RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been hearing a lot about billions lately. Now for another kind of currency: coupons. Americans redeem about $3 billion worth of coupons every year, and that figure rises when the economy falters. Until a few months ago, Erin Gifford, who's a mother of three, a working mother of three, just dabbled in coupons when she went grocery shopping. Then she got serious and cut her food bill in half. Gifford schooled NPR's Yuki Noguchi on how to save a buck, or several thousand.
YUKI NOGUCHI: As far as Erin Gifford's concerned, paying full price for anything is for suckers.
Ms. ERIN GIFFORD (Blogger, Couponcravings.com): Toothpaste. Toothpaste is what I'm telling you. You should never actually pay for toothpaste. I always get free toothpaste using coupons. Jell-O, again, I got this for free because...
NOGUCHI: We're sitting on her sofa in Ashburn, Virginia, going through about a hundred items she recently got free with coupons: Bic pens, French's Mustard, Windex, Pasta-Roni. While most shoppers groan over their food bills, Gifford has made a sport of saving.
Ms. GIFFORD: And once I got really into that, it just felt more like a game. And it was just exciting to be able to figure out where I could get the best deals using the coupons, and when they double, and even getting a lot of stuff for free.
NOGUCHI: She now saves $500 a month. She says it's key to have a strategy, which means layering on the savings. So, as an example, here's an ideal scenario. Let's say a store is running a special on tin foil. On top of that, you have a coupon which the store then doubles.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
NOGUCHI: Jackpot. Gifford loves recounting tales of conquest like this.
Ms. GIFFORD: So I had 20 75-cent-off coupons which double at Harris Teeter, so I was getting a $1.50 off every $1 toothbrush. So basically, I was getting 50 cents back for every toothbrush I bought. The cashier just could not believe it. She said, I can't believe it, you saved over $30. I said, that's right, coupons.
NOGUCHI: Gifford is a font of money-saving tips. She says, shop Sundays when sales usually start so that items don't sell out. Also, to save time, sort coupons by store and check blogs like couponmom.com, or moneysavingmom.com, or her own couponcravings.com. Matthew Tilley is with CMS Research. He says when the going gets tough, the tough starts shopping with coupons.
Mr. MATTHEW TILLEY (Director of Marketing, CMS Research): And it's almost eerie and surprising how much it corresponds between that increase in unemployment and the increase in coupon use.
NOGUCHI: And so, after years of declines, last year coupons started holding steady. Erin Gifford is proud of her system. She sorts newspaper inserts in folders labeled by week.
Ms. GIFFORD: And then to kind of fill in whenever I'm putting my grocery list together, I'll go online to coupons.com, to smartsource.com. These are great Web sites that offer printable coupons.
NOGUCHI: But beware. Serious couponing will change how you shop. You'll buy things by the dozen because of some killer deal, and you'll become like your own Wal-Mart, creating an inventory of things that require storage. Gifford uses her basement.
Ms. GIFFORD: I've got a lot of ketchup right now because ketchup was on sale over the summer.
NOGUCHI: So, you have eight bottles of ketchup here?
Ms. GIFFORD: Exactly. Eight bottles - actually, I think I've got four more.
NOGUCHI: Eight bottles or more of 36 ounce ketchup.
Ms. GIFFORD: Right. And like I said, I used to get this - like the 64 ounce size. But, you know, by ounce it was actually cheaper when this was on sale.
NOGUCHI: At this point, I'm starting to realize just how much money I've been throwing away, and apparently missing out on all kinds of excitement.
Ms. GIFFORD: Definitely the thrill is getting it for so cheap. The thrill is, you know, this box of Fruity Cheerios, everyday price is $3.49, and to be able to get it for 25 cents, that's amazing.
NOGUCHI: Well, OK. If it's so amazing, I need to see the mistress of coupons in action. Gifford puts her game face on, starts the car, and we're off to Walgreens. First, she grabs a basket and a flyer about this week's sale. Matching her coupons against items on the flyer, she grabs three cans of Gillette Shave Gel and three bottles of Pantene hair products. Visine eye drops are a dollar more than anticipated, which is a small setback. Then, she gets Excedrin Migraine, not because she gets migraines, but because she has a coupon for it. And then we come to the Crest Pro-Health Toothpaste.
Ms. GIFFORD: This is $2.99, and then I have a dollar-off coupon, so I'll pay $1.99. But then, it has rebates, so I'll get back $2.99. So I get the toothpaste for free, and now I'll get a dollar back.
NOGUCHI: She considers, then shelves the dish detergent. There's a better deal at CVS tomorrow. And then we belly up to checkout.
Ms. GIFFORD: A dollar off the Crest, $2 off...
NOGUCHI: And now a moment of truth. The total comes to $30.88, but after scanning the coupons...
Unidentified Cashier: $12.38.
NOGUCHI: That's $12.38 before an additional $10 in rebates.
Ms. GIFFORD: So all of that for $2.38. It's good stuff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NOGUCHI: Erin Gifford estimates she'll save $6,000 this year, more than enough to pay for the family's vacation to Disney World. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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