Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Review: How to Shop For Free by Kathy Spencer

In her book, How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something for Nothing, Kathy Spencer shares her method (and her madness) for using coupons to whittle her weekly grocery bill down to $4 or less. She also shares tips for getting medicines, clothes, and other commodities for free or nearly free.

And when I say that she shares her method, I mean that she gives lots and lots and, did I mention lots, of information. Which was one thing I really liked about this book. Honestly, I was a little surprised at how very many resources, tips, and perfectly legal tricks she gives about how to save. Admittedly, I approached the book as a bit of a cynic, expecting a few mediocre tips--things that a normal and busy kind of girl like myself either already does or could never ever do (and don't worry, there were some of those too). Apparently I've become jaded by books and articles promising to teach me something "new" and "fresh" and then rambling on about how in order to save money I should re-evaluate my car insurance, or fire my housekeeper, or not shop while I'm hungry--you know, that kind of thing. But this book really was full of nuts and bolts. So even though my cynicism wasn't entirely overwhelmed, I certainly did appreciate that.

Let's start off talking about why I was a cynic/skeptic:

1. We eat relatively few processed foods. This is as I think it should be whether the food is free or not. I see very few coupons for foods other than processed ones and therefore couldn't see myself benefiting too much from couponing.
2. In my town, there is not a store where coupons can be doubled or tripled. There are no CATalina deals (the type of deal where if you spend $30, they'll reward you with 10 or 15 "dollars" at the cash register--money that can be applied to your next shopping trip at that store).
3. It seems that all the coupon queens spend hours upon hours clipping, searching, researching, and shopping. I don't have the time for that. I have small children who usually shop with me (whee, fun). And even if I could save $20/week, that's sure not worth 10 or even 5 hours of work clipping and sale-matching.
4. I've been looking to match coupons to sales in the area (thereby scoring a lower final price) for a couple of weeks now and find that my internet coupons and the stores in our area rarely if ever match up on even one item.
5. I don't love to shop. I would never do it every day. Or for hours at a time. Or go to more than 3 (which is pretty much an absolute maximum--did I mention I shop with small children) stores in a day.

So, what exactly did I glean from this book? Plenty. For example, did you know...

1. Manufacturer and store coupons can be used together.
2. If you use a buy one get one free coupon (that's, say, a manufacturer's coupons), the free item is still technically purchased and therefore if you've got another store coupon for buy one get one free, you can get them both free.
3. CVS and Walgreens have a rewards type program where you can buy things, thereby earning "bucks" for the amount of what you spent. You can then use those "bucks" the next time you shop to buy more (though different) things that have "bucks" attached. In this way, you can keep buying and stockpiling without spending anything as long as you stick to those products that are spitting out the "bucks." These products are supposedly advertised each week.
4. You can buy coupons on eBay. Well, technically, the coupons are free and you buy for the service of having them clipped for you.
5. Peelies--those coupons stuck to other goods in the store--can sometimes be used without purchasing the item they're stuck to (read the fine print before peeling it off to be sure).

Those were all things I didn't know or didn't get or couldn't have possibly conceived (coupons? on eBay? how do the sellers make any money?)

We'll get to some things I plan to try in a minute, but for now...

With so much new and interesting information, how have I managed to hang desperately to pieces of my original skepticism? Well, I'll tell you...

1. In Evansville Indiana if you plan to eat some fresh produce with any frequency (and possibly even if you don't), you will never ever shop for free. As I said earlier, there are no stores that double or triple coupons and there are no CATalina deals (reward money when you spend a certain amount that can be used to shop at that same store the next time). Spencer buys most of her free meat and produce with CATalina money. I simply can't.
2. Because of this, the question remains: How much time with I have to expend clipping coupons, researching sales, going to different stores, removing children from car seats (over and over and, oh--the torture, over again), driving, and actually shopping in order to save some money on certain processed foods we do use (such as pasta) or toiletries? I don't yet know. If I could save $20-$50 for a few hours planning, that's totally worth it to me. If not, then it's just not. I plan to give it a try this month and find out. I'll let you know.
3. Printable coupons expire faster than newspaper ones, making the whole newspaper thing not necessary, but helpful if you're looking to pair coupons with store sales.
4. She plugged her blog a LOT. That's fine except that each time I went to her blog to try to get the amazingly helpful information I'd been promised, there just wasn't a whole lot there. For example, she kept talking about this fabulous database for coupons. You just search the coupon you hope to find and if it's out there anywhere and not expired, someone will have posted it. She even encourages you to start your couponing quest by searching for a buy one get one free coupon and trying to match it to a sale. I did just that. Not a single buy one get one free coupon listed. Then I searched Ghiradelli, which I'd certainly love to buy more cheaply. Nothing. In fact, the whole page of listed coupons was just that--a page. And a somewhat lean (yet processed food) page at that.
5. You've got to be willing and able to stockpile to make it work. I'm willing to stockpile, so that's not a problem for me, but I know others wouldn't or couldn't because of space limitations.
6. Even if you did manage to shop for free--meat, dairy, and produce included--you're not going to be shopping local or buying animal products from animals that have been humanely raised. Well, maybe once in a very blue moon if you live in a trendier city with trendier coupons. But still not often.
7. To coupon like Spencer does, you have to have a lot of time and heaven help you if you've got small kids with no one to watch them while you shop. Shopping for free is Spencer's job (and was even before she made a name for herself by doing it). She spends a lot of time doing it. I don't have a problem with that--per her estimation she saves $60,000/year, which isn't a bad salary. But if you already have a job or if you're an at-home mom with small children and hobbies besides shopping, you'll be hard pressed to find the 20-40 hours to shop for free (and that's if you live in an area with all the couponing perks).
8. I still don't love to shop. This method, especially the more advanced things like getting clothes for free--they're for people who love to shop, who go to the mall all the time, who'd rather be in a store getting a great deal than doing anything else. That's just not me.

That said, I do think some of her tricks of the trade can be adapted to those with less time than I have and I totally plan to try some of her stuff to see if I can save some money and maybe even start to score some of our basics for free.

What do I plan to try?

1. That CVS/Walgreens thing where you get the rewards bucks and are careful to apply them to another thing with rewards bucks, thereby never spending anything and getting lots of things for free. I'm not expecting bags of organic apples or anything. But some toilet paper would be nice. Or toothpaste. Or even some new eyeliner. I have a CVS and Walgreens very close to my house. I pass them constantly. All I'll need to do (theoretically) is have a quick look at their ads to determine what the rewards deals are ("Extra Bucks" at CVS and "Register rewards" at Walgreens) and then run in and get them, take home my rewards bucks and return another day to get the next rewarded item they've got. It sounds simple. We'll see if children in car seats cooperate.
2. Buy coupons online. I mean, how easy and awesome does that sound? No buying 4 Sunday papers. No clipping. No coupons for a bunch of stuff you'd NEVER use. And lots of coupons for stuff you would. I had a quick look at eBay the other night and found a package of 20 coupons for $1/pasta. The coupons cost about $2 (and that included shipping). Even if that left me with $.50/pasta package, that's a pretty good deal (not to Spencer maybe, but to me) and over time it would cut down my grocery bill. I plan to make a list of all the processed foods I do buy, or might buy if they were cheaper (pasta, chocolate chips, spices, peanut butter--oh help, the peanut butter we consume, yogurt, etc...) and then search for coupons for those items on eBay to see what turns up. My hope is that lots of coupons packages will turn up for lots of things we use. We'll see how that pans out in real life and I'll let you know.
3. Pairing store ads with coupons. I've been casually trying. I'm going to give it more of a go in the next few weeks and see what happens.

My goals?

1. To save $20-$50/month for an hour or two of work.
2. In order to make it worthwhile to me the savings will have to really trump those from my beloved Aldi. For example, when I can get a box of cereal at Aldi for $1.59, it's not worth it to me to make another stop at another store to get a box that, after coupons, is $1.49. Smiling tiger on the front of the package or not.

Skepticism aside, this book was brim-full of ideas and info. It might be worth a trip to or amazon. It's well worth a trip to your local library. Which, for the record, is where I got mine. I haven't been paid or reimbursed in any way to read and review this book. 


  1. Blogger hates me...
    I do the Walgreens/CVS thing and you can get your tolietries and cereal for VERY cheap that way... Not much else.
    I find the blog to be very helpful. They match up coupons to stores for you (not that we have most of the stores, and our coupons aren't always the same).

  2. Good to know blogger doesn't just hate me:). And good to know you've tried the Walgreens/CVS thing and it works. I'll have a look at couponing101.



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