5 Sneaky Coupon Strategies Consumers Should Watch Out For

Always make sure you read the fine print.

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TLC's Extreme Couponers shows consumers expertly collecting and combining coupons to save hundreds of dollars at the grocery store checkout. Unfortunately, if we're not careful, coupons can also seduce us into spending money rather than saving it. Retailers are experts themselves at using coupons to lure us into the store and part with our hard-earned money.

[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2012.]

"Coupons can save you a lot of money but more often than not, they entice you to buy something that you shouldn't buy or wouldn't otherwise buy," says Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals.

"There is a very small group of people who know the system very well, who game the system and come out on top," he adds. "There's a far larger group of consumers who are only dabbling in the system and end up losing."

Here are five sneaky coupon strategies, as well as tips on using this knowledge to make smarter purchasing decisions.

1. Size restrictions. When you're using a coupon for, say, 50 cents or a $1 off an off item, buying the smallest size possible lowers the cost per ounce. But retailers and manufacturers don't necessarily want you to buy the trial size or the single size at such a steep discount because you're spending less money, so they might include a minimum size in the fine print, says to Robert Weagley, associate professor and chair of the Department of Personal Financial Planning department in the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri. "Coupon users don't read the fine print," he adds, so sometimes they won't realize the size restriction until checkout. When that happens, they may wind up paying full price because they've already waited in line and it's too much hassle to go back and find the larger size.

[See 10 Things You Should Always Buy in Bulk.]

2. Geographic restrictions. Coupons with geographic restrictions are some of the most frustrating, according to Elliott. "Generally speaking," he says, "when retailers try to do this, they see a very attractive demographic in a certain ZIP code. A lot of those coupons are for online purchases, so when you buy, you put in your ZIP code and it invalidates the coupon." But once you've placed an item in your online shopping cart, you may feel invested in buying it—with or without a coupon. In this case, you could search online for alternate coupons or reevaluate whether you really want to buy the item at full price.

3. Expiration dates. Expiration dates can create an artificial sense of urgency, because coupon users hate to "waste" them (even though they're free). "It's not unusual to find a coupon that's on the verge of expiring," says Elliott. "They like to keep us on a really tight leash." However, timing can sometimes work to the consumer's advantage. Although some stores don't allow stacking (using a manufacturer's coupon and a retailer's coupon at the same time), most allow you to use a coupon even when an item is on sale, which can significantly increase savings. And some retailers will honor competitors' coupons or advertised sales, so you may not have to drive all over town to get the sale price or use a coupon.

4. Other restrictions. In addition to restricting by size, geography, and date, some coupons are only good on certain flavors or products. For instance, if you see a coupon for the brand of air freshener you typically buy, but you don't notice that it's only valid for the pine scent, not the lavender scent that you're used to. "Sometimes the fine print is so small and so illegible that you really gloss over it," says Elliott. "The reason they make the fine print so fine is they want to get you into the store. Retailers know that that dynamic is going on and you're going to end up maybe not paying very close attention to the terms of your coupon and saying, 'Oh, what the heck, I'll just buy it anyway.'" Other times, coupons have a minimum purchase amount (say "spend $50 and get $10 off") to motivate consumers to run up their bill, whether they need the items or not.