Here's the rub: Coupons are only good if you actually spend less than you would without them. Do you?
Coupons are as American as apple pie (which you can probably buy with a coupon somewhere). Try to take them away from us and we scream, boycott, petition, and threaten to sue. A few years ago, Procter & Gamble Co., the giant maker of household goods, eliminated coupons in three New York cities in favor of lowering everyday prices.
But people were up in arms at the loss of their coupons. "If you buy on sale, combined with double and triple coupons, you can save more with coupons than you'll save with only lowered prices," says Harold Fishman, a retired Rochester, N.Y., salesman and regular coupon user. (P.S. -- Procter & Gamble did bring back their coupons.)
Used inefficiently, however, coupons can be a waste of time and money. So follow these tips for smart coupon shopping.
Keep coupons handy. Pin dry-cleaning coupons to the bag holding your dirty clothes; paper-clip supermarket coupons to your grocery list; stick the restaurant coupons in the guide or phone book you'll use for making reservations.
Use coupons only for products you'd buy anyway. Coupons are usually for highly-processed foods that are not in her family's diet, says Cynthia Hillson, of Cornelius, N.C. "When's the last time you saw a coupon for a carrot?" Cynthia thinks time spent clipping, filing, organizing, and shopping with coupons can be better spent buying in bulk, baking from scratch, gardening, shopping supermarket sales, and planning menus accordingly.
Don't get enticed into paying more. Coupons may entice you to spend more than you save. Shelley Levine, for example, had a free car-wash coupon. "When I got there and found it was just for the basic service, I wound up upgrading. My 'free' car wash ended up costing me four dollars," she says.
Calculate the savings. Some people use coupons only when convenient; others go far for a good deal. Lisa Danforth, of Hawkinsville, Ga., takes her cereal coupons to southern California when she visits her parents. The supermarkets there double and triple coupon values. "Cereal is light," Lisa says, so she buys dozens of boxes for mere change and ships them home for the cost of a full-price box or two. "My dad thinks I'm nuts, but if I can get cereal for free, then why not?" asks Lisa, whose three sons devour several boxes a week.
Combine or transfer deals. Sometimes you can combine a half-price oil change with a discounted tune-up offer. Ask first if this is possible. And if you like to use particular merchants, ask if they'll honor competitors' coupons.
Read the fine print. "I hate all the stipulations you have to follow to use most coupons," says Shea Sorensen of New York. "Not to be combined with other offers." "Coupon good for dining in only -- no delivery." And you can kiss your savings good-bye if you forget to "Mention ad when placing order." Get the terms straight at the beginning of a transaction, she suggests, or there's sure to be a catch.
Several Web sites offer coupon programs, with new sites popping up all the time. To find the latest, do a Web search using the key word "coupons." Here are a few we found:
CentsOff At this site you set up an account and fill your virtual shopping cart with the coupons you want. Centsoff sends them to you within 7-10 working days. Clippers beware: There are fees for this service.
CoolSavings.com A general, multi-product coupon site where you print the coupons right off your screen. Usage is unlimited and free.
Couponsurfer Allows you to search for coupons by brand name.