Coupons Make A Comeback Amid Downturn

There's no doubt about it: Being thrifty is trendy again — and coupons are back. Ever since the recession hit, people have been reaching for their Sunday newspapers and clipping away like mad. Coupon redemptions grew by 27 percent in 2009, and for the first time in a calendar year, Coupons.com surpassed a billion dollars in printed coupon savings.

And then there's the new generation of coupon users — the younger, more affluent crowd who are flocking to social buying sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Even though digital coupons are growing at a faster rate than newspaper coupons, the old-fashioned way is still the most popular.

The revival of the coupon, in all of its forms, will no doubt be evident this holiday season. Retailers are trying to keep the shopping momentum going after Black Friday — when hordes of shoppers showed up at stores at 3 a.m. in search of a bargain. Analysts forecast this to be the best holiday season in three years, and customers are already preparing to search for more deals this Cyber Monday.

But if you're going to save money using coupons in the long run, there's lingo to learn and shopping strategies to master. That's where coupon classes come in.

A Coupon Craze

A few years ago, Kelly Thompson and Kasey Trenum would clip coupons and stuff them in their purses, never to be seen again.

"I would use them here and there, but honestly, I had that mindset of, 'OK, I saved $1.50, woo-hoo.' What was the big deal behind it?" Thompson tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Audie Cornish.

Then the housing bubble burst. Both families owned properties that they couldn't sell and were forced to come up with ways to save money fast.

Thompson and Trenum were desperate, so they turned to coupons. They started studying sales cycles and coupon websites, and to their surprise, they began attracting crowds at the checkout counters after they'd walk out fully stocked without spending more than a few dollars. Today, the two Tennessee women run the website Time 2 Save and teach coupon classes.

Thompson explains that most people are familiar with some coupon lingo, but she says if we really want to save money with coupons, we have to understand the fine print.

"For instance, a BOGO — people are like, what is a BOGO? That stands for Buy One, Get One. And that's a sale that most people are familiar with ... but actually in the grocery store the price is split in two, so whenever you buy one, you can actually put a coupon with both of those items, and that doubles your savings," she explains.

That coupon lingo is just a part of what Thompson and Trenum now teach in their coupon classes. And those classes aren't just for the stereotypical coupon cutter.

"I would have thought it would have been stay-at-home moms [that showed up], but I have been very surprised and learned something — everybody eats. So really, our audience is everyone because there is no one right now that doesn't want an opportunity to contribute back to their household," Trenum says.

America: A Frugal Nation?

Coupons are nothing new in America. The first ones were published in 1887 for Coca-Cola. Businessman Asa Candler purchased the formula for the drink and decided to try using paper tickets for free glasses of Coke to get customers to try the new beverage.

"His strategy apparently worked, because within a few years, Coke was available in every state of the nation," author Lauren Weber tells Cornish.

Weber, who wrote a book about living cheaply called In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, says coupons have gone in and out of style over the past century.

"But they really gained in popularity during the Depression," she says. "People were looking for every way they could to save money, [and] at the same time stores and manufacturers were looking for every way they could possibly get consumers to part with their money."

Since then, coupon popularity has wavered, but it has gone up significantly since the recession hit.

"They're finding new and innovative ways to encourage people to use [coupons], and I think we'll see that continue," Weber says.

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