The Coupon Queen: Queen Bee Coupons
"I cut dryer sheets in half, I'm so cheap," says Heather Bidwell-Clarke, who blogs at Queen Bee Coupons (queenbeecoupons.com). That's when she's not watering plants with water left in drinking cups.
Bidwell-Clarke, 30, lives in Olympia with her husband, 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. When she quit her job with the Washington State Department of Transportation to stay home with her firstborn, she slashed her spending by 60 percent, so that the family could live on her husband's public school teacher's salary.
"It was a big deal to take the majority of our income and throw it out the window," she says. No more dinners out, no more expensive vacations. "We couldn't cut many more corners, so I started cutting coupons," she says. "I'm still home three years later, so it's working!"
Bidwell-Clarke's site focuses on a wide range of money-saving deals, including grocery store buys, retail store sales, online deals and Puget Sound-area steals. She posts real-time deals throughout the day and decodes in-the-know coupon lingo (for example, what's a BOGO? Buy one item, get one item free).
Bidwell-Clarke taught herself how to make the most of coupons over the course of a year or so. She fills her grocery cart with staple items when they're on sale (which typically happens every 12 weeks), then uses coupons and rebates on top of the sales. Bidwell-Clarke doesn't pay more than $1 for many items, including cereal, crackers and most toiletries.
"Couponing is like going to the gym," she says. "The more you put into it, the more you get back. But don't overdo it at first or you'll get burned out."
Bidwell-Clarke's budget could be seen as austere, but it's a trade-off she's happy to make. "We don't have a lot of extra money for luxuries, but I do have the luxury of being home with the kids."
The Power of Community: Thrifty NW Mom
Jen Dotson, 35, loved e-mailing bargains for shopping, dining and travel to friends and family, but she didn't want to be a pest. So she started a deal-focused website called Thrifty NW Mom (thriftynorthwestmom.com), figuring that friends could check in if they wanted – or not.
It turns out that plenty of people were excited about Dotson's savvy scores. Through word of mouth, her website's popularity grew and so did her site's Facebook page (now at 13,000 members and growing).
"In this economy, people are looking for ways to cut back, but they shouldn't have to sacrifice special memories or fun things to do as a family and couple," she says. "So I focus on entertainment, dining, and how you can go out and have fun in the Northwest and not break the bank and not overspend."
Dotson is married to a public school teacher, lives in Pierce County and has two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Penny-pinching came naturally. "I was always fairly frugal growing up," Dotson says. "My mom taught me to never pay full price for anything, but always wait for the sales."
Community is integral to Thrifty NW Mom. Fans of the blog and Facebook account post favorite deals, pass along frugal gossip (the good kind!) on freebies and coupons, and let each other know when a good deal's expired. Many deals require quick reflexes (Amazon "lightning buys" run out when the on-sale merchandise has been snapped up).
Dotson combs over expenses to keep costs in check, and never hesitates to call up businesses and ask for a better deal. She says that her cable company only advertised the "Extended Basic Plan" as the lowest plan, but when pushed further, the cable company admitted to an even lower plan, which was $10-15 less than the advertised plan.
Dotson and her husband are paying off student loan debts, as both paid their own way through college and graduate school. "Since I've started couponing and looking for ways to save money in all areas of our lives, we have been able to work quickly through this debt and are on our way to becoming debt-free," she says.
After paying off those pesky loans, the family plans to save up for a Hawaiian vacation. They'll surely find ways to enjoy a tropical vacation for less.
Going Green, Saving Green: The Crunchy Chicken
How low would you go to save a few bucks − and the Earth?
Deanna Duke's blog, "The Crunchy Chicken," features friendly challenges, encouraging readers to join her in cutting costs while reducing their impact on the planet. Her current "Freeze Yer Buns" challenge asks readers to sign up for the challenge by pledging a lower thermostat temperature than usual (Duke's going to 62 in the day and 55 at night).
Duke, 41, blends the ecological and the economical in her blog (thecrunchychicken.com). "Environmentally friendly behavioral changes tend to have serious financial benefits that go along with them," says this mom of two children, ages 7 and 8.
The combination has kept Duke's family strong during several tough years. Duke's husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer three years ago. Intense treatments began, and the family's savings dwindled. Then, Duke took a six-month leave of absence from her job to write a book, while living on the advance. "We have to be a lot more careful in how we spend our money since it's been reduced by more than half," Duke says.
Duke says that turning down the thermostat saved her family $800 in energy costs last year.
Of course, there are those needs (like clothing and groceries) that every family faces. Duke picks up children's clothing from Value Village, a double-play for the environment and her pocketbook. "You save money, it's cheaper and we're reusing clothes, so there isn't as much energy input into manufacturing, transportation or pesticides," she says.
She is committed to buying organic foods, which can be challenging to pull off on a budget. Duke buys from bulk bins, sale items and in-season produce. She cans seasonal cherries for Christmas pie, and freezes late-summer blackberries for autumn cobblers. To complement her grocery store and farmer's market runs, Duke plants an organic garden in the backyard and raises in-city chickens for eggs.
Because her husband's prognosis isn't clear, the family has been more willing to splurge on vacations and family togetherness – like a recent three-week journey to visit family on the East Coast, which they never would have done otherwise. "We don't know whether or not my husband will be with us in the future," she says. "So, if an opportunity comes up, we are less likely to pass it by because we have to live in the moment."
Lora Shinn writes for a wide variety of regional and national parenting magazines, including Pregnancy, KIWI, Parenting and Seattle's Child.