but the bulk of them are well on their way from TLC’s Extreme Couponing to A&E’s Hoarders—a massive fail in life, if not in reality TV.

Normal consumers don’t buy 150 candy bars in one trip, go recycle-bin diving for coupons or delight in countless hours of calculating discounts because even the most savings savvy know they don’t have to—couponing is anybody and everybody’s industry.

It’s all about doling out time, effort and fiscal expenditure accordingly: Extreme couponing equals extreme time, which most sane people simply won’t sacrifice.

Jill Bender, a single mother of three sons, and founder of the blog singlemomonabudget.com, saves an average of 62 percent on her groceries without sacrificing family favorites or her family’s health. Still, she heavily criticizes the practice of extreme couponing.

“It ruins the benefits of the whole process, not only for us as consumers, those that go to the grocery store, but the manufacturers, the grocery stores,” Bender said. “It’s taking advantage of a system that isn’t financially set to be taken advantage of.”

She spends $250 to $300 a month on groceries, she said, without emptying store shelves or stockpiling deodorant for a couponing apocalypse.

Pam Oden, a Boulder mother of four who prefers to feed her family organic foods, saves about 50 percent on her grocery bill without stockpiling or wasting her days clipping coupons. She works full time and said she finds Extreme Couponing unbelievable.

“I’ve got four kids, so I really have staples I’ve got to purchase each week whether I’ve got coupons or not,” Oden said. “I don’t comprehend the fact that there’s things these folks on TV can absolutely get for free.”

Couponers brave enough to delve into Dante’s nine circles of couponing hell should use Couponing Like Momma Couldn’t (Page 60) to learn the ins, outs and etiquette of couponing.

The less intense, but just as desperate to increase disposable income, should read on.

As couponing resurges in a broken economy, social-couponing sites profit and grow by doing consumers’ footwork for them. Price-conscious consumers intimidated by even 45 minutes of reliving the oh-my-god-I’m-my-mother moment during kitchen-table coupon clipping, however, have countless social-couponing options that follow a simple formula in which effort is pretty proportionate to savings and spending.

For the über-frugal, sites such as The Grocery Game, Single Mom on a Budget and Coupon Sense serve as a toe-in-the-water middle ground for coupon clipping. Coupon Sense, for example, researches sales, policies and coupons, and provides an organizational system for clients’ Denver Post sales inserts.

“So I get my Sunday paper in my driveway and I log into Coupon Sense and it tells me exactly where to file the coupons,” said Jen Kugler, Coupon Sense Colorado director.

Then consumers use the website to find products on their grocery list, locate ads and clip only coupons they know they’ll use. The site shows them the best prices on products they would otherwise pay full price for, taking all of the research and guesswork out of the couponing process. Fees for such services range from none to $10 on average.

The fees pay professionals to keep updated store policies. Coupon Sense provides updated copies of its featured stores’ policies (including those on rain checks and coupon stacking) as they change and encourages its clients to print those policies for potential run-ins with uninformed employees.

Outside of stricter policies, Bender said she’s encountered mostly positive changes in the coupon industry, including more opportunities for healthy food. Potential couponers often believe coupons are only for junk food, she said.

“That’s not true at all,” Bender said. “There are a lot of coupons for healthy foods.”

Oden spends five hours couponing before each three-hour, two-store shopping trip, but her couponing has evolved recently, too. She used to shop primarily mainstream, corporate stores with bigger discounts, she said.

“We eat a lot of organics, so there have not been a lot of coupons available for that for a long time, but things are starting to change in that respect as well,” Oden said. “Now that organic food stores are putting out coupons, and stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts are putting out coupons, I’m going back there again more than I have before because when they have a sale and you can use two coupons (store and manufacturer) on top of that, it’s cheaper than buying organic at King Soopers.”

Bender invests 45 minutes to an hour a month with an advanced couponing system, and promises great organizational systems are key to couponing without sacrificing personal time.

But for the fearful consumers uncomfortable committing to clipping coupons all together for fear of floundering, sites such as Groupon, Google Deals and Living Social make it simple: log on, get deal. These companies’ popularity and usage exploded while other companies’ growth remained largely stagnant following the economic downturn in 2008. Groupon launched in Chicago in November of 2008 and has spread to more than 43 countries since, said Kelsey O’Neill, the consumer public relations representative with Groupon.

Groupon deals typically last six months to a year, which allows users more freedom to redeem them at their leisure than a typical coupon. Groupon also allows consumers to shop for specific deals, such as skydiving—a huge hit, O’Neill said.

Groupon is spreading from Denver to Boulder and expanding its overall business to include a travel partnership with Expedia—Groupon Getaways—and a Groupon Now! option for immediate deals.

Google Offers, launched in April—shortly after Groupon turned down Google’s $6 billion purchasing offer—looks nearly identical to Groupon, including the link to fine print. It offers similar, although considerably fewer, deals. Google Offers is available in NYC (downtown, uptown and midtown), Portland, Ore., Oakland/East Bay, Cali., and San Francisco, but promises Denver is coming soon.

For the free-spirited, Groupon’s Groupon Now!, which launched in June, offers coupons that must be used within hours or a day of purchasing but can be automatically refunded if they’re not spent.

“These are real-time, location-based deals,” O’Neill said. “It’s just another way to explore your city by popping into a yoga class or grabbing a quick bite to eat or even getting a reduced price on some dry cleaning. They’re the kind of deals you’re getting with Groupon, just more in the moment and spontaneous.”

Facebook Deals allows iPhone users to check-in at a location and view nearby stores offering deals to users who check-in there or present their phone to the cashier. Available in San Diego, San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin and Dallas. Facebook touts that it will surge ahead of Groupon and Living Social with its group coupon deals.

So, give a social-couponing site personal information and get personalized deals, but time-consuming hunts proved unsatisfactory for couponers such as Ashley Kingsley, chief executive mom with Daily Deals for Moms.

For the finicky: Even after providing demographic information to social-couponing sites—a must-do for all deal seekers—couponers often seek more personalized services. When Kingsley found herself among the dissatisfied after she had her second child, so she founded Daily Deals for Moms in Denver in April of 2010.

“I started to see some of the bigger conglomerates…offering deals that didn’t resonate with me as a mom,” she said. “I wasn’t out skydiving or taking limo rides at this particular point in my life, and I realized the mom market is extremely powerful.”

Moms make roughly 85 percent of household purchasing decisions, Kingsley said, so she created a business that caters to moms and small businesses while working to keep capital local.

“We started hiring moms in other cities because they were connected to their communities and they’re the ones that know the businesses in their city,” Kingsley said. “I don’t want to live in a Walmart world.”

But consumers continue to push to save: Limited income means eating cheap cake, even if it’s from Walmart. So local businesses continue to fight for ways to push back, promising higher quality while placing increasing limits on deals and discounts to protect profit margins from threats such as the ever-more-broken economy and savvier couponers.

Daily Deals was the first social-couponing site to allow struggling businesses to cap how many of their coupons or deals would be sold, Kingsley said. Popular social-couponing sites such as Groupon protect businesses with per-customer purchasing and gifting limits and rules disallowing the combination of Groupons with other deals.

But everyone’s protecting a profit margin. Industry leaders Groupon—possibly the fastest-growing business in the world right now—and Living Social face threats from strong companies joining the social-couponing race—including Google Offers and Facebook Deals. Consumers need only take advantage, plucking from the plethora at will.

But what about when half of the skydiving group cancels or that half-off top looks better all of the way off?

For the fickle couponers who bought vinyasa flow yoga classes, then realized they hate pretzel girl: In lieu of tackling the instructor, sites such as Lifesta, Coup Recoup and DealsGoRound buy unwanted vouchers.

Professionals suggest keeping receipts for two weeks after making a non-perishable purchase. Bender writes that shoppers should never fear returning any item the instant buyer’s remorse sets in. Store policy abuse is emptying a shelf, not using the existing system. Couponing can benefit all parties involved, Bender said, so take advantage.

“Your car payment is not negotiable, your house payment is not negotiable,” Bender said. “I think it’s a positive thing to teach people how to save money (where they can), especially in these times.”

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