If you've ever seen TLC's "Extreme Couponing," you might conclude that coupons are for crazy people. You don't need a five-year supply of toilet paper, and you especially don't want to devote 40 hours a week to planning your grocery shopping.
How about 15 minutes per shopping trip and $150 in savings?
That's what Stephanie Nelson, publisher of couponmom.com, did this week, combining coupons, store sales and deals offered by her store's loyalty card.
The proliferation of websites that match coupons with store sales has made saving money with coupons easier than ever. Those same sites offer video tutorials, links to store's coupon policies, printable coupons and, most important, matchups of coupons to items on sale at most major store chains.
That means even a lazy shopper can save money using coupons with minimal effort. "Let other people do the work for you because they already have," Nelson says. "A lot of people think they have to do it all themselves."
You can find coupons in a variety of places. According to Nelson, 80 percent to 90 percent of grocery coupons still come in the Sunday newspaper. But you can also get coupons online, at matchup websites, coupon company websites and manufacturers' sites, as well as at some grocery store websites. Plus, some stores offer what is called a "Catalina" strip of coupons when you check out.
If you don't take the Sunday newspaper, check the recycling bins in your apartment complex, ask your family and friends to save coupon inserts for you or drop by restaurants where people are likely to leave discarded newspapers and coupons.
But don't turn down free money, says Laura Daily, a consumer savings expert and publisher of milehighonthecheap.com in Denver, who gives coupon workshops. "If I handed you a $5 bill, would you take it and crumple it up and throw it away?" she asks.
But, she adds, "You don't have to be fanatical about it. … You can [clip coupons] while you're watching TV."
There are two parts to couponing successfully, Nelson says. One is clipping and finding coupons. The second is using your coupons strategically by matching them to store sales.
For example, if Nature Valley granola bars are $3.95 a box and you have a coupon for 50 cents off, then you'll pay $3.45 a box. But if the bars are on sale for $1.99 a box, and you go to a store that doubles coupons, you'll get those same granola bars for 99 cents a box.
The trick is to keep track of how often the items you buy go on sale and then stock up. If you have both a store coupon and a manufacturer's coupon for the same item, you can usually use both, increasing your savings.
"The whole key to saving on groceries is to stock up on an item when it's at its lowest price, not when you need it," Nelson says.
Both Nelson and Daily laugh at those who say coupons are only for unhealthy, processed foods. In fact, Nelson says, about 50 percent of coupons are for non-food products. This week's manufacturer coupon offerings include Fresh Express salad, Greek yogurt and oatmeal.
"I'm a very healthy eater and we save a lot of money with coupons," Nelson says. And, as Daily notes, even Whole Foods offers coupons these days and accepts manufacturers' coupons.
Both coupon experts use their skills to acquire items for charities, and some of their best scores are for toiletries and cleaning products.
Daily recently got 53 tubes of toothpaste and 36 bottles of liquid soap for only the cost of sales tax, combining coupons with stores sales and clearance items – another tool in a savvy couponer's arsensal.
"If I can get a product for free or almost free, it's coming home with me," Daily says.
There are myriad ways to organize coupons. Some people create a coupon binder. Others use envelopes and sort by category. Daily recommends the small coupon organizers you can find at dollar stores, with sections for each category. Nelson recommends filing your coupon inserts by date but not clipping until you check the store matchups and are ready to shop. Whatever you do, make sure you carry your coupons with you.
While there are smartphone apps for coupon mavens, they don't yet go far enough that you can abandon paper. Savingstar.com has an app that lets you load coupons onto your store loyalty card. Favado, a new app, includes coupon matchups.
While coupons can save you money, they won't always get you the best deal. For some people, no-frills stores such as Aldi and Save-A-Lot are a better choice, as long as you don't demand name-brand products. Sometimes a store brand item without a coupon is cheaper than a national brand with a coupon. Don't be blinded by coupon mania.
[See: 8 Painless Ways to Save Money.]
"Just because you have a coupon doesn't necessarily mean it's a god deal," Daily says. "Quite often, generics beat out a good deal with a coupon."