In her past few weeks shopping with coupons, Diane Linn of Greencastle, Pa., got 12 rolls of Bounty paper towels for free and "a ton" of Chinet plates for 50 cents a pack.
She bought four boxes of Kellogg's cereals and a gallon of milk for $2.40, and scored seven Schick Hydro razors each with two cartridges for about $8.
A friend of mine met Diane and learned about her passion for couponing while retaining her services as a physical therapist. Knowing I dabble in coupons and revel in saving a buck, she tipped me off. I promptly tracked Diane down to pick her brain.
Just a couple of years ago, Diane said, she was not the skillful shopper she is today.
"I would buy whatever I wanted to buy. If I was hungry for crab meat, I'd go buy crab meat," she said. "I did coupons, but 18 months or two years ago I started paying attention to what I was doing."
Diane and her husband both used to work full time. When their children, now 3 and 5, were born, she started working part time. Her son was born blind in one eye and required several surgeries. Medical expenses that weren't covered by insurance piled up to about $6,000 the first year and $4,000 the next.
"We couldn't do vacation or anything fun because money for fun things went to that," Diane said. "I thought, 'OK. If I can save money on groceries, maybe we can at least do smaller fun things. Go to Hershey Park for a day, that kind of thing.'"
So she set a goal to lower their grocery bill by a couple hundred dollars a month.
"It took me a while to figure out where to get the best coupons and how to match them up with the best deals," Diane said. "I refused to spend 40 hours a week doing it. I took about two hours a week slowly learning."
To buy all her groceries, including paper products, cleaning supplies and toiletries for a family of four, Diane used to spend between $160 and $200 a week, or up to $800 a month. Now, with more couponing experience under her belt, she spends just $300 to $400 a month.
Diane shops mainly at one grocery store, stopping in at another depending on sales. She frequents one discount retailer and a drugstore that offers good sales and reward dollars. She buys organic fruit, vegetables, meat and milk. While coupons for organics don't abound, she does find them for berries and ground beef.
"Except for organics and meat, there is probably nothing I buy without a coupon anymore," she said.
Diane does not pay for coupons. She signs up as a member on select couponing websites and "likes" them on Facebook. This allows her to check on store sales before fliers are distributed, get coupons and receive information on special deals. She checks newsfeeds on her phone a couple times a day — taking about five minutes — and prints out coupons at night for about 10 minutes.
Most sites allow two prints per computer, she said. If she wants to take advantage of an amazing deal and stock up on a product, she prints from her computer, and well as her husband's and her iPad. Some stores don't require printing coupons, Diane said. Instead, they scan the coupon code from her smart phone. She still clips coupons from newspaper fliers as well, buying a few papers for multiple copies when the deal warrants it.
One of her favorite deals to stock up on is Goldfish Crackers. Every couple of months, a store runs a sale of five bags for $5. She uses multiple 50-cent coupons that are doubled by her grocery store to get 20 bags for free. She stocked her freezer with 40 boxes of Italian ice for which she didn't pay a cent with a similar bargain.
To stay organized and focused, Diane uses a 3-inch binder with baseball card inserts and dividers for 20 sections like canned good and breakfast foods. For big weekly or biweekly shopping, she has this rule: "No kids."
On a recent jaunt to the store, Diane purchased about $30 dollars-worth of items and paid $12.
"Some people aren't satisfied with that. I went with it," she said. "Fifty-some percent is good with me."
Diane said spending a couple of hours per week to reduce the grocery bill has improved her family's quality of life because it's left room to build into the budget fun things like pizza night and movies.
Some of Diane's preferred websites include MoneySavingMom.com, TheKrazyCouponLady.com, CouponDiva.com, ForTheMommas.com and TheThriftyCouple.com.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.