If everything were suddenly free " clothing, food, toiletries, shelter, love " then Melissa "The Consumer Queen" Garcia might take up chess. And she'd probably be terrifyingly good at it.
As it is, this mother of two has another hobby: shopping. If that sounds gauche, especially in these times of economic downturns and job losses, then you don't know Garcia. The Edmond woman shops to win. And she is vicious.
Eighteen boxes of cereal for 88 cents? Yawn. Just another day. And that's not 88 cents a box " a price many of us would love. She got all of them for a total of 88 cents, including tax. When she and friend Shannon "The Coupon Princess" Snow get together, there's no price low enough to stop them from getting a better deal.
Forget the "Glengarry Glen Ross" mantra of "Always be closing." Garcia lives by another creed: Never pay full price.Who on earth is she feeding?
You can see the thought cross their minds as the other customers look on. Garcia, thin and petite " her cart filled with odd combinations and outrageous numbers of canned beans, jarred spaghetti sauce and shampoo " pays them no mind. Her focus is always on the next great deal.
"You know, I started out like everybody else," she said. "I'd get the Sunday paper and clip a few coupons, looking for ways to save."
But she'd heard stories on the news and the apocryphal tales of men and women who net dream bargains, and she wanted to join their ranks. And all of this around the time some fly-by-night operation called the "Internet" started making noise.
So Garcia got on the AOL boards and found women across the country posting tips and tricks on how to get items for cheap, for free, or for a refund. When she started her coupon career and began the Web site " www.ConsumerQueen.com " she and her husband, Daniel, were raising two kids on $30,000 a year.
"Yeah, we were kind of doing it all on next to nothing," Daniel Garcia said.
Her friends and family took notice and began asking her to teach them how to shop (or, in the case of a lazy few, to shop for them) so she started a Web site and came up with her philosophy: Never pay full price.
But "never" never really means "never." There are still a few items out there " milk, meat, fresh vegetables " that are discounted so rarely that she will break down and pay what everybody else is paying. But don't worry: She can afford it.
"I really don't keep track of what I spend," she said. "The truth is, I only keep track of what I save."
The tally for 2008? $12,000.
For that much money, you could buy a nice used car, or even a new budget model. Or 10 laptop computers. Or a date with Anne Hathaway.
COUPONS FOR EVERYTHING
The question isn't how much she saved; it's how she saved so much.
"If you really pay attention, you can get a deal on anything," Garcia said. "We use coupons at restaurants. We get haircuts at the Supercuts training academy. I buy clothes with coupons. You just have to keep your eyes open."
Granted, those who are most interested in saving money will hold onto more of their cash by eating at home, but the point is that couponing doesn't mean denying yourself. If anything, it just means taking control of your money so you can splurge a little more often.
Taking control takes a lot of planning and the willpower to stick to those plans, she said. She plans meals around coupons, altering recipes and figuring out how to stretch her supplies to get away from heading back to the store for that one, pricey ingredient.
"For instance," she said, "I used coupons to get free taco shells, green chilies, seasoning " all I need are meat and cheese. So when you see a good price on cheese or other perishables, you pop into your storeroom and take out what you need."
And if you don't have those things in the back room? You find another use for the perishables. But that doesn't happen too often to Garcia.
"I don't like to run out of things, because you're forced to buy them at a higher price," she said.
ORGANIZATION AND DISCIPLINE
Fellow Edmondite Snow, who is Garcia's shopping buddy, said the keys to her success are organization and discipline. She organizes her coupons by expiration date to make sure she doesn't miss a deal, and she keeps them with her, so she can't get to the store without them.
"People also need to get past the idea that buying in bulk is the only way to save," Snow said. "That is not always the best deal."
Garcia found that buying replacement razors for her husband's shaving kit was far more expensive than simply buying him a new razor " handle and all " with the help of coupons.
And these deals aren't always at Sam's Club or Buy for Less or flea markets. In fact, Garcia said, sometimes you get great deals where everything is more expensive. CVS and Walgreens, for instance, give same-as-cash coupons to people who buy lots of products. Those coupons are based on how much the merchandise is worth, not how much you pay, which means Snow and Garcia often walk out armed with their next trip's payment in hand.
If this sounds gluttonous to you, well, that's because it sounds gluttonous to everybody. But those overflowing carts are heading someplace you might not expect " to those who really need it.
"I only keep what I'm going to use," Garcia said. "We give a lot of food to battered women's shelters and the Hope Center. This is just my way of paying it forward."
She believes God wants people to be good stewards of their money.
"Even if I was a millionaire, I'd still use coupons," she said. "My family has been blessed and I use them all the time, because that's what they're there for."
For Snow, the saving is a little closer to a necessity in feeding a family of five with a new baby.
"My grocery bills used to top $1,000 a month," she said. "Now it's half that or less."
Still, no matter the financial situation, there is still one big obstacle to couponers: the checkout clerk.
"Yes, some stores are pretty hostile about it," Garcia said. "But if they don't want to take your coupons, just ask for a manager. Don't let them intimidate you into paying more."
Is it a little embarrassing to make a scene like that? Sure, but you just have to ask yourself one big question:
Do you want to save money or not?
HOW DOES SHE DO IT?
Get some coupons
OK, "some" is not enough. Get every coupon you can lay hands on. Go to coffee shops and donut shops on Sunday and pick up all the leftover coupons people have discarded. Get your friends and family to give you their unused packet of coupons. Stockpile, organize and then keep them in your car at all times. Forget brand loyalty
This doesn't mean you have to shop all store brands " in fact, those might end up costing more, because there aren't so many coupons for them. But shave with a different razor. Eat Libby's instead of Green Giant if the price is better. Be willing to give something else a chance to become your new favorite. Learn the pattern
Coupons come in cycles, and you will learn to predict when, say, a big packet of Procter & Gamble coupons is on the way. Then you buy enough, for cheap enough, that you won't need to restock until the next coupon booklet comes around. "Greg Elwell