I love grocery coupons.
And I hate them.
I love saving money and getting a deal that someone else isn't getting. There's nothing like standing in line at the store and hearing the groans from other shoppers when you pull out a big wad of paper, followed by the gasps when the checker knocks $20 or $50 off your tab.
But the time it takes to cut out coupons is a drag, as is the time it takes to prowl around online to find even more coupons. Then too, supermarkets keep tightening the rules to reduce their customers' coupon take. And few things are more annoying than a cashier who grimaces and challenges each coupon as if it were coming out of her or his salary.
But at the same time, coupons are a gold mine. Since the beginning of the year, my family has saved nearly $250 by using store coupons. That's enough to buy an iPhone (with tax) or to gas up my station wagon for a month.
With food prices rising and the economy on a tightrope, coupons are gaining new currency. About 2.6 billion coupons were redeemed last year, roughly unchanged from the year before, according to CMS Inc., a coupon-research company. But 2007 marked the first year in more than a decade that coupon redemption didn't decline, thanks to a surge in coupon use in the second half of the year.
CMS paper counters figure that the trend will build as shoppers look for savings anywhere they can find them.
To get the most for your money, here are some tricks I've learned over the years, along with some advice gleaned from CouponMom.com, TheGroceryGame.com and other coupon websites.
* Make a shopping list. With a list, you are less likely to stray into impulse buying. And, more important, you can plan purchases around what's on sale. I keep a computer-generated checklist on the refrigerator that catalogs the items we usually buy. It was created using a template, complete with a retro drawing of chickens, that came with my computer's word processing program; similar lists can be found on the Web. My family can check off what we're out of and add extras at the end.
* Know what things cost. Supermarkets move prices up and down all the time, so the trick is striking when the price is low -- and adding an extra wallop with coupons. Some experts suggest lugging around a list of the prices of things you usually buy so you know when you're really getting a deal.
* Stockpile. This rule is related to the previous two. When something from your regular list goes on sale, buy lots of it and use those coupons. Keep in mind that one frequent supermarket trick, the multiple deal, doesn't always require multiple purchases. A two-for-one price could mean you need to buy two to get the deal or it could mean each item is half-priced even if you buy only one. Check carefully.
* Get organized. There's nothing more heartbreaking to a dedicated couponer than pulling out a coupon that has expired, forcing you to pay full price or wait for a better deal. Invest in a cheap coupon organizer and keep it up to date by tossing out old coupons. Better yet, use them before they expire.
* Be selective. Manufacturers often issue coupons to get people to try new products. But even with the coupon savings, there could be better deals on the shelves from generic or older brands. On the other hand, a store brand isn't always cheaper once you figure in the coupon savings. You have to pencil it out. Who knew shopping could be so math-intense?
* Check multiple coupon sources. The Sunday newspaper remains the most popular place to get coupons, according to Scarborough Research. But the Internet is gaining, the company said, with about 11% of households turning to manufacturer or coupon sites such as CouponMom.com, TheGroceryGame.com, MyCoupons.com and others. At www.shortcuts.com, shoppers can load discounts onto the loyalty cards of participating supermarkets.
* Combine coupons. Many stores will let you redeem a manufacturer's coupon in combination with a store-issued coupon. It never hurts to try.
* Sign up for loyalty programs or club cards at multiple retailers. Not only do you get special discounts at the checkout stand, but many supermarket chains also may send you coupons based on the products you buy frequently.
* Pay attention. If one package has a "redeem now" coupon stuck to it and another doesn't, take the one that does. And use the coupon. Duh! If you can't remember, stick the thing on your hand. Also, make sure you're being charged the correct price. If the cash register charges you more than the posted price, California law requires the store to give you the cheaper price even if the shelf sign is out of date.
* Be shameless. Ask the manager for a discount on items that are damaged or have reached the end of their shelf life. See if the store will redeem competitors' coupons. Write or e-mail manufacturers about their products: how much you love them, complaints, suggestions for improvement and the like.
I once got a stack of coupons for diagnosing a manufacturing problem at a hosiery maker's Mexican plant. (The nylons didn't fit the way products from the company's other plants did; even I thought I was being a little obsessive-compulsive until I hit that coupon mother lode.)
Above all, don't give up. I go through periods where I weary of clipping little pieces of paper. Then I think about how I would spend an extra $10, $20 or $142 -- my weekly all-time best. Remember, it's all a game, but one played with real money.