Pivotal People

The Coupon Mom Story: An Unexpected Journey of Faith and Finding Purpose

October 08, 2023 Stephanie Nelson Season 2 Episode 63
Pivotal People
The Coupon Mom Story: An Unexpected Journey of Faith and Finding Purpose
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ever wonder how a simple task like couponing could turn into an unexpected journey filled with challenges, triumphs, and ultimately, the power to make a difference in people's lives? Join me as I recount the extraordinary 20-year journey that began with a simple idea sparked by an inspiring talk by author Becky Tirabassi. Hear how this idea evolved into a group of women coming together to understand the art of couponing, and how a bridge was built between those who mastered this art and those who were in need. 

As we unravel this amazing story, you'll discover how faith, trust and an unshaken belief in God’s plan played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of this journey. I share how a friend's assistance led me to national television, reaching millions of viewers and showcasing the incredible power of couponing when combined with charity. We'll explore the significance of owning your dreams, the importance of persistence in the face of challenges, and most importantly, the beauty of believing in your unique path.

The final segment of our story reveals the unexpected leap of coupon moms into the national spotlight, from appearances on Good Morning America to my coupon system demonstration on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Hear about the growth and evolution of the website, the rise of other coupon moms, and how this unexpected development surprisingly propelled the business to new heights. As we wrap up the episode, we delve into the critical importance of authenticity and steadfastness in holding onto your dreams. This episode is a celebration of believing in oneself, trusting the process, and the incredible power each one of us holds to effect change.

Order Stephanie's new book Imagine More: Do What You Love, Discover Your Potential

Learn more at StephanieNelson.com
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Speaker 1:

Chapter 1, the Coupon Mom Story. I know the plans I have for you to clear as the Lord plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29, 11. Nearly 21 years ago, author Becky Tiribasi came to speak at our church. She had written a great book called Let Prayer Change your Life, so having the opportunity to hear her speak in person was exciting. Her talk was inspiring, but who knew that it would be the first step in my own exciting 20-year journey? Becky encouraged the audience to pray about how God could use what we love to do to help others. She said that no matter how trivial our favorite pastime might seem, if we could find a way to use it to help people, that would be God's exciting plan for our life. Becky's talk led me to the idea of using my favorite pastime shopping with grocery coupons. We've all been stuck in line behind someone at the grocery store who was using a big stack of coupons. After several beeps from the cash register and waiting for an eternity, the shopper paid the cashier a few cents and walked out of the store with a cart of groceries. Their savings may be impressive, but you wouldn't want to be the one holding up a grocery line with people giving you irritated looks, which is why most people aren't interested in learning how to use coupons. Even if they save you a little money, the embarrassment of being one of those strange coupon people wouldn't be worth it. Discovering my Calling, as you can see, trying to convince the world to use grocery coupons to help their families save money, was going to be an uphill climb, but coupons were a favorite pastime of mine, so that was the starting point. I started praying every morning for God to show me how to use the knowledge of couponing to help others. It was a fun game if you knew how to do it well, regardless of whether using coupons was embarrassing or not, you could buy good groceries at virtually no cost when you knew the best way to use coupons. When families are struggling to make ends meet and kids are going hungry because their parents don't have enough money to buy groceries, why wouldn't the world want to know how to do this? I thought there had to be a way to use this skill to help people. On day 11 of praying about this, our church bulletin included an appeal for donations for the local food pantry. The bulletin listed the most needed food items and every single one was a coupon item. Best of all, it was our grocery store's Super Double Coupon Week. With a stack of coupons, $60 of groceries for the food pantry cost me only $10. That was my big lightbulb moment. After delivering the groceries and seeing the people in the waiting room at the food pantry, everything changed. This was no longer a trivial hobby. Mothers like me with children like mine were waiting for a few bags of food to get through the week. It broke my heart. God showed me that buying food for charity was my new calling. After that, I took my coupons to the store every day, bought the best coupon deals for charity and delivered them to the food pantry with our two young sons in tow. It filled me with joy to do it and I felt like God was right beside me. However, no matter how many groceries we brought, we couldn't keep up with the demand. There were just too many people who needed help and one family certainly couldn't fix it all. I learned that many food pantries were empty and turning away families in need. There had to be a way to teach others how to get free groceries for food pantries. We needed lots of people to learn how to do it. Ideally, we could teach the clients of the food pantry how to get free groceries with coupons too. They wouldn't be embarrassed to use coupons at grocery stores if it meant they could feed their families good food within their budget. We just had to find a way to bridge the gap between people knowing how to shop with coupons and their circumstances. They faced many challenges, including time constraints, transportation, childcare and not being able to afford the Sunday newspaper that had the grocery coupons. Most of them worked more than one job while taking care of a family. How could they find the time to come to a coupon workshop? I decided to start with building a crew to help Spreading the word. Teaching neighbors and friends how to buy and donate free groceries with coupons was the next step, because far more families would be helped if we could multiply our donations. None of the women I approached knew how to do the coupon thing, but they were willing to learn for the good cause of feeding families in need. We sat around my kitchen table and held a grocery coupon university. We had lots of laughs as they realized this crazy thing worked. We could go into grocery stores with little pieces of paper we cut out of the newspaper and walk out with hundreds of dollars of free groceries. With our combined efforts, it was like legal shoplifting. Yes, it was legal. Handing coupons to a cashier isn't difficult, but figuring out the deals can be. It's a puzzle. Matching up coupons with items that are on sale. Fortunately, that's what I could bring to our kitchen table group. For some of us, this grocery coupon puzzle is a mental challenge, a fun hobby. The grocery deals are the same across my entire state of Georgia so in theory, only one person needed to figure out each week's deals if there was a way to share that information with others in a timely way. At the time it was the year 2000. There were old-fashioned snail mail newsletters about how to save money on groceries, but nothing as specific as a list of the best deals at your own grocery store. Since prices and coupons change every week, you'd never be able to publish and distribute a paper newsletter quickly enough. Email newsletters made sense, but we didn't have any subscribers. The best idea would be to publish the information on a website and make it free to anyone who wanted to use it. Although starting a website seems obvious now, websites were still a relatively new thing and they weren't easy to publish back then, but it was clear that if we had a website, we could teach far more people how to donate food to charity at no cost. It made perfect sense. Rather than each person in the state having to figure out all these deals at their kitchen table, one person could figure them out and then share that information at no cost on a website. This was the key to teaching thousands of people how to buy free groceries for their families as well as for charity. We couldn't squeeze them all around my kitchen table and we wouldn't need to do hundreds of coupon workshops. Starting a website meant that someone would have to consistently spend hours a week figuring out the grocery deals and publishing them on the website. It was a big commitment, but it was clearly what we needed to do and it actually sounded like a lot of fun to me. It didn't sound fun to anyone else, so that was the next decision. God could not have spoken to me more clearly and he answered my prayer. He showed me exactly what could be done to use the grocery coupon system to help others. He never said it would be easy. It took 30 plus hours of data entry a week for the next three years before I could afford to hire data entry help. It was honestly a labor of love, regardless of the hours of mind-numbing data entry. Fortunately, god's answer to my prayer was a clear vision that provided seemingly bottomless energy in those early years. In early 2001, I launched a website and made that commitment. The site cost $20 a year, started with dial-up internet and we called it Cut Out Hunger. The website published a list of the best coupon deals of the grocery stores every week, which could be useful to millions of people in our state if they knew it was available. I just had to get people to understand what this website provided. The website's tagline was Cut your grocery bill in half and feed the hungry too. There was no specific plan. It was just an idea that I truly believed could help the world by feeding the hungry. In the beginning, my only plan was to convince a company or organization with resources that they should take the idea off my hands and run with it. That's right. The only path to success seemed to be giving the idea away to someone more capable. With no experience running a website, with no extra money for staffing a business and with two small children to take care of, I thought this idea would be wasted in my incompetent hands. The idea was fabulous, but someone more qualified needed to run with it. Have you ever felt like you weren't the person for the job? We've all felt that way, but sometimes we're the only ones available, so we don't have a choice. We just have to get to work. My pre-mom career was being a salesperson for 10 years, so approaching people wasn't hard. Executives in the grocery industry and coupon industry, as well as leaders of hunger organizations, agreed to meet and hear my pitch. Some liked the idea and appreciated my enthusiasm, but politely explained that it didn't fit with their business plan. Others were less than polite and hated the idea. Some offered their help in small ways that were a big help to my efforts. The idea touched them personally and they wanted to help, but no one would take it on as their project. The only option left for me was to take small steps that didn't cost money. I taught free workshops to get the word out. Civic organizations and church groups invited me to speak at their meetings and they spread the concept within their organizations. Local media outlets gave the website free press coverage. Our plan looked more like a maze than a clear roadmap, but we made a little progress each day. Some doors opened and some slammed in my face. We just kept looking for new doors, because slam doors lead to God's door 3. Rejection opens doors. Three years went by. It's a good thing. I didn't know in the beginning how long I'd be working without any help. That's probably why God won't give us a crystal ball. We don't need to be discouraged. The website needed staff, help with data entry, advertising, a website designer, a publicist and a programmer. That required money. Similar sites in other states were charging subscription fees starting at $60 a month. That didn't work for my dream. The goal was to maximize users who would then donate food to charity. The website audience couldn't be limited just to people willing to pay $60 a month. Other startup website owners were spending their life savings to try to launch their websites. That wasn't an option either. There were some ads on my website that earned a few hundred dollars a month, but it would take millions of users to make enough money to grow a national effort with those ads. It had already taken three years to get a few thousand users, so getting to millions of users seemed impossible. I had one more option. Our church's accountant offered to take us on as a pro bono client. He said if the website was approved for nonprofit 501c3 status it could get government grants to fund its operation. This would obviously be a great use of taxpayers' money. So I gratefully took him up on his generous offer. He had his firm put together a four-inch thick application. He kindly paid the hefty application fee and I waited. A couple months later the IRS examiner called to let me know the application was rejected. I thought this was the last hope for getting this great idea off the ground. So her answer didn't make any sense. She felt sorry for me as I explained my plight, but she didn't budge. She explained that the site helped people save money, which was providing a personal financial benefit to people. She thought the financial benefit to the site users disqualified the site from being a nonprofit. If we took the weekly grocery deals information for shoppers out and only included the idea of donating food to charity, the IRS could approve it. Unfortunately, if I made that change, the website would help far fewer people. Compromising the website's content for the sake of getting government dollars did not seem like God's intention at all. The best way to attract more people was to help them save money on their own groceries, and then the site would lead them to the logical idea of donating extra items to charity Plus. Food pantry clients and food stamp recipients were using the website to stretch their limited budgets, just as we had hoped they would. Taking the personal savings part out wasn't an option. It would cripple the vision. So I did not agree to the IRS's requirements and accepted that the website would not be a tax-exempt nonprofit organization to receive grants and donations. I would have to find another way to fund and grow the website. The IRS rejection felt like the last draw. Why wouldn't God want this idea to grow and help people? I had worked hard for three years. Many businesses give up in less time than that when they don't make a profit. I wasn't trying to make a profit and didn't even expect to make a salary. I needed funding to hire staff, otherwise it was unlikely the website could ever grow to its potential. It just didn't seem fair. Ultimately, the website was funded through ads from Google AdSense, but that ad product wasn't even offered until 2003. When we applied for 501c3 nonprofit status in 2002, we could imagine no means of financial support other than donations and grants. The vision seemed so clear, so good, so helpful to people who desperately needed help. On top of that, our accountant said that in all of his years of practice, I was the only client to be rejected by the IRS the only client ever. Hard to believe. Can you think of a rejection that was so painful it caused you to give up? Has rejection ever seemed like a message from God that you were pursuing the wrong path? That's what the IRS rejection felt like. I thought this must have been God's clear message that the website wasn't his vision after all. So I got on my knees and prayed for God to take away my drive and obsession with this project. My frustration was causing me to be angry and short-tempered with my family. That wasn't what God wanted. I would continue to provide the site for its current audience, but would give up the goal of growing it and trying to spread the word about it. I prayed that God would help me be thankful for what it was and stop trying to force it to be more than that. I prayed that prayer at 9.30 pm on a Sunday night. God isn't a genie in a bottle. We can't say magical words and expect Him to grant our wishes, but when we pray, regardless of what we say, he hears our hearts. The important part of prayer isn't the specific words or even how God answers them. The important part is that we can go to Him, we can get on our knees, we can pour out our hearts to God. Isn't that what he wants from us? To come to Him as our trusted Father, to be honest with Him about our feelings and our struggles. Isn't that what we would want from our own children? Just doing this gave me a feeling of peace. God will do that trade every time our problems for His peace. As it turns out, god is bigger than the IRS. The next morning I didn't even turn on my computer. At about 9.30, a friend who worked with a PR agency called and said How'd you get Clark Howard to talk about your website on the radio today? I didn't. Clark Howard is a national financial expert based in Atlanta. Everyone in Atlanta knows that Clark can't be bought and if he recommends something you can trust it's good. His recommendations are golden. The website trafficked sword. My friend said the next step should be to call local radio and TV shows to let them know Clark had endorsed the site and asked them to feature the website on their shows. They all said yes. A few weeks later I went on Good Day Atlanta, my first live TV appearance. The segment demonstrated how to get a table filled with groceries for charity absolutely free. Another guest on the show that day was impressed with the coupon system and thought it should be on national TV. He shared the name of a high-level Good Morning America producer and told me to call her. He said tell her what you've gotten 30 seconds or less. So I did Good Morning America. The call from Good Morning America came a few months later. It was a dream come true. The segment was six minutes on national TV with millions of viewers. Their team produced a professional shopping video with dramatic savings results, and it was funny and entertaining. It turns out this was an engaging TV topic which ended up being the key to its media success over the next several years. The show's anchor ended the segment by asking about our program's special angle. That was her signal for me to talk about cutout hunger. This was the dream come true, the vision that had run through my mind a million times over the past three years. This was the chance to say the words that might get viewers' attention, which might make them find their local food pantry and start donating food where they lived all across the country. I'll never forget the words I shared on that incredible day. One in five people go hungry in our country Every week. There are free grocery deals with coupons and 99% of coupons are thrown away. Imagine how many food items we could donate with these coupons. We have an easy system to use coupons that is available at no cost. I've done the math. If every household donated one item to charity a week, we would wipe out hunger in our country and the segment ended. It felt like jumping off a cliff and being caught in God's arms. Everything was fine. The website traffic went crazy. Many viewers sent emails to the website. I've always used coupons but never thought to donate to charity. Others said I've always donated food to charity but never thought to use coupons. But I'll never forget the one that said I will probably never use a coupon in my life, but I'll always donate one item a week to charity. That one still gets me. Before GMA, the website earned about $10 a day from Google Ads. Roughly 5% of site users clicked on an ad and Google paid me for every click. Because Google Ads provided valuable offers, such as printable grocery coupons, the ads helped users save even more money. That $10 a day was enough to pay for the website's operational cost, but not enough to hire any staffing help. All my spare time still about 30 hours a week was devoted to doing data entry, late into the night, early in the morning, and every minute our kids were in school. The morning after the GMA segment, I went up to my computer and checked the revenue report for the website ads, because thousands of new people had come to the website. We had far more clicks on our ads. In shock, I came down to the kitchen and said to my husband the website ads made $10,000 yesterday. The look on his face was priceless. My family always teased me good-naturedly about my coupon obsession, but he wasn't making fun of me that day. That $10,000 was a game changer for the website's growth. It enabled me to hire data entry help for the entire year. Having data entry staff freed up time for me to focus on growing the website with media appearances, writing articles and speaking to more audiences. The night of the GMA appearance, the producer called our home. She said Thank you for your persistence. That was our number one news story of the day across all ABC news shows. What else do you know about saving money. We want to have you back on. Gma gave me a contract and paid me for each appearance. They created the name coupon mom. We stopped using cut out hunger and bought the coupon mom dot com domain name. It was much easier for people to understand and remember and it cost $13. Gma featured 17 coupon mom segments over the next three years. What seemed like a confusing maze of a journey was actually God's amazing journey. What is your dream? Before we go any further, here's a question to consider. Do you have a dream, something you wonder and ruminate about, even if it's something you've never admitted to anyone else? If you don't, why not? Perhaps you've already accomplished every single big thing you ever wanted to do, and if that's the case, congratulations. Bill Gates probably isn't reading this book, but if he is, he gets a pass. But maybe you don't think your big dream is remotely possible, so you don't let yourself think about it, and that's kind of sad. If you do have something in mind, let yourself dream it could come true, especially if you do something about it. Without a doubt, people could experience more of their big dreams if they believed those dreams were possible. I'll be honest. I dreamed about going on TV with my coupon message because television appearances were the easiest and cheapest way to reach a lot of people. Remember this was the early 2000s, before Facebook and Instagram were even invented, so social media was not an option. With no prior experience with TV, radio or any other media outlet, there was no logical reason for me to dream about going on TV with my message. Even so, I practiced in the mirror and talked to a pretend TV audience while driving in the car all the time. The point of Imagine More is to prove that you can achieve your big dream. You can experience the wonder and beauty of helping people through your dream. In fact, you're supposed to. God has an incredible plan for you that he's waiting for you to find. The great part is that you don't have to apply or train or ask permission. You can just start. Do you have a dream? It can come true. We haven't met, but we are probably a lot alike because you're reading this book. You can be effective at just about anything and make a difference in God's economy. Some of us are skilled at coupons, which isn't exactly rocket science, but we learned that even a crazy idea can be used by God. What comes easily to you what do you love doing. It may just be a dream now, but catching that dream is the most important first step in starting your unique journey. You are the only one qualified to follow God's exciting plan for your life. He picked you. Before that first GMA appearance, a local TV producer said this would be the defining moment of my experience From here on. He said we would always think in terms of before GMA and after GMA. It would change everything. He was right. The grocery coupon thing was a topic none of the TV producers understood, but their viewers loved. At first I thought having my picture on my website and naming the site CouponMom seemed egotistical, but that's actually what people responded to. The producer said I was relatable and authentic. Their viewers were just like me. Gma didn't suggest media training. When I asked about it, they said no, just be yourself. Instead of making wardrobe suggestions, they told me to wear what I liked. Fortunately, I'd had all that practice with my pretend TV audience in the car. Gma just wanted me to be myself, to talk about my favorite hobby, to give viewers practical information they could use. It's easy to be ourselves and we are all more comfortable talking about what comes naturally to us. When you pursue your dream, you won't need to be anyone different than you are. God's pretty happy with what he created, so there's no need to mess with that. Over a seven-year period I did 55 national TV appearances featuring our coupon system, as well as hundreds of local TV and radio interviews. The Oprah Winfrey Show even had me demonstrate the system to their viewers. The website went from a few thousand visits a month before the first national TV appearance on GMA to five million a month at its peak. It made more than enough money from ads to fund its own growth and staffing New adventures. My accountant said the best thing that ever happened was being rejected by the IRS, who knew. Well, we can be pretty sure that God knew he had something far better in store, which was impossible to see at the time of the IRS phone call. Keep that in mind. It's so important to remember that there is far more ahead than we could ever even imagine. I know the plans I have for you. God tells us, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 2911. He knows our hearts and when we are aligned with God's will for us, with his dreams for us. Unexpected and surprising things will happen. Companies hired me to be a paid spokesperson. Who knew that was even a thing? The first deal? A dial-up internet company. Who could believe this was a career? It was fun to say simple, obvious things with great authority. It's fun to master looking into the camera and saying, with a straight face, the best way to save money on groceries is to make a shopping list. Seriously, they paid me to say brilliant things like that. Everything was easy now. All doors opened and phone calls were always returned, and the best part was that coupons were working. People were saving money and donating to charity. Happy emails from site users poured in and they filled me with joy. It felt too good to be true, but it got better Once free blog software became popular in 2010,. Other women created their own coupon sites using our approach. Their sites also listed grocery deals and promoted giving food to charity. Pretty soon there were hundreds of other coupon moms across the country. I'll be honest, those new coupon moms coming on the scene made me a little nervous. They were getting on TV. They were young, hip, sassy and fun serious competition. I was concerned that they would damage my business, and that is the biggest example of how wrong we can be when we think we know what's going to happen in the future. Honestly, we really don't know. Just 10 years earlier, I could hardly get anyone to agree to use coupons and I didn't know how in the world to teach millions of people how to use my website. I certainly never dreamed that a bunch of people would copy the concept and be new coupon moms getting on TV shows that reached millions of people too. Our publicist was very concerned and she thought it was the end of our 15 minutes of fame. That would have been okay, because I'd certainly had more than my fair share of positive experiences and success by that point. I could pass the baton to these younger women, especially when they shared the same goal. To be honest, it was a lot of fun to sit back and watch them demonstrate their unbelievable coupon savings on TV. That was my kind of TV. Well, they say all boats rise when the river rises. Those other coupon moms created far more interesting coupons with exponential media exposure. There were dozens of them going on local and national TV all across the country. As a result, they dramatically grew the industry. Millions of new coupon users went to the internet to find grocery coupon websites and our business more than doubled the year they all started. We had the highest traffic year ever. As a result of their appearances, those women taught their communities how to save and donate to charity. They taught me that we have a lot in common with our competitors and that we should really be friends. They earned incomes while staying home with their kids. Some of those women became millionaires. Everyone won, especially the shoppers who were saving money by using all these free, easy websites. Millions of families saved money and donated food to charity. This exceeded every single one of my crazy dreams. In God's economy, everybody can win. A highlight for me was speaking at a conference for coupon moms. As the experienced pioneer, it was like we had found our tribe. No single company could have done what the combined efforts of an army of coupon moms did. A coupon company executive asked me how does it feel to have created a cottage industry? But I didn't create it. I never even saw that coming, a plan only God could have dreamed up. Going on GMA wasn't the defining moment. Getting on my knees and giving it up to God was the defining moment. That's when I came to the end of myself and my limited plan and got to watch what happens when we let God take over. When we give up, we let God show up. People might see all this as luck and good timing. They might see these turning points as coincidences. They're wrong. God had his hand in this. He was so dramatic about it when I prayed on my knees and asked him to take away my unhealthy drive to make my idea succeed, he was probably thinking that drive was what he was trying to use. He was waiting for me to follow his lead. It's not a coincidence that Clark Howard talked about the website just 12 hours after I prayed, when I'd been working at this for three years. It's not a coincidence that a person who knew the top GMA producer happened to be standing next to me in the wings of Good Day Atlanta for just 15 minutes. It's not even a coincidence that the IRS examiner who called misinterpreted the law. As it turned out, her assessment was incorrect. Our website offered information that helped shoppers save money if they chose to use it. Countless nonprofit organizations provide a personal financial benefit to their audience with various types of financial training, information and direct financial support, so her rationale probably would not have held water if we had appealed it. Fortunately, we decided not to appeal. Since we were a private company, we could have advertising on the website. Due to the site's high traffic over time, our advertising revenue was much higher than government grants would have been and we didn't need to spend time trying to raise financial support. The advertising revenue provided the money we needed to staff and grow without charging our audience a subscription fee. The last thing we wanted to do was take money from a family who was struggling financially. I'm not judging the businesses that use the subscription approach, but it just didn't feel right for us. My husband and I had all we needed. We are glad that, as a private company, we have paid income tax to the government all these years, rather than taking money from the government. We didn't need to compete for funding with the very non-profits we were trying to help. The website revenue even allowed us to donate generously to other non-profits every year. We are so thankful for this story, for this journey that got unfolded over the past 20 years. It taught us so many lessons that I will share here and which I hope will help you as you begin your next journey. Now I dream about encouraging people to find and start their journeys. I want to help you figure out how to use what you love to help others. Let's discover God's exciting plan for your life. If he can do something with the idea of grocery coupons and a woman who had no technology experience and no money, what could he do with you and your idea? What is your story? Is there something you love to do? Pray about how God can help you use it to help others and start your own wonderful journey. What I learned? Your journey is a marathon, not a sprint. It's made up of many small steps and they each may take time. The joy is in the experiences along the way, not just in reaching the ultimate goal. Be you, be authentic. You'll be most successful if your work fits who you are and what you believe in. You'll know. If it doesn't fit, you'll be able to feel it. Catch yourself if that happens and get back to being your authentic self. Don't get pulled off the track to please someone else or to create a different impression. Own your dream, even if you don't feel capable of reaching it. You're the one with the vision. You're the one with the dream. It's easier to learn new skills, to do the work or find people to work alongside you than it is to expect someone else to carry your vision to the finish line. Don't give your dream away to someone you think is more capable. You can do it. God picked you.

Using Coupons to Help Others
Prayer, Couponing, and Television Success
The Unexpected Journey of Coupon Moms
Authenticity and Ownership of Dreams