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Coupon-collecting can be a full-time job

It's almost frightening, the zeal with which some people collect grocery coupons.

A few still use those pastel-striped organizers that divide soup deals from toilet-paper bargains, and, for most, Sunday newspapers remain a major source for savings. But a zealous coupon enthusiast is also alerted to deals on Facebook and Twitter, belongs to an exchange club and is a slave to any number of Web sites that provide printable coupons.

The ultimate goal is shaving hundreds of dollars off the annual grocery bill, but the immediate high is "stacking," which combines store coupons with manufacturer coupons on top of buy-one-get-one-free deals. That's "BOGO" in grocery-shopping vernacular.

"For example, let's say there is a 50-cent coupon good for a 1-pound box of Ronzoni pasta, which usually costs around $1.29. Sometimes they are on sale as a BOGO, which means I can buy two boxes for $1.29. Then I use two coupons worth 50 cents each and get both boxes for only 29 cents!" says Marge Scheidl of New Port Richey, Fla. "It doesn't get much better than that."

Scheidl's enthusiasm over the art of the grocery deal is not unusual during these recessionary times. Coupon redemption was up 23 percent in 2009 over the previous year. According to NCH Marketing Services of Illinois, more than 75 percent of all shoppers use coupons, about 23 percent religiously.

Kati Kiefer turned to coupons in 2009 when her husband's pay reduction took a bite out of the family's budget. She says via e-mail that she routinely saves up to 80 percent on her monthly grocery bill and has started a Web site (truecouponing.com) to teach her system to others.

Kiefer, who has a degree in marketing from the University of South Florida, according to her Web site, claims she has reduced her family's monthly food bill from $600 a month to $250. Not bad for Mom, Dad and four children. She's not just clipping coupons; Kiefer is an expert in understanding the codes on the coupons. A "NED" (no expiration date) is more valuable than a "YMMV" (your manager may vary).

She also espouses every coupon devotee's mantra: Don't buy products you don't use just because they are cheap. Something you hate is still something you hate even at 13 cents a can.

Americans have been drawn to coupons for more than 100 years, the first one attributed to the Coca-Cola Co. in the late 1880s. But it was food manufacturer C.W. Post who made the practice widespread in 1909 when he began giving coupons away for breakfast cereal and other products.

Coupons have always been a good way to get customers to try new products and lure them into stores, which may lead them to buy other items. Not everyone is as good at restraint as the nation's coupon queens.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten says the chain has noticed a tremendous increase in customers using coupons. Recently, Publix, one of the nation's largest regional grocery-store chains, launched a new feature on its Web site (publix.com/save) that includes printable manufacturer coupons. Patten says the offerings will change frequently.

Many people who dabble in the coupon game know that coupon zealotry requires a time commitment.

And you'll have to register for coupon sites, some of which charge monthly fees. You will also get more e-mail to your box about sales.

Pam Haengel used to sneer at coupon clipping. Too much time. Too much hassle.

Then about eight months ago, the St. Petersburg, Fla., mother of two read a Facebook post from a friend who had just saved a lot of money on her weekly groceries by using coupons. The friend was using thegrocerygame.com to find deals. It didn't take long for Haengel to get hooked.

Now, she rattles off her biggest savings — she still has the receipts — like a gambler talking about her latest jackpot. "My personal best: I spent $122.81 at Publix and saved $104.32. I generally save ridiculous amounts of money. It's a combination of retail therapy and Vegas. It's like the slots with the bells going off."

Yes, there's a learning curve, she says, but the savings add up quickly. It's a job that pays pretty well an hour, she says.

And now, she hardly bothers with items — unless it's produce — that she can't get for 50 percent or more off.

"When I shop I can't wait to get to the end to see how much I saved."

Plus, she has new shelves in the garage to hold her overflowing bargains. Like 18 jars of pasta sauce for just pennies apiece.

For more information ...

You ought to read:

"The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half" by Stephanie Nelson (Avery, 2009; $15)

"Shop Smart, Save More: Learn The Grocery Game and Save Hundreds of Dollars a Month" by Teri Gault and Sheryl Berk (Avon A, 2008, $12.99)

"The Couponizer: Save More Than Money" by Amy Bergin (Couponizer Co., 2009; $19.95)

You ought to surf:

Google "coupon sites" and you'll find dozens. For printable coupons, you will almost always have to register, which results in unsolicited e-mail to your address; consider a separate e-mail account for them.

Here are three popular sites:

Thegrocerygame.com" TARGET="_blank">class="bullet-item">Thegrocerygame.com. A video tutorial on the home page shows you "how" the game is played and you can sign up for a free four-week trial. After that, you'll pay a monthly fee.

Couponmom.com" TARGET="_blank">class="bullet-item">Couponmom.com. The companion site to Stephanie Nelson's book of the same name. Membership is free and there is lots of information about how to save money by combining coupons. Printable coupons available.

Couponsherpa.com" TARGET="_blank">class="bullet-item">Couponsherpa.com. No strategic planning information here, just an aggregation of online, printable, grocery and mobile coupons.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.