Coupon clippers going to extremes

Jennifer Sheetz looks over a folder of samples at an extreme couponing class in a conference room at the offices of Western Colorado Contractors Association in Grand Junction. About 25 women are in the class.

Thousands of coupons organized in a folder at the Extreme Couponing class.

Kacey Cornum, left in pink, teaching a Extreme Couponing class to about 25 people at the WCCA office in Grand Junction.

The pantry in Kacey Cornum’s Grand Junction kitchen resembles a miniature grocery store.

A set of shelves in front of the furnace holds dozens of boxes of identical cereals and canned foods. Around the corner, another set of shelves displays neatly lined-up toiletries and beauty products. Across from that stockpile are rows of plastic containers, each filled with like items, ranging from Jell-O boxes to crackers.

It would cost hundreds of dollars for anyone else to build a pantry this packed. But not for this 27-year-old mother of two. Cornum combines sales, coupons and store rewards to get most of her daily shopping done for free or close to free, and sometimes even makes money off transactions.

Cornum is one of an increasing number of Americans involved in “extreme couponing,” a term that inspired a new, hit reality TV show on TLC and describes people who spend hours collecting and organizing coupons to get the best bargains at the grocery store and anywhere else that offers coupons, freebies or bargains.

The TLC show has inspired plenty of people struggling with a poor economy to jump on the coupon bandwagon. But the couponers on television don’t offer the most realistic or flattering picture of the practice, according to locals involved in the activity.

“They never mention how much money it took them to buy all those coupons on eBay,” Cornum said. “I think maybe 1 percent of couponers really shop like that.”

Unlike the stockpiling moms on the show, Fruita resident Stacy Kelley said no one will ever catch her storing toilet paper under her kids’ beds. She admits to buying three times the amount of grocery and everyday items she used to per shopping trip, but only items she would normally use.

Kelley, 33, started couponing almost two years ago when her husband suggested she give it a try. She wasn’t excited about clipping coupons, but discovered she was good at it; so good at it, she now teaches couponing classes to rooms of 30 or 40 people every month or two.

“It’s a way of life for my family now,” Kelley said.

Couponers commonly start their pursuit of deals by scanning ads for items on sale or part of a two-for-one deal. Most stores will allow shoppers to stack at least one manufacturer’s coupon per item and at least one store coupon per item on top of a sale offer. Combine that with rebates, store rewards and coupons for a certain amount off a person’s purchase, and the price of a single item can drop quickly.

Every couponer has a particularly fruitful haul they take pride in. Kelley has a picture on her Facebook page of items valued at nearly $300 that she purchased for less than $20. Cornum spent $10 on Christmas presents last year.

Grand Junction resident Curry Gurule, 36, who is new to couponing, recently spent about $350 for $1,000 in items at City Market.

Couponers also have their own set of rules for what’s considered fair game to make savings possible.

Some don’t play by the rules. The Daily Sentinel has experienced an increase in thefts from porches and newspaper racks since “Extreme Couponing” debuted in April, according to Circulation Director Tracy Gettman.

If the problem continues, the Sentinel may stop filling racks in some areas and direct people to purchase papers at nearby stores.

Legally, newspapers have to destroy their leftover coupon inserts, a policy some papers appear to be violating on episodes of “Extreme Couponing.”

Cornum and Kelley, who both teach couponing classes, advise their students against taking coupon inserts from private property, selling them on eBay or using a coupon for one item on another item.

Some may consider combining coupons an ethical issue, but Gurule said she doesn’t feel too bad for stores because they are reimbursed for manufacturers’ coupons and given a few extra cents along with each reimbursement.

Alicia Shideler, a Grand Junction couponer who once made $54 on purchases at a local Rite Aid, said she always looks for the happiest clerk in a store before beginning the lengthy process of checking out multiple items with multiple coupons. Otherwise, handing over coupons can be an unpleasant experience.

“Some (checkers) are happy for you. Some look upset. Some act like you’re taking money out of their paycheck,” Shideler, 29, said.

Kelley said she once had her coupons refused by a cashier, a woman who didn’t understand the store’s coupon policy. When she has coupons to redeem, she tries to be courteous to other customers by keeping her coupons organized. She still remembers waiting behind a woman at Wal-Mart for 32 minutes while the woman saved $22 with coupons.

“She was very unorganized,” Kelley said.

Cornum said she goes through a self-checkout line when possible or checks out at the cosmetics counter at drug stores to keep out of the way during lengthy checkouts. She also keeps her coupons organized in a binder built to hold baseball cards.

That level of organization can seem daunting to some. But Cornum, who started couponing as a hobby two years ago before it turned into her lifestyle, said it usually takes 90 minutes to three hours a week for her to peruse deals online, clip and organize coupons and plan her shopping trips.

“A lot of people say ‘I can’t handle this.’ But I can usually clip my Sunday coupons in an hour or an hour-and-a-half,” Cornum said.

Michelle Wall, a 29-year-old Grand Junction woman who attended one of Cornum’s couponing classes Tuesday, said she used to be skeptical about the time commitment or rewards of couponing. But after seeing others save, she plans to make her first “extreme” shopping trip soon.

“I’ve got to figure out what a good deal is first,” she said.


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