Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the store where Tai and Tarin Perry shopped. The correct store is Jewel-Osco. Their shopping methods have also been further clarified.
Stephanie Barr is on a mission to redeem coupons.
More precisely, she hopes to redeem respect for the process of using coupons, especially in light of the rather, uh, zealous shoppers on TLC’s “Extreme Couponing.”
Much controversy has surrounded the cable TV show and its featured shoppers, who save hundreds of dollars per grocery trip, sometimes loading up multiple carts and hogging checkout lines for hours.
While many couponers on the show have an obvious talent for saving lots of money, critics cry that some stores featured in the series break their own policies to secure a spot on the show.
In other words, they say, don’t believe everything you see.
“I had seen the show before, and I applied to be on it to show a different perspective than what was first shown,” Barr said. “There was a lot of behavior that I wouldn’t normally do, that I know a lot of couponers wouldn’t normally do.”
Barr, who lives with her family in Buford, will be featured in Wednesday’s episode of the reality TV series, which shows her teaching her 18-year-old son how to coupon before he leaves for college.
“I try to coupon ethically and show what I know of couponers,” she said.
Barr says she practices responsible couponing and teaches others to do the same through the website she co-owns, Our Coupon Home. Her normal weekly routine includes spending 20 to 30 hours a week on the website and about 10 hours on personal coupon clipping and shopping. Her coupon binder is more extensive than some family Bibles.
“One time I weighed it, and it was 9 pounds,” she said.
Barr tries to buy enough groceries to sustain her family for about six to eight months at a time, which means she has towers of toilet paper, cotton swabs, soup and others items filling her garage, plus two extra refrigerators designated for stockpiling purposes. “I probably have about $20,000 worth of products,” she said.
Jenny Martin, who runs another couponing website, Southern Savers, has her own reservations about the way stores depict themselves on the show.
“Initially, it seems fun and all, but the one holdup I have is what you’re seeing cannot be physically done in most stores,” Martin said. “There are rules that they have to follow.”
When asked, a TLC representative declined to comment about whether the series reflects standard grocery industry practices.
Martin also says viewers sometimes don’t see the whole transaction, citing an April 13 episode featuring twins Tai and Tarin Perry shopping at Jewel-Osco. The two women were depicted using coupons to bring a $385.04 grocery bill down to $13.96.
“They left off that they paid with a series of Walgreens register rewards,” Martin said. “They paid with $50 in gift cards. So really they owed $80 to $90 after coupons.” The Perrys have stated on their YouTube page that the gift cards they used were awarded to them as a result of prescription transfers, helping them to lower the overall bill.
The Perrys, whose website is Double Saving Divas, have confirmed that they used Walgreens register rewards in a YouTube video, saying that their grocer accepts those rewards. They also explain in more detail how they paid for their shopping trip, some of which was not shown in the episode. They wrote in an email that “no rules were bent for the press” during their shopping trip.
Martin says the biggest takeaway from watching the series is to remember you can apply the concepts of couponing to everything in the grocery store, not just nonperishable items.
“You don’t see them buying produce and buying meat,” Martin says of some of the shoppers featured on the series. “They have all the freebies, but the freebies aren’t what you can feed a family with. Floss and Rolaids aren’t dinner.”
Barr is proud to say that although she did alter her habits a bit for the show, her local Kroger didn’t bend any store policies for her.
“I normally would not do such a large trip,” Barr said, noting she usually breaks hefty purchases into two or three trips so she doesn’t inconvenience the store and other shoppers.
“It was about me pushing myself to see how much I could get and how low my total would be afterward. It’s one of the highest savings amounts I’ve ever had.”
She also tried to find as many coupons for free products as possible. “I bought 30 of one item. I would never usually do that on one shopping trip.”
It’s not that she doesn’t buy in large quantities. Her garage almost resembles a small convenience store — but one that’s so organized she rarely has to worry about expired food.
“That’s pretty much a couponer’s No. 1 rule: rotation of your stock.” Earlier in her coupon career, Barr made the mistake of purchasing an exorbitant amount of salad dressing, which eventually went bad. “I probably had to throw out about 12 containers, and it killed me.”
Now she writes the expiration date on the front of each product and has an organizational system for perishable goods — and the whole family’s educated about the process. “You go from the left to the right, bottom to top,” she explained.
Barr also analyzes her stash every six months and gives extra products to family and friends.
Barr said TLC’s couponing show had an extreme beginning when it premiered in December, but now it’s featuring more believable shoppers.
“The series that they’ve come out with now is more normal. It does seem that every single episode gets more realistic.”
Through her appearance on the show, Barr hopes to inspire others to start using coupons.
“I just want them to know it’s realistic to do it. I’m not special in the fact that I’ve picked this up. Everyone can do it.
“With the economy the way it is, hop on and try it for a couple of months. I would love to see people walking around stores with binders. I want to see more of us out there.”
Stephanie Barr’s couponing tips
9:30 p.m. Wednesday on TLC.
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