Bargain shopping in overdrive
In the world of bargain shopping there are sales, there are coupons and then there's the kind of mysterious retail magic Alison Hequet works every time she walks into a store.
Heequet has a grocery budget of $40 a week that she uses to shop for a family of four. But the money goes a lot farther than that. The kitchen of her Farmington townhome is part storage pantry, part neighborhood grocery store. A neighbor looking to borrow a cup of sugar might go home with an entire bag. And maybe some spaghetti sauce to boot.
Earlier this month Hequet donated 97 pounds of food to the Farmington Food Shelf. She had to make the donation. She was running out of space at home. Outside of gas and her own time, she figures she paid nothing for that donation. And she's already got bags of groceries lined up in her kitchen for the next one.
The exact details of how Hequet manages all this can get a little confusing. At the most basic level, it's all about finding the best coupons and using them at the best times -- on days when grocery stores offer double coupons, or when there are other deals in play.
Some of this comes naturally to Hequet.
"I grew up with the step-mom who, if it wasn't on sale, if we didn't have a coupon, we didn't buy it," Hequet said.
Hequet clipped coupons after she moved away home, and she figured she was doing well. But when she had kids she still found herself spending more money than she wanted to. That's when a friend taught her just how far a dollar could stretch if you were willing to put in a little work.
Getting the best deals takes some effort. Hequet, a stay-at-home mom, estimates she spends 15 to 20 hours a week scanning newspapers, finding coupons and shopping. She buys 10 to 30 newspapers a week and visits a number of web pages where coupons are available. She has filing cabinets filled with coupons arranged by expiration date. When she combines all of the deals she finds, she often gets items for free or even gets money back.
"It's a lot of math, which I never thought I was good at," Hequet said.
From time to time Hequet runs into cashiers who can't believe the deals she's getting are legitimate. On several occasions she's had to make calls to a store's corporate office to assure people she wasn't trying to put something over on them.
Hequet shops several times a week, and goes wherever the deals are. When she finds a good deal, she stocks up.
On wire shelves in the Hequets' kitchen there are wire shelves stocked with non-perishable items. There are at least 10 bags of flour, 14 jars of spaghetti sauce and 20 boxes of microwave popcorn. There are more than 50 jars of salad dressing.
"I really like marinades," said Gus Hequet, Alison's husband.
The family has two stand-alone freezers for when they find the rare good deal on meat. The freezers, by the way, came with free-food coupons that entirely offset their cost.
The savings go beyond food. In the garage there are tubs full of cleaning products and shelves of deodorant and toothpaste. The Hequets don't have a pet, but they have a closet full of dog food they bring to Alison's parents when they visit. Most of it was free.
The Hequets use some of the things they buy, give some to family and friends and donates a lot to their church or the food shelf. Hequet just started giving to the Farmington Food Shelf, but she's donated to other food shelves for the past three years. When an apartment complex burned in Burnsville a few years ago, the Hequets were able to donate about $2,000 worth of personal care items to the displaced residents.
Gus Hequet said he likes having stores of food available. In an uncertain economy, he figures the family has a three-month supply of food if he loses his job.
At this point, Hequet has a hard time bringing herself to pay full price for anything. When she does, she usually has enough other deals that she ends up saving money anyway.
Saving money has become a way of life for Hequet. Black Friday, the annual day-after-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza, is, if not a holiday, an event on par with the Super Bowl. Last year, her husband rented her a limousine to shuttle her from store to store.
He got a deal, of course.
Shopping this way sometimes requires some sacrifice. Hequet and her family might have to go for a while without eating a meal they like because they can't find a bargain on the ingredients. But there's usually enough variety in the house they can find something they like. And Hequet has discovered she loves the thrill of uncovering a really good deal.
"It is fun," Hequet said. "It's better than being a stay-at-home mom. It's almost like a part-time job, because I'm almost making money. I'm making our money stretch."
Find your own deals
Alison Hequet doesn't keep her bargain-shopping methods to herself. She has a side business teaching groups of people how to get the kinds of deals she does.
Through her web page, couponbash.com, Hequet arranges parties at which she shares her secrets.
Here are a couple of Hequet's favorite web sites to get you started: