Getting the Most with Coupons

When you think of coupons automatic savings come to mind. You just hand over a paper clipping and voila, you've saved a little money. Over the past year more people have gotten in on the action. Coupon use is up for the first time in 17 years. Last year, consumers redeemed 27% more coupons than in 2008. That adds up to an estimated $3.5 billion in savings. But, if you want to get the most bang for your buck using a coupon there's a little more to it than just clipping that coupon from the Sunday circular. Kelli Grant, Senior Consumer Reporter for SmartMoney.com, gives us the inside scoop on saving the most money possible using coupons.

First, pair up sales and coupons. Manufacturers made coupons more enticing last year, increasing the number doled out and offering bigger discounts. They're trying to stem the tide of consumers going for cheaper store-label products instead of brand names. Take advantage by using coupons when the item is on sale in the weekly supermarket circular.

Next, pay attention to expiration dates. Expiration dates are getting shorter, with most coupons lasting just two or three months. Keep your clipped coupons in an organizer to make sure you remember them at checkout. You can also use a site like Shortcuts.com, which virtually loads coupons onto your loyalty card at chains including Kroger and Safeway.

Be sure to hunt for coupons online. The Sunday circular should still be stop No. 1 for coupon seekers, but print-and-home manufacturer's coupons are growing swiftly. Check sites like Savings.com and RedPlum.com for offers. Before you print, ask your supermarket if it accepts home-printed coupons. Most do, but there are still a few holdouts that won't.

Beware of counterfeit coupons. Stolen and fake coupons are fairly common, especially online. Best-case scenario: A free coupon will be turned down at checkout. Worse, you may have handed over cash or financial information to get the fake. Only download coupons from manufacturer's web sites and big-name coupon sites.

Your smart phone is an asset. Storing coupons on your cell phone is a possibility, but the technology is still in the early stages. Not many stores accept them. Still, shoppers with smartphones can take advantage of apps like CouponSherpa and MobiQpons offer codes and scannable coupons that can be shown to salesclerks, restaurant servers and other store staff in exchange for discounts.

For other tips on how to save using coupons and other consumer tips, please click here.

by Kelli Grant and Erika Wortham