Mention coupons to a regular grocery shopper and you're likely to get intense reaction.
Some love coupons and will boast about the hundreds of dollars they save with them. Others sneer, saying their time is too valuable to be wasted on the meager savings.
The key is to use coupons wisely and disregard the ones that aren't worth the effort.
In round numbers, an American family of four annually spends $4,800 on grocery-store food, $800 on housekeeping supplies, $400 on personal-care products and $130 on nonprescription drugs, according to government figures on consumer expenditures. Those items can be found at most supermarkets, and they all have coupons.
Smart coupon-clippers say they save hundreds of dollars off normal shelf prices each year, and many claim they save thousands.
Perhaps no one has made supermarket coupons into more of a science than Teri Gault, founder of the fee-based TheGroceryGame.com Web site. Gault offers a service called Teri's List, which advises its 100,000 subscribers on which items to buy at their local supermarket and when.
Fundamental to grocery savings is buying and stockpiling items so you don't have to pay full price when you need them. That eliminates the argument that "they never have a coupon for what I need this week."
More advice on smart use of coupons:
Know when to play the coupon.
The biggest payoff comes from using the coupon on a sale item. Supermarket sales run in 12-week cycles, Gault said.
"Like playing cards, if you know when to play that coupon, you'll win the game," she said.
For example, paper products might be on sale for the next one to three weeks. That's the time to stock up and to use the coupon because it will be more than two months before the sale comes around again.
Say paper towels that normally run $7 for an eight-pack cost $5 on sale. Using a 75-cent coupon that is doubled would make those paper towels cost $3.50, or half off the usual price.
You could potentially track the sales yourself. Teri's List does that work for subscribers, telling them the ideal times to use coupons and stock up.
Clip on Sunday.
The newspaper coupons in the slick Sunday circulars offer the biggest savings. Weekday coupons tend to have lower values.
Skip online coupons.
If you have the time and want to put forth the effort to visit one of the many online sites that offer coupons, have a go at it. The problem is, the coupon amounts are pretty low because you can print as many of them as you want. Then your savings are mitigated by the cost of using your paper and ink to print the coupons.
Some stores don't accept them, and all those low-value coupons start to litter your coupon file, making it unmanageable. Even Gault calls using Internet coupons overkill.
Read past the picture.
The coupon savings can apply to sizes and varieties of related products other than just the one pictured. Read the fine print.
Double your savings.
Going to a supermarket that doubles the value of your coupons isn't the only way to multiply savings. With 2-for-1 sales, you're usually allowed to use two coupons because you're buying both items, said Michelle Jones, founder of GrocerySavingTips. com.
Shop on the right days.
Go to the supermarket Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Store sales generally start on Wednesdays, but the coupon to match that sale frequently doesn't come until Sunday. So the window to capitalize on the sale and the coupon is best after you get the coupons Sunday and before the next sale cycle begins Wednesday, Gault said.
If having a coupon encourages you to try a new product or different brand, that's not a bad thing. But if it encourages you to buy a lot more convenience foods and junk food, it won't be good for your wallet or your waistline.
Smaller is better.
When using a coupon, buying the smallest package that qualifies may reap the best savings. For example, $1 off a six-pack of soft drinks usually has a bigger percentage impact than $1 off a case.
If you think about a $1 coupon as a dollar bill, it might make it harder to just throw it away, Jones said. And clipping coupons isn't that time-consuming. You could complete the chore during the commercial breaks in an hourlong TV show.
"It does take a little time each week to clip the coupons and take them to the store," Jones said. "But just like earning money takes time, so does saving money."
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.