My correspondence with my good friend Amber these days consists mostly of grocery shopping tips. So far, our 30s are riddled with excitement.
"Whitewheat is two for $3 at Harris Teeter this week!" I posted recently on her Facebook page.
Her reply revealed her superior shopping savvy. "There's a coupon online for 75 cents, which makes it free."
She was right; with Harris Teeter's coupon doubling, I could, indeed, get one loaf for free.
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I am a devoted coupon clipper. But "free" is new territory for me.
Apparently, routinely getting items for free is practically a full-time job, not to mention the subject of a workshop circuit that's been increasingly popular with churches and other community organizations.
Grocery gurus like Faye Prosser (www.smartspendingresources.com) explain, to hordes of devoted followers, how to coordinate coupons with weekly specials -- like Amber did with the bread -- to get items for cheap or for free. They call it a blessing to be able to do this for their families.
Sometimes, if you're really skilled, you can end a transaction by getting money back, which, to me, sounds a bit like stealing. Isn't there a commandment about that?
Not to be bothered with trifles such as mortal sin, I decided to give serious couponing a serious effort.
Last month, I began filing coupons according to date and publisher, carefully memorizing abbreviations like RP (Red Plum, one of the coupon leaflets in the Sunday paper), SS (Smart Source), and P&G (Proctor and Gamble). I scoured blogs like www.southernsavers.com, where sale prices are matched with newspaper and printable online coupons -- sometimes months old but not expired -- to create incredible deals.
I enrolled in discount shopper programs and added even more tags to my already-full keychain (to date, it contains two bona fide keys and eight store discount tags; this doesn't count the other store cards in my wallet). I went from store to store, buying five to 10 items at a time, staying safely below the per-customer daily coupon limits.
I crafted menus based on the discounted items. In short, I did everything I could to save our family money on groceries.
And last month, I spent more money on groceries than I ever have.
I did get a lot for my money, but I also spent almost every free moment clipping coupons and scouring circulars. I chalked it up to the typical investment that is necessary for learning a new skill.
Besides, my linen closet is now stocked with hand sanitizer and triple antibiotic ointment. I am fully prepared for a 12-week sale drought. Or mild biological warfare.
And just when I thought I'd mastered the art of discount shopping -- just when I thought I'd honed my skills enough to take on "drug store which shall remain nameless" (DRWSRN) -- I, of course, fell flat on my face.
Picture it: I march confidently into DSWSRN, my two kids in tow and a shopping list that would rival a page from any NFL playbook.
I find my first item on the shelf, a shampoo that, sale price combined with coupon plus store reward "bucks," should end up costing about 10 cents. The only problem is, the shampoo isn't marked on sale as it was advertised. No matter, I think; I'll move on to the next item and ask about the shampoo when I make my first run through the checkout line (multiple transactions are necessary to take advantage of said reward "bucks").
The same thing happens with the second item on my list; the advertised price, which I had meticulously copied from the weekly circular onto my shopping list, doesn't match the item's price on the shelf. This happens twice more.
Not only am I beginning to get frustrated, but my kids are beginning to sniff out the candy aisle. This situation is going to come to a head, and soon. So I cart the kids to the cash register and brandish my shopping list, demanding to know what's going on.
The cashier takes a quick look at my list and smiles wearily.
"These were last week's specials," she says.
Oh. Apparently, in my zeal to collect as many coupons and sales circulars as possible, I had gotten a little mixed up.
All of a sudden, I wonder if those church couponing workshops mention the Bible verse from Proverbs about pride going before a fall.
I leave the store, defeated and empty-handed.
For the first time all month, though, I haven't spent any money. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise.