On a recent Wal-mart shopping trip, mom of two Heather Eastwood bought six deodorants, six body washes, six razors, a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk. The transaction cost the store $3.50 — yes, the store.
Eastwood walked out with her goods and an extra $3.50 in her wallet.
"My coupons exceeded the value of the purchase," said the Pittsfield, Mass., resident, who remembers the shopping trip with pride. "Wal-mart will give you money back if that happens."
Four years ago, Eastwood was introduced to the world of couponing after she lost her job while expecting her second child. Faced with the daunting task of helping feed her soon-to-be family of four on one income, Eastwood said a friend suggested couponing. She stumbled on to Jean Sanders' Facebook group "Couponing in the Berkshires," where clippers share tips, deals and even extra coupons, and she was soon hooked.
"It can be overwhelming at first," Eastwood said of mastering the art of deals, but after Sanders, a Lenox, Mass., mom of two, shared a page or two from her coupon book, Eastwood was quickly adding up the saved dollar signs.
"I saved $5,245 in one year just from couponing," she said.
Sanders, who started seriously clipping seven years ago, and Eastwood speak in a couponing lingo, where your OOP (out of pocket) number is as sacred as your Social Security number. While it may feel like a secret club, it's not according to Sanders.
"There are no stupid questions," she said of learning to coupon. "We were all new once."
It's that sense of community and willingness to share knowledge that motivates both women to host a free coupon class with The Berkshire Eagle from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Eagle's headquarters at 75 S. Church St. in Pittsfield.
"It can be addicting," said Sanders, but she's quick to debunk common misconceptions about the couponing clan.
"My life isn't like 'Extreme Couponing,'" she said, referring to the once-popular reality show on TLC. "I'm not stockpiling in my house."
"I don't need 85 mustards," said Eastwood. "People get a misconception of what I do from the show. I only buy what my family needs for a year and donate the rest."
Also, you can still eat healthy while saving money with coupons, according to Sanders, who calls her husband a "food snob," preferring to purchase organic meat at higher-end grocery stores. She points out that because she can save so much money on common coupon items — such as toiletries, pet food and dry goods — they can put their savings back into fresh vegetables and quality meats.
So what do you need to know if you're interested in wracking up the savings? First, Sanders said, you can't be brand specific about everything. Eastwood agrees, encouraging her children to be comfortable eating different brands of cereal week-to-week, depending on what is on sale. Second, just about everything goes on sale, eventually.
"Everything has a sale cycle," said Sanders. "The cycle usually lasts about eight to 12 weeks."
The cycle also usually matches up to the season. For example, right now you can find coupons for common picnic and grilling items, such as condiments and sunscreen.
Both moms keep an eye on the weekly sales fliers and match those up with Sunday coupons in the paper.
"The coupons and sales fliers coincide," explained Eastwood, whose favorite stores to hit up with her coupon spreadsheet are CVS and Target because of their extra rewards points and gift card promotions. You also need to know the stores' policies on coupons — for example, some will take manufacturer's coupons with their own offers, others will not. Some stores will limit the number of coupons you can use in a single transaction, and some cannot pay you the difference if your coupon exceeds the price of the item.
They also suggest planning your meals around the sales fliers. Start with the front page, said Sanders, purchasing only the "loss leaders" — or the items sold below cost price in an effort to get you in to buy other items not on sale. So, if chicken is on sale, plan your meal around that and only walk into the store to purchase that item, according to Eastwood, who makes a weekly shopping list to avoid straying and purchasing non-sale items.
Sanders also said not to be afraid of buying meat in bulk at a cheaper price — almost anything can be frozen. Both women make excellent use of their chest freezers.
"For some people, couponing is a necessity," said Sanders, who left her job to start her own business three years ago. "Thanks to couponing, our quality of life has not changed. This way, I'm still able to contribute to the family budget, even though I essentially cut our household income in half when I left my job."
Eastwood said her family's lifestyle is also unchanged now that she stays home to raise her children thanks to coupon savings.
"Couponing pays for my daughter's lacrosse and acting classes," she said. "Because I'm saving money on things my family needs."
Interested in learning more about couponing? The Berkshire Eagle is hosting a free couponing class with Heather Eastwood and Jean Sanders.
What: Berkshire Eagle sponsored Coupon Class, teaching Coupon 101, the basics
When: From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, June 11
Where: The Berkshire Eagle Building, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, Mass. Enter through the main entrance and follow the signs.
Suggested donation: Every person who attends will receive a raffle ticket for various free giveaways. Bring a non-perishable food item to earn additional raffle tickets, if you wish. Food items will be donated to a local food pantry.