If you're ever in a checkout line in front of Cassie Howard buying Palmolive at regular price, know that you're causing her mental anguish. Ms. Howard, a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom in Mississauga, Ont., would never purchase dish soap at full price. Not that she has to ever buy it ever again.
She has more than 200 bottles in her basement. She also has 53 bottles of laundry detergent and 37 packages of pasta. The total value of her stockpile is thousands of dollars more than what she paid, all thanks to coupons.
Think she could star in the new TLC program Extreme Couponing? Ms. Howard would like to pass on that dubious honour.
The show captures Americans who go dumpster diving for coupons and have enormous stockpiles, some of which contain 1,500 sticks of deodorant. After the show premiered, Ms. Howard and other couponing aficionados complained online that it projected an unflattering image of the couponer as a hoarder, a cheapskate and an unhealthy eater.
In reality, Ms. Howard and her coupon-clipping brethren say they just want to save cash. They donate their surplus goods to charity, they don't spend all their time clipping coupons and they eat balanced meals. The recession sparked a couponing movement online, where deal-seekers proudly traded saving secrets. But even after the economy recovered, the practice continued. It's been taken up by many middle-class shoppers including those outside the frugal mom demographic.
Much of Ms. Howard's savings come from her mastery of the system. You can't "stack" coupons (use multiples on one item) in Canada, but there are still great deals to be had.
Ms. Howard gets coupons in the mail almost daily through various websites.
Redflagdeals.com, a site that highlights shopping deals, attracts more than 2.2 million unique visitors a month and features a daily coupon roundup. Derek Szeto, its Toronto-based founder, says many manufacturers now offer coupons through their Facebook pages and web-to-mail services. It's much easier to get coupons now than a decade ago, he says.
Ms. Howard previews new flyers online, plans the week's menu and cross-references the week's sales with coupons on file. On her grocery run, she'll usually warn the customers in line behind her that they might want to find a different checkout, because she'll have at least a dozen coupons.
"They won't leave and I take a while and I can hear them huffing and puffing behind me," she says.
The savings on her receipts make it all worth it . She proudly posts photos of her grocery hauls to her website, mrsjanuary.com, along with how much she's saved.
Coupon stigma is something that Dilip Soman, a professor of marketing and strategy at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, says prevents most people from regularly using coupons. He estimates only 2 per cent of shoppers qualify as "compulsive couponers." Most use coupons sporadically and then another 30 per cent avoid them due to time restraints or shame.
"There's the embarrassment of holding up the queue. People value [that]more than being seen as cheapos," he says.
Deanna Marcy, a 35-year-old mother of two in Cambridge, Ont., shops on Wednesday nights - when her local grocery stores are almost empty - to avoid the withering stares from other customers.
Still, she sometimes endures the wrath of impatient cashiers who refuse to scan her coupons.
"I have said to cashiers, 'That's fine I'll stand in line for the next 10 minutes and hold up your line.' " Ms. Marcy usually wins the standoff.
She spends about $70 to $100 each week buying groceries for her family, thanks to the $25 worth of coupons she usually uses. She'd spend even less if she filled her grocery cart with frozen, preservative-laden foods (there's no shortage of Stouffers or Chef Boyardee coupons out there), but she prefers buying fresh meat and produce directly from farmers, which she freezes and keeps to last through the winter.
For discount seekers, even more cringe-worthy than the stereotype of the couponer as a canned-soup junkie is that of the couponer as a selfish miser, only interested in getting deals for himself at the expense of others.
Lina Zussino, says it wouldn't even be possible to use all the coupons she comes across each week. Storage is limited in her 60 square-metre Victoria condo: She has bags of flour tucked under her bed, 3-litre bottles of olive oil stored above the microwave and the hall closet is brimming with personal care products.
"It's hard to be able to have a nice pile - we don't actually need all that stuff anyway," Ms. Zussino, a 36-year-old mortgage broker, says. And so, she and her husband Steve spread the wealth.
They're members of several "coupon trains" - groups that pass around big bags of coupons to share savings.
Once you receive the bag, which is filled with hundreds of coupons, you can take ones that interest you. You then replace the ones you've pulled from the stash with coupons you've clipped but don't plan on using. You then pass the bag on to the next person on the list.
There are times when she can't resist using coupons for goods she won't use, so she regularly sends non-perishable food and personal care products to local charities and women's shelters.
"If we buy five deodorants, we'll keep one and give the rest out."
Back in Mississauga, Ms. Howard nabs so much food and personal care products for free that she has an employee from her local food bank stop by her house once a month to pick up goods.
"Whatever didn't fit in my house I would just donate it. There's no sense to hoard it all, because then I can't find it," she says.
TIPS FOR THE COUPONER
Newspaper inserts aren't the only places you'll find coupons. Websites such as RedFlagDeals.com and Flyerland.ca compile coupons. You can also find them in stores where products are displayed and sometimes on product packages themselves. Because many stores don't accept coupons that have been printed online, some companies offer web-to-mail coupons ( http://www.save.ca and http://www.brandsaver.ca are two of the big ones).
Understand the fine print on coupons
Holding up a line of customers to argue with a cashier about how you can use your coupon is frustrating, so understand what the fine print on a coupon means before you try to use it. "Limit one per purchase" actually means "Limit one per item." If you have three coupons for milk, you can buy three cartons. As Mississauga, Ont. couponer Cassie Howard suggests, point to an individual item and say, "This is a purchase" and then point to everything you're buying and say, "This is a transaction." Always check the expiration date on the coupon before you try and use it - there's no point holding up the line if you're in the wrong.
Know the Scanning Code of Practice
Ever heard of the Scanning Code of Practice? You've probably passed by signs advertising it in stores without paying much attention. It's a voluntary code almost all Canadian retailers follow. If an items scans in at a higher price than it's listed for on the shelf, the customer gets it for free. If it's worth more than $10, the customer gets $10 off the purchase price. Unless you have a particularly helpful cashier, the onus is on the customer to mention the code. Lina Zussino, a Victoria couponer, nabbed several turkeys last year for 25 cents because they scanned in at the wrong price.
Ask for price matching
Store X has a sale on laundry detergent, but you don't want to drive all the way there (and nullify your savings by spending gas money). If a nearby store does price matching (Walmart and Canadian Tire both do), bring the other store's flyer to the cashier and ask for a match on the item advertised.
Know the store's policy
If you find that with coupons you can actually get an item for free (with overage), know how the store handles such situations. If you try to use a $4 coupon for an item that's $3.49, that can trip up a cashier. Some stores handle that with a price adjustment so the item rings up as free, while others will actually pay out the overage. For the truly hard-core, Ms. Howard suggests carrying printouts of your favourite stores' coupon policies so you can argue your case more effectively.