Smart Money Podcast: Save More with Coupon Tactics for the Digital World

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

“Krazy Coupon Lady” Joanie Demer shares couponing tactics and how coupons work to help you outsmart rising costs.

How can you use coupons to help you afford everyday essentials?

Are digital deals and loyalty programs the same as using coupons?

Hosts Sean Pyles and Elizabeth Ayoola discuss the thrill of couponing and the evolution of coupon strategies to help you understand how to combat rising living costs effectively. Joanie Demer, one half of the duo known as the Krazy Coupon Ladies, joins Sean to share the basics of extreme couponing, with tips and tricks on buying in bulk for long-term savings, the continued relevance of coupon circulars and the shift from paper to digital couponing.

They discuss leveraging rebate apps like Ibotta and Fetch Rewards, the potential of store loyalty programs, and how a hypothetical future “universal barcode” would change coupon use. Plus: insights on coupon accessibility, the latest legislative attention to couponing practices and how to overcome the challenge of incorporating new habits into an already busy life.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

You found that perfect pair of pants, the fit, the color, everything just works. You’d be slaying if you had them in your closet, and then you look at the price tag and uh-oh. But there’s a good chance that you can get a discount on those pants through a coupon, and for some people, that coupon, that discount, that deal has become a way of life and big business.

One of the principles that was true then is still true now, but it’s all about when you get a deal, don’t just buy one item, buy enough to last you for six months. It’s not the same as a closet full of toothpaste, but it does mean don’t buy one toothpaste. Buy like eight.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

And I’m Elizabeth Ayoola.

This episode continues our Nerdy deep dive into weird money, the odd, unusual, funky things we do to make money or manage it. Today, Elizabeth, we are heading to the coupon circular in the newspaper.

Shockingly, they do, but for most of us, deals await in the form of promo codes and maybe a flyer or two in the mail with discount codes to use online or in the store. But either way, you can still call it couponing.

I know that’s right, because a deal is a deal.

But you have to be really dedicated to the deal to have it become part and parcel of your financial life. Elizabeth, have you heard of extreme couponing?

You know what, Sean? I have, and when I was younger, I thought those people had more than 24 hours in a day, because where do you find the time for all that couponing? But now that I’m older and I have to pay these bills, I see people who spend hours and hours searching the internet and flyers, they’re onto something. Now, I still don’t do that, but I will put a chicken breast down in the grocery store if I find another pack for 5 cents cheaper.

I feel that. Yeah, and there was even that show on TLC way back in the 2010s about people who dedicate themselves to finding extreme coupons, and it’s not something that most of us do. It is a little bit unconventional, but it can save quite a bit of money if you’re really into it. According to Capital One shopping research, a branch of NerdWallet partner Capital One, 91% of Americans used at least one coupon in 2022, 68% of adults redeemed digital coupons, and the global mobile coupon market was valued at $509 billion.

That’s a lot of deals and a lot of savings, and I love that for Americans, especially with how high inflation is.

It is, so we’re going to explore that market today and find out what it means to be an extreme couponer, what kind of money you can save, and what to do when you’ve got way too many bargain boxes of toothpaste.

Oh my God. You’re definitely going to need some special storage for all those discounted goods. My high school friends whose moms were couponers, they had these huge pantries, and they would even use their garage spaces to store all the stuff they got discounts on.

That is extreme couponing. I could never go that far. Well, listeners, we would absolutely love to hear about the different, odd, and wonderfully weird things that you do to either make money or manage your money, so leave us a voicemail or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD, or email a voice memo to [email protected].

All right, Sean, so tell me who is here to convince me to stop throwing those coupons I’m getting in the mail in the trash.

We’re talking with Joanie Demer, who is one half of the duo known as the Krazy Coupon Ladies, that is crazy with a K. More than a decade ago, she and a friend started couponing, and they kept couponing and couponing, until they became an industry unto themselves, running a company of couponers and teaching others how to extreme coupon. We’ll hear her story in a moment. Stay with us. Joanie Demer, welcome to Smart Money.

Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here and talk all things coupons.

I would offer you a coupon, but NerdWallet is free.

Same with Krazy Coupon Lady.

That’s great. Well, for those who missed you on TLCs Extreme Couponing reality show, tell us a bit about the history of the Krazy Coupon Ladies. When and how did you get started couponing? Your friend and business partner, Heather Wheeler, got into it first, didn’t she? And then she brought you on board?

She dragged me in, kicking and screaming, absolutely. So we just celebrated 15 years in business, which is kind of wild. So it was 2009 when she tried to twist my arm into this. I met Heather in college. We were roommates, got stuck in the same apartment, and ended up moving back to her hometown, and kind of leading similar lives and having kids, a couple of kids pretty young, and so we lived about a mile apart. We were both living paycheck to paycheck and kind of trying to reinvent ourselves. We weren’t working outside of the home at the time, because we had these two littles at home. She came up with this asinine idea, which I told her it sounded illegal or idiotic or both, but she had a relative that was kind of working the system with coupons, and she knew that I was trying to make ends meet, so she twisted my arm for probably a month. She was slowly collecting newspapers, which at the time, that was where to get manufacturer coupons, and was kind of doing the strategy.

I was just there for moral support, and I was probably the opposite, but I remember we got to the checkout that first time. I remember I made Heather go first. I was like, “I’m not talking to the cashier.” I’m like, “I’m no part of this. I can run out of here at any moment.” I was like, “I’ll load things onto the conveyor belt. That’s all you’re getting from me,” and I don’t remember the numbers. I wish I did, but I think that we saved about 70%, and it wasn’t until we were breaking down the receipt afterward that I think we fully started to understand exactly how it worked. The basics of what we were doing is there were some promotions running, “Buy 5 of these, get $5 off your next order. Spend $25 on these products, get $10 off your next order. Buy 5, save $5.” All those promotions that we’re all used to seeing. The secret was that we were finding manufacturer coupons, maybe not even from that Sunday, maybe from four Sundays earlier, that happened to overlap with those sales. That was the gist of what we were doing.

Okay. Is that what you mean by working the system, is you were stacking coupons?

Yeah, and it certainly felt like too good to be true in the neighborhood of, we’re taking things out of the store without really having paid for them. Are we sure this is good or is this above board?

Do you remember what the cashier’s reaction was when you had all these coupons and you were able to get so much off?

I remember it was a young guy named Alex. He was geeking out with us. We came in with all the humility in the world and like, “Here’s our understanding of how this is going to work. Let’s ring it through and see,” and I think that he was a great sport.

Yeah. As someone who was once a cashier, I think I would’ve been thrilled to have someone do something wacky like that, coming through my checkout line. And so, were you getting most of these coupons from the newspaper or mailers? How were you finding them?

Yeah. At the time, it was Sunday newspapers. Heather’s dad actually owned a Chevron gas station, and so as she was trying to convince me, she was taking all of his old newspapers that didn’t sell every Monday, and so she had the trunk full of her Ford Taurus with all of these newspapers. I mean, listen, she was truly crazy. This idea, nothing about it seemed legit, including her trunk full of contraband newspapers.

But it was perfectly above board, to be totally clear, right?

100 percent above board. I mean, since then we’ve learned so much about how all of this works and a manufacturer coupon, you feel like you’re robbing the store. Well, in reality, you’re actually robbing the manufacturer, but the manufacturer, you redeem a $2 Cheerios coupon, and this actually still happens. The coupon industry is one of the most archaic that still exists, but a paper coupon still ends up getting shipped off to a clearing house, almost all of which are in Mexico, and they get gathered up by a manufacturer. And so, all of the General Mills coupons that got redeemed at Albertsons at the corporate level, they all roll up, they all go out, and then there’s an invoice that gets sent to General Mills that says, “You owe this much money to Albertsons for all of the coupon redemptions.” The thing that we were doing by stacking everything up is we were kind of making, “Maybe the store discounted the box of Cheerios, but then the manufacturer footed the bill for the coupon, and we were taking advantage of both and saving 70%.”

Considering how much you were couponing, how many you had, what sort of system did you have? Were you clipping them constantly one day, putting them into a binder another day? Can you give us a picture of what that game plan of yours was like?

It was ridiculous and if you went into the bowels of YouTube, you could find videos of Heather sitting at her table with this ridiculous, six-inch plus binder. It was highly organized, because one of the principles that was true then and is still true now, but it’s all about, when you get a deal, don’t just buy one item. Buy enough to last you for six months. That’s not the same as a closet full of toothpaste, but it does mean don’t buy one toothpaste. Buy like, eight. And so, we both had a different binder system, and I had the baseball card holders organized by section. I mean, it was an obsession.

Was it hard to not go overboard? It’s appealing to get a bunch of toothpaste, like a year’s supply in one go, but there’s also a risk of buying more than you need, really spending more money than you maybe ought to because you do have that coupon, and then also, I’m someone who has a smaller house. I’m thinking, “Where do you store all of this stuff?”

Oh, yeah. No, you hit on all the high points there. I mean, there are more than one reason that we call ourselves Krazy Coupon Lady. And yes, you think that you’ve got this idea of how to moderate your purchases and be wise and all of that. Right up until you see that bottle of laundry detergent you’ve been paying $12 for every month for the last 8 years, and this week you can get it for $2, and you’re just like, “Will this ever happen again?” and you’re Googling, “How long does laundry detergent last?” And so, I would absolutely say that the way that we learned what to do was absolutely by doing what not to do.

Yeah, but the glee that you’re describing with finding these deals, it almost seems like a supermarket became a casino to you two.

100 percent, and I still think that’s true of Krazy Coupon Lady today. The shoppers that use our website and app, it’s a mix, and we get beautiful, heartwarming, “This helped me make ends meet” stories, but we also get a lot of fun. Whether it’s Prime Day or Black Friday or whatever, yes, we love finding that impulse buy on the thing you didn’t know you needed, but now you can afford it because it’s on sale. But all the time, through all those big sales, we’re also looking for where’s that price on paper towels?

At what point did you two become the Krazy with a K Coupon ladies?

Couponing was all Heather’s fault. I believe I would still be, myself today, I would’ve seen a few episodes of extreme couponing. I would’ve known people that couponed, but I never would’ve done it. I had all the reasons why this wasn’t me. The only reason I got into this was because she truly didn’t give me a choice, so couponing is all her fault, but the blogging about it was probably my fault. I created it in the middle of the night. I had a kid that I was feeding in the middle of the night, and yeah, I tried to register Krazy Coupon Lady with a C. It was taken. I spelled it with a K. No further thought.

So it started as a blog, and then developed into a business where you are making money. Can you describe how that happened and how you were able to actually start earning money from coupons?

One day I was actually at the grocery store. I saw someone with coupons, and I guess I was feeling extroverted that day, and I chatted them up and asked what they were buying. They saw I had coupons, and they said, “Did you hear about this from that Krazy Coupon Lady blog?”

I said, “No,” and laughed it off and walked away, but then left and went home and found, I think it was like site meter, but some free tool, and to our surprise, I think we had 700 or 800 people a day visiting the site. I called Heather, and I’m like, “Who the hell did you tell?” That was the point at which we’re like, “Oh, got it. This thing that we built because we thought to ourselves, this is a tool we would’ve used, we would like this to exist, it turns out we aren’t the only people that would like this to exist.” I think we were making 83 cents a day and thinking that was cool. I remember telling her our first business plan was like we had done some math, and I’m like, “I think we can make $700 a month each, and there was a dramatic pause between $700 a month and each.

Well, from nothing, that’s pretty significant, right? And where are you now? Don’t you have an actual staff on board as well?

We do, yeah. We’ve got almost 130 employees right now, and we are a fully remote company since 2020.

So we talked about what couponing was like early in your couponing lives, and of course, that has changed a lot since 2009. Can you walk us through the evolution and how that affected the way that you do couponing now?

Overall, the biggest changes that we’ve seen are all in this rebellion of the reason that couponing as an industry hasn’t evolved is because there is no universal barcode, and that’s because retailers will not agree on a point of sale system that would accept such a barcode. So manufacturer coupons from the Sunday newspaper, those are a thing that we all know, but a digital barcode on your phone for Cheerios that you could redeem anywhere from Target, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, that’s never existed, and so that’s where apps like Ibotta or Fetch Rewards or Shopkick, all of these apps came about by circumventing the point of sale, but driving manufacturer discounts, and so those types of apps where you actually make the purchase, you do not save before you pay, but you’re credited an amount via rebate points, whatever, afterward, that’s a whole new sector that exists.

And those are almost more about you selling your consumer data to these companies, and that’s why you’re getting a coupon, right?

Yes. I mean, these companies are monetizing in two ways. They’re also collecting all of the dollars from the manufacturers, so they’re double monetizing, and then, of course, also playing the affiliate model, which is how Ibotta and others are going public. But the thing is, you could almost look at it as warring factions between the retailers and the manufacturers, and I nerd out on this, because it’s just so interesting, but retailers don’t particularly love manufacturer coupons. It’s not because it costs them money, they’re getting reimbursed, but retailers want you to be loyal to the retailer. So Target really wants you to think that all coupons, discounts, and all good and wonderful and beautiful things come from Target, and so what we’ve seen is a centralization of coupons with in-store loyalty programs.

We’re seeing that across the board through Walmart Rewards, Target Circle. That’s kind of what’s happening. The disruptor that I think is still coming to the industry is what will be a third leg, so you’ve got all these Ibotta types, you’ve got all of the stores, housing manufacturer coupons in their apps, and if we ever actually get this universal barcode, I think it’s going to spur a coupon renaissance, because while newspaper coupons have kind of gone away, and that idea of, “This is a coupon. Use it anywhere,” we’ve lost that a little bit, and there certainly are folks trying to crack that code, and we’re watching closely and certainly hoping that they do, because I think it’s going to make couponing a little bit more exciting and a little bit more accessible.

Yeah. Well, I want to talk a little more about digital coupons, because I would imagine that one of the biggest challenges in the digital couponing era is just that there are so many coupons now. You have all these promo codes and digital coupon clippings and extensions on web browsers that try to do this work for us, so how do you sift through all of these coupons and determine what’s actually worthwhile?

There are so many people throwing things at you, and I would say that you’ve got to be willing not just to shop around on brand, but to shop around on retailer. And that’s the thing that you miss when you’re just looking at Amazon and you’re looking at their subscribe and save discount, plus a New Year’s coupon, or you’re just looking at Costco and the instant savings this month. It’s about the ability to compare across retailers, and that’s what Krazy Coupon Lady does and that we look forward to developing products to do an even better job at that in the coming year.

Thinking about all of the coupons that you’ve come across in your life, can you think of maybe one top or most amazing coupon that you’ve used?

I think that there was a buy one get one free Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup sale with a buy one get one free coupon years ago, and it was simply a matter of how many coupons can you get your hand on, because these peanut butter cups are free, and I was the most popular house in the block that Halloween, because it’s like full-size candy bar lady.

That’s been over a decade ago, so I probably should update my story, but certainly that was a good one. I mean, those ones where you really are like, “Oh. This feels wrong,” and I would say those situations don’t exist as much anymore, but I don’t know, two weeks ago there was an Amazon deal on this disgusting, just sugar-filled, Lucky Charms cereal bar, and it was like 80% off after this discount, plus this, plus this. They showed up at my house, and my kids died of happiness, and they were gone in one afternoon. They were like, “Are you getting more?” and I was like, “Nope,” but there still are those moments. I mean, every month there’s a deal like that that’s just fun, unexpected, and pretty amazing.

So it seems clear that the advent of the internet and the way we shop online has changed couponing, but I’m also wondering if inflation over the past few years has maybe changed coupons. Are they more scarce? Are they not as good of a deal? Have you seen any impact in that way?

Well, and the tricky thing we know about inflation, right, is that profits have remained high, and so if you think about where profits have remained high through inflation, and then you think about who is footing the bill for these manufacturer offers, we have not seen a decline in coupons. That wouldn’t make sense, because if the manufacturers are still raking in profit, then there’s no reason that they’re cutting their margins or the amount of coupons. And so, I would say coupon deal accessibility remains really, really high, and we’ve actually been a little bit surprised that we already haven’t seen a tremendous amount of organic interest in couponing as a counterattack to inflation.

I think that all of those barriers to entry, the same ones that I argued against Heather 15 years ago, are still ones that people experience now. We’ve got a couple of folks on our team, and they were talking the other day about, “I just don’t do subscriptions. I just can’t do subscribe and save. I just can’t do it,” and you know what? They work with us. We were laughing. A group of us were laughing and screaming at them like, “No, you need us. Can we talk to you for five minutes? Can we talk you through this? Can we show you exactly what it means to subscribe, how easy it is to cancel, like one click, no phone call?”

And you’re talking about on places like Amazon, where you can subscribe to getting Swiffer wipes every month or something?

Exactly, and so there are still, I think we all have these mental blocks about either how we identify or what we will or won’t do, and the bottom line is couponing, at least for me, it required me to sacrifice some of those or open my mind up, and again, if I hadn’t had my bestie forcing me, I think I still wouldn’t have tried it, I’d still be one of those people that’s like, “No, if I subscribe to something I’ll never remember to cancel. It’s only 15%, it’s only 25%. It’s only this much percent,” and it’s like, “But that’s the thing.”

It adds up over time, and I do have to admit, this is my confession. I am often too lazy to apply coupons, so maybe you’re converting me through this conversation, but considering a lot of the anger at the alleged greed inflation of companies jacking up prices just to pad their pockets more, and just regular old inflation, I agree with you that it’s surprising more people haven’t gone into couponing, because it seems like a no-brainer.

And we definitely, I mean, all the stats about Gen Z, this is a generation that is much more open, like the loyalties aren’t there, and store brands are more popular, so they’re using strategies and they’re looking at cutting costs, but for whatever reason, the National Coupon Commission has not positioned itself quite the right way, I don’t think yet, to appeal to Gen Z. But when you look at, “Here’s my mortgage, here’s my dining, here’s what I’m paying for groceries,” when you look at it from a monthly expense perspective, it’s like, “No, this is one of the first places to apply some strategy if you’re looking to actually change the bottom line in your household.”

So Joanie, I would love to hear what your main piece of advice would be for people who maybe don’t focus on couponing like you do, but would like to make sure that they’re getting the best deals that are out there.

Yeah. I mean, it’s really about, we said it right in the beginning, but brand loyalty, store loyalty. It’s about challenging your assumption, and here’s an unpopular one I’m going to throw out there. Those Costco lovers who walk in and assume that, because you pay that fee every year, that everything in Costco is a great deal, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not the case. And so, it might just be add one more store to your routine. The beauty, the convenience of it all is it doesn’t have to be an in-person store. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming. It can be starting the automatic reordering with Amazon. It can be using the Krazy Coupon Lady, and check out the Walgreens deals. There’s free stuff every week. You’ve got to join the free reward program. The reason I say Walgreens over CVS is because a ton of the deals you can get from their parking lot.

You can order it at home, drive through, and do pickup. Target just announced the same with their Circle offers, so Target and Walgreens are the two where, I mean, one of the coolest things is you can now coupon without ever having to go in the store. If you had told me that 15 years ago, I might’ve agreed right off the bat, so I would say just generally speaking, it’s about you don’t do all your shopping in one place. You don’t buy the same brands every week regardless of their price on the shelf. That’s really what it is, and that’s hard because we’re all exhausted, mentally taxed and exhausted. I would say especially women, and women are still doing this type of shopping more than their male counterparts, and so I think it’s a tall order to say, “Wait, I have to stay checked in for one more hour of my week?” It’s a lot.

Yeah, but it can, as you’ve shown, it can pay off significantly. This series that we’re doing is kind of under an umbrella of, shall we say, unconventional money behaviors, and you’ve already talked about thinking that Heather was crazy when this all started, but I want to ask if you think extreme couponing is an unconventional behavior? Do your friends think that you are krazy with a K?

I think it’s absolutely unconventional, and that’s part of its magic, is that it requires this extra bit of effort, and so it is this leap of faith. It was a big one 15 years ago, but I’d say it’s a big one every week. You’re like, “Okay. Here’s this deal. Is it worth it? I’ve got to have this app on my phone. I’ve got to join this store loyalty program,” and it’s a like, “Is there ROI there for me?” I do think it’s that, and I think the world knows that. The most interesting thing that’s happening with couponing right now, I would say, is there’s actually been legislation. There was a congressional bill that didn’t pass in January, but when talking about this idea of accessibility, it’s interesting to see legislation that’s advocating for folks who may not have a smartphone.

There was even another bill that’s saying coupons shouldn’t be legal, all discounts should be available to all. Of course, we’re watching this very closely. It’s fascinating, but the entire premise from the beginning of KCL is like, these savings are out there for those people that are willing to find them, and I think that is still inherently what a coupon is. A manufacturer can always determine whether they want to lower the shelf price and pay to advertise in the Target weekly ad or put out a manufacturer coupon. The benefit of the manufacturer coupon is that they only have to discount for those that go to the work of using the coupon, and so that’s why manufacturer coupon discounts are usually bigger than the discount you’d see at the shelf, so I think it’s going to be really, really interesting to watch how this unfolds.

But the idea of accessibility is one that’s so fascinating in this industry, because it is always, since the 1920s, and the first coupon, which was on Grape-Nuts cereal, actually, I think that was the second coupon. Anyway, Coca Cola and Grape-Nuts were for sure one and two, but it’s always been that. It always has been like, in exchange for this little bit of extra effort, here’s some cost savings. That’s been the premise, so I would say, from day one, it was always about extra effort. It was always about doing something unconventional.

Right. Well, Joanie Demer, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Yeah, it was great. Thank you for having me.

So I’ll be honest, Elizabeth. When I went into this conversation with Joanie, I thought she was going to describe to me a barren, desolate landscape of couponing in 2024. I mean, who even clips coupons anymore? I kind of figured the party was over, but no, no. The coupon rager is still going strong, and for those who aren’t drinking that coupon Kool-Aid, they’re just leaving money on the table.

Oh. I’m with you, Sean. And honestly, I think now I’m convinced that the coupons I get in the mail probably shouldn’t be going in the trash, especially when I buy just about the same items every single week, and I could be getting them for less or, even better, for free. Now, that said, I don’t know that I’m ready to extreme coupon, because I have a wild 6-year-old who takes up a lot of my time, but doing it periodically is not a bad idea. I mean, why pay full price ever if you can avoid it?

Absolutely. And I’m all in with the promo codes, and I like a good deal on anything from clothes to groceries, but I’m not sure I could spend more than maybe five minutes searching for discounts.

Wow. That’s quite a lot of time, Sean. But honestly, it depends on the discount. I’m not even going to lie to you, because I spend hours searching for discounts on high ticket items, and as we said in one of the last episodes, I’m about to re-buy furniture in my house, so look, with the thousands of dollars I’m seeing for the furniture I want, I’m hoping I can find coupons for that too.

So Elizabeth, we are about at the end of our Weird Money series. Just one more to go.

Wow, I can’t wait to hear what our final episode’s going to be, Sean.

Well, Elizabeth, imagine that you have mounting debt, thousands of dollars worth, and you decide to go on social media and tell everyone about your debt, and all about your finances in general.

Well, Sean, I’m a recovering over-sharer, so unfortunately I can imagine that, but I will say on kind of an optimistic side, saying things out loud sometimes removes the shame, but that doesn’t mean that I will be doing that. Absolutely not. You guys will not be seeing my finances online.

Yeah. I am keeping mine pretty close to my chest too, but next week we are going to talk about how some people find it’s really helpful to manage their money basically in public, where it keeps them honest and accountable.

It’s so nice that I love seeing other people’s videos about finances. I love when people are like, “Oh. I’m going to post about my debt too. Maybe I can make something of this.” I’m like, “Yeah, you should. That’s awesome. I feel like it helps so much, just having that conversation with people,” so it does, really, reduce the shame.

For now, that is all we have for this episode, our wonderful listeners. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast in the world.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland. I helped with editing. Kevin Berry helped with fact checking. Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy information is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and it may not apply to your specific circumstances.

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