Cut your food bills with a sharp pair of scissors

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Everyone who clips coupons has heard the stories: savings of $30, even $40 on grocery bills. Well shoppers, I just found your role model. Her name's Lisa Feerick and she's clipped bales of coupons for products from tiramisu to toothpaste, soap to Shinola.

It all started as a fun activity, helping her mother clip coupons in the late 1970s in Millbrook, N.Y.

"It was one of those fun mother-daughter things," she says. And besides, "We were going through a little bit of a recession .... It was the only way to survive."

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Soon, Ms. Feerick was saving wads of money, and what started as a hobby, turned into an obsession. She traded coupons with people across the country. She also subscribed to several couponing magazines. With her savings, she bought a prom gown and record albums. She recalls she once piled two grocery carts full of goods that could have cost her between $300 and $400. The actual bill: a scant $52.

"My teenage friends thought I was insane," says Feerick.

But her thriftiness turned into a way of life so profitable that by the time she reached college she had saved enough to help pay her way through.

And she is still clipping. These days she estimates she saves $125 each month.

She's not alone. According to NuWorld Marketing, a coupon-processing company, 81 percent of Americans use coupons for grocery shopping, including 75 percent of men. A total of 249 billion coupons were circulated by packaged- goods marketers to US consumers in 1998. Of those, 4.8 billion were redeemed.

With more precise marketing techniques that can identify specific demographics, advertisers are directing certain advertisements to particular houses, which is causing more consumers to use them. But there's a downside. Consumers are having to buy more products to get their savings. Nearly 22 percent of all coupons circulated can be redeemed only with multiple purchases. The majority of those are grocery products (25 percent) followed by health and beauty items (9.5 percent).

Cyndi McIntyre also knows how to sniff out a bargain. She was so frugal, she used to make her own soap in a blender. After clipping hundreds of coupons out of the Sunday paper and routinely purchasing products that weren't saving her money, Ms. McIntyre turned to what she calls "guerrilla couponing tactics."

Here's how it works: She clips coupons of the things she really needs. She judges products on a simple premise: "If it were free, would I get it?" The next step is to go through the ads and evaluate what is on sale.

"Most people who go to the store and have clipped coupons say, 'This is stupid. I'm not saving any money,' " says McIntyre. That isn't true if people understand how to use coupons, she stresses. Recently, she bought four tubes of toothpaste, regularly priced at $3.99 a tube. She had coupons for 75 cents off, the store tripled each coupon, and the toothpaste was also on sale. The result: The store paid her a quarter.

McIntyre is passing her consumer savvy on to her 12-year-old daughter. When the two go shopping for school lunches, you can almost hear the saved money piling up.

"I'm not going to spend $3.99 on 12 of those little things of snacks," says McIntyre. "[My daughter] says, 'If I can get a coupon on it and triple it, can I buy it?' I say yes."

In the past few years, traditional newspaper coupons have gained competition: cyber-coupons. After the first coupons appeared on the Internet in 1995, hundreds of Web sites popped up to let people print out coupons from their home computers. Charles Brown, marketing vice president at NCH, says the number of coupons distributed on the Internet increased 10-fold in 1998. But he points out there is no danger of them taking over the Sunday morning newspaper coupons-and-cereal rituals that are part of many Americans routine. But Rodney Hamp, owner of the GroceryCard Network, an online coupon source, doesn't see most sites as especially valuable to consumers. "With printable [Internet] coupons, the selection is so minimal," he says.

McIntyre agrees. She says most internet sites advertise non-manufacturer coupons, and often these products are not on sale.

"It's wasting my time," she says. "None of these [Internet coupon items] are on sale. You have to act responsibly. You can't assume you are getting 25 cents off Windex if there is a $2 generic bottle."

Will cyber-coupons eventually overtake those in newspapers? "I bet they will eventually," says Mr. Hamp. But for now, "many people buy the Sunday paper just to get the coupons."

You don't need to tell McIntyre. "Throwing a coupon out is the same as throwing money out," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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