Last Tuesday, my couponing career took off and crash-landed within an hour.

I was sitting in a church gymnasium, bathed in gray light, surrounded by 30 other women, with a stack of fliers in front of me. We’d all gotten reeled into this place by the same thing: We’d heard that someone, somewhere, had bought 20 big bottles of Tide for $2.99 apiece. And they knew how to do it by taking the couponing class that was about to start.

We soon learned our teacher was J.P. from North Carolina, and I’m here to tell you that, without a shadow of a doubt, this woman knew her stuff when it came to couponing — or, as she unapologetically called it, couponin’. She launched the class in the same way that a seventh-grade teacher launches the school year: by establishing firm authority. J.P. had knowledge to impart, a (thick) packet to get through, and a binder in her hand that she soon lifted and shook over her head like it contained the divine word of God.

“This is the only thing I pay full price for,” she said of the blue, three-ring book, implying that if we knew what was good for us, we’d pay full price too.

It turns out, this binder was the secret organizational weapon of the True Couponer. It contained: a pencil pouch, scissors, 1 pack of 35-count baseball card holder sheets, 1 to 2 packs of dividers, and sticky notes.

And it was to be labeled with the following categories: personal, household, food, fridge, freezer, other (baby, pets, etc.).

At this point, J.P. pulled out two props: a big accordion file-away and a small accordion file-away. She then pointed out the folly of both systems, whose major vulnerability was that they could be upended while in use, thus sending your coupons skittering to the grocery store floor.

“I’d be cussing ‘til Sunday,” she said.

She then went on to explain that, even with her system, it was important that the baseball card holders not get too packed with coupons, as she’d seen with her own eyes that they, too, could become overtaxed. In fact, one little boy did manage to topple her coupons on one occasion, which had caused J.P. to turn to her husband in fury and say: “Where’s that youngin’s momma at?”

Let’s face it, this was extravagantly boring stuff, only marginally improved by J.P.’s capricious use of grammar. In turn, our table of women had basically become The Bad Table. Though I was trying my best, I was, like a real jerk, laughing when I shouldn’t be. A few of the women were talk-whispering amongst themselves, clearly not captivated by J.P.’s system. My friend Jennifer had started to not-very-quietly rip out the coupons supplied in the fliers, presumably so she could save herself from having to do it later. And then my friend Mandy, after hearing J.P. refer several times to the act of using a coupon for something you didn’t buy, asked how that was even possible.

J.P.’s cheeks turned red, and I suddenly realized that fury was an emotion not infrequently simmering near the surface for this woman.

“I’m not going to tell you how. People who coupon illegally ruin it for the rest of us,” she said. “Besides, I like free, but I don’t look good in orange.”

So that, as they say, was that.

I am being harsh, but the 2.5 hours spent in the grey gym were informative. Basically, you can save a lot of money by being part of a couponing group in which you buy fliers in bulk. The couponing group gets wind of what will be in the fliers before everyone else, and you then order how many you want accordingly. If you’re really organized, present your coupons in the right order, and intimately know the store’s coupon policies, you can even end up making money on your bill.

For my part, I ended up getting a lot of tips from the badly-behaved friends at my table, who are vastly more advanced couponers than I am. I learned that Kroger gives away a free item every Friday. That some coupons allow you to use them multiple times. And that you can download a lot of coupons using the Kroger app, as well as peruse their sale flier, whose deals, if you know them in advance, are no joke.

As for Official Couponing, it’s not quite for me as I can’t imagine going to pick up those fliers every week or, for that matter, dragging around a binder everywhere I go. But if you want to learn the ins and outs of the craft, as well as become part of a useful Facebook group, I cannot recommend J.P.’s class — or her vernacular — enough. And with that, I leave you with this gem, which I don’t entirely understand: Thinking you can use digital manufacturer coupons in tandem with paper manufacturer coupons “is like blowing wind on fire.”

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