The story is inspiring: Kathy and her husband are a working family. Unfortunately, eight years ago he contracted pneumonia that landed him in the hospital and in real danger. He thankfully got better after a few weeks, but with the way insurance is in America, especially for low-income families, we can all guess what that would mean in terms of medical bills and weeks of absence from work for the family. One day, as she was making her way to the hospital, Kathy says she saw a bottle of juice on sale for a dollar, which she happened to have a coupon for. She rummaged through her purse to find the coupon, and when she did, she discovered it was a dollar’s worth – meaning, the bottle would be completely free.Kathy says “a lightbulb turned on” at that moment, and since then she has made it her goal to challenge herself, by applying this tactic to as many products as possible.
To do this, she follows the paper and websites offering coupons, changing her shopping habits to lower costs to a minimum. She never thought she’d ever get by $4 a week – but she eventually did. Kathy’s new world order is comprised of searching for sales, organizing coupons, and shopping at specific locations, all of which allows her family to funnel their money elsewhere: taking care of their home, debts, and their children’s education.
Kathy says she and her husband have no credit debt, they live in the house of their dreams, and they never fight about money – all because of her new coupon-based way of life. Perhaps shopping for $4 a week is too much for most people, but maybe there’s a point to what Kathy is doing for her family; we often ignore the small details in front of us – store credit, Sunday paper coupons, online sales – all because we’re used to shopping in a certain way, and are maybe sure there is no other way. Well – there is, and Kathy Spencer is happy to share her knowledge to teach families how to shop smarter and live better – and less stressfully.
Here’s her story, her tips, some more tips – and what she has to say about it all.
The rat race
Working, paying bills, shopping for food, paying for school – it can all seem like an endless, exhausting, empty race. Unfortunately for 98% of us, work is a necessity of life. On the one hand, more and more opportunities for higher education mean better chances at getting into the school you want and choosing the career you want. One the other hand, more skilled workers means higher cost of living. And if you want the best – you have to pay more.
It’s no secret budgeting is the nightmare of many families. Work is the one thing you receive income from, but the debts you have to pay seem endless – from student loans to parking fees to taxes, or an unexpected broken item in the house – there’s always something – sometimes, budgeting seems like an impossible balancing act. At least it was for Kathy Spencer, a mother of four from Massachusetts, whose family was living on a humble $45,000 a year.
Right when Kathy’s husband was up for a big promotion, he started feeling ill. Within a few days, he was hospitalized with what Kathy was told was a life-threatening case of pneumonia. “It upset me,” she has said, while admitting that, “I was worried about my husband first, but my second thought was: what is this going to cost us? How are we going to do this? Are we going to be okay?”
Kathy’s concerns echo the sentiments of many families around the US. With insurance options limited to those with a lower income, an unexpected disease can setback years of planning and affect anything from school fees to food on the table. In Kathy’s case, her husband was sick for weeks. He needed a lengthy amount of time to recuperate, which caused him to be absent from work. When the medical bills started coming in, Kathy got really concerned.
‘Impossible to deal’
Many families are finding it nearly impossible to deal with the strain – and the stress of becoming ill frightens families, as it did Kathy’s. Any unexpected expense can become a crisis for any household that budgets carefully and mindfully, especially those with children. Parents are worried about debts, the ability to send their children to college, savings, and other issues. The cost of food, clothes, and other necessary items, creates a financial burden that needs to be lightened.
When it happens
When illness hit Kathy’s family, it completely broke apart their budget. The medical bills started piling up, amounting to dozens of thousands of dollars. Their usual budgeting for their four children and themselves was now at risk: Something, like Kathy said, would have to go. They couldn’t move to a smaller house; Not putting food on the table for the children was not an option. And they did not have the ability to take out a loan. It seemed they were stuck.
That was when, on her way to the hospital one day, Kathy came up with an idea that would change her life. She saw the bottle of juice on sale. “I remembered I had a coupon for that same juice,” she said on a segment on ABC. “and that it was for a dollar. And the juice was for sale for a dollar.” No need for overcomplicated arithmetics here: if she could find the coupon, the bottle of juice would be free. And she did.
That was the moment Kathy understood she could change the way her family consumes goods without having to fundamentally change their habits, by altering the way she pays for them. She decided to experiment for one week, shopping according to her usual shopping list for food for her family, while applying the juice idea to other products. If she had a coupon for them, and they were on sale, she could cut costs.
Kathy started by searching for coupons for things she knew she needed to buy. She scanned the Sunday papers, the store circles, and the web, for specific products – and found quite a bit of sale. She also found old store credit from CVS, where she often goes for drugstore shopping, and decided to use that, as well. Combined, she figured she could lessen the cost of her family’s shopping by about 20% – not bad at all, she thought, and we agree.
Kathy already had a lot of experience “following the coupons,” as she calls it. “It was something my mom did, so I learned from her not to miss out on a deal,” Kathy said. “I didn’t come from money, and neither did my husband.” It took her about 10 hours on the whole to scour for the coupons she did find, she said, for that week’s experiment. “I hoped it’d be worth it,” she smiled to the camera on the segment. “I had no idea.”
Kathy carefully applied each coupon to its relevant product and listed off each one she had marked. “It took me a while to get the hang of it,” she admits, “I must have been at the store for three hours.” No one likes to march up to the checkout counter with a bunch of coupons, but Kathy took her time, and after she was all done, she was rewarded with a very pleasant surprise.
In the end, Kathy didn’t manage to save 20%, as she had thought; instead, it was 60 percent. The nearly $100 cost of the groceries she bought was reduced, with the help of the coupons she had carefully redeemed, to about $40. “I was shocked at first,” she said in an interview. “But then I realized I can go even further with it.” Kathy says she had always “eagle eyed for a good deal”. But what she was planning on now was a completely new way to plan the family’s entire budgeting.
The results of Kathy’s experiment didn’t lie, and as she continued to implement her method, her bills were whittled down more and more. Each time she went out shopping, it took substantially less time to find exactly the items she was looking for, which were marked to be on sale. Pretty soon, she was adapting herself to the “pace” of her new and improved coupon-centric lifestyle, with her entire family being able to reap its rewards.
“There are things that you need and things that get sold and you just learn to match them, you find the rhythm,” Kathy noted. Eventually, she got to an even keel betweenwhat she felt her family needed, and what was on sale. “Things get cyclical, too,” she said, “you know on what day of the week what will be made available.” Pretty soon, this became Kathy’s regular shopping method: from 60%, to 80%, she got to almost 100%, and was, in essence – shopping for free.
Some have accused Kathy of counterfeiting coupons, or using multiple ones at different shops illegally. “It seems impossible to me that you can do this,” a Youtube user commented on the ABC segment Kathy was featured on with Diane Sawyer. “You can’t double dip coupons where I’m from.” the “double-dipping” mentioned here refers to using one coupon for more than one item at a certain buy – something that isn’t always allowed. Wanting some hard proof for the authenticity of her methods, ABC put Kathy to the test.
Smells like a bargain
Kathy happily took on the challenge. The presenter was shocked to see her open a thick binder of clipped coupons, and she quickly got to work. She presented each coupon to the camera, and showed the item she was taking for it: two scented candles, for example, were on sale, with two for one dollar, and Kathy had a coupon for one dollar. No arguing with logic, unless the ABC cameras were in on it. The candles were free.
Thinking outside the box
Kathy isn’t the first shopper to get financially creative. Reducing costs for families worldwide has been the subject of books and attempts for many years, and many people have assured and tried methods to save money. In fact, consultants who build their careers on it are nicknamed budget builders. They can’t all whittle down a $200 bill to a single penny, but they all care about the same thing: how to get the same amount of nutrition and basic subsistence people need for less money.
Even if she didn’t…
Even without relying on coupons, there are many ways in which we can reduce our costs without missing out on very much in terms of what we consume. For instance, researchers have found that spending time at the mall – even after catching a movie or getting ice cream – can lead to unnecessary spending. Piper Terrett, who wrote the book The Frugal Life, recommends spending quality times elsewhere. Like the park, a nearby soccer or football field – or even at home.
Cook from scratch
Martin Lewis, a motivational speaker and author, defines himself as a “money savings expert”. He’s written several books, one of which is called Thrifty Ways For Modern Days. In it, he suggests various methods, the first of which is to cut out eating out. “There’s generally everything you need in your kitchen and you just don’t want to look,” a chapter of the book says. “Becoming more frugal is a way of life, and it takes efforts.”
Another chapter speaks about recognizing the societal pressure for buying gifts. “It’s important we remember we don’t need to go bankrupt to prove to someone that we love them,” Lewis writes. And there’s a truth about that. Coupons or no coupons, eating out or not – the modern world isn’t only getting more expensive, it’s also pressuring us to spend more. Haven’t you ever heard the term, time is money?
Think about it
“Time isn’t money, time is time,” Lewis wrote. He encourages his readers and those who come to consult him to reconsider priorities in terms of money. “What’s needed and what isn’t.” As opposed to Kathy, who substitutes one method of payment for another, essentially, Lewis speaks more about understanding the value of money – why it isn’t time, why it doesn’t buy happiness, and why it only carries the significance we give it.
Tricks and tips
Don’t shop when you’re hungry. Always go to the grocery store with a list. Try to make homemade gifts, and not buy ones. Don’t window shop – it will turn into actual shopping. Only buy what you need. And, if we dig a little deeper – define your desires as personal goals, not items. Reward yourself with activities, not products. Notice when there some pressure on you to buy something that you don’t really need.
But we’ve gone past Kathy and her trick. For her – money IS important. That’s why she decided to do more than cut a deal, and simply cut a full save. On her website, she states that she and her husband live in a beautiful, large house in an affluent neighborhood, and that they never fight about money – which, admittedly, most couples do. Their oldest son is in college, and they have no credit debt.
Sharing is caring
Kathy is more than happy to help other take a money saver and turn it into a money makers. The way coupons work, the more people share them – the more there are to use, the more there are to shop with, and the less there is to pay. Kathy started with an online community of about 100 people who shared deals and sales they found on and offline, making them available for others who could need them.
It got bigger
After that, more people sought Kathy’s help: so she started her own websites. It’s filled with deals and coupons for tons of different kinds of stores around the country that Kathy and other members of the community share every day. The coupons are printable and sharable, and there is no need in registration in order to gain access to them; they are also divided according to state, so if you can only use one a specific store in a specific area, you know.
From there on, Kathy got invited to speak all over America, and share her thrifty ways with more smart buyers. “There was a point where I got tired repeating myself, too,” she says – so she decided to bind it all into a book, called (of course) How to Shop for Free. And yes – there IS a coupon for the book available on the website. We’d expect nothing less of Kathy. Who, by the way, warns there is a commitment involved in changing your lifestyle this way.
“It means no frills,” Kathy warns in her speeches, and in the book, as well. “It means that everything is planned, and that takes away the spontaneity. You always have to have the coupons, you always have to have the list.” Now, however, in a somewhat ironic turns of events, Kathy and her family – with the earnings from the public speaking and the book and the website – have the comfort to go and occasionally do something spontaneous that does cost money.
Stick to it
Kathy still buys on coupons, though. “You could never guess, walking through our house, that we’re a low-income family,” Kathy writes in the introduction to her website. “We did find a way to get more of what we want – for less!” Which might sound like a tiny bit of a cheat, but think about these two very important lessons we can learn from Kathy’s strict adherence to her methods:
What goes around
Firstly, Kathy’s method created a ripple effect. The people who participate in her coupon exchange, or in any other, usually buy in stock; that means they generally have a surplus of item, and that’s a surplus they’ve started by sharing with family, and friends, until they had a surplus, too, so they are now donating it to food banks. This different methods of consuming is actually doing real good, giving real products to real food banks everywhere.
It could be different
Secondly, what Kathy is doing is different. And we could be doing something different, too. There doesn’t have to be a rat race, we don’t have to be exhausted and spent, and it doesn’t have to be an endless and tiring cycle. Whether you adopt Kathy’s method, or find your own, finding a new and different way to look at things that get you down, and findings ways around it, are always GREAT deals to invest in.