— Heather Bonner clutches a hefty stack of crisply cut coupons as she bustles through the sliding doors of her local Publix in Dacula, Georgia. It’s obvious she’s no stranger here.
"Heather, haven’t seen you in a while! Big order today?" asked Publix Cashier Beth Goldstein.
An employee wheels out a flatbed of 195 pre-ordered items, from Cheerios and Whole Fruit Bars to feminine products and band-aids. It’s all for local charities, and all in a day's work.
"I think we’ll get it all for about $65 today," said Bonner. That's 30 cents an item.
Bonner is the founder and visionary of Clipping for a Cause, a nonprofit organization that expertly coupons to buy an array of items for pennies on the dollar. On Wednesday evenings, a group of six to 10 women meet in the modest basement of First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville to clip, organize and chat.
Funded by the church, the key to the group's success is that they only purchase items that are free, or nearly free. Sometimes the group actually makes money using multiple coupons.
"This week were going a little over what we would spend at $1.59 for cereal," said Bonner, "but we have pasta that is paying us 40 cents per box, so we’ll apply that. Food banks always need cereal!"
Since its inception in March 2010, Clipping for a Cause has donated over 19,500 items — at a cost of $1,800. That's a $15,500 savings, and like loading up an 18-wheeler at a 90 percent-off sale.
All of this money management takes some serious planning. Bonner said she couldn’t do it alone, so each member performs a specific task.
Cyndy Pearce "braves Walmart," while Karla Price delivers items to food banks and shelters. Each week, Carrie Menegigian makes the list of coupons they'll clip.
"[Bonner] sees people that are in need and she sends out the alarm and collects things for them," said Menegigian. "She wants everybody to be taken care of in whatever need it is. She does beyond.
The inspiration for Clipping for a Cause came out of Bonner’s personal coupon adventures — a stay-at-home mom, she needed to find a way to contribute to the family's finances. "I had three kids in diapers, I needed to do something," she laughed. "The money we save is essentially earned income."
But soon, the items began piling up on the shelves. Bonner knew she couldn’t possibly use them all so she began donating extras to charity. A tap on the shoulder from a clergy member and a sermon later, she knew what she had to do.
"Most people know about coupons but are not diligent enough to really work the system to be able to benefit and share like she does," said Brent Bohanan, director of Family Promise Gwinnett, a regular recipient of Clipping for a Cause contributions.
Outsiders have noticed her skill at saving. Eight other Clipping for a Cause chapters have opened in four other states based on Bonner’s clipping model.
"The main thing that we’re trying to get across is that it is so important right now in these economic times to save for yourself and your family, but at the same time you can pay that gift forward to somebody else," said Bonner.
The need for contributions is greater than ever. This May marked the highest number of people ever using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. According to the USDA, nearly 46 million Americans use SNAP, better known as food stamps.
Nonetheless, some people in need still slip through the cracks and must reach out to food pantries for assistance.
The Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry relies solely on donations such as Bonner’s. The waiting room is packed with bench after bench of people. It’s as hot inside as it is outside, the air conditioning slipping out the unsealed windowpanes.
Marie Yvette, a mother of three, has been receiving assistance from the Ministry and volunteering for ten years now.
"I had a situation where I got divorced, I lost my home, job — I used to be a real estate agent making over $150,000, and then suddenly I’m nothing," she said, her warm brown eyes unwavering.
Like so many others, she never thought she would be here. That is why Bonner decided to keep all donations local.
"It’s amazing, if people just open their eyes, how much need there is right in our own neighborhood," she said.
Back at the neighborhood Publix, the items are being rung up. Bonner sighs as the bill hits $209.17. She’s getting nervous.
The numbers keep growing. "If that goes to $65 you have a LOT of coupons," said Price’s 9-year-old daughter, Helena, who has learned her mom's couponing strategy.
The coupons begin knocking off dollar after dollar, cent after cent. The final total: $74.66. Value: $578.76.
The impact? You can't put a price on that.