Some of the 2,500 people who came to hear Jill Cataldo talk about coupons started lining up four hours before she took the stage at the performing arts center in Charleston, S.C., in March.
Cataldo's sold-out speech was touted as the largest event of its kind ever held in the United States.
This crowd was big, but Cataldo, an entrepreneur and mother of three from the far northwest suburb of Huntley, is used to the attention. She has secrets to share that are just right for this penny-pinching era: how to use those little clips of paper to save a family thousands of dollars a year at the supermarket.
She's the first to admit she's not the only one teaching about coupons, having been in the coupon-advice game just three years. But there's something about her.
Grocery manufacturers and supermarket executives seek her insight on consumer use of coupons. In April, she was one of the main speakers in Atlanta at a conference of the Association of Coupon Professionals.
"We went overtime because there was so much interest — and these are people already in the coupon business," said Susan Gear, a group vice president at Catalina. "She's extremely knowledgeable, probably more knowledgeable than some of us in this space. I think she's an amazing woman."
For those coupons professionals, Cataldo provided an "aha" moment that sounded new to them — the real reason why so many women, and the vast majority are women, use coupons.
"She sees how coupons can affect a person's sense of self-worth and how they can impact their family — how couponing is a very valuable way for them to participate in the economic well-being of their household," Gear said.
"She helped us hold up a mirror to ourselves, and we saw ourselves in a new light."
Cataldo, 37, is a frequent guest on radio and TV and in print publications, including an appearance this year on ABC's "Nightline." Media, along with consumers, jumped on the frugality bandwagon as the economy took a dive and coupons quickly went from crass to cool.
Cataldo also writes a syndicated newspaper column about coupons. It's distributed to papers with some 20 million readers — a kind of Dear Abby with coupons, she says.
Then there's her popular blog, where she's the writer, editor, advertising sales person and website designer. Many times, she juggles those jobs at 2 a.m., often with a Kiss album playing on the turntable next to her computer. She doesn't own an iPod, preferring the warmth of sound coming from a large collection of rock and heavy-metal tunes on vinyl. In her spare time, she does promotional work for Kiss. Cataldo designs collectible concert-souvenir guitar picks for the band and writes copy for Kiss tour books.
The blog, JillCataldo.com, was born upon request.
After her coupon tips appeared in a local newspaper, Cataldo became a regular guest on a Chicago radio show with personality Jonathon Brandmeier, who talked with her weekly about grocery deals. Listeners in their cars during morning drive time couldn't write down the deals and would later call the station asking for information. So the blog started as a way for Cataldo to chronicle the supermarket specials she talked about on air.
"I had no grand designs of becoming a blogger," Cataldo said. "It started because the station was getting bombarded with calls."
Today, the blog has grown into Cataldo's online business card and an outlet for her desire to write about coupons. It's also a high-traffic, money-generating machine. And it's a type of social network.
In just a few years of writing the blog, Cataldo has connected personally with her readers and earned their loyalty. In 2009, her blog readers — complete strangers except for the back-and-forth in email and blog comments — organized a picnic for Cataldo and her family at Castaldo Park in Woodridge. (They liked that the park's name was similar to Cataldo's.) Nearly 100 people showed up as a group thank-you for all she'd taught them about coupons and smart shopping. They came bearing cakes decorated as coupons.
"So many of them feel like they know me as a person," she said.
The phenomenon of the mommy blogger, a term Cataldo doesn't like, is well-documented. It has made superstars of numerous women who share intimate details of their lives and advice with others on blogs that have become magnets for national advertisers. With money and free products changing hands, potentially creating conflicts of interest, new government disclosure rules on sponsorships have been put in place, and successful players like Cataldo have needed to learn quickly how to build a business without alienating readers who just as quickly begin to feel like members of the family.
Cataldo says she has been approached about selling her blog's member list. She won't.
"The trust level I have with these people is worth far more than exploiting them for some money in the short term," she said. "The blog was built on trust and my voice being trustworthy. And I wouldn't sell them out."
Cataldo says she would like to accept credit for starting a couponing empire at the exact right time. But the truth is, her job as coupon queen was born of necessity.
In 2008, she lost her job as a website developer after the firm she worked for went belly-up. With three children, one a baby, she started couponing more actively to help make ends meet.
Her husband, Doug, who works as a Web developer at the local library, suggested she try teaching a coupon class at the library. "I thought, 'Why not?' " she said.
Library officials told Cataldo a crowd of 20 or 30 would be a success. By the time registration ended, 162 people had signed up. The talk was moved to a nearby church because the library couldn't hold that many. "Even with the success of that class, I honestly never thought I would do another one," she said.
To hear Cataldo tell it, her success stems from luck or fate. One business opportunity snowballed into another at a rapid pace, compared with the usual time it takes to build a brand. And make no mistake, Jill Cataldo is a brand.
"My whole career of doing this has been a chain — this link fit this one, and it just keeps going," she said.
They say luck favors the willing and well-prepared. Cataldo is both. A key to her success is her fearlessness and penchant for saying yes to opportunities that arrive, usually unsolicited in her email inbox from people who hear about her enthusiasm for coupons and teaching others. She says yes to media appearances, speaking engagements and business opportunities that don't conflict with her ability to remain true to her audience.
But sometimes, saying yes hasn't been easy. .
Like the time she decided to spend big bucks with a video production company to create a DVD of her Super-Couponing class, something her fans had been clamoring for. She resisted spending the money, with video-production bids coming in at $30,000 to $50,000 to do a professional-quality video shot before a live audience. "If you're going to do it, you have to do it right," she said. "But I'm thinking, 'Am I going to break even on this thing?' "
She was also concerned because she knew she would have to charge for the DVD. Generally, her classes are free to the public with sponsorship by an organization, such as a public library. "That's one of my tenets," she said. "I don't think you should have to pay — or pay much — to learn how to save money."
But her longtime friend and business mentor, Keith Leroux, a brand consultant for Kiss who Cataldo describes as a marketing genius, told her she absolutely had to do it if there was such a large demand for a workshop on DVD. "It got me thinking, 'If he believes in this so much, why don't I?' " She went ahead and spent the money to make the 70-minute DVD.
"She was in a place where she didn't know whether this would take off," Leroux said. "I didn't see much of a downside, but I think she just needed that encouragement."
It's been a wild success.
Cataldo won't talk dollars, but she reveals she's sold thousands of copies of the $20 disk, all packaged and mailed by her and her daughter, Angelica, 15, from the home office. "I have never had a single day without an order for the DVD since we put it out," she said.
A new DVD about saving on purchases outside the supermarket, shot before an audience on April 2, is due to be released this month.
"Jill Cataldo does a great job of teaching shoppers how to use the latest shopping strategies to cut grocery bills dramatically in her live workshops, via her DVD and in her weekly newspaper column," said Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com.
What's in a name?
Although she trademarked the phrase "Super-Couponing," the term she uses for her instructional classes, it's Cataldo herself that is the business. And she knows it.
Lots of people can talk about smart coupon use: stockpiling, combining coupons with sales and using Internet coupons. And many do. But they don't do it with the same vigor and humor. Infectious enthusiasm is the secret sauce. That's why she has steadfastly refused to franchise her presentation, forgoing a significant payday.
"I don't want my brand — and let's face it, it is a brand — tainted because someone else has decided to take Super-Couponing and teach it their way," Cataldo said. "If I teach it, I know it's being taught correctly."
In fact, the paydays she has rejected are at least as important to her success as the ones she's cashed in on.
For example, she's picky about what ads go on her blog and where. "I won't do any ads above the fold," said Cataldo, a former newspaper editor using a newspaper term referring to the website as it appears before scrolling. "That's prime advertising space, but I turn down more ads than I take because the content is very important to me.
"I'm making far less than I could if I just wanted to spam it up. But I just won't do that."
She also shies away from sponsored posts, although she has done "a few" for products she thinks are appropriate and useful to her readers. As required by the Federal Trade Commission, she discloses that sponsorship. "I don't want anyone to ever think, 'Oh, she's only talking about this because she's getting paid for it,' " she said. "It ruins the credibility I have with my readers."
Leroux said Cataldo's devotion to her audience has led her to make good decisions.
"She wants to be successful, but she wants to help the people," he said. "She's turned down some avenues that she could have made quite a big amount of money because she thought it would be selling out."
Another opportunity Cataldo did not end up pursuing was development of the now wildly popular "Extreme Couponing" television show on TLC. That's where maniacal coupon addicts clear shelves at grocery stores as they hoard sale items and provide the biggest made-for-TV wow factor of reducing their checkout register receipt from $500 to $5.
Cataldo says she worked with the show's production company early in the process. But the relationship fizzled as the show eventually switched from instructional to sensational.
Cataldo's not a fan of "Extreme Couponing." She doesn't like the show, largely because, she says, it doesn't portray realistic shopping trips. She blogged about how one guest on the show was exploiting a glitch in the coupon bar code system by apparently using coupons that didn't match the items she was buying.
Still, "Extreme Couponing" has sent interest in grocery coupons through the roof, benefiting her blog and other coupon sites. After the show started, traffic to Cataldo's site tripled to more than 100,000 unique visitors a week.
With the syndicated column, blog ad revenue, consulting gigs, workshops and DVD sales, Cataldo's revenue sources are many and varied. She won't say how much she earns per year, but if any one of those revenue streams dried up, she would still be comfortable, she said.
Of course, comfortable is relative. Cataldo doesn't generally want for much.
Her family of five — along with an elderly black Labrador retriever named Nigel — live in a 1,500-square-foot ranch house they built opposite a dairy products distribution center. It's a great location when you have young sons who like to watch trucks, she said.
Her office is fixed up a little now, but she worked for years surrounded by unfinished walls and extension cords snaking across the floor — one powering a Kiss-themed pinball machine, circa 1979.
Even with her success, Cataldo says has no plans to move to a bigger house or enlarge her lifestyle. "This is our forever house," she says.
In person, Cataldo is a bundle of infectious energy. During an interview at her Huntley home, 50 miles northwest of Chicago, she pops up from her office chair and slides sock-footed across the floor to fetch Goldfish crackers from her grocery stockpile for her 4-year-old son, Will. Later, she bounds up the stairs from her office/kiddie playroom to answer the doorbell. It's just the UPS guy with a package.
As you listen to her speed-talk, you know she could simultaneously hold an intelligent conversation with you while planning her next blog posting and what she'll make for dinner — all while watching her young sons with the eyes in the back of her head.
Despite her near-boundless energy level, she might finally — and reluctantly — hire some help, perhaps a publicist.
"I have more requests coming in than I can do," she said. "I'm getting to the point where I need someone to juggle and schedule that stuff for me."
"As silly as it sounds, my son has a picnic with his play group, my other son has stuff. My family has got to come first. I kind of need that balance."
As fearless as she is about pursuing opportunities, she remains cautious about finances, remembering what it was like to be out of work just a few years ago and scared about money.
"The whole thing has been such an unlikely success for me that I don't want to make a misstep — and also, I'm not in a hurry."
Job: Coupon instructor, blogger, newspaper columnist
Family: husband Doug; children Angelica, 15, Ben, 6, and Will, 4
Side jobs: Designs concert-souvenir guitar picks for the rock band Kiss and writes copy for the band's tour books
Best coupon tip: Don't use coupons the week they come in the Sunday newspaper. That's when store prices on couponed products are likely to be highest. Save coupons to match a store sale.
Odd jobs: Worked curbside pickup on a recycling truck for two summers in high school. Taught aerobics in college.
Hobby: Tae kwon do. Completed her black-belt test when she was pregnant with Will.
Best saving story: Bought her first house right after high school. She lived there while going to college.