"There's no reason you can't save 20 percent to 40 percent regularly on your grocery bill," and get a lot of household items for free or nearly free, Ellwanger said. You just need some coupons - from the Sunday paper or from friends - and to spend an hour or so each week researching good deals.
Who hasn't watched "Extreme Couponing" on TLC and thought, "I'd never be able to pull it off." Well, you're right. "Even the people on that show say shopping like that isn't realistic," said Melissa Ellwanger, who teaches coupon strategies to budget-minded central Ohioans as the co-owner of Learn2Save. "It's made extreme for the television show." It is possible, though, to be a moderate couponer. "There's no reason you can't save 20 percent to 40 percent regularly on your grocery bill," and get a lot of household items for free or nearly free, Ellwanger said. You just need some coupons - from the Sunday paper or from friends - and to spend an hour or so each week researching good deals. Finding deals. Plenty of free websites will match coupons with sales at local and national retailers, and then show you how to combine rebates, sales, coupons and other incentives to pay the lowest possible price for just about anything. My personal favorites are the Grocery Game, couponmom.com and thekrazycouponlady.com. Learn to stack. "Stacking" means using more than one discount or coupon for a single item.For example, matching coupons to sales will save you money. But if you can find a sale, a manufacturer coupon plus a store coupon good on the same item, you've saved even more. An example: In December, I had a coupon for $3 off three bags of Starbucks coffee. Target had it on sale and offered a $5 gift card when you bought three bags. Starbucks also had a mail-in rebate good for a $5 gift card when you bought three bags. Not only did I buy on sale, with a coupon, I got $10 in gift cards. Know each store's coupon policy. Every retailer handles coupons differently. Look for your favorite retailer's coupon policy on the company website, print it out and keep it with you when you shop. It'll come in handy if the cashier gets confused by your stack of coupons, Ellwanger said, and will ensure you get every discount you're entitled to. The coupon policy should explain what types of coupons the store accepts, and whether or not they double them. Stock up - sometimes. Sales aren't random. Each store has a sales cycle, and certain items will hit a rock-bottom price at some point during that cycle. That's when it's time to stock up. "Usually it's a three-month cycle," said Ellwanger, "and after you've gone through a couple, you'll say, 'I'm not going to pay $2.99 for this right now because I know I can get it for 50 cents in a couple of months.'" But stocking up doesn't mean taking over the house: "I have a small rack in my mudroom," Ellwanger said. "That's enough." Price match. Retailers often will match the advertised price of an item if you bring in a competitor's ad and ask. This can be invaluable, to avoid crowds, take advantage of great deals and cut excess shopping trips. "I always price match, especially when I see a rock bottom price on something," Ellwanger said. "Always have the ad with you. They like to see it. I just keep all of them with me, just in case." --Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.