When it comes to saving money, Melody Baez doesn't head for the stores without scanning advertising circulars or clipping coupons for deals on the items she needs.
"Each weekend, I buy the Sunday papers on Saturday," said Baez of north Fort Worth. "I cut the coupons and place them in my three-ring binder. I do my meal plan to identify all of the items that I need for the entire week and look through the grocery ads."
She estimates that her diligence saves her family about $100 a week.
Baez is among the throngs of shoppers who consider themselves hard-core couponers -- but not, as they say, crazy, hoarding "extreme couponers" popularized in recent years on the TLC program by that name.
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Coupons have been around for 125 years -- Asa Candler gets credit for offering customers a deal on his new product, Coca-Cola -- but in recent years, reality-TV shows and bloggers sharing advice on how to leverage your grocery dollars have taken couponing into the economic vernacular.
According to recent studies done by RedPlum and Valpak, a households with an income of $100,000 is twice as likely as one with an income of $35,000 to use coupons. Those coupon-clippers are also more often than not college-educated. Even if a windfall such as winning the lottery were to come to them, 96 percent said that they would keep on clipping. And 23 percent of coupon users save $50 or more each week.
Although fewer grocery stores offer to double and triple coupons, and some have tightened restrictions on "stacking" the deals, modern-day, post-recession couponers say you can still save significant amounts of money if you're creative, strategic and patient.
Here are five important rules they follow.
Rule 1: Shop around
Though Baez primarily shops for groceries at Wal-Mart, she gets the savings from other stores because Wal-Mart will price-match any store circular.
"I identify any products that will be cheaper than what Wal-Mart charges for the item. These are my price matches," she says. "Then I look though my coupon binder to identify the items that can also use a coupon. After my Wal-Mart shopping trip, I stop at Aldi to get the items that have a lower store-brand price than Wal-Mart without a coupon."
Know which stores will price-match or honor other stores' coupons, the experts say. For example, Buy Buy Baby is owned by the same company as Bed Bath & Beyond and will honor the home-goods store's coupons, which can come in handy, especially for new parents who need to buy lots of baby food, diapers and other supplies.
Some liquor stores say they'll match their local competitors' prices.
Shopping from a variety of resources rather than one-stop-shopping is a way of life now for many budget-minded consumers.
Sarah Falk of Grapevine gets the most for her money by shopping around. "I shop at a variety of places -- Kroger, Tom Thumb, Wal-Mart. I also buy in bulk from Costco and online from stores like Amazon," she says. "I'm also exploring different co-ops like Bountiful Baskets and other places that offer locally grown produce. I typically get my meat from a co-op that buys organic grass-fed meat from a local farmer or from Costco."
Rule 2: Combine deals
Baez shops at CVS and Walgreens for toiletries and other nonfood items. On Saturday evening, she checks online for deals and coupons posted for those stores.
"These are the items that offer ExtraCare bucks at CVS or Register Rewards at Walgreens so that I can in turn use them on my subsequent visit." Both stores' rewards are coupons advertised in the weekly circular and printed at the register when a certain item is purchased. These are good on any future purchase and have an expiration date of about a month.
Although some rewards are earned through purchases, CVS will print a variety of coupons at the register when a shopper scans his or her reward card. These rewards may also print on the receipt.
"I use the CVS ExtraCare coupons that I get on my receipts with my loyalty card frequently," said Amanda Ray of Dallas. "Sometimes it's 25 percent off an entire purchase, and other times it has been, like, a straight dollar amount -- $10 to $25 every now and then."
Registering loyalty cards online often means you'll get store coupons sent in the mail, through e-mail or loaded onto your card electronically. Combining these with manufacturers' coupons can mean you'll score a great deal.
If you're on the Web, don't stop there.
"Many companies have e-mail newsletters to sign up for online on their websites. Often they will include links to members-only coupons in them because they know you're a customer that loves their product," writes Lea Ann Stundins on her blog Mommy's Wish List (mommyswishlist.blogspot.com). Another online tip of hers?
"Look up all your favorite brands online, and send them a note telling them how much you love their product," she writes. "Consumer Affairs e-mails are not just for complaints but also for compliments. Ask if you can be put on their coupon mailing list. Write them a handwritten thank-you note, and more than likely, they'll send you some great coupons. It's worked for me!"
Rule 3: Think long term
"Shopping strategically is a way of life, but I'm not your typical frugal person," said Stundins. "I wear designer clothes. I eat seared scallops and drink Italian coffee. I go to gallery openings and have an iPad. I shopped strategically for all of those things.... I figured out how to get them for cheap."
Stundins said she thinks long term when shopping. "I don't think of a weekly budget at all anymore. It's more 'What do I need or will use this year?' Then I have a broad view and can buy in bulk," she said. "One week it might be all meat that I buy, the next week all clothing. I buy birthday and Christmas gifts all year long and school uniforms at the end of the season, only on clearance and a size bigger."
But you don't have to think too long term.
Rachel Holland, a local mom who started couponing to help ease the pinch on the family's budget a few years ago, advises on her website, Surviving the Stores (www.survivingthestores.com), that a "stockpile" does not have to mean an entire a room of extra stuff.
In a section of her blog called "20 tips for surviving the stores through couponing," she advises that "the idea behind stockpiling is this: Buy the products you use when the price is at its lowest, and buy enough to last you until the price gets that low again," she writes. "Sales cycles can be anywhere from around 3 months (most are 3 months) to 1 year (for seasonal items like school supplies and turkeys)."
Rule 4: Prioritize
"The other thing is that I prioritize," says Stundins of Mommy's Wish List. "I figure out how to not spend money on some things so that I do have money to spend on other things. I like to patronize my local neighborhood businesses. So if I can save $100 on groceries or school clothes, then I have a little money to go to my locally owned restaurant for lunch."
Laura Thornquist, a mom of two who became a bargain hunter when she and her husband both experienced job losses and who now blogs as My DFW Mommy (www.mydallasmommy.com), says, "Find the items that cost you the most -- diapers, meat, clothing -- and focus on cutting those costs first. Shop smart. If you know you'll need a Christmas dress for next year, buy one on closeout the year prior."
Holland says that eating healthfully can still happen even if you coupon.
"I promise that couponing can be easy, can take less than an hour a week, and you DON'T have to eat junk," she writes.
The success of Holland's budgeting skills and the popularity of her blog were tempered when, in 2010, her husband was laid off from his job. "We really had to rely on couponing and eating from our pantry, freezer and stockpile to make it through," she said.
Rule 5: Make it a family lifestyle
In a survey by RedPlum, 56 percent of respondents with children ages 13 to 17 said that their teens use coupons or online coupon codes when shopping. Couponing, for many families, is a way of life.
Holland's Surviving the Stores has become so popular that she and her husband are expanding it to include local coupon classes. "We are going to provide all of the information that we wish we would've known when we started out on our couponing journey to survive the stores," she said. "We will be covering topics like how to beat the marketing gimmicks and traps at the supermarket, strategic couponing in a very realistic way with limited time, and how to menu-plan with a busy schedule to keep your sanity and budget in check."
Profits from their classes benefit the North Texas Food Bank with financial and canned good donations.
Thornquist, who makes regular appearances on WFAA/Channel 8's Daybreak, says that the real savings come from doing more than clipping coupons. "People are learning it's not just about a coupon. It's a lifestyle," she says. "It's not just me -- kids are adopting this type of spending as well. I have spoken at more than a dozen schools, teaching students how to spend money wisely on the fad items they want. They can still get them; they just need to learn patience."