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Confessions of a coupon-clipping queen

Getting scissor-happy at haircut-time -- a bad thing. Getting scissor-happy with a stack of supermarket-coupon newspaper inserts -- a good thing.

In the embarrassment-of-riches department, statistics reveal that more than 3,000 manufacturers offer consumers nearly 330 billion coupons -- worth an estimated $280 billion -- ever year.

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Now, how many of these billions of coups do we actually redeem, compared to those we toss?

Redeemed: Only 8 billion, representing $4.7 billion saved on grocery bills. That means (please, let me do the math) that right now, moldering in landfills across America, are nearly $275 billion in savings, wantonly, willfully, possibly unknowingly, trashed.

Pity. I could have used them.

As the reigning, if self-appointed, coupon queen of Manhattan and a direct descendent of the Queen Mother of Coupons (ensconced at her estate in Brooklyn), the above statistics make me weep. What mom and I could do with those ducats to discount-dom!

Let's put it this way: On family vacations, when the others were exploring museums and beaches, she and I would survey supermarkets, doing a little price comparison and cadging coups when we could. Don't cry for us, Argentina -- we had a ball. Today, I am a proud owner of a (maniacally maintained) multi-compartment coupon organizer, and my kitchen counter is routinely littered with labels and UPC codes cut from the packages of companies offering rebates for them.

My payoff? Shaving $1,200 off my annual grocery bills, easy -- and as for the thrill of getting the same stuff as my neighbors for less? Priceless!

Clearly, I'm a clipping fool, but even half-hearted couponers can easily save hundreds yearly. OK, let's let lingering landfills lie -- get a fresh start with this guide to everything you ever wanted to know about couponing, but felt too cloddish to ask:

Getting started

  • Scour the most plentiful (and free) sources: the Sunday-newspaper coupons inserts; the Wednesday food sections (your local paper may favor another day); women's and general-interest magazines.
  • Clip even those you cannot use -- they may prove handy bartering chips. Or you can just kindly give them to someone who needs them.
  • Scout coupon swap-boxes, generally found at (surprise!) supermarkets, but also at some public libraries. This is where those can't-use coups you clipped come in handy -- you generally don't have to give in order to take, but being a good citizen, you'll want to.
  • Take advantage of in-store coupon displays and the machines that spew them.
  • Log on to your supermarket's home page for clippable coups.

Advanced search
For the canny, the cunning and the conscientious:

  • Say it loud: I like your product and I'm proud! Call the toll-frees on your favorite products' label and tell the customer-service rep how much you enjoy them. Some reps will actually offer cents-off (or even free) coupons for the product itself, or for new variants; if not, don't be shy: Ask.
  • Nab a newsie. Does your newspaper vendor just dump the inserts in unsold papers at the end of the day? If so, would he mind tossing a few your way?
  • Check out the wealth of national-brands coupon-offering services on the Web. They can save you loads of time, as well as money -- even the ones that charge nominal fees. Just choose the coups you want online; these services will then mail you your selections. Two excellent sites: www.CentsOff.com and www.SmartSource.com.

Getting organized
A messy stash equals missed opportunities, so:

  • Sort coupons by category and store in multi-pocket organizers (often advertised in Sunday inserts, as well as on couponing Web sites), or simply use separate envelopes headed "Frozen," "Pet," "Meat" (ugh, sorry for that disturbing sequence).
  • Circle with a red marker the expiration dates, to alert you to soon-dues, and to help you further subdivide your categories chronologically.
  • Paper-clip pertinent coupons to any sales circulars or ads you plan to take advantage of.

Smart strategies
To get the most bang for your buck:

  • Double your pleasure. Seek out supermarkets that will double -- some super stores even triple -- the face value of manufacturers' coupons. Wouldn't hurt to tell the manager how much you appreciate the policy.
  • Try for triple plays. That's when you use a manufacturer's coupon and a store's own coupon toward on an on-sale item. You may even hit a quadruple play, which occurs when you additionally send in the label for a manufacturer's rebate (more about that coming up).
  • Never leave home without it -- your entire coupon stash, that is; not just the ones you know you'll need for a specific trip to the market. A Rule of the Universe: The day you leave them home is the day you walk into an unadvertised blowout sale of the century -- on the items you have coups for at home.

Refunds and rebates
These are the reigning kings of the coupon world. You will find these mail-to-the-manufacturer forms in most of the same sources you find their cents-off cousins. Additionally, there are such sites as www.refundsweepers.com, which offers online printable refund forms.

You may also wish to subscribe to Refunding Makes Cents -- check out its site at www.refundcents.com.

Some refund/rebate pointers first:

  • Save the POP (proof-of-purchase, which is often the UPC, or bar, code) and store-register tapes from your favorite products. The day after you throw them out, you'll doubtless come across a full-purchase-price refund form requiring them. Yes, this is another Rule of the Universe.
  • Photocopy the completed form before you mail it in. This is vitally important, as it will tell you all the info you will be required to know should you need to call or write the company to inquire about your missing-in-action check. The only thing not noted on the form may be the date you sent it in -- sticky-note it on.
  • Don't jump the gun. Sometimes companies are swamped with responses -- if the form states that you should wait six to eight weeks, as many do, call in week nine.

Law and order
If something sounds too fun, easy and profitable, you know someone's going to rein it in with rules, right? The world of coupons is no exception. That's why it's important that you haul out your reading glasses and scrutinize coupons' and forms' fine print regarding who may submit or redeem them, in what manner and under which circumstances.

Not to worry: Restrictions are rarely unreasonable, and are understandably meant to filter out those with fraud in their hearts. So play fair -- if for no other reason than I'd hate to see the headline, "Previously Respected Businessman Pilfers Neighbors' POP-Filled Trash in Rinky-Dink Rebate Ruse."

Laura Shanahan is a freelance writer and coupon queen based in New York.

-- Updated: Oct. 27, 2004




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