Using coupons helps too

Using coupons helps too – advice from Food Stamp participants

Brenda Schuler

Using Coupons Helps, Too . . .

Joy Alexander, a member of the Walthall County, Mississippi, welfare advisory council, arrived at the October council session early. Alexander, a food stamp participant, had some news she wanted to share with the other members.

“Look,’ she said, holding up a $1 dollar food stamp, “this month for the first time ever I have part of my food stamp allotment left over.’ She explained that her food stamps usually ran out before the month ended. This particular month, however, with the use of cents-off coupons, she had stretched her food stamps over the full issuance period.

As Alexander shared her shopping techniques with the council, her enthusiasm spread. Someone suggested she teach a workshop on couponing for other food stamp families –a suggestion she willingly accepted.

With some hasty planning, she held her first workshop in early November. Afterwards, many people –both food stamp participants and the general public–called to say they were interested in attending if another workshop were held. Alexander scheduled a second workshop for February and expanded the agenda to include tips on food preparation, shopping, and budgeting, based on her own personal experience.

Although Alexander hopes she doesn’t stay on the Food Stamp Program long, she says she is not ashamed to participate because she needs the assistance and she knows she uses her food stamps wisely. Teaching others how to make the best use of their food stamps, she feels, is her way of expressing her gratitude for the help she receives.

Alexander lost her job last year. Her unemployment benefits have been exhausted, and jobs are scarce in Walthall County where unemployment averaged 10 percent last year. She has two teenage daughters still living at home–one of whom has a serious illness. In addition, she helps care for an 84-year-old aunt. Careful budgeting is a necessity for the Alexander family.

Sometimes saves $15 or $20 a week

“Couponing helps me get my mind off my problems,’ Alexander says. Her self-taught couponing techniques are uncomplicated but effective. So effective, in fact, she bought $17.61 in merchandise for 28 cents the first time she used cents-off coupons.

According to Alexander, this was an unusually great savings resulting from a special promotion the store was having that day. Still, she says, even on regular days. savings are often substantial.

In a typical week, Alexander saves between $6.50 and $12.00 on food by using coupons. If her grocery store sponsors a double coupon promotion, she can save $15 or $20.

“Before I started couponing, I was without food stamps at least one week each month,’ she explains. “Now I can usually make my food stamps last all month.’

When she receives her monthly food stamp allotment, she divides the total by four to determine what amount she can spend on food in a week, then she places the food stamp books in four envelopes–one envelope for each week.

She checks the grocery store ads in the local news and identifies those sale items for which she has coupons. By using her cents-off coupons primarily for sale items, her savings add up more quickly.

Her coupons come from a variety of sources. Alexander clips some from the local paper or from the back of food packages. Others are given to her by friends or relatives. For example, her mother, who lives in Montana, regularly mails her coupons. Also, Alexander and four other women in her community have formed a coupon swapping club.

In her workshops, Alexander told participants the location of three coupon exchange boxes in Walthall County and encouraged them to take advantage of the exchanges like she does. Although the county food stamp certification office does not have a coupon exchange box, both Alexander and county welfare director Sharon Whitt like the idea of placing one there.

Do most participants know they can use cents-off coupons with their food stamps?

“No,’ answers Alexander quickly. “After the workshop, several people receiving food stamps contacted me and said they didn’t know they could use coupons with their stamps.’

Store employees are not always informed either, she observes. “The first time I tried to use coupons, a grocery store cashier told me she could not accept coupons with food stamps. I didn’t try to use coupons again until I saw someone else use them with food stamps,’ Alexander says. “I later found out that the store did accept coupons with food stamps. The cashier just didn’t know the policy.’

County welfare director Whitt agrees that the average food stamp participant doesn’t know cents-off coupons can be used with food stamps. “If participants do know,’ Whitt says, “they probably don’t realize that coupons are worthwhile.’

That’s why Whitt believes Joy Alexander’s workshops are so effective. Alexander’s personal example proves couponing does help.

Emphasizes buying nutritious foods

At the workshops, Alexander displayed several food products, cents-off coupons, and refund blanks. She described where to find coupons, how to file them, and how to redeem them to achieve maximum savings. Her presentation was practical and easily understood.

She advised workshop participants to buy nutritious foods with their coupons. “Just because you have a coupon, don’t use it if you don’t need the item or if it’s for something that’s not good for you,’ she cautioned the group, describing how she gives away coupons for highly sugared cereals in exchange for coupons for other foods.

Foods for which coupons are most commonly available include cereals, dairy products, and condiments. Alexander finds few, if any, coupons for meat or fresh fruit and vegetables, but she has other ways, besides couponing, to stretch her food budget to cover such necessities.

Last summer she canned 500 jars of food and filled two freezers with produce from her garden. She cans soup, freezes fruits and vegetables, and makes her own jelly and preserves. “It’s amazing what you can do with even a little plot of land,’ she says.

Surprisingly, Alexander grew up in a city, but she loves the country life–gardening, preserving foods, living off the land. She can’t understand why some people no longer see the need to plant a garden once they qualify for food stamps.

Not having coupons for meat doesn’t bother Alexander because she doesn’t buy much meat. What meat she buys, she extends by making dishes such as soup, chili, and chicken pot pies. She also serves dried beans and dried peas as meat alternates, especially when the budget is tight.

“I try to stick to my weekly food stamp budget. If I give out, we eat red beans and rice one day a week,’ she says. “If I see a bargain on a food my family likes, I might dip into the next week’s food stamps. I know I can count on the foods I have canned or frozen if I run out of food stamps.’

If participants learned just one lesson from her workshops, Alexander hopes they remember to save their change from $1 food stamps to purchase food. When she receives such change, she places it in an envelope with her food stamps until she buys food again. If she has enough cash at the time, she pays the cents instead of breaking a $1 food stamp.

“It’s abusing the program to buy a candy bar and then spend the change for cigarettes. It makes me angry to see that,’ she says. “I’m trying to teach people to save the change for what it was intended.’

Offers advice on other savings

Besides tips on couponing and stretching food dollars, Alexander’s second workshop covered a range of other money-saving tips–from carpooling to save on trips to the grocery store to cooking on wood-burning heaters (commonly used in Walthall County) to save on utility expenses.

And, since the second workshop coincided with the county’s distribution of USDA-donated cheese, butter, and nonfat dry milk, Alexander discussed ways to use these products. She prepared one of her recipes, a cocoa mix made from nonfat dry milk, and served it to workshop attendees. As a bonus, workshop participants also received copies of the USDA publication, “Making Food Dollars Count,’ to help them at home in planning menus for low-cost meals.

Sharon Whitt enthusiastically supports Alexander’s efforts. Her attitude: “There are changes we’d like to see in the Food Stamp Program, but we can’t sit around and wait for Congress to make them. We have to help people right now make their food stamps stretch.’

For more information on the workshops in Walthall County, write:

Sharon Whitt, Director

Walthall County Department of Welfare

P.O. Box 430 Tylertown, Mississippi 39667

Photo: Being organized is the key to Joy Alexander’s success with coupons. She carefully saves and files coupons for foods she uses, like this one for ketchup and others (above) for soup.

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