Honey, I Got a Year’s Worth of Tuna Fish
Forty-five minutes before midnight on a wintry Tuesday evening, Cathy Yoder and Monica Knight, a pair of 30-something Boise women who run a popular coupon blog called Fabulessly Frugal, strode with purpose through the parking lot of their local Albertsons supermarket. It was the third and final night of “doubles” at Albertsons. This biweekly happening, during which the store issues coupons that double the value of manufacturers’ coupons, is to dedicated coupon clippers what the full moon was to Druids.
The Money Issue
Honey, I Got a Year’s Worth of Tuna Fish
Coupon Clipping as the Key to Economic Rebirth
New York Times
Forty-five minutes before midnight on a wintry Tuesday evening, Cathy Yoder and Monica Knight, a pair of 30-something Boise women who run a popular coupon blog called Fabulessly Frugal, strode with purpose through the parking lot of their local Albertsons supermarket. It was the third and final night of “doubles” at Albertsons. This biweekly happening, during which the store issues coupons that double the value of manufacturers’ coupons, is to dedicated coupon clippers what the full moon was to Druids. Yoder and Knight, who are Mormon and have nine children between them (Yoder: seven; Knight: two) had spent the day working on their blog and then taught a three-hour couponing class — all without a drop of forbidden caffeine. Yet with the supermarket in sight, they grew visibly jazzed, like Vegas high rollers entering a casino. “We’ll have it all to ourselves, and we’ll know all the cashiers,” Knight said.
Within minutes, Knight — a part-time dental hygienist with glossy, nearly waist-length blond hair and enviable white teeth — had discovered a sale on StarKist tuna fish. “Oh, Cathy, the tuna’s a dollar right now!” she said, as she stood before a shelf containing shiny blue plastic pouches of chunk-light tuna. A bulging nylon binder, which she had seated like a toddler in the front of her cart, held six StarKist coupons for 50 cents off; paired with Albertsons coupons, they were worth a dollar each, the same price as the tuna. “So it’s free right now,” she continued. “And we haven’t even blogged about it!”
For “couponers,” as they call themselves, free product is the holy grail. Freebies are obtained by combining various promotions in ways that can seem laborious and arcane to the civilian shopper: waiting for items to go on sale and then using coupons to buy them; “stacking” manufacturers’ coupons with store coupons; shopping during “double coupon” days; or receiving, post-purchase, a “catalina” — a coupon from a company called Catalina Marketing that can be redeemed on a future transaction. These little papers, which are spit out by a mini-printer that sits near the register and look like run-of-the-mill receipts, usually meet an unceremonious end in the graveyards of shoppers’ pockets and purses, but couponers regard them as cash.
Rather than thrilling to Knight’s news about the free tuna pouches, Yoder, who has reddish-brown layered hair and hazel eyes, went pale. “My coupons are at home,” she said. She is not a thundering person in general — her affect is as soft and subdued as Knight’s is right-angled and intense — but now, upset, her voice was so faint as to be almost inaudible.
“You left those at home!” Knight said, aghast.
“I forgot my new ones, yeah,” Yoder told her.
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Knight said, as she rooted around in her binder for recent coupon inserts from The Idaho Statesman. “I’m so bummed.” Using a pair of scissors with pink plastic handles, she began to clip tuna-fish coupons.
Yoder remained calm, but this was a mini-crisis. Tuna fish was an item to stock up on: it contained omega-3 fatty acids; it kept for three years; her family liked it. And this tuna fish was free. In 2009, when there was an “EPIC StarKist tuna deal,” as they’d deemed it on their blog (by combining an in-store sale, manufacturers’ coupons and a catalina, they got the tuna for five cents a pouch), she purchased 150 pouches that lasted her family a year and a half.
Both women tell stories of past bargains like football fans recalling game-winning plays. Knight remembers them down to the cent. “Did Cathy tell you about that cereal deal?” she asked me at one point, referring to a legendary Post cereal sale from 2010. “We were making money shopping,” she said. “By the time you used and doubled the coupons, you’d paid for your cereal: 6 boxes of cereal came out to $3.54, and you’d get a $4 catalina back, so you were making 46 cents every 6 boxes.” She bought 60. Yoder bought 162.
Cathy fished her cellphone out of her purse to call her husband, Roman, a part-time referee and full-time househusband. “I’m gonna see if he’s awake,” she said. “It’ll take some love, but he likes tuna, so. . . .” She dialed. “Hey, any chance you can bring me some coupons I forgot, so I can get free tuna fish?” Knight began to giggle. “I’m just at Albertsons down the road. . . . Yeah, yeah, the doubles are over tomorrow.” Roman apparently assented. “If you’re looking at the north wall,” she continued, guiding him around her office, “there’s inserts in that basket. It’s the one with chicken and asparagus on the front.”
“Is he coming?” Knight called over her shoulder, as she cruised along an empty aisle in search of reduced-price milk. Yoder nodded. “I’m psyched,” she said, joining Knight in the dairy section. Yoplait yogurt was on sale, 10 for $6. They both had $1-off coupons that Albertsons would double. For more than 20 minutes, they stood in the yogurt aisle cutting coupons, examining flavors (key lime pie? banana cream pie?) and loading up their carts. Roman texted from the parking lot. Cathy disappeared, returning with a stack of Sunday coupon inserts in hand. “He’s like, if it weren’t tuna, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said with a grin.
Cathy and Roman Yoder and their seven children live in a modest brown stucco split-level with five bedrooms and a generous backyard. One of the bedrooms has been given over to a storage room and office space: canned goods, oatmeal and boxes of cereal share shelf space with board games with collapsed tops, and two desks sit shoulder to shoulder. When Cathy, who has a wry sense of humor, noticed me looking at the crayon marks scrawled on one of the desks, she deadpanned, “We have artwork all over.”
The first morning I met her, Yoder was dressed in a shamrock green sweater, black yoga pants and cream-colored Ugg-like boots that were dingy with wear. She seemed harried: her 13-year-old daughter, Haley, was home with a stomach flu from which three of her other children had just recovered, and there was no hot water because her 2-year-old had turned down the thermostat. “These are the ones I need to take care of today,” she said, motioning to a pile of coupon inserts in a twiggy brown basket on her desk. I commented on the cuteness of a large black-and-white photo divided into seven segments, each one featuring a child. “I’ve been meaning to frame it,” she told me. “It’s on the to-do list that’s in my head.” A real to-do list from a few months earlier was still taped to her printer. It read: Budget. Auto loan. Meet credit counseling. File insurance papers. Finish bathroom. Carpets cleaned. Dentist.
Around noon, Knight arrived. Yoder didn’t look up. She was busy tweeting about a deal on the site (“$.11 toothbrushes? I say YES! Love these WinCo deals!”). Posts highlighting bargains go up every hour, starting at 7 a.m., for 12 hours. The women get anxious about letting the site, which gets roughly 900,000 page views per month, fall dormant. When she finished, Yoder prepared an automated e-mail for registrants of a Fabulessly Frugal class coming up in Bend, Ore., while Knight corrected a list of deals that coupon aficionados call “match-ups” — promotions that overlap to result in aggregate savings. The list included peaches at $2.99 a pound. “Oh, my!” Yoder gasped when she heard this. Knight edited the pricey peaches out. “Just because there’s a coupon for it doesn’t mean it’s a good deal,” she explained.
Yoder and Knight are part of a growing community of people for whom coupons are a significant part of making ends meet. After declining for nearly a decade, coupon use has increased almost 35 percent since 2008, according to Matthew Tilley, the director of marketing at Inmar, a coupon clearinghouse. Last year, more than 3.5 billion coupons for consumer packaged goods were redeemed, an increase of 6.1 percent over 2010. Coupon bloggers contributed to that increase, and though it’s hard to say how many of these blogs exist now, the numbers exploded during the recession. “When I started blogging in the summer of 2008,” says Jill Cataldo, a coupon-industry watchdog who writes a weekly syndicated column that runs in 154 newspapers, “there were not a lot of coupon blogs out there. In fact, I would be hard pressed to name more than a handful.” Fabulessly Frugal was also born in 2008. “I couldn’t even find anything local,” Yoder says. Now there are at least six other coupon blogs in the Boise area. A nasty review of a product or a complaint about a deal on one of these Web sites can have such a profound effect on customer perception — and thus on sales — that many companies have liaisons to correspond with them. Supervalu, whose major chain stores include Jewel-Osco, Cub Foods and numerous Albertsons, has created the position of “Social Media Coordinator” to communicate with bloggers and ply them with occasional giveaways.
The clipping subculture has come into the mainstream by way of TLC’s reality series “Extreme Couponing,” which portrays outlandish superconsumers clearing shelves and maintaining armamentaria of processed foods in their homes. (The show’s third season starts May 28.) In an absurdist twist, Khloe Kardashian watched “Extreme Couponing” and got Kourtney hooked; Kourtney went on a couponing trip to Morton Williams in an episode of her own reality show, “Kourtney and Kim Take New York.” “I think it really hit a nerve because of the economic times,” says Howard Lee, the head of production for TLC. “We all have to buy groceries. There’s nobody who doesn’t have to do that.”
Yoder began composing an e-mail about a Tide post to one of the part-time writers Fabulessly Frugal employs. As she typed, her 2-year-old daughter, Mallory, a kewpie doll of a child with a stubby blond ponytail sprouting from the top of her head and black ballpoint-pen marks on her face (“She draws,” Yoder remarked dryly), came in pleading for a “blue drink.” “Where’s Daddy?” Yoder asked. “In the gage,” the little girl answered. Yoder sent her out to the garage to ask her father. Then Yoder’s 6-year-old, Seth, entered the office. He snuggled up to his mom’s armpit, in an obvious performance of shyness. “Was it nice being back in school and seeing your friends?” Yoder asked him, rubbing his back. “Do you have a homework packet today?”
“Green Giant canned vegetables at 50 cents a can,” Knight was saying, oblivious to the kids. “We don’t see them go that low that often.”
Mallory toddled back in, still wanting a drink. “Mommy’s working,” Yoder said gently. Her husband arrived to retrieve the children. The dryer hummed from the other room. “Would low spin or no spin or medium spin be less wrinkles?” he asked.
Once the children had been shooed out of her office, Yoder told me with a sigh how her own mother used to prepare “a hot breakfast” every day. Yoder doesn’t often have time to cook. “Some things just have to be put on the back burner,” she said. “This is a blessing,” she said of Fabulessly Frugal. “This is our family’s income.”
Early in the fall of 2008, with six children and $40,000 in credit-card debt, Cathy and Roman were struggling to stay afloat. Roman was working as the assistant manager of a wholesale supplier for electricians; Cathy was teaching preschool three days a week and doing part-time bookkeeping for the local youth-football league. But their earnings couldn’t keep pace with their mortgage or the high-interest payments on five charged-up credit cards.
Yoder read “The Total Money Makeover,” by the radio talk-show host Dave Ramsey, and took its message — “You got to tell your money what to do or it will leave,” as she puts it — to heart. She and Roman drew up a plan to work toward financial solvency. Couponing wasn’t a part of it. “I always thought that coupons were just clutter, a waste of time, stupid,” Yoder told me. But one afternoon, while looking for affordable ways to “menu plan,” she happened upon several blogs where women were posting photos of grocery-shopping feats accomplished with the assistance of coupons. Thus began her conversion experience.
Around this time, she and Knight served together on their church’s Relief Society committee. Charged with planning activities for the female members of their ward, Yoder suggested a Web site on which church members could track local deals. The head of the committee, an older, not-very-tech-savvy woman, nixed the idea. “She was like, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Knight says. But Yoder went ahead and started a Web site on her own. Knight, who has always been ruthlessly frugal — no cable, no gym membership, no new cars — began e-mailing Yoder deals she had spotted. A month later, in November 2008, Yoder brought her on.
They christened their Web site Fabulessly Frugal because Boise Bargain Babes was deemed “trashy” by Yoder’s husband. Each week, they listed the deals from various Sunday newspaper inserts — these days they cover stores in 15 states — so that shoppers could see them all in one place. Yoder and Knight also curated printable Internet coupons and Web promotions on products ranging from diapers to Rolling Stone subscriptions. Finally, they did the arduous work of match-ups so that their readers wouldn’t have to, highlighting the extra-fabulous bargains with colored stars.
By January 2009, they were getting several hundred hits a day. Still, they were making only about $400 a month, and it was difficult to justify the late nights and long hours. Yoder and Knight began to look for ways to monetize their work by signing on with “affiliates” — companies that pay Fabulessly Frugal when the blog’s readers print a coupon or, in some cases, click through to buy a product. Their current affiliates include Amazon, eBay, Coupons.com and Escalate Network, a company that works with blogs oriented toward “women, couponing, freebies or deals.” They also began to give “how to coupon” classes. “It was definitely time-consuming,” Monica’s husband, Mark Knight, an electrician turned real estate agent, told me. “I guess I didn’t see the potential, but when I started figuring out that there was more to it than just sharing info with friends for free, and then when we started to see fruits, I was like, O.K., I guess it’s worth the time now.”
Yet just as their fledgling business was gaining a foothold, Yoder found out she was pregnant with her seventh child. Her youngest was only 7 months old. “That hit me really hard,” she told me. “We were using birth control and everything. I was like: ‘How did this happen? I don’t have time for a baby. We need to get out of debt and get our finances in order. Why is Heavenly Father giving me another baby? Cause this doesn’t work with my plan.’ ” That plan had included doubling her teaching hours at the preschool — impossible with a newborn. She fell into a depression. “I just kind of withdrew,” she said. “There was this dark feeling over me, and I couldn’t . . . I just felt like I was never gonna get out of it.”
Another blow arrived in April, when Roman lost his job. The construction boom in Boise had ground to a halt, forcing his company to downsize. The last one hired, he was also the first to go. By late summer, the couple stopped paying their credit-card bills. The following spring, they defaulted on their mortgage. In September 2010, the bank set a date to foreclose on their home. Cathy applied for loan-modification and forbearance programs, but because the household barely had an income, they didn’t qualify. She and Roman went to credit counseling and were told to file for bankruptcy. “The job loss was just — it just topped it all off. . . .” Cathy said.
“You were struggling with the reality of what happened,” Knight said to her friend. We had moved to Yoder’s kitchen. In the front yard, several little boys wielding tree branches twice their size ran around screaming with delight. “I felt more motivated, like we had to make something of it, to help you survive,” Knight continued. “But I think you were just” — she chose her words carefully — “overwhelmed.”
“I wasn’t functioning at all,” Yoder said, resting her chin on her hand. All at once, I had the sense that her tamped-down demeanor was not constitutional but situational: it had been a hard couple of years.
“So I kind of carried the blog for a while,” Knight said. “I felt like, ‘We gotta do something to help her family make money.’ ”
Fabulessly Frugal made only $7,700 in 2009, but the women knew they had something. Their readership and revenues were growing; for the month of September in 2010, they got 270,000 page views and grossed $6,400. Yoder’s paycheck, which was $1,600 that month, allowed her to qualify for a loan-forbearance program. A year later, she and Roman had finally tunneled through the interminable loan-modification process. They settled two credit cards and are still paying down the others. They never did file for bankruptcy. Fabulessly Frugal’s annual revenues currently hover in the low six-figures. Yoder and Knight each take home a five-figure salary and employ 13 other women part time.
Eighteen women and one man arrived at a classroom at a local community college to learn Yoder and Knight’s “Seven Secrets to Successful Couponing.” Yoder, who had changed into dressy black shoes and swooped half-moons of pale, frosted eye shadow across her lids, advised the stay-at-home mothers in the class to view couponing as supplemental income. “Think of it as a little part-time job,” she said, “if you need to justify it to yourself or your husband or whatever.” It certainly can have an impact: routine coupon use saves the average family $1,000 a year. And sometimes far more. Yoder’s grocery bill for her large family once ran to $1,000 to $1,200 a month; with coupons she can whittle it down to $400.
For three hours, Yoder and Knight lectured about how to obtain, clip, organize and redeem coupons to an audience hungry for their budgetary wisdom. Their advice ranged from the practical (“How do you build a stockpile? Think about the things you use and make a list”) to the logistical (“Now you have a million and three coupons; if you’re not organized, you’re going to hit a wall”) to the therapeutic (“Couponing burnout is normal. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, give yourself permission to take a break”).
But the takeaway was clear: If you want to slash your grocery bills, you must overhaul your nonapproach to shopping. Forget mindlessly rolling down the aisles, dropping items in the cart for reasons of brand recognition or this or that gustatory whim. You must become strategic, unyielding and impervious to marketing appeals. You must buy only what’s on sale — the same goes for unprocessed items, like vegetables and meat — preferably timing your coupon use to the sales and planning meals around what’s in your freezer or pantry. This is called “shopping your stockpile.” Later I asked Knight whether she ever buys a brand of ice cream or shampoo, say, at full price. “I don’t really,” she told me. “Cathy does. Like, she admitted that she buys chocolate-chip cookies just because she likes them.”
As the class progressed, the questions became more granular. One woman expressed concerns about paper waste when printing Internet coupons. “Sometimes I use scratch paper,” Knight told her. “You know all that paper you get from the school, that loose paper they send home every week? You could use that, on the back side.” Another announced that she’d just bought a ton of cheese on sale at Fred Meyer. “Is it good to freeze it?”she wanted to know. “Does it taste good after it’s been frozen?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, households without a woman rarely use coupons, according to Nielsen research. Women make 83 percent of all food purchases and also tend to manage the family budget. Yoder and Knight both told me neither husband is especially willing to use coupons when he does the family shopping, despite the obvious benefits. “He just doesn’t want to mess with it,” Yoder said. “I’ll be like, ‘You just need to take this coupon.’ He’ll grumble, and he’ll be like, ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ ”
Yet this attention to seemingly picayune detail, this typically female activity, has allowed Yoder and Knight to become the primary breadwinners for their families. The workload can be brutal — one recent week they each put in 79 hours — but there are other consolations. Grateful readers write in that they have survived job losses, reduced debt, found the money for Christmas gifts or trips to see grandparents. As Yoder put it: “You don’t get constant praise and thank-yous from your family for dinner, you know? You do the laundry, nobody gives you a ‘like.’ ”
A dominant theme of their presentation was “ethical couponing.” Yoder and Knight told stories of unscrupulous behavior — one woman sent her 3-year-old out to steal newspaper inserts off neighbors’ driveways. They expressed their concern that the inconsiderate, unprincipled couponers would “ruin it for everybody.” (Retailers like Target, Rite Aid, Kroger and Publix have already tightened their coupon policies.) The women put forth rules that sound like the Ten Commandments of Couponing: Be kind to your cashiers. Be thoughtful to those in line behind you. If you want many multiples of a product, place an order with your store manager in advance. Never photocopy a coupon.
“Keep in mind in this economy,” Yoder told her students, who had just listened, rapt, to her personal story, “that a lot of people are couponing to save their homes and survive.”
At the end of February, Cathy told her blog readers that she was taking a break from couponing to focus on her health, her fitness and her family (“my littles,” she wrote). When I saw her again almost two months later, in late April, her mood seemed markedly lighter, and I wondered if it was the vacation from couponing. I asked her why she went on hiatus. “Just the balance,” she said. “I can’t do everything. I mean, my husband’s doing the grocery shopping right now,” she said. The coupon-averse Roman, whom she sometimes affectionately calls “Mr. SuperHubs,” had taken to going to Costco to the tune of $300 a week. Cathy was particularly miffed about the boxes of single-serving chips and cookies he’d bought: “I just never even bought chips. He’d just gone crazy.” Their grocery bills had crept back to precouponing levels. “I’m sure he spent like a thousand dollars on groceries last month, maybe more,” she said. “It made me feel sick.”
We met at Knight’s house, where the women were discussing Yoder’s imminent comeback. She spent the previous day organizing her binder and was tempted to hit Albertsons for a screaming deal on Cheddar cheese. “She’s on her way back,” Knight teased, as she stretched out on the nubby beige carpeting, her head propped up by her elbow. “You need to do a shopping trip, and you need to post about it and celebrate your return.”
Around dinnertime, Cathy and I drove back to her house, where seven hungry kids were hanging around the kitchen, waiting to eat, and two boys (one of them naked and wrapped in a towel) were howling about cleaning their rooms: “Mooommm, do we have to have our room perfect-looking clean?” Roman, who is lanky and was dressed in a mismatched warm-up suit, greeted Cathy by dropping a basket of clean laundry at her feet. He headed into the kitchen, where he rinsed spaghetti noodles he’d boiled, topped them with a dollop of Prego sauce from Cathy’s stockpile and a nest of previously frozen shredded cheese, then served it up on paper plates for the children. “We’re really high class tonight, man, I’m tellin’ ya,” he joked. “We should have chips too!” Seth yelled from the table.
I asked Roman how he felt about Fabulessly Frugal and the long hours it requires of his wife. He considered the question for a moment. “I’d like to think I’m not so male chauvinistic that I want things traditionally the way they were or should be,” he said, leaning on the kitchen counter. “You gotta do what you gotta do to raise a family. And if the roles have to switch, then the roles have to switch.”
Amanda Fortini is a writer who lives in Livingston, Mont.
Editor: Vera Titunik