Chances are good you've crossed paths with a serious coupon clipper. She's the one ahead of you in the supermarket checkout line clutching a stack of coupons 2 inches thick. By the time she's done, her cart loaded with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries will cost her just $20.
Coupons are easy to find these days. Scads of Web sites post printable ones. Coupons.com, the biggest coupon-only site on the Web, reported 19.5 million monthly visitors in 2009. Even social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are crowded with offers.
Most of us probably don't have the time, patience, or discipline to become devoted couponers. But we can borrow some of their strategies to cut our overall grocery bills and, every now and then, score a jaw-dropping deal.
To find out what the pros know that we don't, we asked two self-described coupon queens, Donna Montaldo and Georgine Kaczmarek, to share some of their secrets. Montaldo, the couponing expert at About.com, says she saves roughly $10,000 a year using coupons at supermarkets and chain drugstores. Kaczmarek, of Ridgefield, N.J., is the brains behind GeorgineSaves.com, a Web site that steers couponers to the best deals. Kaczmarek once paid $3.33 for $144 in groceries, and she has the 3½-foot-long receipt to prove it.
To shop like a super couponer, start by nabbing every coupon you can find. Don't limit yourself to products you need right now. Coupon flyers are tucked in the Sunday newspaper and plenty of other places, too. Look for them at supermarkets and drugstores in "blinkies" (those small red boxes with big blinking lights); pop-up boxes (like blinkies but they don't blink); tear pads; and attached to the products themselves. "Catalina" coupons are the ones that come along with your receipt.
You'll find printable coupons on manufacturer Web sites and giant coupon-only sites like CoolSavings.com, GrocerySmarts.com, and the aforementioned Coupons.com. Tip: Set up a separate e-mail account for couponing. You have to register at most sites before you can print, and once you do you'll be bombarded with spam.
To avoid fake coupons, print only from reputable sites. Legitimate coupons usually have bar codes and expiration dates.
Organize your coupons so you can find the ones you want when you're ready to shop. Your coupon library can be kept in a box or file drawer with tabbed dividers, color-coded folders, a three-ring binder, or even a photo album—the kind with sticky plastic to hold things down.
Sort by categories that make sense to you—10 is enough to start. You can always add more later. A good way to categorize is to follow the route you usually take through your grocery store. This makes it easier to pull coupons as you shop.
Scan the weekly flyer from your supermarket for store coupons and sales as you build your shopping list. Then pull coupons from your library for the items you need, and put them in an envelope or small file to carry with you as you shop.
Try to redeem more than one coupon for an item by using one from the manufacturer and one from your store. This tactic, called "stacking," is one of the key strategies for really cutting grocery costs.
Another is to buy in quantity when a store is doubling the value of coupons. Montaldo posts a state-by-state list of stores that double coupons in the Coupons/Bargains section of About.com.
Find out a store's coupon policies before you shop there. Some stores don't accept coupons printed from the Web; others don't accept any coupons.
Here's what you'll need to take with you to the store: your shopping list, your coupons, an empty envelope, and a calculator (your cell phone may have one). Try to stick to your list. If you splurge on a few extras you don't really need, your savings will quickly evaporate.
As you put each item in your cart, put the appropriate coupon in your envelope. Don't forget to check the expiration date and any restrictions.
Buy items in sizes that will save you the most. Here's where a calculator comes in handy. The largest jug of laundry detergent isn't always the best deal, for example. You might save more money if you can get several smaller ones nearly free by stacking.
Be prepared for grumpy people behind you in the checkout line. If someone is buying only a few items, you might let him or her move ahead of you. What if you end up behind one of those hard-core couponers? Smile, watch, and learn.
This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.