I caught up with Heather Clarke just after she got home from a short, choreographed shopping trip to Albertsons.
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What did she buy? Sixteen bottles of Vitamin Water, six boxes of Post Raisin Bran. How much did it cost her? Nothing. She made a $1.58 profit.
Meet Clarke, South Sound coupon clipping guru. She set up her personal coupon clipping center in her Olympia home, teaches coupon classes at the Olympia Community Center and advises consumers via her blog, rainydaysavings.wordpress.com.
I first met Clarke eight years ago when the Alaska native studied communications at Pacific Lutheran University. I didn’t know then that she had just started out as a closet coupon-clipping college student.
“Mostly for toiletries,” she told me the other day. “My parents raised me to work and have my own money to spend and pay for college. I know some people would call me a cheapskate, but I have always tried to make a dollar out of 50 cents.”
She has done much better than that lately.
She pulled out two cash register receipts each as long as an adult’s leg. One showed she spent 45 cents and saved $101.10, mostly on chewing gum and baker’s yeast; on the other she spent $9.92 and saved $184.96 for steamer vegetables, chicken broth, instant milk, organic milk and chewing gum.
“Gum is a staple in our house,” she said.
As the primary shopper in my household, I decided I could learn something from Clarke – how to leverage coupons and rebates to help our family survive the recession.
Apparently, more American consumers than ever have chosen to tap into their inner frugality lately. Nielsen Media Research reported recently that 39 percent more Americans clipped coupons in December than the year before.
In addition, Nielsen research reported this month that while the number of coupon Web sites rose only slightly, from about 21,800 to 23,000 in 2008, the number of consumers checking those Web sites rose 42 percent.
Clarke counts herself a devoted subscriber, for $25 a year, to refundcents.com. For that she gets daily updates on the best coupon deals, plus alerts to upcoming coupon inserts in her favorite daily newspaper. This one. (Self-serving, I know. But true.)
She bought 16 copies of The News Tribune the Sunday before we met, because that particular edition carried an extraordinary wealth of coupon inserts.
Those inserts inspired her moneymaking shopping trip to Albertsons. Here’s how it worked:
• She clipped the coupons for $1 off Vitamin Water. Albertson’s had a sale – Vitamin Water for $1 each. She got the 16 bottles free.
• She had coupons for $1 off Raisin Bran when you buy two boxes. Albertsons, meanwhile, had the cereal on sale for $1.57 per box when you buy two boxes. She also had “doubler” coupons she clipped from the Albertsons advertising insert. By using those to double the value of her original coupons, her six boxes of cereal cost $3.42.
• Then the cash register automatically printed her a coupon worth $5 off her next grocery purchase – given to shoppers who buy five boxes of any Post cereal.
She came out $1.58 ahead.
“Of course, there are levels of excessiveness. … I always try to leave things on the shelf for other people,” she said.
You might not think that from looking at her pantry. The umpteen bottles of salad dressings. The boxes of chicken broth. The display of cereals and canned goods – and chewing gum. And the stockpile of toiletries.
Through a combination of newspaper coupons, store sales, rebates and gift card bonuses, Clarke said, “in December I got $100 of free stuff at Rite Aid. I spent $100, but a month later I got it all back in a rebate check, and we had cough drops and Robitussin (cough and cold medicine) to get through the cold and flu season.”
“I wholeheartedly believe you should never pay out of pocket for toothpaste, razors, shaving cream, a lot of medicines … between coupons and rebate programs, it’s free all the time.”
Clarke stays organized by filing advertising circulars in a red tote bin, filing the clipped coupons in a blue box file, storing restaurant coupons in an envelope she keeps in the car, buying the region-based Entertainment Book of coupons a few months after it comes out so it costs $15 instead of $35, and buying the Chinook Book of coupons (with more organic products) from Marlene’s Market & Deli in Tacoma or Federal Way.
She has six months’ worth of coupons at her fingertips.
“It takes some attention, sure. But I wouldn’t say it takes great brainpower” to become a savvy coupon shopper, Clarke said. “If someone spent 30 minutes at the beginning of the week, they could save themselves a lot of money.”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785
Take a Coupon Class
What: Learn the basics of stretching your budget with coupons and rebates – and how to stay organized doing it.
When: 9:30 a.m. to noon, April 25, or 6 to 8:30 p.m. May 19
Cost: $25 per person
Where: Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. N.W.
Register: Call Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation at 360-753-8380