December 09, 2010


How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something for Nothing. By Kathy Spencer with Samantha Rose. Da Capo. $14.95.

     Recession or recovery, apparently only women are really concerned about deep discounts and really savvy about getting them. That is one underlying premise of this book, in which mother-of-four Kathy Spencer tells of getting $267.22 of groceries for a single penny, and TV writer Samantha Rose helps put together a series of ideas to make it possible for other women to shop just as well. The current holiday-shopping season is traditionally one of wretched excess – less so, thankfully, in the poor economic climate of the last few years – but this is not really a book about making do with less or promoting recycling (the free listings on Craigslist get a single brief mention, while the nonprofit Freecycle group gets only a bit more discussion “if you’re into the conservation thing”).

     No, How to Shop for Free is devoted to the idea that women (not men?) can continue to buy pretty much what they wish, but get everything for a lot less money or even for free. Some of the authors’ ideas require thinking in a particular way – for example, agreeing to try out new products and spread the word about them (a form of viral marketing) in order to get the products for nothing. “Does this make you cringe? …[But] some information about your shopping habits has already been tracked. …Retailers are just using the information they gather about you to give you more of what you want.” If you buy into this viewpoint (“buy into,” get it?), you can then explore Web sites and groups to which Spencer and Rose direct you – where you can get more information and find out about participating in marketing programs.

     This and many other ideas in the book can be traced to Spencer’s Web site, Both site and book do have some perfectly good, if straightforward, recommendations. For instance, make a list of non-perishables you replace often, guess how many bags, cans or jars you will need for the next six to 12 months, and stockpile the items when big sales occur – using manufacturers’ coupons when you buy to bring the sale price even lower. Or: find out a store’s policies on doubling or tripling coupons, accepting competitors’ coupons, accepting expired coupons and being willing to take coupons printed from Web sites – and try to shop at stores that make the use of coupons easier while making the coupons themselves more valuable. Spencer and Rose suggest shoppers start small: “Pick one or two [savings tricks], like working a BOGO [buy one, get one free] deal or doubling a coupon, and play around with them until you’re comfortable.” Then, with experience, you can try more-advanced techniques. For example, bid on coupons on eBay; buy multiple copies of the Sunday paper if an insert has coupons you will use and that are worth more than the cost of the paper itself; learn the intricacies of Catalina (CAT) deals, in which you buy a certain number of items and get a certain amount of money back – you can actually get paid to shop if you handle these deals correctly.

     There is a lot of advice here on what to do, and some on what not to do, such as clearing an entire shelf: “Feel free to take a lot, but don’t take it all. (Unless it’s on clearance. In that case, feel free to ho it up.)” There is plenty of solid information here and a certain amount of silliness, which is actually a positive thing, as if the authors take their money-saving strategies seriously but not too seriously. Spencer is a little too full of herself at times (“my killer two-for-one shopping strategy”), but she and Rose have certainly done a lot of research, and their highly specific information on loyalty programs, coupon Web sites, manufacturers’ sites and discount plans, prescription-drug savings and more, will be very useful to people (including men) who are trying to make their money go further. The chatty tone of the book will appeal to some readers, but may seem rather breathless and overdone to others. How to Shop for Free really does provide examples of getting items for free, or even being paid to take them away. However, even with the book’s passing mentions of healthful eating, some readers may question the types of items that seem to produce the best deals. For example, Spencer discusses the time she managed to get such a huge number of free cans of Pringles that she gave a full can to every child who came to her house that year for Halloween. That’s great shopping, but scarcely great nutrition.

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