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Power shopping: Savvy use of coupons can save you lots of money on groceries

Tell Cheri Anderson that you can't believe the high cost of food, or that your grocery bill is killing you in this painful economy, and she just smiles. Anderson pays exactly what she wants to for most of her groceries — and if she doesn't like the price today, she waits. She has plenty of other food on hand.

Anderson's buying power comes from a Sunday newspaper with multiple coupon sections, a few coupons generated at the cash register and a printed list of what's on sale at the stores she shops. (Today's paper, for example, contains more than $150 worth of grocery coupons.) With those tools, she figures she saves about 75 percent off her grocery bill.

Not bad, she said, for the price of the newspaper subscriptions and a couple of hours a week, a few minutes at a time, getting organized.

Anderson's far from alone in her quest to reduce food prices with coupons. But most shoppers don't bother, although advocates say the task is easy and the rewards great.

The Utah Food Industry Association's Dave Davis said its numbers indicate that in 2008, only about 4 percent of Utah shoppers used coupons — and Utah is reportedly one of the more coupon-savvy states. That's up one-half a percent from the year before.

Still, 4 percent of everybody who buys groceries is a lot of people, he noted. And those numbers predate the sour economy. Inmar, a promotions-transaction settlement company, says food-coupon use jumped 10 percent from the last quarter of 2007 to the same period in 2008, the first big jump since the early 1990s. Nationally, 2.6 billion grocery coupons were used.

At Harmons, Smith's and Albertsons stores where the Deseret News researched this story, cashiers said they're definitely seeing more coupons. "Some people have gotten really sophisticated with it," one told the paper.

Several non-users voiced skepticism as they waited in line. "It looks like too much work to me," one commented. Her interest rose considerably, though, when she saw the cost of 16 boxes of cereal drop from a retail value of $77.63 down to $23.80 because of coupons and a good sale.

When the clerk also handed coupon-loving Anderson six cash-register coupons, called catalinas, each good for a free gallon of milk, she was hooked. "How'd you do that?" she asked.

Kenneth Roesbery, known to Utah shoppers as the Grocery Guru, believes the faltering economy has not only made coupons more appealing but has sparked an unofficial grocery war. And shoppers who leverage the combined power of advertised specials and coupons can save a great deal of money on food and other items, he said.

While Anderson and Roesbery are both avid coupon users, they don't use them the same way. It turns out there are different techniques and philosophies for saving money. The Deseret News chose to look at these two people because they are so different.

The important thing is finding what makes sense to you, said Karin Kunz, co-founder of an online service called PinchingYourPennies.com (PYP) that publishes free lists of local weekly grocery ads, along with an index of available coupons, where and when they ran in local newspapers, and other services. "When you find what works for you, you'll do it."

The PYP system

Four years ago, Anderson's family was growing — Megan was 2 and Anderson was pregnant with Hannah. Their expenses were rising, but husband Ken's salary wasn't. "It was really, really tight," she said. A stay-at-home mom, she figured her job would be stretching household dollars, so she took a couponing class offered at a Macey's. That gave her some basics.

She is now a PYP member and said you don't see huge price drops in the grocery bill at first. But the savings grow over time, and you build up an impressive food supply.

Quantity counts, so Anderson collects coupon circulars from friends who get the newspaper but don't use the coupons themselves. She routinely gets eight sets (stacking the pages so she only cuts a coupon out once) and when she sees what Kunz and PYP co-founder Shelley Robinson call a "screaming deal," she buys eight of the item.

She cuts and organizes her coupons as she watches TV or has spare time. She files coupons in a scrapbook case, in slots numbered to correspond with a master list that fits her personal shopping needs. If she's not going to use a product, she doesn't file the coupon. She doesn't cut out coupons that expire in less than four weeks, but puts them in a binder to pull if she needs one.

About once a month, she goes through all of it and gets rid of expired ones. (Military families overseas can use coupons up to six months after they expire, so some couponers pass those on.) When she shops, she usually pulls the coupons she needs and leaves the rest at home. Anderson also keeps a binder with restaurant coupons or non-grocery deals in the car, where they will be handy when she's out running errands.

She now only shops for the very best deals because she's been stockpiling food. That might mean a couple of trips to different stores, but it's well worth it, she said, when you know exactly what you're after and can combine good sales with coupons.

Two weeks ago, her toil brought the price of cereal down from between $4.89 and $5.19 a box to about $1.35 each. She bought Triscuit and Wheat Thins, normally $3.79, for 75 cents a box and got a catalina for $3 off her next purchase. (She won't need more crackers this year, she says, and will donate some to Scout food drives.) She also got nine items from the Taco Bell dinner-kit series for under $1 each. She always watches for deals that make soaps and other items free or almost free, and she keeps them on hand for baby-shower gift packs.

"Right from the beginning," said Kunz, "you notice small savings. It's not phenomenal." But it will be, she predicted. You may find ketchup at $1, instead of the usual $2, and set some aside for later. You spend about as much, but bring home more food. You take $10 you saved on pasta, and you buy meat or fruit that's on sale, for instance.

"The beauty of it is you're setting the price you want to pay for your groceries," she said. "You're not letting the store, manufacturer or others decide. You stock up when it's at the price you want to pay and skip buying it when you don't like the price."

PYP members focus on newspaper coupons, but they branch out, as well. Hyde Park residents and stay-at-home moms, Kunz and Robinson founded PYP five years ago, after they bumped into each other at a specialty store where they were using the same coupon.

PYP's services are free. "We feel strongly that you should not have to pay money to save money," Kunz said. They earn a small commission through their non-grocery-related links to online shopping sites. They tell you about deals at online sites and get paid a little when you link in through PYP and shop.

The Guru way

Roesbery also saves a ton of money, but he does it very differently. He says newspaper coupons can pay for as much as half of your groceries if you hang onto them until the item is also on sale. He doesn't cut the coupons out until he's ready to shop. He just files them in binders until he needs them.

Roesbery says the increased popularity of coupons has improved the deals stores offer. Some plan sales to go with coupons because, despite what some mistakenly believe, the stores don't lose money on coupons. The manufacturer pays the value of the coupon and a small handling fee. And creating great deals helps customers become loyal shoppers who keep coming back.

Roesbery takes people on 30-minute shopping excursions for $10, which covers the cost of the coupons and shopping lists he provides. The week before Easter, they shopped at Albertsons and combined ads and coupons to buy $100 worth of groceries for $30. Those who pre-loaded their money on a store gift card took advantage of a deal that added an extra 10 percent to the card's value. Many stores offer variations on that deal. You have to watch for it.

While PYP and Anderson emphasize the coupons, he focuses on the advertised sales first. "If you're buying just because you have a coupon, it's not always something you want," he said. "If it's on sale and you happen to have a coupon, that's a better deal for everybody." And be aware, he added, that the greatest savings may be on the smallest size, not the large one.

Roesbery says to pick one store for the week and stick with it. Savvy shoppers know when their store ad circulars come out and what days, if any, they have special promotions. One store might double coupons. Another might have overlapping sales one day of the week.

He teaches shoppers to plan their meals based on the ads at their chosen store, rather than running from store to store or chasing down coupons. "Shop one store and no more than once a week," he said. After you've planned your menu based on the sales, clip the coupons that apply, he said.

Roesbery isn't big on bulk buying. For coupons, you need "two max," he said. If you're spending more than an hour a week on coupons, including shopping, you're cutting into your savings.

While some experts advocate searching online for coupons, "in my opinion, you spend more time, effort and ink cartridge than you're ever going to save," he said. And you need to know whether your grocery store accepts coupons you printed out. Some don't. There may be rules about how many transactions you can do at once. Some stores double coupons certain days, others never do. Get to know your store.

It takes a village

Kunz says PYP couldn't do its grocery-coupon lists without a small army of volunteers. One woman goes through the Sunday papers, listing all the nonfood coupons. Another compiles the free or dirt-cheap deals. Many hands create the lists of what's on sale and where to find applicable coupons, as well as ways to combine them with sales.

There are many online coupon sites. Some charge a small monthly fee. One of PYP's most popular features is the online forum, where shoppers share tips and warn each other if stores have specific rules. For instance, some limit you to three transactions at a time. A transaction is when you pay for something. You may need to pay for items as separate transactions to get the most savings. After you've done three of those, most stores make you get back in line. Ask.

Most of the calculating is done by computers, so you don't have to worry about when or in what order you present items or coupons within a transaction.

Most coupon-loving shoppers look for beer-sponsored coupons at the store, too. Those disappear fast. Beer companies are restricted in terms of advertising and sales, Roesbery says, so some instead offer rebates on unrelated products. Recently, for example, you could get $20 worth of pizzas, salty snacks, charcoal or bottled water, then mail in your receipt and the coupon and get that $20 back. Anderson often uses several of those in a month. Be aware, though, that you are providing your name, mailing address and other information to get that rebate.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com