A Day in the Life of... The Coupon Mom

How can you feed a family healthily — and on the cheap? The Coupon Mom has all the answers!
Coupon MomA Day In The Life Of... Series Cap

Stephanie Nelson is better known as The Coupon Mom, and for years she’s been giving advice on how to save big on your weekly grocery bill on TV and through her Web site, CouponMom.com. Read on to get budget tips from the mom of two teenage sons who manages to feed a hungry family healthy food, while saving the big bucks.

When did you first start using coupons?
When my first son was born, I started thinking about quitting my career to stay home, and that forced me to think about how to stretch one income. When I looked at the household budget, I realized the area with the most wiggle room was grocery spending. I didn’t want to sacrifice quality; just save money.

How was the Coupon Mom born?
I wanted to find a way to help the needy by using my passion for saving for groceries. Our church made an emergency request for food at the local pantry in the church bulletin. All the items they needed were coupon items. I started the “Cut Out Hunger” campaign, collecting coupons for church, teaching networks of people how to do it. I set up a Web site and then Good Morning America had me on in April 2004, when they named me Coupon Mom. My objective from the very beginning was, how can we help people, and now with the economy [it’s particularly relevant}.

How long do you normally spend prepping before a shopping trip, and how often do you go to the store?
I try very hard to shop once a week, on a Saturday morning, and I make a comprehensive list of everything I need for the week. Even if you need just one or two items midweek, you make that extra trip to the store and blow your budget. If I spend an hour doing the list — meal planning, shopping list, organizing coupons — I still think I spend less time on shopping as I’m not making frequent trips. The most important part of saving money is sticking with that plan. If you take your kids midweek to pick up a loaf of bread, good luck on coming out with just a loaf of bread!

How do you start planning?
I start by looking at the store’s circular and look for the high-impact [deeply discounted] item — you should know the prices of your common items like pork, chicken, other types of meat; it’s often boneless chicken breast. The things that tend to be half price are frozen vegetables, cereals, items retailers know every family uses. They’ll put them on the front of the flier knowing it draws people into the store.

When meat items are half price, I’ll plan three meals that week using that item, and also buy enough for the freezer. Just buying that one item alone on sale, I save $360 a year. You don’t have to be perfect shopper for 200 items, just that one.

A lot of coupons seem to be for products that are highly processed. How do you balance being healthy with being frugal?
There are coupons for things like yogurt, eggs, cheese, veggie burgers, other items that I think are healthy. I skip a lot of the ones for fattening snack foods. I can make a homemade batch of cookies for less. Even when these items are 80% off, I still skip them. It’s the absolute dollar I’m spending; I would rather buy six bananas for a dollar, than a box of granola bars on sale.

What are some of the products and categories that most frequently issue coupons?
Cereal, coffee, tea. If you’re brand-flexible you’ll always get what you need on sale. I’ll always get diet salad dressing as it’s hard to make your own. Frozen veggies are a big coupon item. They can be better than fresh in the winter, and certainly cheaper. Oatmeal is almost free with a coupon when it goes on sale.

What are some of your go-to meals?
I’m a pretty simple cook. If a recipe has a dozen ingredients, it’s going to blow my budget. People need to know what meals cost. You might say, I got a good price on chicken — but how much does it cost to serve it with rice and veg, as opposed to chicken noodle soup? Common meals include homemade soup at least once a week, chili, pasta with sauce and veg. I try to plan one meal a week that uses some leftover ingredients, so frittata is very popular — use steamed broccoli and brown rice from a chicken dinner, add a dollar’s worth of egg and cheese and you have a great dinner. My favorite is grilled salmon – and once a week we’ll have it when fish is on sale.

What are some store tricks to watch out for?
Be aware of unit pricing. Don’t assume the big package is cheaper or better value, especially for things like diapers. Also, things at eye level are probably more expensive. I get a lot of store brands, such as graham crackers, they’re always on the bottom shelf. Do you really want the world’s best graham cracker? Also, when you see things like 10 for $10, unless the store says you must buy 10, you don’t have to.

One more thing — always look at the circular. Almost all stores now have store discount cards and automatic promotions, but you won’t know that until you look at the circular. Things like, buy three boxes of Special K and get a free gallon of milk. If I’m shopping next to people when they’re picking up the required items, but don’t know the promotion, I’ll tell them. I’m nosey and intrusive — but I’m helping them save money.

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