Monday, February 08, 2010

Saving money the new old fashioned way

Between having a new baby, the ongoing salary freeze at Starling's school, and the many deferred maintenance projects around here, we've been racking our brains for ways to make/save money. One of the options on the table has been for one or both of us to get part-time jobs, not a prospect that either of us really relish.

Before we go that route, however, we're going to take a crack at saving money the old fashioned way -- couponing and strategic shopping -- with a new twist. This is something that we haven't really tried before because of the time commitment, but if the choice is between this or going out and finding a part-time job...well, strategic shopping may be time-consuming, but at least it has flexible hours.

This was sparked in part by a friend we know through church. Around these parts she's known as "the Coupon Lady." She's been giving classes on strategic shopping around town, so I asked her to come over to our house for a personal seminar, which she did on Saturday.

One of the things she brought with her was a Walgreen's receipt that she'd gotten the day before. It showed a total amount paid of $1.57. Underneath that, it said, "You saved $60.24." Wow. She also told us about walking out of Target with a cart full to overflowing with stuff that she paid a total of seven cents for. She says that she's reduced her household shopping budget from about $600 a month (for a family of five) to about $250. And she spends about an hour a week planning her shopping. Still, that's pretty good money -- something like four hours to make $350. It's even better when you consider that none of that "salary" is taxed.

She explained that she didn't come up with this stuff on her own -- she basically follows the program laid out by the author of "Top Secrets of the Coupon Mom." This is a former marketing professional turned stay-at-home mom who started a website called www.couponmom.com. The book is full of lots of useful tips, but here's her basic method:
  • Never go shopping without a list, since impulse buying adds substantially to your grocery bill.
  • Keep track of the fluctuations in the prices of the most expensive items in your typical shopping basket (this is called creating a price book). Typically, grocery prices fluctuate. Also, many items go on sale at regular intervals -- typically about every three months. Stock up on items when they're at their lowest price or on sale.
  • Research your store's savings program and take advantage of it.
  • Use coupons to buy items when they're on sale.
  • Be flexible about where you shop and which brands you choose.
She says the typical family can cut their grocery bill in half using this method. (There's a lot more to it than this, but that's the bare outline.)

None of these methods are really "new" -- our parents and grandparents did a lot of this because they were forced to. Most of us don't do this sort of thing anymore because it's so time-consuming. But there's a new twist on all this that makes it easier to do. Basically, you take advantage of the many websites that track store prices and offer online coupons.

At www.couponmom.com, for instance, you look up the stores you typically shop at. For each store, there's a list of all of the items on sale -- along with information about coupons that can be combined with the sale prices. You put a checkmark in front of every item you want to buy on your next shopping trip, and it will print out a list of all of those sale items; you also get linked to any online coupons, or referred to the location of any print coupons. Since we shop at Target and HyVee for groceries, we'd just check the lists for those stores and be sure to stock up on any items that we normally buy that happen to be on sale.

Two other websites that she pointed out to us are www.winonadeals.com (a community blog where people post the best sales in the Winona area) and www.totallytarget.com (a blog that tracks sales and deals at Target).

Coupon Lady wanred us that it took her a lot longer to get started on all this than an hour a week, which I believe. And I don't expect to cut our shopping bill by as much as she did, in part because I think we're already pretty frugal -- but I'd settle for saving $200 a month (that would be $2,400 a year). That's a third of our grocery bill. Can we do it? I'll let you know. But this morning, I bought ten boxes of Life and Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal at Target for $2.75 each, about 60 cents less than the normal price. And since Target had a deal where you'd get a $5 gift card for every five boxes you purchase, we got $10 back, effectively reducing the price to $1.75 per box. So we're going to feed our kids breakfast for $17.50 rather than $34 this month, which seems like a good start.

Now, I don't expect