If using coupons is an extreme sport, Tammilee Tillison just made the all-star team.
Tillison – a Medical Lake woman who became a coupon demon after losing her job – was featured this week on the latest reality show, “Extreme Couponing.”
In the episode, she does what all the show’s subjects do – lands a huge haul of groceries for pennies on the dollar. In her case, she paid just $17.71 for $640.84 worth of frozen food, aspirin, hot sauce, paper towels … while the cameras rolled and spectators gawked from the second story of the Fred Meyer on South Thor Street.
“I have never had this much attention at the grocery store, ever,” Tillison said. “It definitely was not a normal trip. I would hope people don’t see the show and think that’s a normal trip.”
And yet Tillison’s coupon evangelism is as real as it gets. She’s turned coupons into a passion and an avocation – and now a fledgling business, the website Tammilee Tips. She says she saved more than $10,000 last year using coupons, enough to pay for two trips to the Caribbean for her and her husband, John. The former guest room in her nice little home in Medical Lake looks like a stock room at a small grocery store, with neatly lined rows of Froot Loops, spaghetti sauce, hot chocolate, bottled water, Hamburger Helper and ketchup – more than 1,000 items in all. And, while her televised shopping trip may have been goosed-up for TV, it wasn’t the biggest haul she’s made. Her record was a $1,300 bill at Albertson’s that she couponed down to less than $15.
On Valentine’s Day, she and John used a coupon for dinner and one for a movie – and then stopped off at the grocery store to snag a couple deals on the way home.
“Very romantic night with coupons,” she said.
If you, like me, are the kind of person who swings by the store for a couple things every other day, responds to an impulse or two in the aisles, and can’t figure out why the grocery bill’s so high, then all this may seem slightly crazy. Or extremely crazy. Most of the people on the new show make Tillison look rather tame by comparison when they do their stunt shopping: In Wednesday’s episode, a Seattle woman hauled away some $1,800 in groceries for around $40.
But it’s hard to argue with Tillison’s results. She saves a ton of money, and she’s donated almost 500 pounds of food to the Medical Lake Food Bank.
Three years ago, she learned she’d be losing her job as a risk manager for a company that moved her position to another city; the Tillisons chose to stay here because John loves his job as a park ranger based at Riverside State Park, she said.
But it was a blow. She was the bigger earner in the family. Together, they were bringing in six figures and living the DINK lifestyle – dual income, no kids. They traveled a lot – photos from around the world hang on the walls of their home – and ate out several times a week and didn’t worry much about saving a buck on a bottle of shampoo.
“Prior to this point, I was the girl who, if I went out and saw a pair of $100 shoes, I bought them,” she said.
But now she was looking for ways to save. She began gathering coupons from all over – she subscribes to two copies of the newspaper, scours online and social media sites, looks in magazines and other publications. She uses her organizational and professional skills – she’s got an MBA – to organize, track and plan purchases.
“There are coupons almost everywhere, once you start noticing them,” she said. “You can get everything. I’m vegetarian, my husband’s not, I get fruits and vegetables and organics – all with coupons.”
Tillison acknowledges that it’s harder to get fresh food using coupons. But it’s possible, she says, to be aggressive about saving money without eating an all-Froot-Loops diet.
Tillison started her website almost two years ago. News that TLC was airing a new show spread through the coupon world last year. Tillison watched the first episode of the show at the end of 2010 – it included an appeal for people to contact the show if they were interested in being featured.
“My husband and I talked about it and talked about it and talked about it,” she said. “Our hope was that by doing this we can maybe get someone else to start with coupons and save some money.”
They contacted TLC early this year, and the film crews arrived in Spokane in March. Tillison had planned a trip to Fred Meyer – scouted prices, organized her trip with a spreadsheet, coordinated with store managers. It was a long, grueling day at the store. At one point, Tillison sat on the floor and taped her feet; the “cute shoes” she’d picked for the show were killing her.
The show aired Wednesday night; she and John had around 20 people over to watch. One of the themes of the episode was that the Tillisons were trying to use their shopping trip to stock up on free food, in order to save for a cruise to the Baltic Sea for John’s 40th birthday.
“That was 6, 8 weeks ago,” she said. “We’re still eating that food.”
But the payoff is coming soon, in the form of the cruise.
“We leave Saturday,” she said.