Envision “extreme couponing.” Maybe the image that comes to mind is a stockpile of goods filling an entire room of a house. Or a store cashier waiting patiently while a customer counts out hundreds of clipped coupons in the name of assembling the best deal possible. Maybe that same adamant couponer argues with the cashier about expiration dates, combining sales, or duplicating deals.
While that may be the reality shown on TLC, it’s not for Boston-based Julia Belkin, known to most by her social media handle: @freebies_and_more. Belkin is, by her definition, an “extreme” couponer, but she uses her platform to educate others on how using coupons can realistically benefit the average consumer. And, as she assures her audience, you don’t need to buy 100 bottles of shampoo to see savings.
Belkin created her Instagram account in 2014 and her TikTok profile this past April. Collectively, her two platforms boast more than 300,000 followers — about 57,000 on Instagram and 270,000 on TikTok. Belkin also publishes her content on a personal website (freebiesandmore.net) and through a newsletter she sends out a few times a month.
As an undergrad at Simmons University, Belkin found herself trying to find ways to save some money. “I remember feeling super broke,” she said. “I had watched one of the TV shows, ‘Extreme Couponing,’ and I said ‘I’m going to learn how to do that.’”
She turned to Instagram and discovered the social media-based couponing community. Following coupon “breakdowns” detailing how a user acquired a deal, Belkin started to put her new knowledge to the test. After finding success in copying others’ step-by-step explanations, she found ways to tweak them and save even more money. From the time she started, Belkin said she’s saved about $18,000 per year at CVS alone, and she estimates more than $100,000 in savings collectively.
Belkin’s Instagram account features breakdowns of all her deals to help others learn the ropes and lingo associated with the community. Most of her deals feature popular chains with an abundance of locations like CVS, Walgreens, Stop and Shop, Target, and Walmart. Linked in her Instagram bio is a multi-part guide to get newcomers acquainted. Belkin acknowledges the sharp learning curve, especially because deals can take months of advance planning. “If nobody’s going to show you the basics how are you ever going to learn,” she said.
Despite the effort that goes into learning how to coupon, Belkin doesn’t want it to seem daunting. From planning to actually purchasing, she estimates she spends around three hours per week couponing. She aims to show how accessible racking up savings can be.
“I do slightly different breakdowns than most of the coupon community does,” she said. “I pride myself on inclusivity. I know that not everybody has a printer or access to the newspaper, so I try really hard to do digital-only deals that only involve using your phone.”
The couponing community, on- and off-line, has faced backlash from other consumers who see these extreme bargains as unethical. This is, in part, influenced by an offshoot of couponing called “glitching.” Those in the glitch community look for manufacturer errors that mistakenly grant them free items or massive price drops. Though technically a facet of couponing, “glitching” is not something Belkin typically participates in.
“I never argue with cashiers and I’m not rude to managers,” she said. “I try and give everyone a positive experience and the managers know how grateful I am for them… I find you don’t need to bend the rules to get awesome stuff for free.”
And, when she finds herself with more products than she could viably use, she donates it to local charities across the city. “I have enough deodorant to last me until my grandchildren are having body odor problems,” Belkin said. “Every time there is a deodorant deal, it takes 20 minutes out of my day, so why wouldn’t I do it and donate it?”
Though much of Belkin’s practice is done digitally, COVID-19 has still impacted her ability to score in-person deals. At the height of the pandemic, CVS and other retailers pulled their fliers completely and have since adapted promotions to exclude scarcities like toilet paper and soap.
At the same time, Belkin noticed a surge in her follower count; “A lot of people have lost their jobs so they’re struggling financially and require that extra bit of assistance,” she said.
As cases rise again, Belkin anticipates turning to online shopping to avoid indoor public spaces. She dedicated a TikTok series, titled Bargain GiftTok, to helping her viewers find affordable gift ideas at online retailers.
“I’m not out here buying 100 cans of corn. I’m buying for the average American family,” she said. “I’m showing that it’s possible and doesn’t need to be particularly difficult or stressful.”
Grace Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.