How's this for holiday savings: a shopping haul of remote control cars, tablets, warm coats and boots worth $8,000 for just $1,300.
That was how well extreme couponer Joni Crothers and her "coupon-tourage" of 14 friends and family members did after 15 hours of shopping at 10 stores in Toledo, Ohio, on Black Friday.
It works out to about $450 an hour in savings. There's a cherry on top of this shopping spree. It will be used to fulfill wish lists from 16 children in need.
Crothers knows what it's like to be down and out around the holidays. She started clipping coupons when her husband lost his auto industry job four years ago. In the process, Crothers discovered a talent for discount hunting that was good enough to be featured on the popular TLC show "Extreme Couponing."
She now uses her talent to give back to children she met through a local food bank. She even identifies with some of them.
"One of the kids we're helping has a mom who lost her automotive factory job two years ago, and now her unemployment is running out," she said. "These families just need to feel like there are people who care about them."
The coupontourage had their shopping plans down to a science this year. Crothers started her Thanksgiving meal in the early afternoon so she would be ready.
The group met at Crothers' home at 7:15 p.m. on Thanksgiving, earlier than their 9 p.m. start last year, since stores like Wal-Mart (and Toys R Us )pushed their doorbuster sales up by an hour.
The crew then fanned out to Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Target (, )Kohls (, Bath and Body Works, )Macy's (, )JC Penney ( and )Aeropostale ( -- stores that Crothers determined had the greatest number of items on the children's lists. )
She headed off to Target, where she found the crowds crazier and the people grumpier than last year.
"Most people are usually in the holiday spirit," she said. "But not this year. Maybe it's because the sales are starting earlier and they're not getting family time in or time to rest."
The coupontourage tuned out the bah humbugs and focused on their lists. They targeted each store knowing what they would buy: coats and boots from Kohl's, remote control cars and baby dolls from Toys R Us, electronics from Wal-Mart.
They relied on money-back promotions on gift cards that many stores were offering, wherein stores give you a certain amount back for every gift card you buy.
Their strategy paid off. At Kohl's alone, they spent $330 for $1,900 worth of items. At Toys R Us, they saved another 72%, thanks to the 60% off on hot toys offered during the store's early bird special.
Crothers' biggest coup was for a 15 year-old girl, who had put five books on her wish list, which would have cost the coupontourage more than $100.
Crothers had a different idea. She used the money she collected from buying gift cards to purchase a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader tablet, which retails for $199, and plunked $40 of the group's budget. The kid will also get a $50 gift card to download her books.
The 16 children will get a chance to see what the coupontourage snapped up at a "Happy Birthday Jesus party" that Crothers hosts at a local food bank on Christmas eve. Each kid is called up by Santa Claus to get a gift.
Just when the children think that's the only present they're getting, Crothers unveils the big cardboard boxes filled with the rest of the items on each kid's wish list.
"That's when it's really neat, to see their faces," she said.