Brandie Mavrich loves to make cash registers go in reverse.
On a recent trip to SuperTarget, her total topped $260. Then she pulled out her coupons and started working her markdown magic.
Three dollars off. Five. Seven. Her total dropped to $200, then $150.
The 34-year-old south Kansas City, Mo., woman was just getting started. The digital readout blinked $125, then went under $100. The register began to smoke, or at least it should have.
Seventy. Sixty. Fifty. Finally, the dumbfounded checker read the total: $32.62.
Let others save 30 cents on corn flakes or canned peaches. Mavrich has discovered a better way to turn coupons -- a fixture in groceries for more than 100 years -- into mountains of money.
It's called extreme couponing. Fueled by the recession and made possible by the Internet, the practice is spreading. Bargain hunters used 3.2 billion coupons in 2009. That's not only a 23 percent increase from 2008, it was the largest one-year jump ever recorded, according to NCH Marketing Services of Deerfield, Ill.
How does Mavrich do it?
"The goal is to take what the store has on sale, mix it with a manufacturer's coupon and a store's loyalty program, then stack all those deals together and come out on the other side free, or near free.''
The heart of couponing is still the Sunday newspaper. Mavrich has two subscriptions to The Kansas City Star, and sometimes she buys 10 more copies at a convenience store.
Much of the increase is thanks to technology. Today's discount devotees connect through cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and online coupon communities. Popular sites include SlickDeals.net, TheKrazyCouponLady.com, CouponForum.com and AFullCup.com.
Some couponers hoard their bargain booty, while others sell it or give it to friends.
Mavrich, who is considering teaching a class on extreme couponing, can save with the best of them.
Her best efforts? She saved $316 at SuperTarget, and $327 at Walgreens, and she has the receipts to prove it.
Mavrich keeps many of the products for her family, but she doesn't approve of hoarding. She recently donated her record-setting Walgreens purchase to the Kansas City Rescue Mission.
"They really needed nonalcoholic cold medicine,'' Mavrich said. "So I said, 'What will it take for me to multiply it (my donation) on a loaves-and-fishes level?' ''
Juliann Hansen, a volunteer coordinator for the mission, soon found out.
"She donated 28 large boxes of DayQuil, eight large boxes of Ester-C and 14 boxes of Puffs tissues,'' Hansen said of Mavrich. "She managed to get $365 worth of products for $38. Pretty impressive. I want to take a class.''
Mavrich said there are many ways to save big.
"For instance, Olay offered a rebate. You buy three moisturizers, body washes or bars of soap, and they give you $15 back. That's a pretty nice deal by itself. So I go to Target and buy three.''
Did she get them free?
"Nope,'' Mavrich said. "I actually made money.''
"Let me lay it out for you,'' she said. "There was a coupon in the newspaper for Venus Embrace women's razors that I got on a buy-one-get-one-free deal. If I bought the razor, I got the Olay body wash for free. And they were having a sale at Target where if I bought three Olay body washes I got a $5 Target gift card. So I got three coupons, bought the three razors and got the three body washes for free. Plus I got $2 off of each razor by using three other coupons. That brought my total down to $8.97. Then you subtract the $5 Target gift card for buying the three body washes, and that's $3.97. Then you mail in the $15 manufacturer's rebate for buying the three Olay body washes, and ... "
She turned an $11 profit.
Her husband, Bret Mavrich, is blown away.
"It's phenomenal,'' he said. "We've had to rewrite our budget for all the good reasons. And I'm really excited for her to start teaching. What took her many months ... we've seen her friends pick it up in half the time.''
Mavrich taught herself extreme couponing after a back injury forced her to stop working. Instead of shopping for products, she shops for deals. And the result of the deals is what she and her husband use.
"I let them dictate what I buy, within reason,'' she said.
Sometimes it seems too good to be true.
"When I first started couponing I used to kind of feel a little bit guilty, like I was stealing something. But finally I learned that everyone's got an incentive in this whole thing. The manufacturer wants you to have the product. They want you to love the product. (The retailer) wants to move it so they can get the incentive from the manufacturer. And I make money! It's a win-win-win situation! So why not?''
Mike Gatti of the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C, said Mavrich is right.
"Retailers put out the coupons, and they like to see people use them,'' he said. "It really isn't going to hurt if more people start to do this. Retailers want people to use coupons. That's how they plan their promotions. ... It means more people are trying their products.''
Isn't Gatti concerned that too many people could overwhelm the system?
"No,'' he said. "This is still relatively rare. If you've got a job, you don't have time to do this.''