So Happening

Coupon Queen

A whole new way to shop smart

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

Karen Wilmes is not an extreme couponer: she’s an expert couponer. The Westerly resident is the author of The Everything Couponing Book and the force behind the wildly popular blog Unlike the fanatics featured in TLC’s Extreme Couponing, Karen won’t dive into a dumpster for coupons or stockpile mounds of groceries. She does, however, save a lot of money by shopping smartly.

Karen had a career in accounting before becoming a stay-at-home mom to two daughters. She started couponing a few years ago out of necessity. “We were down to one salary and our roof needed repair. I looked for any way to save,” she recalled. Perhaps it was her background that propelled her to excel in crunching the numbers by clipping away. With friends urging her to spill her money-saving secrets – like finding hard- to-find coupons online and maximizing loyalty card savings – she decided to start a blog. One thing led to the next, and soon national food companies were looking for partnerships and a publisher approached her on the book. Today she boasts of an average of 75,000 unique visitors each month.

As someone who buys the Sunday paper just for the coupons, I just had to see Karen in supermarket action. She agreed to let me tag along on a weekly grocery shopping trip, so we met at the Stop & Shop in Westerly on a recent Wednesday morning. With her shopping list and coupon organizer in hand, she explained her strategy: She doesn’t care about brands. She only buys items when they are on sale, and especially if she has a coupon on top of the savings. And every type of savings, regardless of how little, adds up. Take for example, bringing in your own shopping bags. Most markets will give you five cents per bag. On our trip, Karen had five with her. “Twenty-five cents a week adds up to a dollar a month,” she pointed out.

As she checked off her list, she explained why items were a good buy, and why having a coupon doesn’t always mean you’re getting the best price per unit. Though she had a coupon for a specific type of mandarin oranges, the price per ounce was still pricier than the brand she bought. Another great tip was using the self-scanner that Stop & Shop now has. Once you scan your loyalty card, a dozen or so extra coupons pop up. What’s even better is you can “stack” a manufacturer’s coupon on top of it. And, most supermarkets will double coupons up to 99 cents. I tried this strategy weeks later on a can of bug spray. The original price was $6.99, and it was on sale for $5. The self-scanner offered me an additional 50 cents off. I had a coupon for 75 cents off, which was eligible for doubling. The total cost ended up at $3, more than half off the original.

Each week, she spends about half an hour scanning the supermarket flyer and plucking out coupons that match the sale items. By the time she makes it to the market, she’s on a planned savings mission. For the most part, she stuck to her carefully crafted shopping list and added a few spontaneous yet inexpensive purchases along the way. One was a busted up box of cereal that was on a clearance end cap: “The bag inside is perfectly sealed,” she explained. With a coupon, the box cost her $1 (the non-sale price is $4.29.) Another item was a soon-to-be-expired package of bakery mini-muffins: “I’ll just throw these in the freezer, and put them individually in the microwave to warm them up.”

By the time we made it to the self-checkout register, she had a cart full of goods. “This is the fun part,” she chuckled, as she pulled out her wad of coupons. Before the sales and coupons, the total was $92.57. With a little planning, a little clipping and a lot of resourcefulness, Karen was able to feed her family of four for a week for a remarkable $48.05.

Interestingly, Karen has teamed up with another noted Westerly blogger, Jennifer Leal from Through her delectable food blog, Jennifer advocates for healthy and family-friendly cooking. Together, they recently started the “Purse to Plate Series,” where each brings in her expertise to create affordable and healthy meals.

Eating well – and well under budget – never tasted so good.

Coupons, Karen Wilmes, So Rhode Island, So Happening, South County