BRANDON — Sliding behind the wheel of her car before most people wake up, Jamie Bainum drives to a 24-hour Walmart. She picks up a stack of newspapers and carefully selects items to put in her shopping cart.
At the register, she listens to the beeps of the laser scanning her goods. Finally, the cashier says the words she has been waiting for, "Today you've saved … "
Bainum, 28, is an extreme couponer. She hits stores at 5 a.m. on Sundays to buy between 10 and 30 newspapers. She's on a money-saving mission.
"I keep 10 newspapers, and the other 20 are for two of my friends," said Bainum, a customer service representative. "When they're out of town or working, I get the papers for them and then the next week they get my papers."
On many Sunday mornings, Bainum already knows which items will be on sale because she spends hours each week on the Internet researching upcoming deals. Shortly after collecting dozens of newspapers, she proceeds to stock up on the items and starts cutting coupons at an empty register. Store employees and customers often stop to watch her in action.
Like many of the extreme couponers featured on television shows, Bainum rarely disappoints.
During the first half of the week, Bainum spends a good part of her day looking at store sales and couponing websites. By Wednesday, she begins strategically planning her Thursday shopping trip. To get all the deals, she will arrive at 7 a.m. She often spends several hours in a store and sometimes visits more than one grocery store to snag the best price.
"I think about couponing all the time," Bainum said. "I'm always looking at websites and trying to calculate good deals. The goal is to get the items for free and the money-making ones."
Bainum caught the couponing bug last year when she saw a receipt from her neighbor's grocery trip. The savings, nearly all of which was accomplished by using coupons, amazed her. For the next few months, Bainum's neighbor, Stacy Rakowski, started teaching her how to coupon and find deals.
"It took me about six months to get good at it," Bainum said. "Before I would save about 50 percent, and now I save about 95 percent."
Rakowski, 34, started couponing more than five years ago when she witnessed her friend saving a lot just by using coupons and waiting for good deals. A mother of five, Rakowski said saving money on food and toiletries enables her to have extra cash at the end of the month.
"I taught Jamie how to coupon," Rakowski said. "It was easy because she is mathematically inclined."
Rakowski said the two biggest misconceptions about couponers are that all of them are hoarders and only poor people use coupons because it's embarrassing. On average, Rakowski saves about $3,000 a year and keeps a moderate size stock pile worth up to $2,000 of items she uses regularly.
"When I go shopping, I get things that I or someone I know can use," Rakowski said. "I spend a couple of hours a week looking at deals."
In her Brandon apartment, Bainum has a stockpile worth about $4,000 and estimates she has saved more than $15,000 since she began couponing. She attributes her success to being dogged about deal hunting.
"I work at home as a customer care representative for Hilton," Bainum said. "I save a lot of time not having to drive to go to work, which gives me more time for couponing."
Bainum says successful coupon enthusiasts need to know each store's coupon policy and have good math skills.
Bainum enjoys donating hundreds of dollars of stockpile items to different charities and friends. One of her favorite places to donate each month is Ridgeland Group Home. She said she has given them about 100 boxes of cereal, 40 body washes and cleaning items.
"I'm obsessed with couponing; I wish I did it my whole life," Bainum said, laughing.
For Bainum, couponing on Thursday mornings with her neighbors and friends is a fun social event. She enjoys helping them sort and cut out the coupons because it's rewarding to see her friends save so much money.
Bainum and Rakowski admitted to going shopping at odd hours of the night and early in the morning because of sales.
"I rush to the store to make sure I get the deal," Bainum said. "Because sometimes if you wait until later all the products are gone."
Krystel Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.