She talks in code, shares tips for getting free stuff and barters groceries for babysitting. When Kmart offers double coupons, she's among the first through the door.
Carol-Ann Mendoza is a professional coupon-clipper, if there were such a thing. Manufacturer coupons. BOGO deals. She's mastered them all.
Friends accuse of her having OCD: Obsessive coupon disorder.
Mendoza hits three or four stores a week — from Wal-Mart to Winn-Dixie to Walgreens — trolling for sales. She knows the latest buy-one-get-one deals at Publix and extra-bucks items at CVS. She considers it a good day when she saves at least 90 percent off the total bill. Take a recent trip to Kmart. Her purchases rang up to $319, but after sales and coupons, which Kmart doubled last week, she paid $18, which included taxes.
Mendoza's strategy centers on finding the lowest price for an item and coupling it with a high-value coupon. She pays attention to BOGO deals because most stores let you use two coupons, even though you're paying for one item. She loads up on trial sizes, which often accept coupons. (Watch for coupons that exclude trial sizes.)
Every Sunday, she buys 15 to 20 newspapers for the coupon inserts. No promotion here, but she says the St. Petersburg Times has the best ones.
She admits it's like a part-time job, only it pays in terms of money saved, not earned. Mendoza, 31, started clipping seriously about a year and a half ago. She had quit her job of 11 years to be a stay-at-home mom and was looking for ways to trim expenses.
At the time, she and her husband, Roger, had two children. Now they have four, ages 10, 9, 17 months and almost 3 months. They adopted the older two from Haiti. They live in Meadow Pointe near New Tampa.
About a year ago, she took her couponing online. She took over FloridaCouponers.com and started a Yahoo group, Frugal Mamas, which has about 60 members from Ocala to Sarasota. She also founded a coupon club at her church, which happens to meet in a former Winn Dixie.
Then the economy started to crack. For many coupon-clippers, what was once a hobby became a necessity.
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Every month, usually the last Friday, Mendoza and her coupon crew meet at one of their homes to talk deals and comb through each other's reject piles. For these three hours, coupons take priority.
Over iced tea and dessert, preferably bought at a discount, the women share tips and GDAs, short for ''good deal alerts.'' Mendoza passes out tip sheets for the latest sales at Wal-Mart. Vlasic relish, free with IPC — Internet printed coupon. Endust spray, 63 cents with $2 regular coupon.
The list goes on and on and on.
Every party has a door prize tied to coupons. Last month's was 20 new coupon inserts that hadn't been poached. Winner Roxanne Arcement was thrilled. "I know what I'm going to do when I get home.''
Mendoza sends about 1,400 e-mails a month, mostly about coupon alerts and store sales, but also about prayer requests. Want coupons for Meow Mix? Mendoza will blast an ISO — in search of — asking members to bring them to the next party. Even her most faithful say keeping track of it all can be time-consuming. But it pays off. After three months of following Mendoza's lead, members save an average 50 percent on their monthly grocery bill.
And they get hooked.
"Any time I don't have a coupon just kills me,'' Katrina Sequenzia said.
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The coupon clipping goes beyond saving money. When one of Mendoza's friends fell on hard times, she took her shopping and reduced the family of six's grocery bill from $1,000 to $700 a month. When a mother was diagnosed with cancer, the group brought groceries to the monthly party.
Mendoza is a sucker for RAOK (random acts of kindness).
She's known to hang out in store baby aisles, peeking into people's carts and giving them coupons for the items. Stand next to her in the checkout line, and she's bound to save you some money. The majority of people are receptive, even grateful for the help. Every once in a while, a clerk gives her an attitude. Once, a customer in line behind her grumbled about having coupons outlawed.
Mendoza just smiled. Her sales receipt got the last word.