This article incorrectly said that some retailers are banding together to offer one another's coupons on their Web sites. It is manufacturers that are doing so.
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Snipping, Clipping, Scrimping
She plans meals for the entire week and spends part of her Saturdays studying her coupon options. She estimates that she saves about $40 with coupons. "That's something," she said. "I feel like I'm not just leaving money on the table."
Holston, a management analyst for a government contractor who is also studying to get a PhD, started using coupons in January. "I just got to the point where I felt I had to do something to save money," she said.
She found TheGroceryGame.com, which sends her a weekly list of the lowest-priced products at her supermarket along with manufacturers' coupons and specials.
Now she has three coupon organizers. When she finds good deals, she buys the items in bulk. Her linen closet, refrigerator and freezer are packed. Sometimes, she has so much that relatives descend upon her home to help themselves to some of her food.
Many coupon masters become stockpilers like Holston.
Take Sam Pocker, a 31-year-old Queens, N.Y., resident who has been clipping coupons for years and produces a free weekly radio show online to share his strategies. He also appears in YouTube videos showing viewers exactly how he clips and organizes coupons and manages all the products he ends up getting, often for free. "There's a bit of an art to that," he said.
Some tips: Rotate your canned goods so you can easily get to the ones that are set to expire the soonest, freeze your fresh fruit, organize your freezer with baskets and boxes to maximize space.
Coupon masters said you don't have to take the practice to extremes.
Kim Danger, a family-savings expert who runs MommySavers.com, said you should start out small. Only clip coupons for items you know you will use. "You don't have to clip every coupon," she said.
Many people mock coupon users, saying they spend too much time trying to perfect their strategies for a minimal amount of savings. The typical family saves $5.20 to $9.60 per week using coupons, the Coupon Council found. Meyers of ICOM said he sees an average of 10 to 25 percent savings on grocery bills.
Holston admits that she probably would not have become such a coupon aficionado if it required a huge chunk of her time. That's why she turned to a Web site that does much of the work for her. "I'm a mother of three and currently pursuing my PhD while also working full-time. To have someone find the discount for me was a tremendous help," she said.
Manufacturers are paying attention to such demands. Many, such as Pillsbury and General Mills, have created coupon galleries on their Web sites. Even grocery store chains that in the past relied on their in-store circulars to advertise specials are now making their coupons available online. Some retailers have even banded together to offer each other's coupons on their Web sites, as long as the products don't compete, said Steven Boal, chief executive and founder of Coupons Inc. On BettyCrocker.com, for instance, you can find coupons for Energizer products. It's not just groceries; increasingly, people are using coupons for DVDs, electronics, clothing, even services such as oil changes. "The brand manufacturers are responding to consumer demand, and they're meeting them with real savings on everyday products on a more regular schedule," he said.
Now, they are sending them via text message to customers' mobile phone. Some are also experimenting with technology that would link coupons to customers' loyalty cards. AOL this spring launched its Shortcuts service, which allows shoppers to search online offers by brand, product or category and click on coupons they want added to their loyalty cards.
Still, of all the coupons out there, the paperless ones make up no more than 1 percent. That's because printing coupons off the Internet requires paper and work. And some retailers accept only the old-fashioned ones you clip out of a newspaper.
Meyers said that would eventually change. "Those are all things that will continue to grow over time. They're promising," he said. "When the breakthrough comes, more and more customers will shift to that . . . It's all about familiarity and convenience and getting the savings."
Until that breakthrough arrives, there is much shoppers can do to maximize their savings.
Plenty of Web sites, such as CouponMom.com and CouponCabin.com, offer tips and/or spot good bargains. You can also try to get your Sunday newspaper early to study coupon offerings. Don't forget to check the manufacturers' or brands' Web sites. Consider scouring eBay for coupons. Shoppers often exchange coupons that way. Remember to check store receipts or the product boxes themselves -- they often come with coupons.
Danger suggests becoming a more informed shopper by keeping track of the prices of your favorite items at stores you frequent. But also be willing to try new brands if you can get a better price for them. Make sure you know your store's policies. Ask if they accept competitor's coupons or match other stores' prices.
Be sure to combine your coupons with store sales. Shop on double- or triple-coupon days, when your coupons will count for more, then use any manufacturers' rebates you can find.
Erin Gifford, 34, has a laundry basket in her Ashburn home filled with toothpaste, Jell-O and Cheerios that she got free. She always keeps an envelope of coupons in her purse.
She once found a 75-cent coupon for Gum toothbrushes and used it on a double-coupon day at Harris Teeter. The original price of each toothbrush was just $1, so Harris Teeter paid her 50 cents to buy each brush. She bought 20 and donated them to charity because she prefers her electric toothbrush. Along with the toothbrushes, she got two bags of pretzels and two tubs of Edy's ice cream, all for 49 cents.
With three kids and an au pair living in her house, she needs the savings. "Things are much more expensive now. Eggs are up. Milk is up," she said.
But she also admits to simply cherishing the thrill of it all. "It's kind of a game when you find those deals," she said. "When you get that, it's a bonanza."