“I’m willing to sacrifice a little comfort for a whole lot of money,” said Ostrander.
Ostrander saves at least 95 percent on all her grocery bills and often walks out of local stores with cash in hand. She has done extensive research on the coupon policies at every store in the county and is an experienced dumpster diver. After years of practice, she has the art of couponing down to a science.
“I never spend more than four hours a week on it,” said Ostrander. “When I first started, it was taking me around 40 hours a week.”
Mary Ostrander recently shared her couponing skills with the public in a free workshop held at the Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library. “Couponing 101,” as Ostrander calls her one-hour class, taught participants the basics of couponing and used interactive games to help them find the best deals at local stores.
“If you do it right you can make a lot of money,” Ostrander said. “Planning is the biggest part of couponing.”
Extreme couponing requires understanding and organizing coupons and strategic planning of grocery store visits, Ostrander tells people. She says printing from home is the best way to go and she often prints on the back of junk mail to save paper. For organization, Ostrander recommends a box with envelopes or a binder with baseball sleeves.
Ostrander still brings a large calculator on her store visits. She says it’s important to know what coupons each store accepts and it also helps to make a list of what one needs to buy and how much one expects to save.
“When you first start you can’t expect to run in and come out in 20 minutes,” she said. “There are going to be kinks. You have to have a plan.”
Ostrander takes the art of couponing a bit further. When she gets cash back on a purchase, she will buy items she doesn’t need in bulk, such as baby formula, and donate them to friends or local shelters.
“Even if you don’t need the item, buy it and donate it,” Ostrander said. “You are getting paid to take it.”
Ostrander admits that while cashiers and managers are not always thrilled to see her walk in the store, she is still a respectful customer. She comes prepared with policies in case a manager questions her purchases. She never clears the shelf unless the store is closing or does anything illegal such as photocopying coupons.
“The goal is not to upset the cashiers,” Ostrander. “I was once a cashier myself so I understand. You don’t want to do anything that could cost them their jobs.”
Ostrander says Publix is her favorite place to shop because it allows multiple types of coupons to be used on a single purchase and the cashiers have a good understanding of the coupon policy. Publix also doubles coupons valued at 50 cents or less and gives cash back.
While many coupons are for toiletries and junk-food items, Ostrander says it is possible to save on groceries if one takes the time to stock up on other meal components. She estimates that it takes three to six months for beginning couponers to fully stock their kitchens.
“The hardest things to get with coupons are meat, fresh vegetables and fruits,” said Ostrander. “However, pasta and pasta sauce are easy to acquire. There are also a lot of coupons for canned vegetables.”
Ostrander admits that saving on a steak and mashed potato dinner is difficult, but a splurge is worth it every once in awhile if a family is already saving on their grocery bills. She says having two small children makes preparing meals a little easier.
“Being creative helps especially if you have little kids,” Ostrander said. “If it looks fun, they’ll eat it.”
Ostrander says the two best couponing sites are krazycouponlady.com and livingrichwithcoupons.com. These sites allow users to select the stores they regularly visit and view all the deals available for the upcoming week.
Ostrander, who also does home organization, hopes to lead more couponing workshops in the future. Although it is a time-consuming process, she believes the end results are worth the extra effort.
“Couponers don’t make best friends in stores,” Ostrander said. “However, they are providing for their families and not breaking any rules.”