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COUPON QUEEN: Saving money without the extremes

I've gotten an extreme earful about extreme couponing in recent weeks. Some samples from my inbox:

• "Please tell me how to learn extreme couponing as fast as possible. I need to learn and get started right now, because money is tight."

• "A woman in my area is teaching an extreme couponing class for $54. I have no idea what she teaches until I pay the money. Is it worth it?"

• "I bought an e-book that guaranteed I would learn extreme couponing. I paid to download and print out their information. It was 23 double-spaced pages that should have fit on five pieces of paper. It basically said clip coupons and take them to the store. No useful information at all. What a scam."

There's no arguing that coupons are a hot topic. I received more than 10,000 e-mails last month from people essentially asking the same questions: How can I learn to save with coupons?

Unfortunately, web sites and workshops are popping up all over promising to teach the "secrets of Extreme Couponing," usually for a hefty fee. But there are no secrets to using coupons, certainly not ones anyone should pay large amounts of money for.

In the past few weeks, I've discussed some of the distortions on display in the outsize shopping trips lionized on the TV show "Extreme Couponing." Using large numbers of coupons to purchase any, random, low-priced item at the supermarket can add up to an impressive shopping trip … that anyone can do.

The more modest goal of most coupon shoppers, however, is to cut their grocery bills consistently each week. Using coupons wisely, you'll have great weeks in which you take many products home free, and weeks where you may spend close to what you did before. But for that money, you'll also buy larger quantities of items, building a stockpile to last until the next great sale.

So how do you start? Begin defining your goals. Getting everything free is, unfortunately, not realistic. Cutting your grocery bill an average of 50 to 70 percent each week? This is a better, achievable goal.

Here are some other goals of mine: Not to spend more than one hour a week planning a shopping trip. Not to devote an enormous amount of living space to housing my grocery stockpile. I keep plastic shelving units in my basement to store my stockpile. I don't devote an entire room to my stockpile, as some "Extreme Couponing" shoppers did.

In my weekly column, I've shared many techniques required to save significantly using coupons. Learn about the constantly rotating price cycles in your store. Recognize low sale prices when you see them. Match your highest-value coupons to those "best" sales. Stocking up in moderation is key, too. If pasta sauce regularly sells for $2.99, but this week, it's on sale for 99 cents, common sense tells you that it's time to buy more than one jar. Even without any coupons, buying three will cost you $2.97. You'll pay about what you would have paid for one jar, but you take home three!

Anyone can learn and use these concepts. I've long said that I can teach this to anyone in an hour. That belief is also what led me to launch my series of free Super-Couponing workshops and this column. Having an experienced shopper explain everything in a way that's fun and easy to understand can be instrumental in learning how to save big with coupons. The techniques you learn you can use forever.

I teach couponing as often as possible and the audiences seem to get larger the day. I continue to be committed to helping others learn to cut their grocery bills with coupons. People should not have to pay ridiculous sums of money to learn how to save money.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.jillcataldo.com. E-mail your own c.