Secrets of a savvy shopper

Extreme couponer Tiffany Nash has more than a few tricks up her sleeve

If you were to walk into Tiffany Nash’s ranch-style home in Ashland, you would not, at first, notice anything out of the ordinary. The family dog, a beagle named Maggie, would welcome you, and Nash’s daughter might be sitting in the living room working on math homework.

If you were to look a little closer and start opening cabinet and pantry doors, however, you would notice a 24-pocket hanging shoe organizer brimming with seasonings and spices. And in the bathroom, more than 50 bars of hand soap are stacked under the countertop, and at least 60 bottles of body wash, shampoo and conditioner line the shelves in the closet.

But until you walked out into the garage, you wouldn’t realize how unusual this family’s shopping habits truly are.

Three shelving units tower against the right-hand wall, black frames against white paint. Almost 200 cans of assorted soups and vegetables are meticulously stacked on the bottom level. More than three dozen rows of boxes and bags line the remaining three shelves, offering seemingly endless quantities of cereal, pasta, potatoes, cake mix and other items. Although overwhelming at first glance, this kind of organized chaos suits an extreme couponer such as Nash just fine.

Nash, 28, says she doesn’t have as much stuff as the serious shoppers she sees on TLC’s show Extreme Couponing, but she admits to maintaining a sizable selection thanks to her strategic shopping habits.

By using clipped coupons, ad sheets, store sales and mail-in rebates, Nash has made it her mission to spend no more than $100 on groceries for a household of three each month.

And she succeeds.

According to data prepared by the Food Marketing Institute, the average three- to four- person family spent $660 each month at the grocery store in 2013 — in other words, $165 weekly. Nash’s approximate weekly average of less than $25 beats the national average by a whopping $140, which means she spends $560 less each month than the average shopper.

Making time for couponing

When slicing many identical coupons, Nash turns to an instrument heftier than hand scissors to work more efficiently. Photo by Shannon Elliott

When slicing many identical coupons, Nash turns to an instrument heftier than hand scissors to work more efficiently. Photo by Shannon Elliott

You don’t need to see Nash in action at the grocery store to catch a glimpse of her game face — just ask about her latest shopping trip. With her dark brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail and a mischievous glint in her brown eyes, Nash proudly describes her triumphs. “You can find coupons for anything,” she says. “There’s lots of stuff that you can get for free or for under $1 an item.”

Since she started working five days a week as a licensed practical nurse for University of Missouri Healthcare in February, Nash has had less time to cut coupons. Before, she worked three 12-hour shifts a week and was able to make the most of her four days off. “Whenever I was really extreme about it, I feel like I sat down and had a process and would only do certain things at certain times,” Nash says. “If I couldn’t buy it with a coupon, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.”

Now that she doesn’t have as much time to dedicate to her exhaustive deal-busting techniques, she’s a little more relaxed about what she’s willing to pay for and when she gets things done. “The weekends are like my saving grace,” Nash says. That’s when she can spend a few hours getting organized and matching her coupons with any grocery store sales. From there, she plans which grocery stores to hit during her weekday lunch breaks. “It’s not about not having enough time,” she says. “It’s about making time for how much you want to do.”

Nash says she saves time and money by purchasing coupon inserts directly and eliminating the need for weekly newspapers. “I have a lady that sends me coupons every two weeks, and she’ll send me 10 inserts of every set of coupons that she gets.” Nash says she pays around $10 for the inserts instead of purchasing almost a dozen papers just for the weekly coupons.

Nash has used this system to save on groceries and household items for the past three years, and she doesn’t stop there: Each year, she buys one or two coupon books her daughter sells for school. In addition to restaurant discounts, these books can include deals on everything from pet supplies to family entertainment. She also finds coupons for many items, including clothing, in All You magazine. “One summer I got 10 free tank tops,” Nash says. “I had coupons for $5 off a tank top, and it just so happened that the tank tops were less than $5.”

She keeps track of her coupons by loading them all, alphabetized by brand name, into a single plastic container. The clear container is about 5-by-8 inches. She says she keeps at least $300 to $500 worth of coupons in the container, and she saves around that much each month. “It’s because I have 10 of each coupon, so if I have a $3 coupon, that’s $30 right there,” she says.

Nash originally used three-ring binders filled with trading card-style inserts of coupons to stay organized. Although some couponers use this approach, Nash found the process too cumbersome. One three-ring binder wasn’t big enough, and locating a coupon based on its category — pasta, produce and so on — took up too much time in the grocery store. Now, Nash relies entirely on her trusty container.

The fine print

There’s more to extreme couponing than just knowing what’s on sale and when to use which coupons. Every couponer should take time to learn the policies at each store, Nash says. “At Schnucks, you can only use three of the same coupon, and you can only (double) up to 15 coupons per transaction.”

Gerbes doesn’t double anymore, and you can only use five of the same coupons,” she adds. “Hy-Vee doesn’t double, but they don’t have a limit on coupons.” Nash has memorized the couponing policy at every store in the area, which not only helps her plan each trip, but it also makes the experience easier for the cashier.

Nash purchases 10 sets of coupon inserts instead of buying many newspapers. Photo by Shannon Elliott

Nash purchases 10 sets of coupon inserts instead of buying many newspapers. Photo by Shannon Elliott

“Over the past several years, couponing has become very popular among customers at Schnucks stores,” Paul Simon, senior communications specialist at Schnuck Markets Inc. said in an email. “One of our major goals is to always be in stock of the items that our customers want.” If there is a popular coupon in circulation, Simon says the store will try to order extra to accommodate the rush. This is where coupon policies come in and contribute to the store’s decision to limit customers to three identical coupons per visit. “This helps to ensure that we are in stock for all our customers,” he says.

Although some of the coupons do expire before she can use them, Nash says they don’t go to waste. If she doesn’t give the coupons to friends, instead of throwing them out, Nash mails in 200 to 300 expired coupons every two or three months to a post office box designated by the charity Support Our Troops as part of a program serving military families who are overseas. Military members can use expired coupons up to six months past the expiration date at the commissary, or grocery store, on base.

Nash stockpiles only items that she knows her family will use. “If it’s on sale and you have the right coupon, it’s usually free,” she says. In order to get something for “free,” Nash matches a coupon with a store sale. In some instances, the coupon can do more than lower the price; it can cancel out the cost completely. Nash hasn’t had to pay for items such as toothbrushes or toothpaste in more than five years. She has enough to last her family at least two or three years. Other items, such as Dial hand soap, are nearly free. “I probably pay like 8 cents a bottle for that,” Nash says. “If I can get it for the price that I like to pay for it, then I’m going to go stock up.” She says she can usually find All or Purex liquid laundry detergent for about $1 per 50-ounce bottle, a size that retails for approximately $7.50 and can wash 32 loads of laundry. After buying detergent, Nash has about 50 bottles on hand, which means that at any given time, she could wash approximately 1,600 loads of laundry for $325 less than the retail value.

A thrifty legacy

Nash is so skilled at saving partially because she has been couponing since she was a little kid. “My parents were divorced, so (my mom) wanted to save anywhere she could,” she says.

Not only was this a way for Nash’s mom to cut costs, but it was also a way to spend time with her

Nash stores $300 to $500 worth of coupons in her plastic container. Photo by Shannon Elliott

Nash stores $300 to $500 worth of coupons in her plastic container. Photo by Shannon Elliott

daughter. “She taught me how to read with coupons,” Nash says. Her mom, Lisa Schoening, says at first, Nash was too young to even read the comics. “It was more of a challenge for her to get the scissors and try to cut around the lines,” Schoening says. Once Nash learned her alphabet, all Schoening had to do was have her sound out the words on the coupons. “The comics helped a little bit, but it was mostly the coupons and the cutting,” Schoening says.

As Nash got older, she wanted to know why they were clipping coupons and what the coupons were for. Before long, Schoening says Nash would go around the house and figure out what items they needed from the store and hunt for coupons. “It was really helpful, but at the same time, if we didn’t need it or want any more of it, we had to get it because she cut the coupon out,” Schoening says with a chuckle.

Nash made the switch from helpful youngster to stringent couponer when she moved out at 18, and she has honed her money-saving talents ever since. As for her mom, Nash says she still coupons occasionally. “She’s definitely not as organized or as extreme as I
have been.”

But when her mom drives in to Ashland from Gerald, the two still take on the grocery store together. “I don’t like to shop, so she hands me the coupons,” Schoening says, adding that it’s amazing to watch Nash work.

“She can take a $5 bill and turn it into a grocery basket or a shopping cart with her coupons,” Schoening says. There have even been times where a store has owed Nash money — usually pocket change — after checkout. “It’s never very much, but she’ll have a shopping cart full of groceries, and she’ll run her coupons through, and they’ll hand her a check.”

Nash says she is working to instill that same couponing sensibility in her own daughter. “I probably had her cutting coupons at 3 or 4, when she was old enough to hold scissors,” Nash says. “It was just like, ‘If you cut a coupon in half, it’s not a big deal.’” Her daughter still helps coupon, and as she gets older, Nash says she is learning that the practice has its limitations.

“If she wants something, and I say, ‘Well, we don’t have a coupon for that,’ obviously she gets frustrated.” It continues to be a learning curve, much like it was for Nash. “She understands what it is, and what the process is, and why we do it.”

Whenever her daughter’s class at school needs a donation, Nash says they are among those who provide snacks or other food about 80 percent of the time. Because her daughter helps with the couponing, she gets to see the outcome when she brings those treats to school. “It’s a great learning experience, to be almost selfless I would say, just because we’re not asking for anything in return,” Nash says. “It helps her to understand that giving is better than receiving.”

While her daughter learns these life lessons, Nash prepares for her future. Thanks to their $100 monthly grocery budget, Nash can put the extra money toward other expenses. She’s working to pay off the mortgage on her home in half the time, so a lot of the money she saves goes toward those payments.

Her long-term plan has always been to pay the house off early so that she will be financially stable when her daughter goes to college. More than anything, she wants to help fund her daughter’s college education and prevent her from being saddled with student-loan debt.

“It’s not that we don’t want her to work hard — we just don’t want her to struggle,” Nash says. “We definitely don’t want her to have to be worrying about other things. We want her to succeed.”

The fruits of Nash’s labors line three shelving units in her garage.  Photo by Shannon Elliott

The fruits of Nash’s labors line three shelving units in her garage. Photo by Shannon Elliott

 

Coupon, coup off

Savings master Tiffany Nash shares her economical tips and tricks

1. Make a list. “I try to stay as organized as possible and go in with a focus of what I have to buy, what coupons I have, and how much of each item (I need),” Nash says. She also likes to line up her list with the layout of the store.

2. Wait for the sale. If an item isn’t on sale, and it isn’t something the family needs right away, Nash says she won’t buy it.

3. Match coupons to the store sales. For an even bigger discount, Nash regularly checks stores’ weekly advertisements to see if she has a coupon for any sale items.

4. Know the policy. “I think if somebody is trying to become a better couponer, they definitely need to know the policy before they walk through the door,” Nash says. Knowing the types of coupons accepted and in what quantity eliminates confusion during checkout.

5. Price comparison. Sometimes one store might have an item for 20 cents less than another, Nash says. Although this might sound like an insignificant chunk of change, she says the differences can add up.

6. Price match. Rather than go to a handful of stores, Nash likes to price match whenever possible. She says some stores require shoppers to bring in the competitor’s ad for an item, but others only need to be told about the lower price at checkout.

7. Know the lingo.

Double coupon: Select stores will double coupons up to a certain value. For example, if a store doubles coupons up to 50 cents off, the coupon’s worth increases up to $1.

Stacking: The ability to use any two promotions together, such as a store specific coupon and a manufacturer coupon for an item.