Originally published on Page A1 of the York Daily Record/Sunday News on Sunday, July. 24, 2011.
By LAUREN BOYER
Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA — Sheri Stott hasn’t paid for toilet paper in three years.
Still, at least 80 rolls of it — enough to last a year — fill a second-floor closet at the Lower Windsor Township farmhouse the 41-year-old shares with her 4-year-old daughter Ashlynn and Charles and Joan Patterson.
Two floors below, a musty cellar houses a spare refrigerator packed with 12 half-gallons of Turkey Hill iced tea — only 50 cents per jug — and a shelf lined with canned goods and coffee canisters.
It’s not a fallout shelter.
It’s where Stott, who friends crowned the “coupon queen,” guards her royal treasure, foodstuffs purchased for the four-member household, plus Sophie the cat, Blossom the dog, and Softie the rabbit.
She doesn’t consider her pairings of weekly store deals with manufacturer coupons “extreme couponing” — a term coined in the title of a TLC television series known for deal-hungry grocery hoarders who devote hours to shopping tactics that save hundreds of dollars.
Couponing, a sport to some, holds the key to survival for others treading water in an economy marked by layoffs and high prices for basic needs.
Grocery prices, too, continue to soar. In February, a 3.9 percent food price increase represented the largest one-month gain since the oil price shock of 1974.
Giant Food Stores, with 12 locations in York County, has noted an uptick in coupon activity since the TV series premiered in April, spokesman Christopher Brand said.
The grocery store chain’s coupon-redemption rates were “normal” in 2007 and 2008, Brand said. Rates spiked in 2009 but deflated in 2010.
“Our store teams have noted some customers adopting the practices of the show,” he said. “We’ll see by the end of the year if there’s been any impact.”
At Weis Markets, shoppers a decade ago applied a coupon on one out of every 100 items, said spokesman Dennis Curtin. Today, the rate has increased to two coupons per 100-item purchase, he said. The
store’s policies and per-person limits on sale items curtail the stockpiling techniques touted by the show.
“If you’re a retailer, you’re most interested in keeping sale items in stock. They’re meant for as many customers as possible,” Curtin said. “The idea that you’ll come in and get $250 worth of products for $15 — that doesn’t happen in the real world.”
Stott, a loyal Weis shopper, couldn’t care less about the coupon craze.
She’s never watched the show.
“Couponing started out of necessity,” she said. “Now, it’s more of a way of life. You just get used to it.”
Ashlynn’s silver-striped dance costume sparkled as she darted through the automatic doors toward the bakery inside Weis Markets on
East Market Street in Springettsbury Township.
“She has to get her free cookie,” Stott said, watching her daughter wrap a tiny fist around three chocolate chip cookies stuck together.
It’s dessert for the bouncy, chatty preschooler, who lucked out earlier that night with a free macaroni and cheese kids meal at Perkins, courtesy of mom’s coupon.
“I used to coupon in high school with my mom. When you’re 20, it’s not cool,” Stott said. “When you’re a mom, it’s cool again.”
Stott paced swiftly through the aisles, stopping for barbecue sauce, a household favorite.
“I’m getting lazy in my old age,” she said. “I used to make my own.”
Stott checks each nutrition label for soy. Charles Patterson is allergic.
That day in early June, the Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce was on sale for $3. Her 75-cent-off coupons would double, making each bottle $1.50.
“That’s too much,” Stott said, tossing 14 bottles of Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce into the cart. “If you’re hung up on a certain brand, coupons won’t work for you.”
The Sweet Baby Ray’s, priced at $2.19, were “buy one, get one free.” Seven coupons for $1 off two Sweet Baby Ray’s products drove the price to roughly 60 cents per bottle.
Next, she added eight boxes of San Giorgio angel hair pasta to her purchase — if you can even call it that.
The noodles normally cost $1.49. They were on sale that week for $1. Stott’s eight coupons, each for 55 cents off, doubled to $1.10 off. All eight boxes were free.
“Honey, put that down. It’s glass,” she told Ashlynn, who struggled to pluck a jar of tomato sauce off the bottom shelf.
Stott usually spends more money when she isn’t keeping one eye on her precocious daughter, who scampers up and down aisles, sneaking items in the cart and peeling dropped change off the floor.
That day, Stott added a Hidden Valley salad kit to her list of freebies.
Weeks earlier, she called the company to complain that the dressing packet — the size you’d get with a fast food side salad — was too small for a kit that claims to serve four people. The company mailed her a coupon.
She did the same with a jar of Mott’s apple sauce that molded after only two weeks in the fridge.
“I’m always on the phone with someone,” she said.
At the checkout, Stott separated her purchases into two transactions, with four boxes of pasta in each.
According to Weis’ policy, only four of the eight pasta coupons could double if she lumped the items into a single transaction.
At Weis, manufacturer coupons double up to 99 cents.
The store also accepts Internet coupons up to a $10 limit. But Stott doesn’t bother with those anymore.
“I was wasting too much ink and not using them,” she said.
Using 22 coupons, Stott paid $18.72 for $73.20 of groceries, which she loaded into a gray Ford Freestar minivan.
“C’mon Ash,” she said. “Let’s roll.”
Ashlynn rounded the kitchen table, pushing a plastic toy grocery cart, as Stott pulled a spongecake out of the oven.
Nine years ago, the licensed professional nurse moved into the farmhouse to cook, clean and care for Joan Patterson, 60, who has multiple sclerosis.
After a brief hiatus to care for an ailing relative, she moved back in three years ago.
The relationship, originally a business arrangement, evolved into friendship. The Pattersons love Stott and her sharp shopping.
They joke that she would — if she could — use a coupon to buy her tombstone.
“When I get a real good deal on something — doesn’t matter what it is — I say, ‘I did a Sheri,’” Joan Patterson said. “That automatically says, ‘I got a real good deal.’”
But couponing only scratches the surface of Stott’s will to save.
On a budget, she buys quarter cows from the local butcher, instead of store-packaged meat.
Much of Ashlynn’s wardrobe came from Salvation Army, or as Stott calls it, “Sal’s Boutique.”
To live with the Pattersons, Stott pays $125 each month toward utilities and bears the cost of groceries.
Cheaper groceries means cheaper rent.
That’s why Stott collects at least five sets of coupons per week from her Sunday school class at Mount Calvary Church in Elizabethtown.
Nearby is Stott’s dream home, a ranch house owned by an 85-year-old man looking to downsize.
“He knows I want to buy it,” she said.
All the more reason to clip and save.
“It’s frugal, honey,” she said with a smile. “It’s not cheap.”
Here’s the accompanying sidebar:
York women team up to strategize, capitalize on savings
By LAUREN BOYER
Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA — Nacole Gaines strutted out of Dollar General on Edgar Street in York with 12 boxes of Fixodent for her mother’s boyfriend.
That day, the 32-year-old York city woman got paid to shop, buying the denture adhesive creams, priced at $2.50, using coupons for $3 off.
It’s against policy at Weis Markets and Giant Food Stores, but Dollar General gave cash back on the coupons, which Gaines applied toward corn beef hash, paper towels and cooking oil.
She paid 69 cents total, earning $36 total savings.
Every Sunday, Gaines spends six hours with friend, Laurie Haines, 40, of York, sorting coupons into three-ring binder pages and strategizing similar excursions.
“It’s not that much trouble,” Gaines said. “You just have to take your time. Just like you take your time to make sure you’ve got an outfit to wear to the club, you take your time to make sure you’ve got coupons for savings.”
The women adopted the deal-finding practice two months ago after watching the TLC show “Extreme Couponing.”
Their initial trips, they said, were met with groans from cashiers and other patrons in line, irritated at their multiple transactions, stacks of clipped coupons and confusion about store coupon policies.
“The first time we went to Giant on Pauline Drive, we had everyone mad at us,” said Haines, a state unemployment claims examiner.
This wouldn’t be the first time their patience was tested. A few weeks later, Haines encountered a cashier at a local chain drug store who hassled her for using $5 off coupons to buy Tylenol Precise, on sale for $5.
“I’m glad she was checking you out. I would have cussed her out,” said Gaines, who blames the “extreme” side of couponing on television exaggeration.
“On TV, you see those people (buying) 100 sodas and 100 detergents,” she added. “You just can’t do that in York.”
Gaines’ more modest stash of 28 Purex laundry detergent bottles, 14 deodorants and other personal care products crowd a corner of her dining room. A kitchen shelf holds assorted condiments, including 13 bottles of Frank’s Red Hot sauce.
“Something about that show isn’t right. You see people buying Pampers, but they don’t have a kid. You see people buying cat food, but they don’t have a cat,” she said. “I’m not going to buy some riff raff I don’t need.”
Gaines and Haines both receive mid-week email alerts from coupon inserts Red Plum and Smart Source, previewing the deals coming in Sunday’s newspaper.
If the deals look promising, they’ll seek out extra papers, sometimes 20 at a time.
Some couponers use clipping services, which send shoppers requested quantities of pre-clipped coupons.
Gaines, a teacher at Mission Home Education & Counseling Services in Chanceford Township, has her own method.
“Sometimes I have my students sit there and cut coupons if they’re done with their work,” she said.
As a teacher, Gaines receives no paychecks throughout June, July and August. This year, couponing helped her stock up on basic needs for the summer months and save money for her August trip to Las Vegas.
Haines stockpiles, too. She has three other mouths to feed — her husband, Wade, and two daughters that live at home.
“They just started this,” Wade Haines said. “Now they’re coupon crazy.”