When Cherly Pevehouse pushed her loaded grocery cart up to the check-out counter, she doesn't pull green dollar bills from her purse. Her funds are yellow, red and blue coupons emblazoned with product names and pictures.
Instead of her personal checks she pulls out company refund checks. And her system does more than trim her grocery bills -- she makes money at it.
In Arkansas, a shopping trip with a reporter resulted in a 20-cent profit on four bags of groceries.In Atlanta she walked out of the store with five bags of groceries, and the cashier paid her 11 cents for her $47.65 worth of purchases. In Columbia, S.C., her new home, she paid $2.55 in cash for $11.95 in groceries and mailed in coupons that will bring her $9 in cash or product refunds for a $6.45 profit.
Prevehouse is a near-fanatic coupon-clipper and refund-requester. Fifteen months ago she made about $9,000 a year as a cardiology nurse. This year her devotion to clipping and mailing -- and a newsletter she had developed on the subject -- should net her close to $30,000, and she and her family of five will dine well for pennies a day.
Savings cents-off coupons is a nickel-and-dime effort compared to the money Pevehouse makes through company product refunds. Refund offers are used by manufacturers to coax consumers to try products. The offers can be found on specially marked packages on grocery shelves, but Pevehouse gets most of hers by writing to companies and asking for them.
"Not many do it on the scale I do," she said. "Most do it to cut back on grocery prices. I do it to pay the grocery bill."
When Pevehouse quit her job she knew she would have to take steps to defray household expenses if her family were to live on her medical student husband's salary.
"I was working 16 hours a week and spending over $100 a week on groceries, she said. "Of course, I was buying anything that was convenient and fast. Now I spend $5 to $6 a week."
Her most lucrative single refund came from a paper towel company, which paid a $7 store check for proof of purchase. In her record shopping trip, she bought a month's worth of groceries that would have cost anyone else $200. Pevehouse got $30 back, and "it made the store manager madder than fire."
Actually retail merchants do not suffer, because the product's parent firm pays handling fees and a kickback for accepting the coupons or refund checks. Check-out clerks, Pevehouse says, "usually want to know how I get them and subscribe to my newsletter on the spot."
How does she do it? She uses a coupon, saves the label from the product and sends off for another refund. It takes five hours a week to keep the system going.
One closet in her middle-class brick home is packed with boxes full of labels, proof of purchase seals, boxtops and wrappers. In other boxes, filed by expiration date, are cents-off coupons.
Before making a trip to the store, Pevehouse checks newspaper ads and decides which store has the best specials. She looks inside her boxes and decides "what offers I'm going to take advantage of and what labels I have." She buys as much as possible on special and uses coupons for everything she can't.
For example, on her Atlanta trip, Pevehouse signed nine refund checks and turned over 42 coupons, leaving her owing the store $1.89. When she looked in her purse for the change, she discovered a $2 refund check, and the surprised check-out clerk had to give her 11 cents back. Pevehouse later calculated the groceries would net her $13.12 more in coupons.
"I hardly ever buy anything we don't need," she said. But she does admit sheepishly that, while she was still a novice, her family ate chinese food three nights out of five, thanks to one firm's refund offer.
Media-covered jaunts to the grocery store led to 500 letters a day. She started a newsletter -- "out of self-defense," she says -- that began as two mimeographed pages and has grown to a 12-page tabloid-sized newsletter with thousands of subscribers. It explains refunding and provides lists, organized by month, of available cash, coin, coupon or check refunds.
The lettes she receives prove everybody is facing the same problem with the cost of food, she says. "The letters beg me to send more information and some sound urgent. One lady said she chose between the house payment and food each month."
Pevehouse believes "a person who wanted to quit her job could do this full time and stay home, if she doesn't mind a closet full of labels."
And Pevehouse is hooked for life, even though her husband is now a practicing physican and family finances aren't as tight. "I love it," she says, and then offers a true bargain-hunter's philosophy: "if something is worth money, save it. Why throw it away?"
Those interested in the newsletter can write Pevehouse care of Cash for Trash, 107 Loch Rd., Columbia, S.C. 29210. One issue of her newsletter costs $1.50 and a year's subscription cost 7.50.