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Saving Big in the Big Apple

So I’m kinda obsessed with watching the Extreme Couponing show on TLC. Now, I know what you’re thinking: That’s 14 cats and a couch doily away from a very scary Saturday night.

But before you judge me too harshly, have you SEEN this show??

They make it look SO EASY to walk out of a store paying 10 cents for $1000 worth of groceries. (Nevermind why these savings wizards would expose all their secrets on national television so grocery stores can get wise and shut down the fun.)

These people actually get paid to take stuff home. Some may say it’s borderline stealing, but who among us couldn’t use 93 bags of croutons, or 105 deodorants, or 217 jars of mayonnaise?

I wanted in!

But is it an impossible dream here in NYC where a single bag of groceries can equal a car payment? Maybe. No doubt this savings quest would take unwavering dedication and a level of preparedness that I haven’t employed since I took the SATs.

Oh yes. Challenge accepted.

First I watched, re-watched, and re-re-watched an entire season of Extreme Couponing. Next, I became a student of the limits – many stores only allow you to purchase a couple of the same items at one time, a register can only handle around 250 coupons per transaction, each receipt can only print around 1000 lines. Then, I boiled down HOURS of footage to a 21-step extreme savings blueprint…

     1) Fall on hard times
     2) Have an epiphany that coupons pave the road to riches
     3) Start to pronounce it “Q-pon” (this is critical to success)
     4) Know that you or a member of your immediate family must be morbidly obese
     5) Spend thousands on newspaper subscriptions, or steal inserts from the neighbors and dumpster dive
     6) Gather a mix of weekly sales, store loyalty cards, and manufacturers rebates to ensure maximum savings
     7) Arm your family members, no matter how young, old, or feeble, with scissors and let the clipping begin
     8) Organize your new Q-pons in a 3-ring binder, accordion folder or shoebox
     9) Make a spreadsheet of items, quantities, and costs for each trip, arranged by aisle
     10) Spend 30-60 hrs/wk on Q-pon maintenance, between prep, dealfinding, shopping trips, and binder cleanout
     11) Pre-order large quantities so the store can't run out of sale items
     12) Pile into your minivan to visit a non-brand name supermarket in the sticks
     13) Strictly purchase what’s on sale, nothing else
     14) Expect to fill multiple carts, so bring along a helper (who you may or may not choose to berate along the way)
     15) Prepare to sweat it out at the register
     16) Ignore nasty looks from the people in line behind you
     17) Watch the cashier like a hawk
     18) Keep your cool when the register inevitably jams from all this Q-poning activity
     19) Take a bow as the manager grits his teeth over the Q-pon robbery that just occurred in his store
     20) Enlist an army to unload the van
     21) Stockpile all loot in every basement, garage, closet and crevice as though you are preparing for the apocalypse

Ok.  Sounds easy enough.  Sort of.

The final step was to put this plan into action. Armed with a binder, a stack of newspaper inserts, an excel spreadsheet, and a dream, I organized, clipped, counted, and hit the stores. I probably spent about 10 hours a week over the last 2 months in pursuit of savings on food, health & beauty, and cleaning products.

And you know what I learned?

It’s impossible to save 98% off your grocery bill.

I’m sorry, it just is. Over 9 weeks, I spent $432.78 on $1,248.03 worth of stuff. That’s 65% off. I know this because it’s all calculated in a spreadsheet. I saved on every bill using a combination of in-store specials, manufacturers coupons, and gift cards I got from cashing in points on my credit cards. Without the gift cards, the savings would have been more in the neighborhood of 38%.  Good, but not great.

I also learned that I don’t have the patience or complete lack of self-consciousness to haggle over tampon coupons with the same checkout lady who thinks it’s ok to put my toilet bowl cleaner in the same bag as my English muffins.

But I do take away these 7 Lessons in Saving from my adventures in frugality…
  • Get a loyalty card for every single store you shop in. And use it.
  • The NY Post generally has more/better coupons than the Daily News.
  • Coupons are really only worthwhile when they can be used in conjunction with in-store specials. 
  • Don’t bother using a coupon just because it’s about to expire. The only exception there is the buy one, get one free coupons. Those have the most savings of all, assuming you actually WANT the item.
  • Buy only what’s on special, and don’t worry that you can’t actually make a meal out of pita chips, pasta sauce and marshmallow fluff. Eventually, they’ll put guacamole, macaroni, and ice cream on sale and then you’ve got a tasty 3-course meal!
  • D’Agostinos and CVS have MUCH better deals and loyalty programs than Food Emporium, dirty Gristedes (they put the gross in grocery store) and Duane Reade.
  • Get creative to find deals.  The Harmon Face Values section in most Bed Bath & Beyonds is good for health & beauty items, and Jack’s World/99 Cent Stores are worth a trip for random cheap food -- and it’s not even expired!
I’m sure my savings experience can apply to any big city. But if you live in the burbs, you can probably shave another 1/3 off the total. Plus then you get to drive to and from the store so you’re not forced to strap all your groceries to your back like some kind of urban donkey.

So what does $1200 worth of stuff look like?  Check out my linen closet, fridge, and fully-stocked pantry:

All I have to say is, wow, I'm anal.  My fridge door looks like Noah's Ark, with 2 of everything.  I should get a side job stocking shelves.  I'd have Gristedes in line in no time. 

Are YOU a coupon clipper?  Tell me why (or why not) below...

tags: city life, food


Anonymous said...

That pantry is a thing of beauty its like youre own minimart!

Anonymous said...

I love that show too!!!!

Jenny From The 'Brook said...

Anon #1: Thanks! I'm nothing if not organized. I think I could seriously get a side job stocking shelves.

Anon #2: Me too, but it won't last much longer. I tried to use a coupon the other day for Reynolds Wrap that I printed from their website and the grocery store wouldn't take it. I think they're all cracking down. How could they not have seen that coming!?