Mary Potter Kenyon of Manchester, Iowa, is a coupon queen of long standing. She’s also a writer who studied psychology in college, so she is interested in how people think. All of this has been combined into her new book, Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession, about the history and practice of couponing.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the last 30 years since I’ve been couponing,” she says. These include changes in technology, with smartphone apps; more limits from manufacturers and retailers; and fascination generated by the show “Extreme Couponing.” Despite all the changes, Potter Kenyon sees couponing as a great way to save money.
When Potter Kenyon took up couponing 30 years ago, it was to help support a large, growing family. (She has eight children.) Her intentions were to save money on groceries and take advantage of freebies that would make nice Christmas and birthday presents. She found great success with it, but she also discovered that couponing had a sleazy side back then. For example, many people were maximizing manufacturer rebates through less-than-legal means, such as altering mailing addresses in order to receive more than one rebate. Potter Kenyon says she attended a refunding convention in which there was a cash register available so that people could print out false receipts.
No surprise, the manufacturers caught on. Some people were sent to prison for fraud, and couponing and refunding rules tightened up. She’s seen more changes in recent years after “Extreme Couponing” hit the airwaves, with new limits on how many coupons can be used at once or how many products can be purchased with a coupon. “The manufacturers are trying to figure out the best way to give out coupons. What’s good for the manufacturer is not always good for the consumer,” she says.
For some people, couponing is a way to save money, but Potter Kenyon says that research shows that many people get a real high when they use coupons and see their savings at the register. They are thrilled to see how much they can buy for just a little bit of money. Also, many people have fun trying new products, and some, she says, even enjoy cutting coupons out of the paper or finding them online.
At an extreme, couponing can turn into hoarding behavior, which makes for great TV but a sad life. “You can get so excited by this stuff that you are not saving money,” she says.
Potter Kenyon always found couponing to be fun. She and her late husband used to view their shopping trips as a date. They would drive to a nearby town, see how much money they could save on the items on their list, and then go out to lunch.
Potter Kenyon only uses coupons when they save her money. “If you see a store brand that’s cheaper without a coupon, then buy that,” she says. She also combines shopping trips with other excursions to save time and gasoline.
Potter Kenyon’s best advice? “If you learn that you can use a store coupon on top of a manufacturer’s coupon, you can save a lot of money.” Some people don’t realize that manufacturer’s coupons can be used with store promotions, so they miss out on big savings.
Many people are concerned that coupons favor favor junk food, but Potter Kenyon points out that no one has to buy anything. Also, many good-for-you products are sold with coupons, such as yogurt, and cereal companies often issue coupons good for milk or fruit with purchase.
One of the interesting angles to using coupons, she says, is how shoppers develop a sense of what’s out there. “Once you start getting into couponing, you’ll start spotting them,” she says, of the refunding offers still available. She also makes a point of checking out clearance racks, used bookstores, and thrift shops to see if there are bargains to be had.
“It doesn’t take that much time to clip coupons,” she says. “You don’t even have to be real organized if you have your coupons with you.”
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