The Coupon Lady: Stick to a monthly budget if you're facing financial problems

As my faithful readers know, I’m a bit of a technology geek, especially with apps and social media such as Facebook. One of my favorite aspects about having the Augusta Coupon Lady Facebook page is that I can address real people’s coupon questions and answer them here in my column.


Ashley asks: “(I am) unemployed, how can I save my husband’s hard-earned money with using coupons and still pay bills?”

Ashley, first of all it is important that your family make a budget for the month and stick with it. If you are facing a financial crisis from a reduction in income, you need to start figuring out the costs of your basic needs first. Start with food, water, lights and shelter. Those payments are critical and get first priority.

If your husband is still working, then you can add his costs from the car payment, insurance and fuel needs. Once you get those basic needs covered, then you move on to cable, cellphones, Internet and credit card bills. Sure, these things are nice to have and make our lives more convenient, but in an emergency situation you have to think about conserving your money in every possible way. You can use a Roku and stream TV on Hulu Plus for $8 a month (with high-speed Internet service), and even use an Internet phone service for about a $1.50 a month. With a standard high-speed Internet connection, you should be able to spend less than $50 a month for home phone, streaming television and Internet.

If a cellphone is needed for work, then you can transfer your number to a pay-as-you-go service. Clark Howard, a popular financial radio and television host, has long recommended pay-as-you-go services. In the Augusta area, I recommend Straight Talk because you have two advantages. It uses other carriers’ cell towers, so make sure you get a phone that uses the best carrier in your area. In some parts of Columbia County, cell service can be spotty unless you use specific carriers, so ask around and find out who has the best service in your area. Because the phones are carried by a large retailer, the phone selection is better than most pay-as-you-go services. You should be able to get an unlimited talk, text and data plan for $50 a month. I should note that the Roku, Internet phone and pay-as-you-go phones require special equipment that has to be purchased up front, but after that the service becomes much cheaper month to month.

Even though this might seem like common sense, you would be surprised at the high number of people who have let their house go into foreclosure but are still current on credit card payments or still have large cable packages. One reason is fear. Most consumers fear ruining their credit scores and are afraid of collection agencies, but in truth, credit card companies can’t take away your assets. Missing mortgage payments can make you lose your home.

Now, let’s talk about your food budget. If you are the average American family of four, the USDA’s Thrifty level of spending is between $126 to $144 a week on food, depending on the ages of your children. Since this is a national average and food prices are generally lower in the South, you should aim for about $150 a week, including cleaners and personal care items.

Couponing can lower those expenses even further, to about $80 to $100 a week on average, including extras. I spend about $25 a month with a four copy Sunday-only subscription to The Augusta Chronicle and two subscriptions of All You magazine.

So when you first start couponing, allow yourself the full amount plus expenses for a total of $625 for food. Once your couponing has gone through a full sales cycle, you should be able to easily take your spending down to $425-$475 a month.

Good luck!