WHY spend $3.39 on a box of breakfast cereal when you can get it for 99 cents?
Susan Samtur, ``the coupon queen,'' has asked that kind of question for years. As a self-taught expert in smart shopping and mother of four, her coupon savvy has given her celebrity status. She appears regularly on television, has written several books, including ``Cashing in at the Checkout'' and ``The Super Coupon Shopping System,'' and, with her husband, Steve, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, ``Refundle Bundle.'' Saving has become her science. Mrs. Samtur has been cutting grocery bills in half for the past 20 years.
At the suggestion of a friend, Samtur started collecting coupons and making use of refunds on a regular basis. ``My real purpose was to try to help make ends meet,'' Samtur says during an interview, holding a wad of coupons in one hand and a wad of rebate checks in the other. Soon, she started sharing her system with other people by writing for Family Circle and starting her own newsletter.
Today, she is still perfecting the system while she and Steve publish ``Refundle Bundle'' for 15,000 wanna-be-super-shoppers. ``For large families that shop more often, just detergent and paper goods cost a fortune today,'' Samtur observes.
Studies show that close to 75 percent of households say they use coupons regularly. Others are just Sunday-paper-insert clippers who fill up the kitchen drawer with them and end up with expiration-date disappointment. Some are serious ``super shoppers'' who, like Samtur, use a specific system of coupon-collecting and refunding. ``Some people see that it can be fun. Some people are dependent on it,'' she says. Coupon use crosses economic lines, she adds.
According to NCH Promotional Services, Inc. a coupon clearinghouse outside of Chicago, some 300 billion coupons were distributed in 1993, but only 7 billion coupons were redeemed (2 percent). Distribution was doubling about every five years since 1980.
But last year, distribution declined for the first time since 1970 - mainly because of changes in manufacturers' promotional strategies.
Coupon value has continued to rise, however; the average coupon value has gone from 15 cents in the early 1970s, to 27 cents in 1982, to 59 cents in 1993.
WHAT'S in it for manufacturers?
Plenty, Samtur says. Coupons encourage people to buy a product, serve to introduce new products, or make people loyal to old products.
Samtur illustrates her system with a simple purchase. Take a box of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios that sells in her supermarket for $3.39.
In a newspaper flyer, Samtur noticed a supermarket coupon for $1.40 off. She then looked in her file and found a manufacturer's coupon for $1.00 off. With both coupons, she bought the box for 99 cents - a $2.40 savings. Plus, that particular box offered a free pound of apples with the purchase, so she saved even more.
While combining coupons and looking for hidden savings are important, organization is key, she stresses. ``The thing I probably hear the most is `I cut them out. I put them in my kitchen drawer, and when I go to use them, they're expired.' ''
To those who say they can't be bothered spending the time and effort, Samtur says: Let the numbers speak for themselves. During one recent trip to the grocery store, Samtur bought $122.84-worth of products for only $6.45. ``That's saving,'' she says, showing the long register tape. (Customers are taxed on the full amount, however.)
Do the cashiers dread her handful of coupons? No, Samtur says, because she usually goes to the same checker who is fascinated by the process.
While coupons are the most visual aspect of a super-shopper system, Samtur says the heart of it involves refunding. She averages $80 a month in refund and rebate checks. In 20 years, her refund-check bank account has risen to $35,000 (including interest.) That is going toward college educations for her four sons. (A refund is considered a discount and is tax-free.)
``It's not so much `beating the system' as it is using the system to your advantage,'' Samtur says . ``There are 26,430 opportunities,'' she adds - the typical number of items in a given supermarket.
``Think of coupons as cash,'' Samtur says. You may be surprised at how many you'll want to take to the supermarket next time.