smart spending

Dialing your smartphone for store coupons

Grocery savings apps

Most of us don't have time to search for coupons, clip them and then fumble with them at checkout. There are a few apps available that let you bypass the traditional couponing ritual and still save money.

Grocery Pal lets you browse for coupons digitally, then save and print them. It will also tell you what's on sale at nearby stores and allow you to create shopping lists based on those coupons and sales.

If you're a frugal shopper, you probably know it saves to compare the unit price of items. Apples2Oranges, available for the iPhone or iPod Touch, will do the math for you, making it easy to find the better buy. Let's say you're deciding whether to buy 250-count vitamins for $11.99 or 86 for $4.99. Enter these amounts in the app and it will show you the cost per unit, making it easy to compare prices.

Rewards apps

"Rewards apps like Shopkick represent yet another way to save money," Perez says. Shopkick is an app that rewards you with gift cards when you "check in" at various retailers. There's no need to buy anything, either. You're rewarded for visiting the store, not spending money. Of course, the app requires the effort of taking out your phone and enabling it to track your location each time you're in store.

"I've tried to use this app, but I'm not very good about 'checking in' to places," admits Perez. "So I always forget to gather as many points as possible to earn gift cards. ... My cousin uses this app like crazy -- she's saving up for a gas gift card."

Because the rewards are free, most apps in this category require some small effort. With Ibotta or Checkout 51, for example, you can earn rebates on purchases (mostly grocery items) you buy in store. But there are a couple of caveats. For one, you have to scan your receipt to prove your purchase.

Also, most of the rebates associated with these rewards apps are small.

"Don't expect to get hoards of money from these apps," Perez says. After several months of using the app, Perez says she has just over $7 accrued on Checkout 51. "But savings are savings."

Individual stores may offer rewards apps, too. The burger chain Carl's Jr., for example, gives rewards for purchases, but only if you check in using its app. You may find these apps useful if there's a store or restaurant you frequent.

The future of mobile couponing

Google Wallet and Apple Pay offer a novel concept: paying for items without pulling out your credit card. Near-field communication, or NFC, makes it possible to do this. However, this doesn't seem much more convenient -- you may not have to pull out your wallet, but you still have to pull out a smartphone. The technology may be novel, but it requires about the same amount of effort.

That being said, the appeal of NFC payments may be the convenience of using them with an existing money-saving app. Companies like Starbucks have capitalized on this, creating an app that lets you earn rewards, redeem gift cards, pay and leave tips for baristas. While mobile wallet technology has yet to become the norm, it seems to be most convenient when combined with other consumer features.

Apple may be exploring the possibilities of mobile couponing with iBeacon. The technology allows establishments to set up "beacons" that communicate directly with your phone. While this can be used for a variety of purposes, from welcoming people to sporting events to educating museum patrons -- as the developer website suggests -- retailer promotions and discount offers seem like a natural fit for the technology.

As mobile couponing becomes more convenient, it only seems natural to couple it with NFC payment technology. In the meantime, there's no shortage of these types of apps available, making it incredibly easy to save some cash and find a good deal.

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