If you're looking for new ways to cut spending, consider a common item you might have been tossing in the garbage: coupons.
Food shoppers who use cents-off coupons save an average of $1,000 per year, according to industry estimates. If coupon values are doubled at your grocery store, the savings can also double.
Sandra Oliver of Baltimore is a longtime coupon clipper. She regularly saves $15 to $20 on her grocery bill when she does her major grocery shopping every two weeks at stores offering double coupon savings.
Mrs. Oliver spends about three hours a week clipping coupons and making shopping lists from store sale advertisements.
"I do it at different times and while I watch television. It's very re
laxing to save money," she says.
In recessionary times, more people start looking for extra ways to save money, and the coupon industry has grown in recent years from a nickel-and-dime business to a new high of 306.8 billion coupons issued in 1990.
And coupons are increasingly popular in the Baltimore area. Safeway Inc., which has 148 stores in its Eastern Region, which includes Baltimore, says dollar values of coupons redeemed in this area rose 17 percent last year from the year before. Safeway does not track numbers of coupons redeemed.
A national telephone survey conducted in January by NCH Promotional Services, a Chicago-based coupon processor, found that 75 percent of grocery shoppers plan to use coupons as a response to the soft economy. And 54 percent of the surveyed shoppers already had started clipping and redeeming.
NCH also found that, from 1970 through 1989, coupon usage and the gross national product were inversely related. When the GNP is high, coupon redemption falls; when the GNP drops, coupon redemption rises.
Rising food prices have tightened budgets even further -- they have risen at an annual rate of 5.8 percent for each of the past two years, according to the Department of Agriculture. The government expects food price increases to slow down to 2 percent to 5 percent this year.
William Charles Radcliffe, a retired studio photographer in Baltimore, enjoys saving coupons and doing the shopping.
"It's a little moral victory when you get [a product] for a third of the price in the store," Mr. Radcliffe said. He estimates that he usually saves $6 to $7 on a $40 grocery bill.
Mr. Radcliffe also said that it is annoying to get 55-cent coupons instead of 50-cent coupons because most stores only double coupon values up to 50 cents.
"A lot of [grocery stores] that do double coupons pressure manufacturers to offer coupons that are higher that 50 cents or less than 25 cents," said Caroline Mooney, sales manager of Summary Scan, a Chicago-based company that tracks coupon use. By limiting the number of high-value coupons that are eligible for doubling, the stores protect their profits. Food manufacturers only reimburse stores for the face value of the coupon.
If you want to join the coupon-clipping brigade, here are some guidelines:
* Look for coupons in the colorful Sunday newspaper coupon inserts, in Wednesday's newspaper food section, on bulletin boards at the supermarket and in mailings that come to your home. Some coupons will have a space for your name and address, and if you fill it in, even more coupons may come your way.
* At first, try clipping only coupons for products you regularly buy. Keep those coupons in an envelope that you take along on every shopping trip.
* More advanced couponers also clip coupons for products they simply want to try. To manage that many coupons, most people rely on a more elaborate filing system, dividing coupons by categories of food.
* The next step: maximizing your savings by buying multiples of products when they are on sale and matching up the sale items with coupons. If your store doubles coupons, those sale items can be bought for a fraction of the original price.
The coupon industry, meanwhile, is changing subtly.
Coupon values went up to an average of 49 cents in 1990 from 44 cents in 1989 and 29 cents in 1987, Summary Scan estimates.
While coupon values are rising, the length of time coupons are valid is dropping. Summary Scan estimates that last year 45 percent of coupons had expiration dates less than three months from when they were issued. The company said only 7 percent had no expiration dates, compared with 22 percent in 1987.
Meanwhile, grocery stores are changing their approach to coupons.
Safeway, which offers double coupon values in some of its stores, in February also started offering a savings card that entitles customers to discounts on store specials.
Jim Roberts, a Safeway spokesman, noted that when a store first starts doubling coupon values, there is a marked increase in coupon activity at that store.
One common complaint is that redeeming a stack of coupons takes a long time at the store checkout line. But now coupon scanners can read coupon values from a bar code printed on the coupon. Giant Food, based in Landover, will have them in all its 153 stores by the end of August.