The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

April 14, 2012

Albia teen makes saving money and getting free stuff look easy

ALBIA — She can tell you what’s on sale this week, which coupons are available, what the best deal is, where to get that deal and how much you’ll save in the end.

And she’ll do most of it in her head.

Caitlyn Watson of Albia started extreme couponing in the fall, and this 18-year-old has been hooked ever since.

“I’m a clearance girl,” Watson said. “I want good stuff, but I want it cheap. There has to be some balance.”

She found the balance when she started watching a cable television show about extreme couponing. She had never couponed seriously before, but she quickly picked up on the concept.

“I watched the show and said, ‘I can do that.’ It’s sad to think about all the money we spend that we don’t have to,” she said.

For non-couponers, the idea of extreme couponing sounds a little ... well ... extreme. But Watson explains that coupons go through a six-week cycle, as do the store circulars, so every three months you’ll find product prices at their lowest. The time and energy come in when it’s time to figure out those deals.

“It takes some thought. I have to get enough to last three months so I don’t have to buy in between at regular price,” Watson explained.

There are many different ways to gather coupons. Newspapers have many every week, as do magazines and circulars. On the Internet, there are many websites completely dedicated to coupons. Some have free ones that can be printed immediately, while others will provide a clipping service for a fee. This allows you to get coupons from across the country, like California where the value of each coupon may be higher than southeast Iowa.

Once she has her coupons organized alphabetically in a tote, Watson then has to go the leg work of finding where the best deals are. This means going through the weekly advertisements and comparing prices.

“It’s so important to know each store’s coupon policy,” Watson said. “Some will only allow five coupons per transaction, some will only let you use coupons after you’ve gotten to a certain price. You have to know what they allow before you go.”

Planning ahead is the most important part of the couponing process, Watson believes. Combining in-store and manufacturers’ coupons, figuring up multiple transactions and deciding where and when to make purchases isn’t something you can do on the fly.

“Plan ahead. Bring all your coupons with you because you never know what might be on sale or on clearance,” Watson emphasized. “There are opportunities to make money on each item, as the value of the coupon may be more than the sale price.”

In the end, couponers may have to adjust their shopping techniques or personal preferences to get the best deals. Watson explained that buying a name-brand item with a coupon may or may not be cheaper than purchasing the store or generic brand. It’s all about figuring up the unit cost and comparing the value.

This may sound like a lot of time and energy to put into little pieces of paper, but it’s worth it in the end.

“It makes a big difference. You may spend a lot a one time or put a lot of time into it, but you’re getting more product for a better price,” she said.

Some weeks Watson won’t spend much time at all on her organizing and planning, while other weeks she’ll spend a whole day figuring out the best plan of attack. The process involves sorting, writing out her purchases and getting the final tally ready so she knows what to expect when she gets there.

The biggest difference in her philosophy, Watson believes, is that they’re not just creating a stockpile because they have a coupon.

“I don’t buy items that I don’t use. It’s not about just buying things because I have a coupon,” she said.

The Watson family has a closet, not a room like some extreme couponers have, where they store multiple purchases. Then they’re able to see what they have, find it quickly when they want to use it and have it available to give away when they find someone who needs it.

Watson attends Indian Hills Community College through Albia’s ICN. She’s in her first term as a freshman and has been able to let her college friends in on the action. When she has multiples of health and beauty items, which can quickly add up at the cash register, she is able to share them with friends or sell them to them for the reduced price she paid.

“And I’m using my math skills, so it is educational,” she said.

Her family has also seen the benefits of a couponing daughter. While her dad, Cameron, wasn’t sold on the idea in the beginning, he quickly changed his mind.

“My dad didn’t think it was a great idea, but then we came home with bags of free stuff,” Watson said. “When he got four free deodorants, it really changed his mind. It makes a big difference.”

Watson and her mother, Tamie, have become a coupon-using team. Tamie even has a coupon exchange at work that has become a blessing to everyone involved.

“She has a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old so she doesn’t need coupons for diapers anymore. She’ll take them to work and share with people there who do. I think it’s really making a difference.”

Watson has even involved her grandparents in couponing, helping her grandfather with his shopping trips.

“I showed him how we could buy cheaper and with coupons. I saved him $50 once,” she said. “He thought it was kind of crazy at first, but then he saw how much you could really save and get for free.”

One of Watson’s most memorable family couponing experiences came at Thanksgiving when Watson was able to combine the holiday grocery shopping trip with a double coupon event.

“Holiday food gets so expensive, but I went the month before Thanksgiving. I bought enough, with coupons, to cover both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then I made (a large) $3 green bean casserole,” Watson said.

Being able to help others with her couponing skills is the highlight of the process, Watson feels. It’s not just about the rush of the bottom line.

“There was a man at the checkout who couldn’t pay for this package of razors because it was so expensive,” she recalled. “I looked through and found a coupon that I was able to give him. It was important to him, and I felt like I was able to help.”

Couponing has been such a rewarding experience, Watson says she has every intention of continuing for the rest of her life.

“Even if I had a million dollars, I would still use coupons,” she said. “Why would you spend money that you don’t have to spend?”

Somewhere down the road there may be enough in Watson’s collection to donate to a food pantry, or even start one of her own.

“If you’re getting these things for free, you should be helping other people with them. The time and effort is all worth it when you can share your savings,” she said.

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