Nathan Engels' journey into 'extreme couponing' began with $80,000 in debt

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Nathan Engels is building a studio in his house, the better to shoot video for his website, His garage -- with its neat shelves of salad dressing, body wash and cereal boxes -- has been on TV. His car is wrapped with an ad for his website, something that makes it impossible to shop incognito and awkward when he went through a McDonald's drive-thru.

"They're like, 'Do you have a coupon?' " he said, laughing.

In the new golden age of the coupon, the 29-year-old Mr. Engels is a celebrity. Putting the seal on his fame: being featured in two episodes of TLC's "Extreme Couponing" show. That helped earn him an invitation to offer a couponing class at Good Taste! Pittsburgh, a food and cooking show to be held Nov. 5 in the Monroeville Convention Center.

"I've never spoken at a food conference," he said, but his wife, Lacy, was thrilled to see that the Cooking Channel's Jeffery Saad had been at the event last year. Mr. Saad will be back this year, so Mrs. Engels is planning to skip her husband's class to see a different sort of celebrity.


A cartographer by trade -- his family's maps are in the back of his local phone book near Cincinnati, Ohio -- Mr. Engels became a couponer a few years ago after he and his wife tallied up their non-mortgage debts and found they owed $80,000, with $18,000 on credit cards.

They did budgets and got rid of one of their two cars and generally looked for ways to save. His coupon "ah-ha" moment came when he had a $1 coupon for toothpaste, which happened to be on sale for $1. He paid just 3 cents in tax.

The 2008-launched website was in response to the people who wanted his phone number after he offered free couponing classes in local libraries and churches. Taking queries online was easier.

Somewhere along the way, the media took note and each story/appearance led to another. "It's sort of like when one media outlet grabs you, they all grab you," he noted.

And now he's in Pittsburgh. Mr. Engels drove in this week to help promote the Good Taste! Pittsburgh show, and coupons in general. Armed with a reusable grocery bag filled with his props -- things like toothpaste, feminine products and dishwasher detergent that he's picked up for free or very little using coupons -- he is making the media rounds.

The "Extreme Couponing" appearances serve as both a calling card that opens such doors and a lightning rod that can turn people off over the intense hunt for savings that the cable show uses to dramatic effect.

"I do Dumpster dive," he admits, unabashedly noting there are good things to be found in recycling bins. That's where he finds more coupons than come in the five copies of the Sunday newspaper that he buys weekly (down from 10 in the past).

He also carefully destroys personal things such as Social Security cards that people inadvisedly put into the recycling. "You wouldn't believe what people throw away."

While such over-the-top activities make for good TV, Mr. Engels would hate for shoppers to miss out on an opportunity to save because they are turned off by the impression that couponers are all hoarders or that they hurt other shoppers with their intensity.

He rejects the suggestion that major retailers have recently tightened coupon redemption policies, such as instituting limits on the number of like items customers can buy, as a result of extreme couponers. It's just the people who wipe out the items on sale that cause problems, he said. "[Stores] just want to keep product on their shelves for everyone."

Mr. Engels works closely with Kroger, a grocery chain based in Cincinnati, and his local stores. When he did mass purchases for the TLC show or other media events, he said he touched base ahead of time with a manager to order what he needed.

"It was done for effect," he said, and was not the same as cases in which stores have admitted they allowed shoppers for the "Extreme Couponing" show to get deals not regularly offered, including double coupons or exceeding limits.

Still, he argues that really careful coupon clipping timed with store sales can save up to 50 percent off most families' weekly grocery bills.

When told some experts have disputed that figure, adding that such ambitious projections frustrate shoppers, the cheerful Mr. Engels momentarily looked aggravated. "Those experts probably don't use coupons," he said.

He's hoping to teach people not just to save but how to use or donate the things they accumulate. "If you can't connect that to food for your family, it really is meaningless," he said.

Beyond helping his family work toward a goal of having no debt and clearing the mortgage -- the target now is to get the house paid off within the next two years -- Mr. Engels said he's not making a lot of money from his coupon evangelism. He'll make some from speaking at the food show and the website draws enough ads to cover its expenses.

He and his wife, who now have a 20-month-old toddler, recently saved enough to buy a second car again, paying in cash this time. An added bonus: He said his wife is thrilled to be able to drive discreetly around in car that isn't covered with ads for his coupon website.


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