Tue. Feb 20th, 2024

“In the past five years, I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars on groceries, and racked up millions of loyalty points” (illustration by Maclean’s)

I remember the first time I saw a coupon. It was 2005, and I was 15 years old, stocking shelves and ringing up purchases at a grocery store on the U.S. naval base in Iceland, where my dad was a sailor. I almost couldn’t believe they were free—I was immediately drawn to the little graphics and the bright colours. I started to keep them beside my till and hand them out: here’s 50 cents off Vaseline. I wasn’t supposed to, but I loved to help people.

That sense of thrift comes from my background. My parents grew up in modest circumstances in the Philippines (as a kid, my mom used her finger and some salt to brush her teeth). They immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, where my dad joined the navy. We were always moving from base to base—California, the Philippines, Japan, Iceland—but wherever we went, my parents worked overtime to save or make money for us. In California, after my dad got home, he’d go to his second job: delivering pizzas. In Japan, my mom sold Filipino dishes like lumpias and pancit to other families on the base. We shopped at thrift stores, never ate out and sold our used toys and clothes.

In 2008, I was living in the Philippines, studying for a bachelor of science in nursing, when I met the man who would become my husband. We married in 2011 and moved to Canada, where he took a job as a hotel housekeeper in Regina. We were happy here, but it was a shock in one big way—food was really, really expensive, especially compared to the subsidized groceries on U.S. navy bases.

READ: Why food is so pricey

My son Isaac was born in 2015, and our finances got even tighter. One day I was complaining to a friend from church about the high cost of food, and she told me about an app that shows users digital flyers for grocery stores—she used it to price-match, which is when you find the cheapest price in the city for an item, and when you go shopping, you ask the cashier to match it. I thought there was no way I could do it; I was too shy to stand in line and delay everyone to request a price change. Then I thought about my parents: moving to a new country, learning a new language, always striving to make a better life for our family. I felt a sense of urgency—I should be saving as much money as I can!

I downloaded the app (it’s called Flipp) and saw all the flyers for my postal code. It seemed very fancy—I would see seniors in checkout lines clutching flyers from grocery stores all over town, and the app was obviously way easier. The first time I did it, I was hooked: I price-matched a toothbrush down to $1, then used a $1 coupon, so it was free. The possibilities felt endless, but it was intimidating at first. I met cashiers who weren’t familiar with the policy, and once a woman in line even threw a $5 bill at me, angry with the delay. It reminded me of the racism my family faced when I was growing up.

But most of the time, onlookers were amazed to see my bill drop. Instead of $5.99 for a pineapple, I’d pay another store’s price: only $1.99. Or a three-pack of lettuce for $5.99 would drop to $2.88. Just like in Iceland, I wanted to share what I was learning with others, so in 2018 I started a Facebook page where I posted about the savings I was making on my grocery hauls.

For the most part, I used—and combined—three main techniques: price matching, coupons and loyalty points. Grocery shopping became my cardio, as I hustled around stores noting new coupons and taking photos of clearance shelves. At first, I started my page to reach other Filipino immigrants. It’s a tradition to send Balikbayan boxes—big packages stuffed with toiletries, toys, clothing and appliances—back home to loved ones, and I posted deals so Filipinos could fill up their boxes more cheaply.

Slowly, my Facebook posts gained traction, and the community grew beyond that first audience. My content made couponing feel accessible because people can relate to me—I’m just a normal person looking to save money. I use tools that appeal to the digital age, and people tend to follow my page when they’re going through life circumstances and changes. Some people say they lost their job, or have moved to a different province, or they’re new immigrants. But in the past year, my social feeds—on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok—have reached a much bigger audience, because we’re all going through some big changes: food is more expensive than ever.

RELATED: Groceries on a budget in Edmonton

The Consumer Price Index for food—the measure the federal government uses to track food inflation—has increased by nearly 20 per cent in the past two years alone. Almost any item you can think of has gotten pricier. Nationwide, the average per-kilogram price of chicken breasts has gone from just over $12 to $14. A rib cut of beef has jumped from $23 to $31. Four litres of milk used to be $5.50, now it’s $6.50; a dozen eggs was $3.90, now $4.50; a kilo of apples has gone from $4.50 to $5.60. A dollar here and a dollar there, but it all adds up fast.

For my own shopping, I browse digital flyers for 15 minutes every Wednesday, tagging the items I want. I keep my coupons in a small pocket binder with plastic dividers: household products, toiletries, beverages and pantry items. It’s always in my purse, ready to use. (Coupons are usually in front of the product in store and most of them expire, so I only take a couple when I see them. I’ve noticed they’re harder to come by now, with more people using them.)

Another great technique is to stack promotions—that’s where the real magic happens. On a recent grocery trip, I picked up milk, cheese, bread, frozen potatoes, chicken broth and lots more. My total was $95. I cashed in $15 worth of coupons, price matched, and earned back $25 in PC Optimum points, plus $8 cashback on another app I use, bringing my total to only $21. I’m getting a typical grocery order for 50 per cent off now, and in the past five years, I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars on groceries, and racked up millions of loyalty points.

And I’ll go to great lengths to cash in on coupons—some might say extreme lengths. Last year, I was on a staycation at a hotel in Saskatoon when a really great coupon dropped online: buy one, get one off Wonder Bread products. The hotel room didn’t have a printer, so I went to the front desk and asked to use the staff computer to print it. Online coupons can run out quickly, so I had to act while the link was live. Thankfully they said yes, but I don’t know where I would have gone if they didn’t.

I really believe that couponing isn’t just about saving money. It helps communities. I donate extra food to my city’s food drive. I take my seven-year-old with me to meet people who need food but can’t afford it. I always think about my mom back in the day. She would come home from grocery shopping and lay our food on the table. Item by item, she checked over the receipt to make sure she hadn’t overpaid. There was lots of budgeting behind the scenes, but my parents made their purchases straight up and never used coupons. I wish my mom knew how to do this back then, and that’s what really drives me today.

— As told to Emily Latimer


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