Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Extreme Couponing Really Worth It?

As moms, most of us would agree that feeding our families (hopefully nutritious) food is one of the most important things we do while raising our children.  Any way we look at it, it is time consuming and in these economic times it is becoming increasingly more and more expensive.  I personally am constantly looking for ways to feed my family more economically. And with four kids, three of whom are adolescent boys (plus the posses of friends they constantly invite over) it is a daunting task.  I go in and out of doing a good job of watching what I spend versus just throwing stuff in the cart and hoping for the best.

An illness, that kept me home bound most of the winter and forced my husband to do the shopping and most of the cooking has seriously gotten our family off track in the arena of eating healthy on a budget.  Couple this with mounting medical bills from the aforementioned illness, and I am forced to reassess my tactics and really hunker down to save my family some money.  I am a stay at home mom and feel strongly that I need to be here for my kids, getting a job is not a viable option for me, so saving money from our preexisting income is my only option and since food is a huge expense for us, I believe starting here is where my energies should be focused.

So, with saving money at the grocery store in mind, I began to watch the new TLC show Extreme Couponing.  I thought I could get some tips from these women and men who have taken coupon clipping to new levels. What I learned instead of ways to save money was that some people have (in my opinion) a pretty skewed way of saving money.  These people are not so much extreme coupon clippers as they are hoarders, albeit neat and organized hoarders, but hoarders nonetheless.  And a bit on the selfish side to boot.  In episode after episode I heard them admiring their stockpiles of more toothpaste and croutons than their families will probably ever use before they expire, showing off stockpiles of diapers and cat food (and they have neither baby nor cat) and gleefully cleaning out store shelves of certain on sale items they have coupons for, never giving a second thought to the fact that someone else may have wanted to save a buck on that product too. They have rooms dedicated to their obsession, hoarding thousands of stacks of coupons.  The amount of excess paper alone almost gave me an eco-anxiety attack. They also showed how they divided their purchases into smaller purchases so as to get around the rules of maximum quantities of items and how to get around the store policy restricting the number of coupons can be doubled or tripled per purchase.  Not to mention they spend, on average 20-30 hours per week clipping coupons and organizing their shopping lists and have maxed out the storage space in their homes.

In watching their purchases being scanned, I noticed  most of the things they purchased were boxed, canned, jarred or otherwise processed.  Most of the personal care items and cleaning supplies they purchased were the toxic, bad for the environment and body varieties that I shun.  While none of these practices are overtly unethical or illegal in any way, their tactics just didn't set well with the way I personally want to live my life.  I believe in consuming less waste, protecting  the planet, finding ways to stretch what I already own and as a rule, I feel like a cheater actively thinking up ways to circumvent rules and store policies.  I can never help thinking that the circumventors are one of the reasons grocery prices are jacked up.  Just a theory, I have no proof. While I don't fault them for doing what they feel they need to do for their own families, it just doesn't set well with me, so, I was going to have to find other ways to save money.

First I went to the grocery store I frequent most.  It happens to be Kroger.  On their website, I set up an account that is linked to my customer savings card,  I then browsed a special selection of coupons reserved for Kroger Plus® card holders.  I then chose some items that I needed and loaded the coupons directly onto my card.  The card, by the way, also wracks up points for cents off of gas.  I routinely save 10 cents a gallon on gas.  A paperless system!  My favorite.  No lost coupons or wasted paper, what could be better?  I then went over to their weekly ad section and assessed what I needed for the week and simply clicked on the items I needed.  I was able to print a list of the items I circled, already grouped in categories, from my computer.  After I added a few items that weren't on sale to my list, I was ready to go.  I bought 46 items, which will last us about a week.  That is 46 items we will actually use to make meals out of this week, not 46 bottles of laundry soap that I can hoard in my garage.  In my cart were fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, bread from the discount (it's still good, folks) rack, dairy products and more.  I spent $130.71.  My total savings was $39.58 with in store discounts and coupons.  I only spent about 45 minutes in the store and less than that preparing at home before I left.  Now, I am sure the extreme couponers would scoff at my piddly little savings of about 23%, but I was happy.  I got what I needed, I saved $39.58 that can be spent elsewhere in our family budget and I only spent about an hour and a half in the process.

Next week I am going to try to obtain more coupons on the things I buy.  I did a Google search for Organic and Natural product coupons and have found some promising looking sites including Mambo Sprouts, Shop at Home  (which requires you to install their toolbar, so that my be a deterrent for some), and I felt I had hit the mother-load when I came across The Thrifty Divas who have an extensive list of clickable links to organic/natural coupon sites.  I haven't checked out all of their links yet, but I plan to soon.  This will admittedly take some time and leg (finger) work to find the sites that suit my needs bests, but I believe it will be time well spent and once the initial time investment it made, I will only have to go to a few websites to capitalize on the coupons savings by printing a few coupons each week.

I will probably never walk out of the store with $500.00 worth of stuff that I only paid $10.00 for and that is really not my goal.  My goal is twofold - save as much money as I can while feeding my family a healthy diet and cut out the stressful scramble every evening trying to figure out what to cook because I haven't planned ahead.  I want to achieve both of those objectives without it being a full time job.  I already have a full time job - it's called Mother (to three teens and a tween).  I would much rather be spending time nurturing them than I would organizing coupons and shelf after shelf of shampoo, laundry soap and toothpaste that we will probably never use.  If I can stick to a budget of $130.00 a week, that will bring down my current food budget from $866 a month to $563, a savings of $3636 over a years time.  Not enough to send my kids to college certainly, but enough to make it worth a couple of hours of work a week.