Coupons help devotees stretch budget, give back

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Coupons help devotees stretch budget, give back

By JOSH McCANN jmccann@islandpacket.com 843-706-8145
Published Saturday, July 30, 2011   |  1052 Words  |  

Joanna Huddleston might have eight bottles of salad dressing, 8 or 10 packages of hot chocolate, 12 boxes of cereal and 18 brownie mixes at her house, but she got it all at steep discounts.

And, she vows, her family will eat every bit of it before it goes bad.

She often feeds the family -- herself, her husband, a 2-year-old and a 9-year-old who spends about half his time at the couple's Laurel Bay home -- for less than $200 a month.

That figure includes what she spends on necessities such as paper towels and toilet paper.

Her secret: Coupons.

Although coupons have been around for years, users and observers say a growing number of local residents, perhaps driven by the economic downturn and the TLC show "Extreme Couponing," are gathering online and in-person to share tips, exchange extras and save some staggering sums of money.

Savvy shoppers can score certain items for next to nothing -- or nothing -- by combining sale prices with coupons and the rewards that stores offer to spur purchases.

Some stores will give you $4 in credit, for example, when you buy an item that can be had for $1.75 after coupons and sales, leaving you with $2.25 to spend on other merchandise.

"Why pay full price for something when you can get it for less?" Huddleston said. "People are figuring that out."

Huddleston, 30, is a member of the Facebook group Coupon Queens of Parris Island, which has more than 200 members. Most are moms under the age of 45, and many attend regular swaps at each other's homes, she said.

Huddleston said she subscribes to eight coupon-related blogs, most of which have sprung up in the past two years.

Another sign of coupons' recent rise in prominence: Technical College of the Lowcountry plans to offer classes for beginners at both its Beaufort and New River campuses in coming months, a nod to what organizers say is an increasingly hot topic.

HOW IT'S DONE

Huddleston remembers poring over coupons with her mother and has long been a casual clipper herself.

She became more avid, however, about 10 months ago when she realized coupons could help her provide for her family even though she can't work because of her own health problems and the demands of caring for a child with special needs.

She has been so successful at couponing, on which she spends five to 10 hours per week, that the family recently was able to buy a new car.

She keeps her coupons in one "massive" but well organized binder and her receipts in another.

In addition to browsing the blogs, she also checks for sales at stores' websites and in the newspaper, and she even sends handwritten letters to companies in the hopes they will reply with offers for freebies.

She regularly visits four grocery stores and two drug stores but only goes to each after carefully assessing how much she would pay for a potential purchase and whether she really wants or needs it.

Huddleston said it's exciting and inspiring to bring home a receipt loaded with bargains. But unlike some fellow coupon aficionados, she said, she refuses to stockpile more goods than she can use.

She laments such hoarding, which she said is prompting stores to rethink their discount policies.

She also doesn't want her deal-seeking to crowd out her family.

"Who really needs 30 bottles of mustard?" she asked.

When she teaches her classes, in fact, she urges students not to buy a store's entire stock just because something's on sale. That way, she says, there will be some left for the next customer.

"What if their family needs it, too?" she tells her pupils.

WHY IT'S DONE

In addition to aiding their family's budgets, couponers also contribute to charity.

Huddleston gives expired coupons, which she said can be redeemed overseas, to an organization that supports military personnel.

Tom Odom, who became a devoted couponer to help buy diapers and the like after a family member had triplets about two years ago, now mostly strives to benefit others.

The 63-year-old retiree, who spends at least an hour a day hunting deals, drives from Beaufort to his hometown of Darlington every few weeks with a trunk full of goods for his family to distribute to organizations such as a health clinic and boys home.

Odom, a former associate professor of math and computer science at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, buys five or six newspapers per week and also prints coupons from the Internet.

Whenever he piles up enough deodorant, body wash, shampoo and the like in a spare bedroom, he loads up and heads for home.

He always tells people the same thing: "I'm going to Darlington. My bedroom's too full."

The newspapers alone cost him several hundred dollars a year, but he figures he saves enough to make up that expense.

Odom shops so much that some store employees know him by name, but he considers couponing merely a fun hobby.

He will quit, he said, if it starts to become too much work.

Huddleston said some outsiders have a negative impression of couponers because of the TLC show, but she said people who understand her commitment to her family respect what she does.

She encouraged newcomers to try couponing and urged them not to get discouraged if they don't rack up huge savings at first.

She has a PowerPoint presentation she uses to share her knowledge of couponing with others. She is even teaching her father, who is in his 60s, and her young daughter.

"It's an amazing feeling to be able to provide more for your family," Huddleston said. "And anyone can do it."

Follow reporter Josh McCann at twitter.com/LowCoBiz

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