Recently, I bought 57 tubes of toothpaste, 35 bottles of shampoo and 108 rolls of toilet paper. A single woman hardly needs so much toothpaste, shampoo or toilet paper, but my favorite local charity does. Total cost: less than $30. And these toiletries were fresh off the grocery store shelves, nothing damaged, expired or recalled. My trick? Coupons.
I’m not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of smart shoppers are using the mighty little coupon to save money on everyday purchases and pass along extras to nonprofits or individuals who find themselves in a tight situation.
Every month, Brittany Tollberg, a hair stylist in Baltimore, drops off toiletries, nonperishable food and even diapers to someone in need or a local nonprofit such as Believe In Tomorrow Children’s House at Johns Hopkins, the hospital housing program for families of kids receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
By combining manufacturer’s coupons, store coupons and rebate apps when a product is on sale, Tollberg usually can get items free or pay just pennies on the dollar. Her older son Michael helps her clip coupons from the newspaper, while her daughter Jordyn proudly tells friends, “My mommy has a store in the basement.” The children also help her make goody bags filled with a toothbrush, body wash, toothpaste, shampoo and crackers to hand out to the homeless.
Jessie Alonzo, who blogs at Moola Saving Mom, places something from every shopping trip, whether it’s a can of beans or a pack of razors, into a “donation” box at her home. When the box gets heavy, or at least once a month, she totes it to her local church food pantry.
“I love donating in a real way,” Alonzo says. “It feels good that I made a change or helped in some fashion. Maybe a family had a water line break and needs cleaning supplies. That can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
When it comes to donating, “couponing allows you to do more with a limited budget,” says Joanie Demer, co-owner of the Krazy Coupon Lady. “It’s a way to turn $200 into $800.” Every coupon or deal posted to her website is vetted by making a purchase, so employees buy dozens of items each week that go into the company’s Boise, Idaho, storeroom to be “shopped” by local refugees.
Reality TV has painted couponers as hoarders, but often that’s not the case. Sure, it’s easy to go a bit bonkers when you first start couponing and feel the rush of a great score. But then, usually, comes a moment of clarity when you figure out you don’t need to stockpile hundreds of shampoo bottles or jars of peanut butter. “A friend volunteering at a shelter mentioned they were desperate for personal-care items,” Alonzo recalls. “Immediately, I went into my donation pantry and filled three plastic tubs with 120 bottles of shampoo and conditioner, hundreds of bars of soap, deodorant, shaving cream and lotion. I realized I can always refill my pantry.”
When her guest room became so full of items acquired through couponing that no one could actually use the room, Madison Pippins of Newnan, Ga., came to the same conclusion. Now, the 23-year-old retail manager takes her scores to a women’s shelter. “I once spent $5 for $120 in cosmetics, personal-care items and canned goods,” she says. “I never thought I could give as much as I do. It’s humbling.”
Perhaps Gina Schweppe of Ladera Ranch, Calif., puts it best. “Why did I go from extreme couponer to extreme donator? The honest answer is when I die, I’m not taking my stockpile of stuff with me,” says the stay-at-home mom. During last year’s California wildfires, she employed her couponing skills to score sunblock and baby wipes for firefighters on the front lines.
Here’s how you can make couponing for charity part of your everyday routine.
Look for coupon inserts in most Sunday newspapers. Print coupons from sites such as Coupons.com and Retail Me Not. Ask family, neighbors and co-workers to give you any unwanted inserts. (I leave a plastic bin on my front porch, so my neighbors can drop off their coupons.) See whether nearby hotels or gas stations will let you take the Sunday newspapers they don’t sell. And, if you must purchase an extra Sunday paper, try Dollar Tree, where they should be $1.
Go hyperlocal to find the best (and often unadvertised) deals. An Internet search for “name-of-store deal coupon blog + your state” should show you local coupon bloggers. “Let them do the work matching coupons to sales,” Alonzo says. You can also search Twitter and Instagram for #couponing to find sales and deals.
No matter the cause, find one that touches your heart and makes you feel good about donating. Then, reach out and learn what they really need. Some even have online donation wish lists, such as this one from Believe In Tomorrow’s Children’s House.
To avoid being overwhelmed, pick one store, either drug or grocery. Join its loyalty program and download its app. Each store has its own rewards program and weekly loss leaders — items they sell below cost to get you in with the idea you’ll buy other items. Focus on the loss leaders. When combined with coupons, you can get them nearly free.
To maximize your buying power, combine your coupons with rebate apps that allow you to earn cash back on certain products by scanning your receipt. Once you reach a certain threshold, money is deposited to a Pay Pal account or redeemed for a gift card. You’ll want to add at least one of these apps to your coupon arsenal. The largest is Ibotta. Other popular options are Checkout 51, SavingStar and Fetch Rewards. In addition, many retailers send extra offers (including freebies) via text.
Miss a killer deal? Don’t beat yourself up. Sale s are cyclical. That toothpaste or toilet paper will go on sale again in four to six weeks, if not at one store, then its competitor.
Veteran couponers make a beeline for the clearance aisle in every store. You can almost always use your manufacturer’s coupons on top of the sale price, and rebate apps don’t care what you paid for an item, as long as it’s on your receipt.
Daily is a consumer writer based in Denver. Her website is dailywriter.net.