Coupon clippers cash in on a growing market

A new kind of capitalist is amassing a new kind of fortune. In kitchen drawers, in old handbags, in shoe boxes a novel paper currency gets hoarded. Cereal box tops. Flour box bottoms. POPs (proofs of purchase) from cookies. UPCs (unified price codes) from razor blades. Labels. Wrappers. Ingredient lists. Cashiers' tapes.

Is the "15 cents off" business worth the trouble? Does filling out all those forms really pay off? Refunders and couponers would bet their margarine wrappers that what has become a $70 billion annual market in this country is worth tapping into. Their purses are bulging with bits and pieces of paper, and they're buying trips to Disney World and Treasury bills with the tax-free money they're making -- they say.

"It cost that meat company $1.35 for my family to eat a $1.35 pound of bacon, " boasts one happy refunder-couponer. "I quadruple-dipped. Used a cash coupon for 35 cents at a store 'doubling' its discounts that week and then got two $1 refunds -- one for the label on the front of the package and another for the label on the back. It was all legal. Doesn't 'making money' make more sense than 'spending it' at the supermarket?" To skeptics she offers free side panels from rice boxes -- six needed for a $1 refund.

Another clipper and sender says she saves 50 percent on her family's weekly groceries. Of course, she has a discarded card catalog from the Library of Congress to house her organized chewing-gum papers and cream cheese front trademarks.

Although detaching the labels of peanut butter jars is a skill still neglected in business colleges, it's an art that those serious about the mushrooming refund-coupon field willingly master. They wet and pick at what the rest of us throw away -- pickle jars, bleach bottles, egg cartons. They whack at cracker containers, perform surgery on cookie boxes, slice gently around the plastic on cooked ham.

Form swapping is not yet taught in the universities either, but it's also an essential facet of the trade. An investor heavy in a portfolio of "cash offs" for coffee wants to exchange with someone holding a lot of soup-can refund forms , for example. It'll be touch and go as she haggles, negotiates, bargains, comes to terms with her comrade in clipping.More than 50 monthly bulletins across the country, local community centers and even regional conventions facilitate these shrewd horse traders' swapping.

Armed with their scissors and their Sunday papers, these women work as diligently as those who sit on the floors of the major stock exchanges.Like the astounding railroad empire builders of the late 19th century and the computer manufacturers of this era, the cutters and mailers are riding a current wave of prosperity.Manufacturers' offerings have more than tripled during the last decade. They are giving discounts and refunds on everything from breath mints to tires to airline tickets.

Like John D. Rockfeller when he was on his way, the hustling pack rats succeeding at this business are going after their wares come rain or shine -- or the garbage collector. If you don't believe it, watch any community dumpster one morning soon. You'll more than likely see a little lady carrying a briefcase as she searches through it, collecting items to be stuffed into a safe in the trunk of her Mercedes -- pretzel box sides, milk cartons, nut roll wrappers.

She doesn't feel undignified in the slightest. Those who will rise to the top must not smirk at the bottom.

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