Six months ago Josh Stevens found himself being led through the streets of Chicago in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing nothing but a suit made of paper. An accountant by trade, Stevens had just pledged that he wouldn't touch money — be it cash, credit, check or wampum — for a whole year. His only currency would be an unlimited supply of Groupon coupons; one had been used to supply his transportation, a couple more were ready to be redeemed for real clothing and a few dozen more had been used to assemble his papery outfit.
"I don't think there's anything harder than putting on a pair of paper pants without ripping them," explains Stevens. "It was quite warm in the paper suit. And I couldn't even move my arm. I'm just glad it wasn't raining."
Stevens, 28, is nearly halfway through the yearlong moneyless journey that started in that paper suit last May. The escapade is part of a contest sponsored by Groupon.com, the online promotion company that's picked up 13 million subscribers since July 2009 by partnering with vendors.
The way it works, Groupon customers pay the company $20 for $40 worth of sushi, $50 for $100 massages and so on. Groupon then splits the proceeds 50-50 with the local merchants who supply the goods and services. In Stevens' case, the Groupon coupons come courtesy of the company, as long as they remain his sole currency.
This summer Groupon became the second-fastest company ever to gain a $1 billion valuation (trailing only YouTube), which was good enough to earn the coupon startup a spot on the cover of Forbes in August. Stevens is poised to do nicely himself; if he successfully eschews all forms of currency through May 2011, he'll win $100,000. In the meantime, he's couch-surfing his way across the country and finding out a few things about his spending habits.
Stevens hasn't had to do much haggling over the past six months, thanks to his unlimited supply of Groupon-provided coupons. Bartering Groupons for other services has underscored the virtues of bargaining. "I don't think a lot of people realize that you can negotiate on most products and services," says Stevens. "Figure out the price you want, and ask for it — and often times you'll get it."
Of course Stevens also recommends using social buying services like Groupon. He's got a vested interest in that particular social buying company, but competitors like BuyWithMe and LivingSocial also offer plenty of good deals. Just remember not to let your coupons expire — according to a recent study by Rice professor Utpal Dholakia, about one-fifth of all Groupon coupons lapse before their owners get a chance to use them, and one-third of vendors report that the promotions are unprofitable.
"In the long term the industry is going to be a lot smaller," Dholakia says. "But I think Groupon is going to be fine."
Regardless of Groupon's long-term prospects, Stevens' are looking quite rosy. In six months he'll be $100,000 in the black, with thousands of new friends, both virtual and real. Before he started his journey, he was planning to apply to business school. Now it seems he's learned to wait for the next bargain.
"I'm getting such great networking experience, getting to see the country," he says. "I may decide not to do business school. Some other job opportunity may come up, and maybe I'll run with that. If anything, this year has taught me to leave my options open and grab opportunities as they come."
© 2012 Forbes.com