COLUMBIA — It started with a trip to Walgreens.
Jamie Picton, 32, was a couponer. She clipped coupons, sought sales and saved money.
Interested in couponing?
Here are some tips gathered from some of Missouri's couponers. There are also several online resources with more information.
- Collect coupons from newspapers, websites — resources abound.
- Check advertisements, both online and in print.
- Check the sale prices at the places you plan to shop.
- See where your coupons and the sales correspond, and use your coupons toward sale items if possible.
- It's best not to be brand loyal or store loyal — look for the best deals, and go where the deals are.
- Stay organized — use a book, a tabbed binder with inserts, anything that will keep you streamlined.
- Keep your coupons up-to-date.
- Know what you're getting before you go shopping. Bring a list.
Be patient — know which items you want, and wait for them to go on sale.
- Familiarize yourself with savings your local stores offer. For example, Gerbes has a rewards card, and both Gerbes and Schnucks double coupons. Hy-Vee has one-day sales. Walgreens gives out register rewards, which are coupons toward a future purchase.
- Start slow — you don't have to do everything at once.
Interested in taking a coupon class?
Jamie Picton of Missouri Coupon Queens has also taught coupon classes. Look online to find classes taught by other people, as well.
Columbia Area Career Center added a couponing class to its professional and community education offerings. It will be taught by Jamie Etters of COMO Couponers.
When: 6 to 8 p.m., September 13 and 20 — it's a two-session class.
Where: Columbia Area Career Center, Room 115
Registration: 214-3803 or career-center.org/adult.
Her older sister, Teresa Davis, 40 — not a couponer — was skeptical. How much money could this couponing thing really save?
Picton invited Davis to come to Walgreens. It took some persuading, but she finally gave in. She had a few items to pick up, anyway.
Davis' "few things" totaled $149.
“I about had a heart attack,” Picton said. “I never spend more than $5 or $10 at Walgreens."
She shared her coupons with her older sister. The new total cost: $79. Davis was hooked.
The two started a Facebook group, Missouri Coupon Queens, with three of their four other sisters (one just wasn't that interested), their mom and some cousins. At first, it was invitation-only. But as friends found out and wanted in, Picton made it public. Within one month, there were 500 members. Now, there are more than 3,500, and Picton has a website of the same name where she posts tips about deals and links to coupons.
Her start with couponing came long before the now-popular TLC show "Extreme Couponing," which launched in April. In it, shoppers parade a train of carts piled with goods to the checkout stand, hand over a stack of coupons and watch their grocery bills drop from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred cents. Stockpiles of food, toiletries and household products fill basement shelves that participants proudly showcase for viewers.
But as some reports show, it's not all savings and stockpiles. The show has been blamed for an increase in newspaper theft in a few states. One blogger at The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported a list of other instances of "bad — and even illegal — behavior" among Utah's couponers.
For Picton and others whose couponing careers pre-date the show, it's just "extreme" — an exaggeration of what couponing is really like. It's all just sensationalism, in Picton's view. Even the participants admit on camera that what they're about to do is not part of their normal shopping routine.
"What's the first thing they say when they go into the store? 'I've never done a trip this big before,'" she said.
In real life that's not what most couponers are like, she said.
The challenge of extremism
Bill Chrisco, store manager at the Schnucks on Forum Boulevard in Columbia, said he just doesn't get it — the extremism, that is.
Even when coupons cancel out any cost on an item, who needs 15 toothbrushes?
"It's the frugality of a grocer in me that says, 'Do you need all of that?'"
Fortunately, he said, he hasn't noticed too many "extremists" in the store. It's the extreme shoppers who pose a challenge to grocers, he said — when they come in, it's hard to make sure there's enough product left for everyone else. That's why Schnucks limits coupons to three per like item.
Although not often, a few people have tried to push the limits in Chrisco's store. Most people, he said, are pretty understanding. But there have been times when shoppers ask a follow-up question: "Well, can I come back in five minutes and get more?"
The answer? No.
"Our goal is not to let the shelf run out," he said.
What he has noticed is an increase in coupon use overall. Whether people bring in one or two coupons or a whole binder full, he said coupon use is becoming more common among all demographics. It's not the first time coupon use has picked up, he said — it also gained popularity back in the 1980s.
It was in the 1980s when Schnucks started doubling coupons — a shopping perk couponers look for.
If a coupon is for 50 cents or less off a product, the coupon value is doubled at the register. Coupons between 51 cents and 99 cents off are automatically rounded up to $1. That means a coupon for 25 cents off is really worth 50 cents off, and a coupon for 79 cents off becomes $1 off. As with other coupons, there is a limit — Schnucks will double up to 16 of them.
But aside from limiting coupons as a courtesy to other customers, Chrisco said there's also a business reason: When people use so many multiple coupons from manufacturers, the stores bear the expense and don't make as much money.
Sheila Lowrie, a spokeswoman for Gerbes, said the company has noticed more people using multiple coupons, which prompted the store to revise its policy.
"We encourage couponing, but responsibly," Lowrie said.
That's why discretion is left to Gerbes store managers — if someone takes too much and leaves little for others, the store manager can step in.
Like Chrisco, Lowrie said, "The important thing is keeping the shelves stocked for all customers."
For Matt Rohe, assistant store director at the Hy-Vee on West Broadway, the "coupon craze" is about balance between keeping the customer happy and doing what the manufacturer wants.
The store's policy, he said, is whatever is printed on the coupon. If it's one coupon per transaction and somebody has 10 coupons, then theoretically, the store could ring up 10 transactions for that person.
"I don't understand where they get so many coupons," Rohe said.
The only challenge he's seen in stocking the shelves is when advertised deals and manufacturers coupons coincide, which he's noticed the most with Purex laundry detergent.
Chrisco prepares his staff for those kinds of deals — the ads that overlap with manufacturers coupons — every week. He said that's when people really stock up.
The overlap between advertised sales and manufacturers coupons is what Picton said couponers look for. That's one of the tactics that helped the family reduce spending more than $200 a week on groceries to $50 or less — and that includes health care products.
But Picton doesn't promote the behaviors on the show. She stockpiles, but not in excess; the sales will come around again. She buys multiples of a single item, but she's never one to clear the shelf — she doesn't even buy six boxes of the same flavor of Hamburger Helper.
When Picton went shopping at Gerbes two weeks ago, she went in with a short list and a handful of coupons to go with it. She brought her coupon binder, just in case, but she's learned to be diligent about sticking to her list.
Her shopping trips are more efficient than they used to be. They take more planning, but she goes in knowing exactly what to get, and she generally has a good idea where to find it. It's in with a list and a set of coupons, out with the items and extra savings.
The calculations slowed her down at first — she and her husband would stand in the aisles for hours. But now, she's quick with coupon math:
A 3.5-pound box of Tide detergent was regularly $9.69. With a rewards card, it would have been bumped down to $5.99 a box, but there was a deal that day — $4.99 a box, if two were purchased. Picton had two coupons, each for $2 off a box. How much did the detergent cost?
$2.99 per box.
With a deal and a couple coupons, the total for two of them was less expensive than one at normal price.
Herbal Essences shampoos and conditioners were on sale for $2.50 each, but with four coupons for $1 off, she got them for $1.50 each.
Totino's pizzas, Toaster Strudels, granola bars — all were on her list, and all were on sale. They weren't the healthiest foods, she said, but her kids would enjoy them, especially with school starting. She said despite what it looks like on TV, it is possible to find coupons for healthy food — it's just harder sometimes. As for fruits and vegetables, it's best to look for sales or to put money saved from other purchases toward buying them.
The only item that wasn't on her list was a package of Chips Ahoy!, but she grabbed it because there was a coupon attached: $1 off, with purchase of a gallon of milk. The cookies were on sale to begin with, and Picton needed milk anyway.
After she picked up the milk, Picton pushed her one cart — not the six that people on the show sometimes have — up to the register. She handed over her rewards card and coupons calmly and watched the total drop. No drama.
Her total? $44.39.
She saved $54 using her rewards card and about $23 with coupons — what would have cost about $123 was less than $50.
It wasn't a good week for deals, she said. That's just the way it is sometimes.
So far this year, the family has saved $6,000 from couponing. But beyond the savings, it's helped them in other ways — the Picton kids have a better understanding of money.
Picton said the question is no longer, "Mom, can I get this?"
Instead, it's, "Mom, do we have a coupon for this?"
When there's a particular item someone in the family wants, they'll put it on a list and wait for a coupon.
Couponing for a cause
For Carie Regnier, a couponer from O'Fallon, patience is a big part of the process.
"Know what you want, and wait," she said. The desire for instant gratification is one of the problems she sees with society, and it's a reason why a lot of people spend too much money.
Like Picton, Regnier started couponing in the pre-extreme days. And like other couponers, she started because she wanted to save money.
Her story is different than most.
Within 10 days of each other, Regnier and her husband, Ryan, were both diagnosed with cancer. They sold their "dream home" and moved into a smaller place.
But that wasn't enough.
"One day my husband said to me, 'I'm not going to do chemo because we can't afford it.'"
So, when Regnier was done with her treatments, she started clipping coupons.
"I was always a coupon here, coupon there kind of gal, but I didn't take it to the next level until after my treatments," she said.
Now, there are blogs, websites, Facebook pages and Twitter profiles dedicated to couponing. But when Regnier started, there wasn't as much guidance. She was largely self-taught, and once she got into it, she decided to start her own website.
On July 2, 2009, she started Clippin' with Carie.
"I started my blog in that chair over there," she said, pointing to a dark orange plush chair in a Starbucks in O'Fallon. At the time, she said, she didn't have Internet service in her house. It's no wonder the baristas know her by name when she walks in the door.
These days when she goes for her afternoon coffee, she takes advantage of a coupon of sorts on morning Starbucks receipts. The "treat receipt" lets her buy a grande drink for $2 after 2 p.m.
On August 7 — one month after she started the site — KSDK-TV in St. Louis made her site the website of the day. Regnier was shocked.
"I'm just this girl from O'Fallon," she said.
The site gets about 300,000 hits a month. And the Regniers are saving thousands of dollars a year, which they still need as Ryan Regnier continues his cancer treatments.
In 2010, they saved $17,058.69 — that's an average of about $1,400 a month.
Unlike the savings seen on "Extreme Couponing," Regnier's savings don't come from buying in excess — don't get her started on shelf-clearing.
"I think it's rude, and I think it's obnoxious," she said. "And really, do you need that much stuff?"
She keeps a small stockpile that will last a few months, or until the next sale comes. When she has an adequate supply of something but finds a deal that is too good to pass up, she'll make the purchase — which often ends up being free with coupons and sales combined — and donate it to a cause, such as a school supply drive.
Regnier has one exception, one item that she stockpiles to what could be considered extreme: toilet paper.
She said that one day, her husband said, "Do you realize that you have 479 rolls of toilet paper in the basement?"
She knew quite well, and she had no problems with it. "Buying toilet paper is like throwing your money away," she said. So, she buys as much toilet paper as she can for as little as possible.
Spending as little as possible is what she strives for on most items — Regnier said she's not brand loyal or store loyal. She just looks for the best deals and shops where the deals are. Often, though, those deals occur at the same places repeatedly. And often, that place is a Walgreens in O'Fallon, where Regnier is a familiar face.
"I'm like the Norm of Walgreens, like Norm from 'Cheers,'" Regnier said.
She might have a reputation for frequent visits and a stack of coupons, but she strives to keep a reputation of courtesy — so do most couponers she knows. In real life, they're not like the couponers on TLC.
"That show is creating monsters," Regnier said. "It gives the rest of couponers a bad name."