Strategic Shopping

Cutting costs with coupons

Photo by Jeff Hobson

Heather Clarke has an eagle eye for the word “save” as she peruses the aisles of Safeway. She travels down the store’s labyrinth of stacked foods on a mission to spend close to nothing on groceries. Not distracted by the tempting products that are full price, she adds to her cart. Her strategy? Coupons.

She picks up three packages of Fresh Express spinach, Dannon Greek Yogurt and bananas. When she checks out her balance comes to $12.09. The checker scans her coupons and her Safeway card and the bill drops to $1.59.

She saved 84 percent.

Known throughout the community for her savvy saving skills, Clarke is the master of this discount game, that’s why they call her the Queen Bee. She runs a website on the topic and teaches classes, too.

“Think meals not just deals” she tells her penny-pinching students. Despite typical assumptions that coupons are mainly for junk food, Clarke chooses to save big on healthy and organic foods for her family.

“It’s more than just a sharp pair of scissors and coupons,” she explains. “It’s figuring out the sale and figuring out how it will work for your family in terms of meals and needs.”

Her couponing began when she quit her job at Washington’s Department of Transportation after having her first child so she could stay home with her newborn. This cut her family income by 60 percent. Her solution was cutting coupons.

Through the years she’s become more advanced in strategic shopping, buying everything on sale for herself and starting a blog, With the economy floundering, her blog is buzzing.

“Just in the last year my site traffic has gone up 10 times,” said Clarke. “I think a lot of people are realizing you can get some real substantial savings without a lot of work.”

According to Clarke the key to couponing is thinking ahead. She advises cutting out the coupons you know you’ll use and building a menu plan from what’s on sale. Shop products at rock-bottom prices buying only what you know you’ll need and use a coupon whenever you can. Over time, you can develop a stockpile of items you’ll buy in bulk with a coupon, such as shampoo or chicken broth that you’ll use and store thanks to a long shelf life.

“If you spend an hour to two hours, you can equate at least 20 percent off your grocery bill,” said Clarke.

Couponing can be as simple as a $2 savings on Cheerios and as complex as the stock market. Clarke advises her followers to read the fine print, buy what they can on sale and use some of their saved money on produce or organic products they don’t have coupons for.

Like a game, couponing takes focus and strategy. The better you get, the more you can save. For Clarke, whose skills have saved thousands of dollars, her real jackpot is helping others know the benefits of couponing.

“I love helping people and I’ve heard so many success stories of people struggling financially to get meals on the table,” said Clarke. “Coupons end up being the answer. They’re getting more with less.”

Tips for Getting Started

  1. Subscribe to a newspaper that includes coupons – generally Sunday papers have the most.
  2. Find a website that will do the work for you and highlight the best deals.
  3. Get organized. Go to the dollar store to buy a binder with baseball card pockets to keep your cut out coupons in order.
  4. Start clipping what you really think you’ll buy.
  5. Don’t over-consume. Don’t start buying stuff you don’t need because you’re excited about the deal.
  6. Keep your eye on what’s on sale at the store and stay away from impulse buying.
  7. Don’t get discouraged. Even if you’re only saving $5 a week, every little bit makes a difference!

There are two kinds of coupons, store coupons and manufacturer’s coupons. You can find these in the newspaper and on the web. The kind of coupon is labeled at the top.

Items You Should Never Pay Full Price For

  • Toothpaste
  • Office supplies
  • Cereal
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo
is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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