Teen takes coupons to extreme for higher good

May 27, 2013

At first glance, Nicholas Persky's bedroom in San Francisco looks like a typical teen's room, with Giants World Series memorabilia on the walls along with a movie poster or two.

At second glance, his room looks like an office supply/convenience store, with a table full of shampoo, hair dye, soda bottles, nail polish, room freshener, cat litter, deodorant, cereal and toothpaste.

Nearby are shelves of markers, glue, pens, computer fans, laptop covers and an out-of-place toaster.
On the ground is 650 pounds of printer paper - 65,000 sheets neatly bundled in 130 reams.

All of it, every piece of paper and tube of toothpaste, was free.

Nicholas, 17, is what some call an extreme couponer. He spends hours and hours researching sales, discounts, coupons and store rewards to not only get stuff for free, but also to make money in the process.

Last year, he said, he made about $2,000.

He started couponing two years ago.

Unlike a lot of coupon devotees and those shown on reality television, he doesn't do it to hoard household items - say, enough hand lotion to make it through the apocalypse.

Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Persky donates or gives friends items from his huge collection of goods acquired with coupons.
The Lick-Wilmerding High School junior loves the challenge. The money isn't bad, either.

"I don't really get excited over the shampoo itself," he said. "I'm not emotionally attached to the mouth rinse."
It's basically a hobby, he said, albeit one that takes a lot of time when he's not doing schoolwork or volunteering for the city's Youth Commission.

Started club for students

And if it sounds quirky or nerdy, think again. When he started an extreme couponing club at his school, 60 kids showed up for the first meeting and another 60 the second.

Nicholas tried to explain how the coupon concept works, but to the uninitiated, it's mind-bogglingly complicated. Every store or product can require a different strategy.

Generally, he studies sales ads up to two weeks before a trip to a store and combs through online coupons. He gets tips from couponing websites and communicates with fellow couponers.

Michael Macor, The Chronicle
High schooler Nicholas Persky shows the room full of items he's gotten for free through his extreme couponing venture.

He used to do it for fun to get free stuff, but these days he's moved into advanced couponing, where folks are "monetizing the rewards."

Free used to be the goal, he said.

"Not anymore," he said. "I don't have time for free anymore."

His mom, Anne McMullen, smiled and recounted an infuriating 11 p.m. run to a grocery store for cereal.
With coupons and two compatible rebates, he took home 100 boxes of cereal that night and yielded about $75 in pure profit. In other words, he said, the cereal company paid him 79 cents for each box of their breakfast food he brought home.

"It's a challenge - it's gaming the system in some ways for sure," Nicholas said, adding that it takes higher math skills and sometimes a graphing calculator to play the game.

Yet he wants or keeps little of what he acquires, usually just the chocolate and candy. He gives the rest away to friends, neighbors and good causes.

Crayons and nail polish went to Ethiopia. Several boxes of Rice Krispies cereal were converted by friends into treats and shipped to soldiers in Kuwait.

A $50 diabetes kit went to a needy friend.

But the paper was special.

Nearly every Friday for the past several months, he hopped on Muni and headed to an office supply store where he used his frequent customer rewards and coupons to get a discount on paper that was often "free after rebate." He had calculated to the penny, paying sales tax with gift cards finagled from other transactions.

School grateful for paper

Then he'd lug the 20-pound boxes home, where he was saving the paper to make a sizable donation to a public school that needed the supplies.

"He wants to do this," his mom said. "He knows about the total inequities in different parts of the city."
On Friday, with 130 reams in hand, or rather in the trunks of two cars, he donated the paper to Bret Harte Elementary School in the Bayview.

Principal Jeanne Dowd was stunned by the amount of paper - and more surprised that it came by way of coupons.

The school started the year with eight break-ins by vandals that destroyed art supplies and damaged property, she said. But it was ending with $700 in desperately needed paper.

"It means starting the next year in a place where the teachers have all the paper they need," she said as students stacked the paper in a hallway. "That will last us half a year."

Nicholas smiled shyly, appearing a bit overwhelmed by the principal's and students' gratitude.
He promised to return with more.

"I didn't know that office supplies could be that important," he said outside the school. "It's just paper."