BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The women sat expectantly as Monica Knight told them she once routinely spent $600 a month on groceries for her family of four. Breaking into a broad smile, Knight says that figure has been reduced to only $100 to $150 a month.
And now the dental hygienist and mother of two is about to tell them her secret.
The women lean forward in their seats. They're the latest disciples of extreme couponing; women who carry pictures of their overflowing pantries on their cell phones; savvy shoppers who will spend hours flipping through newspaper and magazine advertisements in search of their bargains, and homemakers who have pinched pennies to put food on the table during the recession and need the extra help.
Most have watched the television series "Extreme Couponing," which debuted on TLC in April and follows shoppers whose intense devotion to finding bargains can whittle a $555.44 grocery store bill down to $5.97, to cite one extreme example.
Heather Border, a 36-year-old mother of four in rural Idaho, is a new to the extreme coupon phenomenon. But she was hooked a few weeks ago, after coupons and store deals brought her $180 grocery bill down to $40.
"I was feeling a little conspicuous because people were staring at me," Border said. "Then, I felt a rush."
She was among about 20 women who attended an extreme coupon class on a recent Saturday in Boise. The three-hour course was taught by Knight and her business partner, Cathy Yoder. They own the extreme couponing blog, "Fabulessly Frugal."
The women oohed and awed as Knight pulled out the fat binder of coupons that saves her 50 percent to 90 percent on every grocery bill. She showed off pictures of the stockpile of food at her home, where 46 boxes of cereal are stowed in her children's bedroom closet and packages of breakfast drink mix are kept under a bed.
In their class, Yoder and Knight warn against some of the practices that have given extreme coupon cutters like themselves a bad rap.
They instruct their students to be kind to their cashiers. They encourage them to stockpile food to help their families, but caution against "hoarding" or clearing shelves of items that their families don't need or won't use. They also warned against photocopying coupons, which can place stores on alert and ruin deals for everyone.
The coupon-processing company Inmar Inc. reported coupon use doubling in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier,
The Internet has also bolstered coupon use, with a wide range of online promotions, databases of coupons and bloggers who regularly post about the best deals.
"This is a whole new ballgame," said Glenda Glisson, 63, who attended the extreme couponing class in Boise.
The Kroger Co., which operates the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, launched a website about 18 months ago that allows customers to download coupons to their store discount cards or onto home computers to print. The site added a mobile phone coupon app last year.
"We've seen slightly more complex couponing, which can take longer for us to help our customers exit the store," said Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey.
The so-called extreme couponers make up a small portion of customers and Kroger has not been forced to limit coupon use because of the trend, he said.
At Fabulessly Frugal, savvy shoppers can find video tutorials and state specific coupon lists. The site boasts nine bloggers, including the coupon class instructors Yoder and Knight, who specialize in specific grocery stores.
Yoder started the blog about three years ago for family and friends. She knew Knight, who had also started to clip coupons, from her church and the two started blogging together in November 2008. A few months later, Yoder learned that she was pregnant with her seventh child, and then her husband lost his job.
Her family, however, had a reserve of food to fall back on thanks to coupons, Yoder said.
During her best shopping trip, she purchased 165 boxes of cereal for about $14.
It wasn't long before Yoder and Knight realized their extreme coupon website could make money. The site features advertisements and they get paid per click on about 75 percent of the coupons found on the website, Yoder said. They made $35 the first month it featured the coupons, she said.
"We make that in an hour now," said Yoder, who now supports her family with the website, which gets about 30,000 hits per day.
The coupon craze is both good and bad, she said.
On one hand, she makes a living off it.
"At the same time there's just an increased level of frustration for everybody," she said in reference to the long lines and sometimes empty shelves.