Don’t call me a cheapskate. I’m not one of those extreme couponers who walk out of the drugstore with 30 tubes of toothpaste having paid only $3. The drugstore didn’t have 30 tubes, so I bought five and left one on the shelf for good karma. I became a self-proclaimed deal maven five years ago when I started a mommy blog FatHeadDog.com. My son had just been born and I couldn’t believe such small things (aka children) cost big bucks.
I wasn’t alone. In 2008 when I began blogging, there were an estimated 15,000 mommy blogs, talking about everything from diapers and deals to Down syndrome and postpartum depression.
Today, according to Babble.com, 14 percent of all U.S. moms are mommy bloggers.
Mommy blogs began garnering the attention of brand powerhouses such as General Mills and Procter & Gamble that recognized this vocal mom majority, or at least what appeared the majority by their prominence in the New York Times, which in 2010 wrote, “Whereas so-called mommy blogs were once little more than glorified electronic scrapbooks, a place to share the latest pictures of little Aidan and Ava with Great-Aunt Sylvia in Omaha, they have more recently evolved into a cultural force to be reckoned with.” I joined this powerful army of moms who brought buying power and a keen sense for saving money into vogue.
Before long, I was one of those people who’d walk into a drugstore with a handful of coupons and walk out with free or close-to-free loot. I didn’t subscribe to the newspaper before then, but now I was buying two Sunday newspapers every Saturday night, which gave me time to “plan my deals” by matching weekly sales with my bulky wallet full of coupons.
That’s the key—never use a coupon on something full price; save it for a sale and buy in bulk. I trolled convenience stores to find coupon pads on the refrigerator doors to feed my Diet Coke habit—rare because Coca-Cola doesn’t offer coupons often, and almost never in the newspaper, so in-store coupons like you’d find there or pasted onto 24-packs are like finding hidden treasure. Did you buy one of those 24-packs with the coupon already peeled off? I’m sorry about that… that was me.
My favorites were diaper coupons. Start with a manufacturer coupon for $1 off one package of Pampers and pair it with a weekly sale at CVS for Extra Bucks in-store rewards. Add a manufacturer rebate from Pampers’ parent company Procter & Gamble for buying $50 worth of products and then register your debit card for cash back by using it at participating stores.
Head spinning yet? That’s how you score a deal on diapers.
Then one day, Christmas came early. I found a box of diapers for half off, and that’s when I learned that when diaper brands change their packaging, the old designs go on clearance. CVS, for example, starts their clearance items at 25% and goes up to 90%. I knew where every clearance aisle was inside that drugstore chain for a 5-mile radius and could tell you whether its cashiers were coupon friendly or not. You quickly learned that some cashiers don’t like the idea of you getting something almost free, like you were getting away with something. Be nice to cashiers even when they’re not; it’s a part of good coupon karma.
I applied the same formula to other drugstore staples: toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors, shampoo, thermal heating patches and tooth whitening strips. But then the stockpiling began. It turned into a challenge to see how low my total could be, and what I could get for free.
Soon I amassed a stocked cabinet that resembled my local CVS. I was contacted by a reporter from the local NBC affiliate, who was interested in doing a story about the thousands of dollars I’d saved at CVS in one year—$4,132.55 to be exact. The first segment featured me at home with my baby boy, showing off my coffee table full of loot and explaining how I did it. It went so well that I stayed on as a deal expert for several more television segments as well as radio interviews on the syndicated Mom Talk Radio with Maria Bailey.
I started running out of room, so I shared my stockpile with friends and family and assembled care boxes for people in need. I made good with my eccentric hobby but it was no longer a novelty.
Instead it evolved to a competition. On message boards such as FatWallet.com and SlickDeals.net, I learned how to read manufacture coupon barcodes to maximize the discount. (Look at Procter & Gamble coupons whose barcodes end in 00. Their coupon SKUs are coded to work for multiple products. Yes, I knew this stuff.)
Mommy bloggers updated their blogs and message boards around-the-clock with inside information: Sneak peeks at drugstore circulars, sometimes weeks in advance; complete lists of coupons from the Sunday newspaper, broken down by region even, because some states like California may get $1 off for the same product that New York only gets a coupon for 50 cents off.
I was doing well to update my blog nightly now that I was back at work from maternity leave and carrying a full load as a magazine editor. I couldn’t keep up in Google rankings, SEO for popular search terms such as “saving money” and web traffic with the millions of others blogs that offered the same type of content—although FatHeadDog.com did land at the top of search results when you Googled “Trapper Keeper.” (You remember those rad plastic portfolios from the ’80s, right?)
So, like any small business, how do you set yourself apart from the competition? Specialize. I branded myself the anti-mommy blogger. Deals with snark and bite. I considered that my best work. In one blog post about the flash sale site Modnique.com, I wrote about its unique “Make an Offer” feature, in which I described my “encounter” with an operator as my alter ego FatHeadDog.
FatHeadDog: I’d like to make an offer on this item, please.
Modnique: Sure, I’d be happy to assist. I seem to be getting an unknown error with your offer. Can you please resubmit? For some reason, my screen is showing “2 Bones.”
FatHeadDog: No, that’s correct.
Modnique: I’m sorry but I cannot accept “2 Bones” at this time. I submit a counteroffer of $24.
FatHeadDog: Thank you. I counteroffer $12 and a slightly used leash.
Modnique: I’m sorry but we do not accept goods for trade. The best offer I can give at this time is $22.
FatHeadDog: Thank you for your consideration, but I’ll have to decline at this time.
But again, I was a small fish in a very big Mommy blog pond. Now seven years later, I do well to update my blog once or twice monthly, and my stockpile has just about run out. I was shocked when I had to purchase a razor for the first time at full price. Did you know those things are expensive?
I gave up carrying coupons in my wallet out of sheer frustration about ‘keeping up’ with them. Little pieces of paper stressed me out.
I dabbled in mobile coupons from Target, which recently introduced a gamification-inspired coupon app called Cartwheel, in which you unlock badges and select up to 20 or so product coupons for everything from clothes to grocery. Apps like Shopkick and CheckPoints let you earn gift cards for scanning products and checking into retail stores. The virtual gift card wallet app Gyft lets you store your existing gift cards and reminds you to use them when your GPS detects you’re near that retailer, as well as electronically send gift cards to your friends on their mobile device.
That was until the incident.
After wandering the store for more than an hour matching up products to e-coupons on my iPhone, I got to the checkout counter only to see my phone (along with any semblance of poise and dignity) die. Somehow it was Target’s fault for not having iPhone charging stations at each checkout counter. I realized that was ludicrous, and more reasonably found it was my husband’s fault.
That’s when I realized the $300 printer I bought years ago for the sole purpose of printing Internet coupons at home was more hindrance than help. The bottles of fake off-brand 5 Hour Energy I bought because I had a coupon were just gross. And the Thanksgiving Day trip to CVS to get a jump on Black Friday was all a bit excessive in hindsight.
That was the year my local CVS store sent me a Christmas card at year’s end. It was hand-signed and addressed to me personally. The note from the store manager who was now approaching acquaintance status read, “Happy Holidays Shelby! We’ll see you soon!”
My name is Shelby and I’m a former Mommy Blogger.
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