Saving, sharing: ‘Extreme couponing’ extends budget, helps those in need

PHOTOS BY VICKI JOHNSON Joni Meyer-Crothers, author of Extreme Couponing, is illuminated by her slide presentation while speaking to a group Tuesday evening in the chapel at St. Francis Home.

At one time, extreme couponing expert Joni Meyer-Crothers had 400 boxes of cat food in her garage.

And she doesn’t own a cat.

It’s common to find stacks of disposable diapers.

But she doesn’t have a baby.

And her garage is full of food.

Meyer-Crothers's audience in the chapel at St. Francis Home.

Far more than her family could ever eat.

While she started clipping coupons seven years ago as way to save money during a difficult financial time, coupons soon became a way of life for her family.

Then she took it a step further and expanded her coupon obsession into a ministry that assists people in need. Instead of letting coupons and sales pass by, she chooses to share her bounty with people in need by running a food pantry from her garage in Sylvania.

The food giveaway gained the notice of a national television show, and Meyer-Crothers found herself on six episodes of “Extreme Couponing,” teaching other people how to make the most of coupons in their daily lives.

And she teaches people how to take it step further by couponing with the intention of donating to local food banks.

The top portion of Meyer-Crothers Free Tastes Good website.

Three years ago, Meyer-Crothers wrote a book called “Extreme Couponing,” and has created a website, www.freetastesgood.com. She has turned her love of coupons into a business through which she serves not only people in need, but everyday people living their busy lives.

Meyer-Crothers spoke Tuesday at St. Francis Home’s chapel to 110 people interested in learning how to save money on groceries by using coupons.

“The key is to use coupons and stock up on items when they’re at their lowest price,” she said during her presentation. “What makes it extreme is the amount of money you can save.

“It’s really not that complicated,” she said. “If you get something for free, I’m going to get 10 of them.”

In one recent example, she had several Tide Pods coupons for $3 off. A store had a sale on Tide Pods for $3.95. So she got several packages for 95 cents each.

She finds coupons in Sunday newspaper inserts, on many internet sites, on packaging, and by ordering them online and through coupon-clipping services.

She notes internet coupons may be legally used twice per person.

“Your printer will print as many as you want, but you can only use two coupons,” she said.

Store personnel know who is using coupons because of coding, and they will know if someone is using more than they should. She said a woman in Maumee recently was sentenced to six months in jail for theft from overuse of internet coupons.

When in a store, she said, it’s OK to cut the coupon off of a cereal box, for example, and use it when checking out.

“It’s OK to the cut the coupon off the box before checkout, but it’s not OK to cut out the coupon and put the box back on the shelf,” she said.

Ordering pre-clipped coupons from clipping services is well worth the small fee, she said.

She also uses apps on her phone that give her cash back for buying products. Last year, she totaled $680 on one of the apps, and all she had to do is take photos of receipts to prove she bought the product and upload it.

“I used all that money for Christmas at the end of the year,” she said. “It’s all stockpiled into my different phone apps.”

However, she said, she’s found it easier when using phone apps to keep those items in a separate order at the checkout so the receipt is more concise and easier to photograph.

Meyer-Crothers shared hints anybody can use.

“Match coupons to store sales and other promotions, and stockpile these great-priced items,” she said.

Most stores cycle their sales every eight to 12 weeks, she said.

“At my house we go through a box of Cheez-Its a week,” she said. “So when they’re on sale, I buy 12 boxes to last the entire cycle until they’re on sale again.”

She said people should be aware they won’t see much savings for the first months. But as they buy items on sale with coupons, they’ll soon notice they won’t have to buy items unless they’re on sale.

She said “stacking” coupons is a great way to get extra savings.

“A store coupon can be used in conjunction with a manufacturer’s coupon for extra savings,” she said.

So a bit of patience to wait for a sale is beneficial.

Meyer-Crothers said each store has a coupon policy, and knowing policies help with savings.

Meijer and Walmart allow unlimited coupons, she said. That means anyone who collects 20 coupons for savings on toothpaste, for example, can use all 20 coupons when that brand of toothpaste is on sale.

She said Kroger limits coupon use to five for each item, plus two printed from the internet.

She said people often don’t understand manufacturer’s coupons can be used at any store, even if they have a store’s logo printed on it.

Planning shopping trips is important, she said, and it’s helpful to become familiar with the layout of each store by asking for a map.

“Have a clear plan as to what you need and where you’ll shop,” she said. “And you want to have a clear idea of what your store layout is.”

“Extreme” couponing is not necessary to benefit, she said.

“Even if you only save $10 a week, in a year’s time you’ve saved $520,” she said.

Meyer-Crothers said people will get more savings from coupons if they aren’t loyal to a particular product.

If the brand of peanut butter doesn’t matter, buy the brand that’s on sale with a coupon.

“Bigger is not always better,” she said. “Read the coupon.”

If a coupon allows the purchase of any size, buy the size that’s the best deal.

She suggested creating an email address solely for collecting coupons and free samples from online sources.

People who get free samples they don’t want can donate them.

“Go the extra mile to make a difference for somebody else,” she said.

Meyer-Crothers admits she is an extremely organized person, which helps her keep track of coupons and good deals. And she uses her organization skills to operate a website that does much of the couponing organization work for anybody who chooses to use it.

She uses a binder system with baseball card inserts to organize and keep track of her coupons. People can learn her system by reading her blog.

Meyer-Crothers said people who use government assistance for food – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – often don’t understand they can use coupons, too.

She said she’s taught several people on SNAP how to make their allotment last for a month. Instead of relying on a food bank when they ran short, she said, they now donate their excess items to the food bank because they know what it’s like to be in need.

When using coupons, Meyer-Crothers said, it’s OK to use them all, even if it’s too much for one family.

“You can bless somebody else, and you’ll be a winner, too,” she said.

Meyer-Crothers said she began clipping coupons as a necessity, but she found it rewarding – and even fun.

“I am an extreme overachiever,” she said.

At one point, she said, she bought $2,000 worth of grocery items for less than $100.

A light went on when she saw the opportunity to keep a promise.

At age 20 with small children, she had relied on food banks. After her abusive husband put her in intensive care, she divorced him. For six months, her children went to bed hungry because she didn’t have enough money to buy enough food. She did without things she needed, such as feminine hygiene products, so her children could have a bit more food.

“I made a promise to my kids that someday I was going to give back,” she said.

When she discovered couponing, she found the method she would use.

She opened a food pantry in her garage.

“Whoever God wanted to come, he would send,” she said. “There’s so much we can do for other people, but we get so wrapped up in our own lives.”

In the beginning, she said, her family had questions.

“My two oldest daughters thought I had lost my mind,” she said.

They got used to the idea, but still teased her about her obsession.

One day, Meyer-Crothers said, she answered the phone and was greeted by a woman who invited her to be on the TLC network TV show “Extreme Couponing.” She thought one of her daughters was playing a joke on her, so she asked the lady to email her with details.

“About 30 minutes later, an email popped up,” she said. “It was really them!”

However, she had concerns about how she and her food pantry would be portrayed on the show. She didn’t want to be portrayed as a crazy lady.

So she talked to her priest and other advisers, and they agreed she should take opportunity.

“It’s been a great way to go on secular TV and show what we do and why we’re doing it,” she said. “We could explain why we have 400 boxes of cat food and we don’t have a cat.”

So Meyer-Crothers went on TV.

“This is very spiritual,” she said. “This is a ministry for us.”

That’s the message she has given on all six episodes of “Extreme Couponing” in which she and her family have been featured.

Television led to a book deal three years ago.

“It’s really surreal to see my name on a book,” she said.

The book is available at bookstores or online at sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

She started a website where she provides the tools people need to get good coupon deals without having to keep track of everything themselves. People can sign up to receive reminder emails, and they can set up a text system that sends out information on “hot deals.”

Meyer-Crothers said she is adding to the website by providing recipes ideas for freezer meals and slow cooker meals to help busy families save money on busy nights by eating at home instead of eating out to save time.

“We used to go out to eat a lot, so these meals have saved us money, as well,” she said. “I’m trying to find more ways to help families, ways to save our family time and money.”

She said it’s sometimes hard to know which deals are really good and which are mediocre.

“If you follow by blog, I’ll do all the work for you,” she said. “I’m only going to list the ones I feel are a good deal.”

The website, book and TV exposure have provided Meyer-Crothers with her own business, and she uses her expertise to assist others who are interested in couponing.

It is her hope those people then will pass on the blessing to people in need.

In the beginning, about 50 people used the pantry in her garage to get what they needed to survive.

“Now, we feed 600-700,” she said.

“If we can do it that big, everybody can do a little bit,” she said. “If everybody donated five items a week, there’s 100 people here and that would be 500 items to your food bank.

“We can make a difference,” she said.

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