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Confessions of an Extreme Couponer

Talking Shop: J’aime Kirlew, 34, cut up to $14,000 off her grocery bill last year by clipping coupons. That’s not always as easy or practical as it sounds. It means finding room at her home in Montgomery Village, Maryland to stockpile over 100 cleaning wipes, 200 soaps, 70 bottles of laundry detergent, 60 boxes of cereal, 450 rolls of toilet paper and 250 paper towels.

TLC

She struck up a friendly rapport and a deal with her local newspaper carrier: he brings her the unsold newspapers, she recycles them for him. Kirlew spends hours clipping coupons, set up a database on her computer to track her savings and pre-orders goods at her local grocery stores so she doesn’t clear the shelves and upset other customers. She now has her own website and describes herself as a coupon “diva.”

Her extreme couponing began when her husband took a pay cut in April 2009, and continued in earnest when he lost his job a year later. She will never turn back into a regular shopper, even now that her husband found a new job. Kirlew appears on TLC’s 12-part series, Extreme Couponing to mixed reviews and questions about their behavior.

Of her own coupon-clipping, Kirlew says, “I’ll never stop.”

Pay Dirt: There is only a finite amount of left-over newspapers to go around. Do you have any competition from rivals?

J’aime Kirlew: I’ve never seen that in my own neighborhood. But I’ve taught 750 people how to extreme coupon over the last two years. I teach people to be courteous to others shoppers, and to never clear the shelves.

Some say extreme couponing takes advantage of the system.

I learned how to shop this way because our finances changed, as did the state of the economy. I’ve donated to the food bank that I frequent because I’ve bought too many perishable items, and I’ll make purchases for friends and give them the bag of goodies. The way that I’m shopping is part of the new economy. I provide as much as I can to my family and spend the least amount.

What if manufacturers put strict limits on the amount of coupons allowed per person?

Stores make money from coupons and receive a kickback from the manufacturers based on the amount of coupons redeemed. The price of food has gone up and sizes of our containers have gone down. I don’t see manufacturers refusing the consumer to buy a brand named product at a reduced price. I haven’t bought a generic item in two years.

What was your biggest shop?

I paid $103 for a $1,900 grocery bill. Three friends of mine came over. We clipped for about 10 hours over four days. My 11th Commandment is “Thou shalt not pay retail.” I typically know the month that things go on sale. If it’s possible for me never to pay retail, I won’t.

You say that with pride.

Absolutely, I definitely took it on as a challenge.

What do your three children say about this?

My kids have everything they need. We never have to run to the store when there’s a snowstorm for anything we need because we’ve got it.

Have you treated yourself with the savings you’ve made?

I just treated myself to a four-day cruise with 13 girlfriends to the Bahamas. I saved enough cash to be able to do that.

Is it a passion or an obsession?

I think it’s both. I’m passionate about giving and providing for other’s needs. It’s also an obsession. I could never shop the old way again.

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.