Expert Interview with Cherie Lowe on Freebies and Coupons for Mint

Cherie Lowe has been crowned Queen of Free by the Internet, and she's held the crown through smart focus on freebies and where to find them. Cherie sat down with us to talk about coupons and freebies.

What led you to your crown as the Queen of Free?

When I was a 9-year-old little girl, I bought a paperback at the book fair. In it were the secrets of the universe. If I simply sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to select companies, they would actually send me something for free! What a miracle! The advent of the internet made this pursuit of free even easier. However, the name and crown of the Queen of Free has more than one meaning. From April of 2008 to March of 2012, our family paid off $127K in debt. I began to see the pursuit of free through a whole new angle. Plus, my ninja-like skills for scoring items for free and saving money came in pretty handy.

How do you find so much free stuff?

Daily, I check out a number of online forums and frugal blogs to see what the best deals are on the internet. However, after a while, your eye becomes trained to scoring a deal. Usually items jump out at me without very much effort due to years of honing my craft.

Is "free" always a deal? If not, why not?

Unfortunately not. Sometimes freebies are a gateway drug - a way to hook you on a product you wouldn't normally use or purchase. Companies certainly use free promotions and samples as a marketing tool. You have to value your time and consider whether or not you can withstand the temptation of being pitched to purchase. Only once ever did I sit through a pitch for timeshare vacation in order to pick up a free gift card and vouchers for a free stay. It was too painful of an endeavor for me to ever do it again.

For our family, staying out of debt and not overspending are both more important than scoring something for free. I also always contemplate the number of minutes I could use to either spend time with my family or actually make money by working before pursuing a freebie, too.

As a final note, stuff breeds stuff. So if I don't have space for a freebie or I know I'm not going to use it, I won't even bother with a promotion. It's more important to me to keep our home's systems clutter free and functioning well than score a really great deal.

How much time do you put into finding the freebies you feature on your site?

It honestly depends on my daily schedule. I'm a newspaper columnist for a local publication, a weekly money-saving contributor for WTHR, a freelancer for a couple of websites, and an author. Add to that being a wife, mom of two girls, friend, and leader in the community. Some days, I blog several freebies. Some days, not so much. I would say I probably only spend an average of an hour a day looking for freebies, though. I spend more time writing about ways to save in general and get out of debt.

What are some of the things that make a "good" coupon?

What a great question that most people don't think about! So when I'm looking for a good coupon, I definitely consider whether or not it's a brand or item we already purchase. As a general albeit flexible rule of thumb, I try not to use coupons for something I've never bought before. Again, companies don't love you and your family so much that they want to help you score a great deal - they are marketing through coupons.

After that consideration, I explore the potential to further maximize the coupon through stretching. Does a local store have a sale, rewards program, eCoupon or printable store coupon that is stackable with the offer? Sometimes, there's more than one way to make that coupon work for you and further stretch your savings. I also ask the question, "Will this coupon cause me to spend money beyond my budget?" The budget is more holy than any enticing deal.

It's also a great idea to consider whether or not you'll actually use the item. I know it seems obvious, but if it sits on my shelves forever, it's not a good deal. Even if I can score dog food for free, I'm probably not going to buy it because we don't have a dog. If you're charitable and know you can donate items couponed for free or close to it, have a 24-hour plan to move that item along out of your house. Otherwise, it will grow roots and stay in your home for months or even years.

What do you wish you'd know when you started looking for coupons?

Couponing is a marathon and not a sprint. You will always forget a coupon at home or neglect to purchase a Sunday paper. It doesn't mean that your career of saving money has to end. Get back on the horse and try again. I've gone through seasons where I hardcore coupon and maximize every dollar, and then I've gotten lazy and out of the habit. I always return to it.

You don't have to be extreme. Couponing should fit into your lifestyle and not occupy more than a couple of hours of time a week. If you're spending 40-60 hours a week couponing, you might want to consider getting a job. Sure, there will be less toilet paper and candy bars for free, but you'll be making money. Relax into saving money and you'll find that you both enjoy it and you can sustain the practice over years instead of burning out and then missing out.

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