Armed with a stack of coupons, Amanda Ostrowski paid just $51.67 for $1,175.33 worth of groceries on TLC's reality show "Extreme Couponing."
I remember watching that episode and wondering if I could do that. Ostrowski admits that that kind of savings is hard to copy for the average person. "Searching for all the deals is time-consuming," she said.
It took Ostrowski nearly two days of planning and six hours in the store, according to the episode. She walked out with nine shopping carts, including 218 boxes of pasta. I don't have that kind of time. And I will never eat that much ziti.
But I wanted to see if I could at least cut my grocery bills. So I called up Ostrowski and a few other coupon experts to pick their brains. I planned to test out their tips at my local Target store.
When I told Ostrowski I didn't want to spend too much time finding coupons and didn't want to stray too far from my typical grocery list, she gave me a sarcastic response: "Good luck with that!"
Still, here are some tips from the experts that will help you save money even if you don't want to build your life around couponing.
PUT TOGETHER A GROCERY LIST. This will allow you to search out coupons and see if your store has sales on the products before you go shopping.
My list was pretty short: I wanted frozen meals that I can bring to work, diet soda, Wholly Guacamole 100-calorie snack packs, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce, Fiber One cereal and Seventh Generation laundry detergent.
DON'T BE PICKY. To get the biggest savings, you need to be flexible with the brands you buy. "I love French's mustard, but if the store brand is on sale I suck it up and deal with it," Ostrowski said.
But that's not always realistic. I wanted the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce because it has less sugar than other brands (and I think it tastes better), and I have to use Seventh Generation detergent because other ones irritate my skin.
I kept them on my grocery list even though Cathy Yoder and Monica Knight, who run coupon and savings website FabulesslyFrugal.com, suggested I make my own detergent. (I will not be doing that, but the recipe is on the homepage of their website if you're more adventurous.)
FINDING COUPONS. Although you should look through your Sunday newspaper insert, most coupons can be found online. Ostrowski recommends Coupons.com, RedPlum.com, SmartSource.com and CouponNetwork.com.
Over the last six months, manufacturers have been putting more coupons on their Facebook pages, according to Joanie Demer, who runs TheKrazyCouponLady.com and was also on the TLC show (she paid $2.64 for $638.64 in groceries during her episode). To print those coupons, you'll need to "like" the brands on Facebook.
Through Facebook, I found a 75-cent coupon for Fiber One cereal and a $1 coupon for Wholly Guacamole.
There are also several websites that list coupons and deals at certain stores and link to coupons that you can print. I recommend the websites of the people I interviewed (FabulesslyFrugal.com, TheKrazyCouponLady.com and MoneySavingAmanda.com), but also check out ExtremeSavingsWithDivaDesirae.com and MoneySavingMom.com
I found a $3 coupon for 10 Smart Ones frozen meals and a $1.50 coupon for the Seventh Generation detergent through TheKrazyCouponLady.com.
CHECK STORE RULES, COUPONS AND WEEKLY AD. FabulesslyFrugal.com has a pages dedicated to most major grocery stores, from Walmart to Kroger to Whole Foods.
On the Target page, it recommends using the store's debit card to save 5 percent on each transaction (I already have one). Target will also give you 5 cents for each reusable bag you bring (I brought five with me!). And I also learned that Target lets you use coupons that the store issues along with coupons that the manufacturer issued during the same transaction. I found a $3 coupon on Target's website that I planned to pair with the $3 coupon I found through TheKrazyCouponLady.com.
I also looked through Target's weekly ad and saw that it was offering a $5 Target gift card if you buy 10 Smart Ones frozen meals. So I figured I would buy 20 Smart Ones frozen meals, and get $10 in gift cards. I also printed out two copies of the Smart Ones coupons I had found.
Demer said I should break up my purchase into three transactions. Buy the 10 Smart Ones meals first, use the $6 in coupons and get the $5 Target gift card. Then do a separate transaction for the next 10 Smart Ones. Then use the $10 worth of gift cards on the rest of my items.
HOW I DID. I had two setbacks. The Seventh Generation $1.50 coupon was for a different type of detergent that I couldn't use, so I had to pay full price for the one I wanted: $14.19.
When I went to the register and separated my items into three different transactions, I accidentally put 11 boxes of Smart Ones in the first transaction. When the second one rang up, I only had nine, so I had to run to the back of the store to make it an even 10 to get the $5 gift card. (I blame that mistake on me being distracted while I was cutting coupons. Tip: Cut them before you get to the store.)
I also had two unexpected surprises. After buying the first group of Smart Ones, a $3 coupon printed at the register for frozen meals. I used that coupon on the second transaction. And the Fiber One cereal was unexpectedly on sale for $3.64, meaning I would get it for under $3 with my 75-cent coupon.
In all, I paid $53.06 for $82.25 worth of groceries. I saved $29.19, or 35 percent. That includes the $10 in gift cards, the 25 cents for bringing reusable bags, $2.19 for using my Target debit card and $16.75 in coupons.
It took me about 45 minutes to do the research and print the coupons, and I think it was worth it. Couponing should get easier and take less time for the next supermarket trip, Demer said.
"The learning curve with couponing is steep, but short," said Demer. "Once you master a few basic principles, the time you spend planning your shopping trips will drop significantly and you'll be getting a good return on the time you do invest."
Joseph Pisani can be reached at http://twitter.com/josephpisani