Wendy Wendler is an extreme military couponer, shaving about $250 off her grocery bill every month. But the wife of an Air Force master sergeant and mother of two at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., says she doesn't spend extreme amounts of time to save all that money.
"It could be a full-time job to coupon and really play the game," Wendler says.
If you've seen TLC's show "Extreme Couponing," you know the people she's talking about.
But after 12 years perfecting her technique, it takes Wendler only a few hours a week of clipping, organizing and trading with a clutch of fellow couponers to cash in on all the savings.
And while plenty of off-base grocery stores offer double-coupon deals — deal most commissaries don't offer — she says more often than not, it pays to do most of her grocery shopping on base.
"With gas prices the way they are now, I'm not going to travel extra miles just to save a few dollars," she says. "If you do the math, it's just not worth it."
Plus, she's noticing off-base grocery stores are starting to reel in some of their best deals.
"There are still stores that will still do double coupons, but around here anyway, they limit you to 25 coupons per visit, she says.
"The reality is, if you know how to coupon effectively, the stores are losing money, and so are the manufacturers. When you walk out with a grocery cart full of stuff and you've paid $3 for it, somebody's losing money."
TLC's show "has sparked a trend of out-of-control couponers who ransack stores with little regard for fellow shoppers," says savings guru Andrea Woroch. "Merchants have taken notice, and many major retailers are starting to change their policies," Woroch says.
Target and Rite Aid, for example, have cracked down on buy-one-get-one-free-for-alls, now limiting BOGOs to one coupon per purchase, effectively eliminating pro couponers from "stacking" the deal with other coupons to get both items for free or pennies on the dollar.
That doesn't mean you can't still score big savings on base and off, experts say.
"We have not changed our coupon regulations or placed any new restrictions on redemptions based on ‘Extreme Couponing' or any other couponing activities," says Defense Commissary Agency spokesman Kevin Robinson. "DeCA strongly encourages its shoppers to use coupons to increase their savings."
Military couponing on the rise
Military shoppers are scanning in savings more than ever, redeeming more than 131 million coupons at their local commissaries last year — a 32 percent jump from two years earlier — and saving $114 million. That ranked the Defense Commissary Agency as the U.S.'s eighth-largest retailer in coupon redemption volume, just ahead of supermarket giants Safeway and Meijer.
Overall savings have increased even more, with the total value of all those coupons up 46 percent.
Meanwhile, exchange shoppers are adding up even more coupon savings. Army and Air Force Exchange Service shoppers alone redeemed 4.8 million coupons worth $7 million in 2010.
Many of those shoppers have Ellie Kay to thank for learning the tricks of the coupon trade.
If anyone can lay claim to the title of Original Extreme Military Couponer, it's Kay. In fact, Wendler first learned the couponing craft from Kay. Now a widely sought-after financial guru and the author of 14 books, Kay got her start in military money management after marrying an Air Force pilot. Within a few years they had seven kids, "and we didn't have enough money to buy groceries. So I learned very quickly to take couponing to a whole new level," she says.
Her biggest savings: She walked out of a store in New Mexico with $350 worth of groceries paying just $4. "I got 12 bags of diapers for free."
With savings like that, it wasn't long before Kay was known as the Coupon Queen, teaching classes on base while refining many of those early lessons into her first book, "Shop, Save and Share."
She says the best deals for commissary shoppers usually can be found in introductory offers for new products.