Gripping her metal grocery cart near the entrance of the Stop & Shop in Vernon, Conn., Kristine Lajeunesse is a shopper on a mission.
Piled in the front of the cart is her typed, categorized grocery list, a computerized spreadsheet of sale items printed from an online service and a corresponding stack of coupons. Piled in the back is 7-year-old Christian, her long-legged, sweet-faced son and shopping buddy this weekday morning.
Unabashedly, Lajeunesse proclaims herself an avid coupon clipper. She's the kind who pores over the Sunday circulars, organizing her coupons in an old baby wipes container. She'll forgo a purchase if she knows a matching coupon sits at home. She gets a rush at checkout, eyes fixed on the computer monitor as the whirlwind of in-store specials, savings cards and coupons peels as much as 80 percent off her grocery bill.
Coupon clipping - how quaint, right? Does it not evoke another time, of homemade lemonade and turkey dinners, of milkmen and soda fountains? In this frenzied age, just who has the time to snip a coupon whose big payoff is 75 cents off two boxes of breakfast cereal? And who can remember to redeem it before it expires?
About three-quarters of the adult U.S. population is who. And they're clipping their way to an annual $3 billion savings, according to the Promotion Marketing Assn.'s Couponing Council, which designates September as National Coupon Month.
"That Sunday (coupon) section of the paper is the second-most read, behind the front page. That tells us that people are still interested in it," says Charles Brown, council chairman.
Usage over the past few years remains steady, with a 1 percent bump from last year likely a response to rising gas and grocery prices, he says.
But redemption is down dramatically from a decade ago, when consumers were saving $7 billion annually. Brown attributes the decline to shorter redemption periods, typically three months or less, and more coupons requiring the purchase of two or more items - about 25 percent. Still, for fewer coupons redeemed, manufacturers are selling more products.
The highest usage, about 80 percent, is by people 45 and older with annual income between $25,000 and $50,000. But consider that 65 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds report using coupons, as do 76 percent of shoppers who earn $75,000 or more.
Still, consumers are taking advantage of only a sliver of the $300 billion in savings manufacturers offer annually.
"It always amazes me when I see people ahead of me and behind me who don't have any coupons," says Lajeunesse, who says the effort takes a mere hour a week between clipping and plotting her grocery trip to supply her family of four.
It's like found money, says Lajeunesse, 36. The savings, she says, offset the pain of fueling her green Pathfinder SUV.
Granted, this Vernon mother isn't a casual couponer. She has finessed it to an art and tracks it like a science. Her joy is palpable when she explains how she got a $4 box of cereal for 17 cents. Or how, by combining a rebate offer, a store sale and a coupon, she actually made a buck by tossing a bottle of mouthwash in her cart.
"Those," she says, "are the things I really love."
Sunday papers plus
Here is her secret: Like thousands of other couponers, Lajeunesse bolsters her savings by heading online, where Web sites devoted to coupon-swapping and sale-tracking abound. Her preferred site: The Grocery Game (www.grocerygame.com), a subscription service that monitors grocery stores, issuing weekly reports on the best sales, including ones not advertised, and how to enhance the savings with coupons.
Talk to couponers like Lajeunesse for a few minutes, and you sense the savings is only part of the allure. There's also the thrill of the hunt.
"There's something addictive about (coupons), and you'll see that word used a lot on our message boards," says Teri Gault, a mother of two and devoted clipper who began operating the site from her Southern California home in 2000.
"It's an endorphin rush. Like winning a game in Vegas," she says. "You kind of get a high at the grocery line when your cart's loaded to the top and you're paying $50."
The game, says Gault, goes like this: Most grocery items hit their lowest price every 12 weeks. Combined with a coupon, that's the ideal time to stock up. She divides shopping into two categories: stockpiling, for nonperishable items, and needs-shopping, for milk and produce. The savings increase when a shopper amasses a sizable stockpile.
Gault says a family of four averages a $482 monthly savings by subscribing to her site, which costs $10 for eight weeks, with a four-week trial membership offered for $1.
Good for singles, too
The math makes sense for a large family. But how much toilet paper and canned peas can a swinging single reasonably buy?
Gault says there's still plenty of savings to be had, considering that the most expensive groceries - paper towels, cleaning products - aren't edible. And instead of spending $20 or more a day dining out, she says, college students and young professionals can reach into their freezer for dinner at a price that coupons whittled down to less than $2.
For the health conscious, Gault says, coupons are no longer the province of variety junk-food packs. With mainstream grocery stores increasingly carrying organic and health-food products, coupons for yogurts, soy milks and whole grain cereals are multiplying.
Newbies join in
It's all driving virgin couponers - they who have never heard the term "double coupons" - to run their first pair of scissors through a circular's dotted lines.
"There's this whole group caught up in this buy-it-now culture that's gotten themselves in credit card debt over the years and they want help," says Susan Sanders-Kinzel, president of ThriftyFun.com, which includes a coupon swap among its free online offerings. "As things get tighter because gas prices have gone up and food prices have gone up, people are using more and more coupons, working really hard to find ways to save money."
To newbies, she says, avoid these rookie mistakes: Don't buy something just because you've got a coupon. If it's not a product you really use, don't clip the coupon in the first place. Keep your coupons in an organizer and at the ready, in your purse or in your car.