She rarely leaves home without her binder full of coupons.
He has a stockpile of products in his basement.
She buys five newspapers each Sunday. He visits multiple grocery stores each Tuesday.
But Chris Carter and Tom Edwards aren’t “extreme” couponers. They’re just two shoppers who have learned to work the discount system in their favors.
“People picture us [couponers] with a house full of cats and being mean to everyone,” Carter joked. “But I’m making it fit within my lifestyle. I’m not making it my lifestyle.”
Despite shows such as TLC’s “Extreme Couponing,” which showcases shoppers who hoard and abuse the coupon system, Edwards is happy to see that generally, the stigma associated with coupons has faded
“I have what you have,” he explained. “It just costs less.”
The competitive saver
Carter, 33, always shopped sales. While a student at Radford University, she said, she ate better than most of her classmates, thanks to clearance purchases at the grocery store.
But the Radford resident started couponing in earnest only about three years ago, when her husband, Jeremy, went back to school to get his doctorate at Virginia Tech and they had two young children — Hypatia, 3, and Colette, 6 — to feed.
The Internet and shopping blogs such as Southern Savers and Coupon Mom changed the way Carter thought of couponing. She saw how much strategy was involved and began competing with herself to save.
Carter really took the plunge into couponing this past year. The breakthrough came when she was able to buy name-brand makeup for the first time in her life.
“It was nice to finally buy something name-brand because you can afford it. Then you notice the savings.”
With a goal to save 50 percent to 70 percent on a big grocery trip, Carter bets that she can save as much as 30 percent by just using coupons in her binder and not planning at all. She’s close to starting a second binder strictly for food coupons.
In addition to the newspapers she buys each Sunday (she doesn’t print many online coupons), Carter also receives coupons in the mail from her mother, who lives in the Atlanta area, and her father, who lives in Orange. The coupons from Atlanta are especially valuable because coupons from bigger cities tend to carry higher discounts due to the higher cost of living in metropolitan areas.
As for those who believe they don’t have time for couponing?
Carter, who works full time as a lab and studio coordinator in the communications department at Radford University, estimates that she works as many as 100 hours per week when you combine her job and being a mother of two. Yet she still finds time to work with coupons for 16 to 20 hours per week. This would leave her about seven hours to sleep each night.
“You’ve got to save every penny you can. It’s a life skill,” she explains.
Carter has mixed feelings about the TLC show. “I think a lot of those women are taking advantage of the system. Anything taken to extremes ruins it for everyone,” she said.
So she’s developed strong ethics about couponing. Couponers who clear the shelves, make illegal duplicates of coupons and try to scam the system are those who give couponing a bad name, she says.
“Compliment three times more than you complain. Compliment everyone from the clerk to the manager. If they like you, sometimes they’ll help you out.”
She shakes her head when she recounts seeing couponers mistreating store employees over 75 cents. “Stop trying to exploit the system and they’ll meet you halfway,” she explains.
Carter will call ahead when she’s planning a big shopping trip and is against clearing the shelves, even when she finds a great deal.
“I’m never going to need 150 bags of croutons. But even then I still have extras that I’m able to give away to the food pantry. It’s one of my favorite things.”
Carter understands store managers who are forced to implement coupon and merchandise limits, and she appreciates the opportunities these limits give other shoppers. When Carter does have a question for a store manager, she visits during off-hours. Kroger, Wade’s and CVS are a few of her favorite stores because she believes they understand what you’re there for more than other retailers.
Though she does keep a small stockpile of everyday necessities, such as Campbell’s soups, toothpaste and hair care items, Carter shops within reason. She also loves donating extra purchases. Sending beauty and hygiene products to women’s shelters gives her the best feeling.
“You can make a woman feel pretty and special with one luxurious item, like fingernail polish, that cost me nothing.”
The sales-only guy
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Edwards, 66, of Roanoke.
When he was young, Edwards didn’t understand why his dad would open the paper and go straight to the circulars, but once he graduated college he, too, became bargain conscious.
“As soon as coupons became available I used them,” Edwards said. But Edwards doesn’t have a binder, he doesn’t buy multiple Sunday papers, and he doesn’t have a computer.
Edwards retired at 45 as vice president of human resources for Citibank in New York City. Afterward, he and his wife, Isa, moved to a condo at Smith Mountain Lake in 1993. They had no children.
Edwards’ wife was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer after the move. This led the couple to move into Edwards’ current Hunting Hills home, which was still being renovated, so they could be closer to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Isa died in 2006.
After her death, Edwards was involved in grief counseling, which led to an opportunity to lend his smart shopping knowledge to others.
His counselor matched him up with others in the program who needed help with their finances. Edwards would go out shopping with people and help them confront why they were buying certain items, and would then show them how to use coupons, shop based on price points and get the most out of their money.
Edwards has even become a sort of personal shopper for his friends. He often shops for his fiancee, Maggie Drewry, who had rarely used coupons before Edwards came along, as well as his sister, Carole, who is a resident at The Glebe in Botetourt County. He says he enjoys the process.
“After awhile you recognize that it’s not hard. We have a lot of leverage as a consumer,” he explains.
Drewry admits that she clipped her coupons but always ended up leaving them at home. Thanks to Edwards’ help, Drewry estimates she saves about 75 percent on her grocery bills, including food for multiple pets. “It’s been a learning experience for me, and I can’t believe how much you really can save. I don’t understand why people don’t do it because it’s so easy,” she said. “Of course, he’s a patient shopper and I’m not.”
To build his coupon stash, Edwards holds a coupon swap with a few friends.
“I generally benefit from six to seven coupon sets each week,” he said. And with this process, he only has to spend about 30 minutes on Sundays making his shopping lists while cutting and sorting his coupons into a large billfold.
When he’s ready to go shopping, he puts the coupons he plans to use in a smaller coupon folder with his shopping list. But he still carries the larger billfold, in case of unexpected sales.
Much of Edwards’ game is taking advantage of the reduced dairy and produce prices at Super Dollar Discount Foods in Vinton, which stocks multiple private label brands but also accepts manufacturer coupons, and the clearance shelves at Kroger. He also shops there on Tuesdays, when senior citizen shoppers get 5 percent off.
“I can’t pass a Kroger without going in,” Edwards said with a smile. “People think a markdown means something is wrong, but it’s like going to an auction. You never know what you’ll find.”
And on a recent shopping trip he found a lot. Edwards was able to pick up a pound of sugar for 75 cents (originally $2.46), coffee for $2.99 (originally $5.99) and pretzels for 29 cents (originally $1.63) — all without coupons. He bought six bags of coffee and eight bags of pretzels.
“I buy a lot, I don’t buy in bulk,” he clarifies while stocking up. Though he used only two coupons for International Delight creamers on that trip, Edwards was still able to save a total of $28.72 on those three clearance products alone.
“I don’t always buy what I want, I buy what’s on sale,” he said.
Like Carter, Edwards finds it rewarding to make friends at the stores. He knows the Tanglewood Kroger manager well. “It’s nice to be nice. It’s easy and actually makes me feel better,” he said.
Edwards does keep an impressive stockpile and uses that to plan meals. He believes people generally waste a lot of money trying to plan their meals for the week without taking into consideration what they already have in their freezer or pantry.
“Everyone is working so hard, but you have to take the time and effort to teach them to save,” she said. “This isn’t about now, it’s about tomorrow or next week. It’d be nice to live in the moment, but you just can’t.”