A few weeks ago, I bought 56 tubes of toothpaste, 43 cans of shaving cream and 35 bottles of liquid hand soap. Not that I need 56 tubes of toothpaste, 43 cans of shaving cream and 35 bottles of liquid hand soap, but my favorite local charity does. How much did I spend? Zero. Well, that’s not exactly true. I paid, on average, four to six cents per item in sales tax. And these toiletries were fresh off the grocery store shelves, nothing damaged or expired or recalled.
My trick: coupons. The pay-off: a way to use my money-saving skills to benefit others.
Regardless of the season, we all want to help those in need. Utilizing coupons lets you save money when you shop for yourself and also give any extras to nonprofits working to help the under-served, homeless or less fortunate. Government subsidies do help but toward the end of the month, many families scramble to keep their pantries and refrigerators filled.
And here’s something that may surprise: You can’t use food stamps to buy toiletries, paper products or cleaning supplies. Because there are so many coupons for these types of products, odds are you can gather coupons that enable you to scoop up needed items for pennies on the dollar.
If you’d like to put your couponing skills to work, first locate a charity. Mine is Families First, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse and neglect through parenting support classes and a residential program for children. A ton of folks come to the Families First center, a majority of whom are using some form of food assistance. When money is tight, many families have to ration toilet paper or soap. Up to a dozen children may live on site, and as a Families First staffer told me, “We go through 100 to 200 juice boxes and nutritious snack bars a month.”
Sure, I could just make a donation to the local food bank or Families First. But as a consumer advocate and executive editor of Living on the Cheap, I know how to stretch every shopping dollar and practice what I preach. So if I can gather $2,000 worth of goods per month for $10 and then donate them, I’m going to do so.
I have one big advantage: I live in Denver. Lucky for me (and other residents of the Mile High City), two of our grocery stores, King Soopers (part of Kroger) and Safeway, double coupons up to $1 every day, 365 days a year. And because I’m in a city with a ton of grocery shopping alternatives — Walmart, Target, Albertsons, Sav-a-Lot, Costco and more — the competition is fierce for my grocery dollar.
Here’s my strategy. Each Sunday, I pull all the coupon inserts from my newspaper. I clip any coupon for items that aren’t perishable or really expensive — toiletries, cleaning supplies, canned goods, cereal, snack bars, etc. The manufacturer doesn’t matter. On Sunday afternoon, I also try to find any left over newspapers with extra coupon inserts at local haunts like Starbucks or Panera Bread (folks tend to read the newspaper over coffee and then leave the papers for others to peruse).
Living on the Cheap’s Coupon Insider Bryan K. Chavez has tips for finding secret stashes of coupons. Here in Denver, those of us who subscribe to the Denver Post, also get additional coupon inserts on some Wednesdays and Thursdays. And at the start of each month, I print out coupons from the Living on the Cheap coupon page.
The last weekend of every month, Procter & Gamble issues a coupon insert. While I get mine in the Sunday newspaper, if I’m lucky, the local free community newspapers will have P&G inserts as well. So the day before those papers get trashed, I scoop them up from kiosks, stands and local businesses and nab extra P&G coupons.
Then comes the strategizing and, sometimes, sheer luck. I sit on those coupons until I find a great deal. For example, about every six weeks or so, either Colgate and/or Crest toothpaste is marked down to 99 cents at King Soopers and/or Safeway. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a stash of 50-cent-off toothpaste coupons without restriction. In other words, the coupon says I can buy any variety of that specific brand of toothpaste. Let’s do the math. A 50-cent coupon is doubled to $1. That makes the 99-cent toothpaste free, except for sales tax. That’s when I jump in my car and make my way from one store to another. I play by the rules, so only four “like” coupons can be used in a single purchase. If I’m really lucky, I have my friend Lyn, in tow, so we can buy eight tubes per stop.
Toothpaste is fairly straightforward. But what about that hand soap? Aha! Here’s where you need to really read the fine print on coupons. P&G often has 50-cent coupons for bars of Ivory soap. Usually there’s even a picture of the bars of soap on the coupon. But if you read closely, you’ll see that you can use the coupon for any Ivory soap product including their hand soap in a pump bottle. This soap hides amid other more popular brands like Softsoap or Dial, but to me soap is soap and when its on sale for 99 cents, I’m on it.
Same for the shaving cream. Only in that case I reap the rewards when the store has a buy four get $4 back deal. Usually shaving cream coupons are either $1 or $2 off. During the buy four get $4 promotion, that lowers the price of the shaving cream to 99 cents or $1.99, with coupon savings on top. Other products I can often get for nearly free include deodorant, shampoo, dental floss, mac and cheese, ramen-style meals, paper towels, facial tissue, sanitary products, laundry detergent, cake mix and condiments (mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, etc.).
Not everything I buy is free, but I can often come close. Cereal and snack bars are a good example. Quite often they will go on sale of $1.99 a box and sometimes even less, $1.49 to $1.66 (on Fridays, Safeway often sells a brand of cereal 3 for $5 – that’s $1.66 a box). Use a 50-cents-off one box coupon, double it to $1, and I often pay 50 cents for boxes of name-brand cereal or protein bars.
Another trick: I check out manager’s special shelves and clearance racks at grocery stores, drug stores and stores like Bed Bath & Beyond. My BB&B is one of the larger outlets and carries toiletries in addition to all the linens and kitchen gadgets. About twice a year, Bed Bath & Beyond and similar stores clear shelves in what I term a “product dump.” Basically, a manufacturer, say Clairol or L’Oreal, notifies the store that certain hair dye colors or make-up shades are being discontinued.
Stores then pull the merchandise and slash the prices. When I happen to catch one of these sales, I can get boxes of perfectly good hair color (normally $8 to $10) for $1 to $3. Apply those coupons and again, I’m paying only pennies. Once a puzzled checkout clerk asked me if I was going to try a dozen different “new looks?”
In fact, during one recent shopping venture, I stumbled across a clearance of all sorts of normally expensive makeup, something the women who use Families First services really love. As it so happens, I had a stash of $3 off the purchase of 2 tubes of mascara and $5 off any 2 facial makeup product coupons.
I carefully matched items to coupons and took my purchase to the register. As the clerk started ringing up the order and the coupons, we noticed that an additional store special on makeup (not on sale) was being applied, another $4 off every four items. After ringing up about eight coupons, she turned to me and said, “Now I owe you money.” So we stopped, even though I still had coupons in my hand. She actually gave me 13 cents and I have a register receipt that says I saved 108%.
Of course, you can apply similar couponing tricks to your own shopping. But next time you see a buy-one-get-one free deal or coupon for a product you wouldn’t use but someone else might, consider making the purchase and then giving the extra to those who really need it. That’s a win-win.