Coupon Caper

How one woman on a mission shaved $113 off her grocery bill


1. If you find a great deal, stock up. If an item isn't in stock, ask for a rain check.

2. Buy the smallest size the coupon will allow you to pay less at the register.

3. Mission accomplished. It has taken her extra time, but Janc has purchased 94 items and saved $113.

Coupons in hand, Natalie Janc races her grocery cart past the bananas and broccoli, slowing down once she reaches the health and beauty aids.

She has no grocery list and she's not interested in buying that particular, often elusive, combination of food that will satisfy the quirks, cravings and nutritional requirements of her family of four.

Instead, for this trip to the Super Fresh in Towson Place, Janc's goal is to demonstrate how much money she can save by shopping with coupons. Jane, 49, who has one daughter living in college and another still at home, estimates coupons save her $30 to $40 a week on her grocery bill. She rarely pays for batteries and never pays full price for cereal. She even used a $500 coupon to. purchase her 2001 Chevy Cavalier for -less than $13,000.

Janc is far from alone in coupon-clipping habits. About 80 percent of Americans used coupons in 2000, saving $3.6 billion, according to the Promotion Marketing Association Coupon Council, a New York-based group that promotes coupon use. In general, coupon use goes up when the economy turns down, so coupon use is probably on the rise, the group says.

However, there's room to save lots more. According to the association, about 330 billion coupons were published in 2000, but only 4.5 billion were redeemed. That leaves an awful lot of coupons in recycling bins and biid cages.

Susan Samtur, quite possibly the all-time coupon queen, says that's a shame. "Think of the waste!" she writes in her 1979 self-published book, Cashing in at the Checkout.

"Why the shoppers of America are not cashing In on this bonanza I don't know. The manufacturers are continuing to increase the volume of coupons each year, begging us to try their products by offering us substantial savings if we do. I consider it my public duty to take them up on their offers."

Samtur started clipping coupons in 1973 to stretch her family's income. That year, she and her husband, both teachers, received about $1,500 in refunds. That number seems even more amazing considering it was tax-free and that her salary at the time was about $18,000.

Now she and her husband, Stephen, have turned her frugal habits into a clip-and-save empire. They moved from the Bronx to tony Scarsdale, N.Y., and, with the help of four part-time employees, publish a six-times-a-year newsletter called the Refundle Bundle.

Susan Samtur also writes regularly for Family Circle, and has appeared on numerous television shows extolling the virtues of coupons and refunds.

Though Samtur no longer needs to clip coupons and send for rebates, she still does it, saving about 50 percent on groceries and household products, and collecting thousands of dollars in rebates.

"I would feel guilty if I knew I could save $20 or $50 on my grocery bill and I didn't do it," she said in a telephone interview. "It becomes your way of life."

She says saving money with coupons is easy -- all it takes is a little organization. Janc agrees. Before leaving her home, Janc took a few minutes to scan the supermarket fliers that came with her Sun, deciding that Super Fresh offered the best sales that day.

She spends about one hour a week clipping and organizing her coupons, which she keeps in an expandable envelope divided into categories ranging from cereals to soups to soaps. She also keeps a store flier handy as she shops. She will buy only items she can use -- otherwise, she says, she's not really saving money.

"Don't give up on the quality; buy the right things at the right time," Janc says.

Once in the supermarket, Janc gravitates to the sale items. Her goal is to combine a sale item with a coupon, but she's willing to buy if either the sale or the coupon is really good. And if she finds an especially good deal on an item, she'll buy more than one, although she says she's careful not to buy more than she has room for.

That day, Master Choice salad dressing, the store's house brand, is marked down from $2.29 to 50 cents, so Janc grabs two bottles, noting that this particular sale was not advertised in the flier.

Generally, though, both Samtur and Janc agree that national brands are a better deal than store brands. Though national brands cost more, the coupons and promotions more than make up for the marginally higher prices, they say.

A new product, Crest toothpaste with Scope, was on sale for $1.88, and Janc had a coupon for $1 off two. Because the coupon will be doubled, she will pay 88 cents per tube. The regular price is $3.99. "I need to pay something, but that's OK," Janc says in a voice accented by her native Yugoslavia. She prefers to get items for free when possible.

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