smart spending

Online coupons can help you save a bundle

Another annoyance to users is the special software required to print the coupons. After it's downloaded, the program resides on your computer. Some sites specifically state that they don't collect any personally identifiable information or install any spyware, but others don't.

"The real bummer is that you have to download software, and that's not a good thing," Freeman says. "You do get some spam if you sign up for these things."

4. Consumer tracking without invasion of privacy

Even so, some issuers say consumers shouldn't have any privacy worries.

At Coupons.com and its affiliated sites, each user's computer is issued a randomly assigned serial number. "That way, our network knows not to print the coupon again," Boal says.

The software doesn't collect any personally identifiable information or track the user's surfing habits, he says. The only information retailers or manufacturers receive is whatever data consumers choose to share if they register. In addition, coupons won't bear individual tracking numbers unless consumers actually register with a site.

Indeed, the coupon council's Brown says consumer tracking can have an upside. "It's good to let them know who you are so that they can give you more offers," he says.

These days, many shoppers are balancing the notion that their savings through loyalty cards, which give consumers special markdowns from retailers, and other discount programs come with a price.They must share shopping information with retailers and manufacturers.

"People have to reconcile the fact that they watch your shopping habits, and where that might lead," Howard says.

Overall, she is satisfied with the bargain. Howard recently subscribed online to a drugstore loyalty program. In addition to coupons, a recent $70 shopping trip netted her $21 off of her next trip and a free eight-pack of antacid.

Wilson says he understands why clippers like Howard keep coming back. "You get hooked," he says. "It's very hard to walk into a store and pay full price when you realize you shouldn't have to."

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