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How low can they go? Coupon-clippers share strategies to save big

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You know you're talking to a serious bargain shopper when they use "coupon" as a verb.

For instance, Carmella Dinardo acknowledges that while one household probably doesn't need 15 bottles of stain remover, she got them for just 12 cents apiece -- free actually, if you don't count the sales tax.

"I have been extreme couponing for over a year now and have grown a stockpile that most stores would be jealous of," says the 24-year-old Winnipegger, who lives with her fiancé and two roommates.

And when the pile gets "massive," it gets divvied up, because "I coupon for four families," says the travel agent, who is so well-known at her local Walmart where they'll sometimes set up a cash register just for her.

In case the adjective "extreme" wasn't clue enough, couponing is not your grandma's scene anymore.

Dinardo is among a new breed of bargain hunter that has turned dollar stretching into a competitive sport. Rather than simply knock a few cents off a tube of toothpaste, these folks seek out new and creative ways to "maximize" coupons to get the most stuff for the least amount of money -- ideally, none.

They scan couponing websites and blogs, join online groups and subscribe to mailing lists and retailers' newsletters to get sales notifications, rebates, promotional offers and coupons sent to their mailboxes -- virtual and otherwise.

They also clip coupons from newspapers, flyers and magazines, swap them with other savvy shoppers and visit multiple stores to get the sweetest deal, just like grandma.

Your gran, however, may not have gotten quite the same adrenaline rush as Terri Makowski, 30, did last fall when bottles of 36-cent laundry detergent ($2.99 sale price minus $3 manufacturer's coupon plus sales tax) got her hooked on couponing.

"When I got my first mega-deal with the laundry detergent, I yelled out to my brother, who was helping me carry them, 'Start the car!' says the full-time server. "It was definitely a super thrill first starting out because it felt like I just stole something out of the store, but of course I didn't."

 

The only bigger buzz, she says, is when you actually walk out of the store with more money than you came in with. This is called "overage" and occurs when the value of your coupon exceeds the purchase price of the item. If, for example, you have a coupon for $2 off a particular brand of shampoo and you find that brand on sale for $1.49, the 51-cent difference would be considered overage. (Store policies vary as to whether you can actually get cash back or apply it to other purchases.)

In less than a year, Makowski says she has saved hundreds of dollars on everything from dish soap to cat food to granola bars. Like most extreme couponers, she buys in bulk and figures she has enough shampoo and toiletries to see her through the next few years. Now, the idea of paying full price for everyday items actually "sickens" her a bit.

But Makowski, who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment, says she's not as extreme as some of the couponers featured on the TLC reality show Extreme Couponing, who end up with 1,000 tubes of toothpaste or a 40-year supply of toilet paper.

While she and Dinardo, along with fellow couponer Jenna Schwark, agree that couponing can be addictive, the frugal Winnipeggers say that unlike many of the shoppers on the show, they know where to draw the line.

"I don't hoard," says Schwark, 25, who started couponing four years ago. "If I get a bunch of stuff I don't need, it gets donated."

According to one member of For the Love of Coupons, a Winnipeg-based online couponing group, the TLC show promotes unethical couponing, where shoppers will clear shelves entirely of hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of product.

"I feel it is taking advantage of the manufacturer when people extreme coupon in the ways that are shown on the show," the couponer, who wished to remain anonymous, writes in an email. "Manufacturers aren't stupid, and at some point the couponing game could come to an end once they realize how abused it's getting."

All of the couponers interviewed said they're well aware that their passion for parsimony is not always appreciated by their fellow shoppers.

"People will either give you a dirty look or they'll be huffing and puffing and stomping their feet because you're taking a couple of extra minutes," says Makowski, who always keeps her coupon binder in her car.

The generally accepted etiquette is that you warn the folks behind you before you open said binder so they can either move to another register -- or stay to watch and learn, as Makowski says is often the case.

"People may have watched the show Extreme Couponing and they get a kick out of watching me use all these coupons in one transaction. Some people are really impressed and they'll ask for advice."

It's a myth, Makowski says, that all couponers are penny pinchers who are living paycheque to paycheque. More often than not, she says, they're just trying to be smart shoppers.

Dinardo, who became an extreme shopper after getting laid off from her job as a flight attendant 14 months ago, estimates she's saved around $13,000 in that time. That includes the $1,300 she shaved off the cost of her washer and dryer by price-matching. (She took a sale flyer from one store to another, and the latter matched the sale price and took an extra 13 per cent off.)

And while she initially put in "more time than a full-time job" to learn prices, organize her coupons and drive around to multiple stores, Dinardo now has her system down to a couple of hours per week.

"Saving is just kind of what we do now," she says. "I don't even really think about it.

"But it is difficult to look at something and know that at full price it might be $5.99, but I can get it for free."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2012 D1

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Updated on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 9:27 AM CDT: Fixed cutlines.

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