TRINITY — Beneath the fluorescent lights, between the aisles, with numbers flashing in front of her face, Tori Peterman is in her element.
The Mitchell High School senior commands respect in her local Publix. And rightly so. Heads turn in the bakery when she stacks her buggy with baguettes. Shoppers stare when she passes with a pyramid of puppy treats. It happens in the store's pharmacy, too. One can of shaving cream? Why not 50?
With the right coupon combination, some shopping trips have cost as little as 55 cents for the 17-year-old baroness of BoGo.
Over the past nine months, she has spent about $414 of her own money on groceries. Without coupons, she has calculated, it would be somewhere around $3,323.
All that went to charity.
The penny pinching started last May. Working as a Publix cashier, Tori watched customers haul away almost twice what they paid for, at the expense of a few hours with a pair of scissors and a Sunday paper.
That got her thinking.
"It's right in front of you," she said. "You can save money. Why not do it?"
She began with a clean sweep of the shelves. In seven days at the end of her first month, she bought $489.15 of groceries. She spent $24.52.
The two-for-ones, three-for-a-dollars and free-with-purchase-ofs racked up. Even her stepfather, Steve Corsetti, a business professor at Rasmussen College, was surprised.
"Something is wrong with that," he said jokingly.
The family was running out of room. When Tori asked him to buy a second freezer to hold her loot, Corsetti put his foot down. He'd seen too many episodes of Hoarders on TV. Not in his house.
Rather than cut back, Tori began giving it away.
Instead of stocking her bathroom cabinets with more than 20 bottles of shampoo, she looked to products she thought others might need: pasta, soda, cough drops, baby food.
Once, she saw razors were on buy-one-get-one. She bought 20.
At the Salvation Army on North Belcher Road in Clearwater, it became common to see Tori and her mom, Shari, lug in mounds of groceries.
"Any time a young person comes in, it's wonderful," said Mark Romano, associate planned giving director. "I encourage it."
That summer, she was reminded of the senior project expected of all Mitchell students before they graduate. It had to be something she could put at least 15 hours into as a volunteer, the school said. And it had to be something that would interest her and help the community, and would take up a six-page essay with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation she'll give to a panel of community members.
Perfect, she thought.
• • •
This will only be a short trip, Tori assured, plopping her purse into the child's seat of her grocery cart and unsheathing her little bag of neatly cut coupons. Promise.
Then she stormed the bakery. Out of the little bag came coupons that knocked off $2 from purchases of $2 or more. She was careful to point out the 9-point type at the bottom of the clipping: "One coupon per item." A challenge. Baguettes were going for $2.19 a piece. That means 19 cents. She snagged five.
In a stack of deli condiments she found garlic spread at $2.07. Seven cents.
In the dairy section, she got a little sour.
Her coupon for almond milk, a prize for the lactose intolerant, only gave her a 75 cent discount, putting her over the ideal spending limit: $0. She looked almost dejected. On this trip, she wouldn't be able to showcase her most impressive shopping feat.
At least 10 times since she began clipping coupons, begrudging cashiers have had to open the register and pay Tori for buying groceries.
After some transactions, she's gotten more than $11 back. Store managers have given her a hard time, saying the deals really aren't intended to work that way.
"That kind of rubs them the wrong way," said her mother.
Tori tries to be considerate. Now she uses her coupons so the cashiers only have to fish $10 or less out of the register. That's shopping etiquette, she said.
She's able to save this much by combining her deals. Stores advertise with coupons in newspapers. Publix also puts out pamphlets of coupons. Some products have deals listed on the shelves.
Sometimes the bill will climb. That's when she hits them with the "$5 off any purchase of $25 or more" slip she prints from Save-a-Lot. Publix matches it.
The cashier greeted her by name while Tori piled the load on the conveyer belt to be rung up.
The register's screen blinked $42.95. Then Tori handed over her stack of coupons... $30 ... $26.95 ... $21.45 ... $20. The number sailed down through the teens then into single digits before it stopped: $4.45.
• • •
Outside the walls of the grocery store or the Salvation Army, Tori's less of a star. Her GPA hovers around 3.0. A "C" popped up on December's report card. Math, ironically, is her worst subject.
Her grades are way up in economics class, though. And in her school's Diversified Career Technology program, she's won awards. She likes numbers when they're applicable.
College is still up in the air. She's waiting for a letter back from Valencia College in Orlando, but Hillsborough Community College is fine with her, too. She's entertained the idea of joining the Army after that.
Adorned with shopping bags from Abercrombie and Hollister, her bedroom wall serves as a gallery of men's abs. On her night stand rests her boyfriend's white Marines dress hat.
Cheerleader trophies line the shelves of her bookcase, but she quit in freshman year.
"Too much drama," she said.
As for the senior project presentation due in March, Tori said she hasn't started yet. She's got a month to think about it.
Besides, coupons come out on Sunday.
Alex Orlando can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.