The Art of Saving
Meet the local millennial who’s taken couponing to the next level.
For those born between 1980 and 2000, coming of age in a post-recession world has made life difficult at times. But one local millennial has found creative ways of saving money in a world where she—and her generation—are often undervalued.
Though unemployment has dropped considerably over the past three years, returning to its pre-recession rate of roughly five percent, millennials haven’t necessarily benefited. According to a 2014 study conducted by Pew Research Center, recent college graduates have suffered from unemployment or underemployment, more so than their older counterparts. In 2012, 44 percent of recent graduates were working jobs that didn’t require a degree and over 20 percent were in low wage positions, earning under $25,000 a year.
That plight is one that Philadelphia native Miriam Wartell, 26, is all too familiar with. Earning an arts degree from the University of Delaware in 2011, she was one of the many millennials to graduate following the Great Recession. The economy had yet to recover from its eight trillion-dollar housing bubble and stock-market slump, leaving many without work.
“The recession hit while I was in the middle of college and got worse. The stock market crashed and trickled down to the jobs when I came out of school. I got a retail job right after college,” she recalls.
Wartell and her generation are now the largest in the U.S., and are, as a group, more educated, less employed and more burdened with debt than the generations before them. Their spending and lifestyle habits are a direct reflection on those circumstances, with fewer millennials moving out of their parents’ homes—18 percent of men aged 25 to 34 and 12 percent of women of the same age—according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers are higher than any in the past three decades.
Joining the ranks and moving back home with her parents, Wartell struggled with not being able to help provide for herself or contribute to her family’s finances. It wasn’t long before she discovered a way to help: couponing. But it wasn’t traditional coupon clipping. She called companies asking them to mail coupons and even took up negotiating service-based bills as contribution. “I was trying to be proactive and do something beneficial, and that’s how I got into couponing.”
Today, she wanders the aisles of grocery stores, armed with a three-inch coupon binder, a knowledge of sales cycles and a plan. That plan is one she wants to share with others. What started as a simple way to help contribute to the household has turned into a much larger venture for her, one she recently turned into a book, I Don’t Have Time to Save Money.
“I’d always been a savvy shopper,” she says. “[After college] I looked in my pantry and thought maybe these companies could help us out.” In her book, she explains her methods, which are part hustle, part savvy and part sales cycles.
The book came as a result of hearing the same things from the people she met in grocery stores and even her friends, all claiming to not have the time, or perhaps the interest, in couponing. “I believe in the ‘teach a man to fish proverb’,” Wartell says. And that’s what she’s doing. Throughout the chapters of her book, consumers can read about saving in five minutes, or spending an hour or more, through couponing or bill negotiating and other techniques. “They can choose what they want to adapt to their lifestyle,” she says.
To start saving, she wants consumers to understand sales cycles. “Everything has a rhythm to it. It’s all about the partnerships that stores build with the brands they carry,” she explains. Everything goes on sale at some point, usually hitting a low price once a month. Different brands are marked down at different times to keep the rotation going and those prices are advertised in mailers and on the shelves. While it might take a couple of months to pick up the rhythm, it’s usually easy to spot when a particular item, like cereal, will hit its lowest price. “That’s when you want to buy it,” Wartell says, noting she never pays more than a dollar for cereal. “I teach people to buy enough to last until it goes on sale again.”
While knowing sales cycles alone would help save a considerable amount over time, Wartell takes her savvy shopping up a notch. That’s where the hustle comes in. By putting in the groundwork, calling companies for coupons, browsing online—usually the manufacturer directly—or going through circulars, she can reduce an already lowered price. “You can go online and get a coupon for $0.50 or $0.75 off and most grocery store chains will double coupons,” she says, something that happens automatically at the register, up to a certain amount for manufacturer’s coupons. To reduce it even further, Wartell has mastered coupon stacking, where she uses the retailer’s coupon combined with the manufacturer’s coupon, something she refers to, appropriately, as a “savings sandwich.” In doing so, consumers can reduce the cost of an item to the point where there might even be a negative balance on a particular item, something that comes off the total, though bills can never carry a negative balance.
In addition to employing sales cycles and coupons, Wartell recommends that shoppers go in with a set list and avoid impulse buys. “Impulse purchases are going to happen, but at least have a limit and only pick it up if it’s at a certain price point,” she recommends. “It will make you think if you really want to pick it up.” She also suggests coming up with a meal plan for the week. “What are you realistically going to eat? You can always go back to the store and buy more.”
Beyond saving money, her couponing has given her a purpose since graduating college. “Couponing is basically a job in and of itself. What you put into it, you get out of it,” she says, hoping it helps and inspires those in similar situations.
She even hopes her fellow Gen-Yers can find a way to take advantage of her experiences. “A lot of millennials, like myself, are in between jobs—it gives you a purpose.” Plus, it can help them survive on something other than ramen on the same budget.
“It’s hard for everyone, but I think it’s exceptionally hard for millennials. We’re coming out into the worst of it. I see so many millennials with basically no direction in life,” she says. “I’ve never seen a generation of so many discouraged people. That’s what’s nice about couponing. If you can’t get a job, it provides a skill.”
Regardless of age or circumstance, couponing is a really viable and valuable way of saving money on a regular basis, no matter how little time is available. Wartell’s best savings to date—a $330.98 bill down to $14.85—is proof of that.