Five Tips to Become an 'Extreme' Couponer

The savvy shoppers on TLCs Extreme Couponing make getting cartfuls of groceries for mere pennies look easy. Its hard not to watch in awe.

Facing soaring food prices and a weak labor market, American families are pinching pennies wherever they can and using coupons to do it.

But this isnt your grandmothers couponing. With the proliferation of thousands of coupon and deal websites, todays smart couponer can combine Internet coupons with newspaper and manufacturer coupons, as well as whatever other deals they can get their hands on to get products for next to nothing even free, in some cases.

Nikki Bashkoff, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mom of two in West Orange, N.J., was so taken by the feats shown on Extreme Couponing that she started couponing herself in April. Shes proven to be a fast learner: She has her own little stockpile a couponers own personal mecca of groceries and other products in their home--complete with soda, cereal, as well as deodorants, toothpaste, toothbrushes, kids shampoo and razors that ended up being free with coupons.

I didn't even know that getting things for free or for a few cents was even possible. I figured if those people could do it, I could do it, she says. If I can save my family money, then why wouldnt I?

To learn best couponing practices, Bashkoff began reading blogs. She admits her skills are nowhere near the level of those couponers on TV who spend anywhere from 30 to 70 hours a week preparing coupons and grocery lists. Bashkoff is happy if she cuts 40 to 50% off her grocery bill.

Its definitely worth the time it takes to cut and use coupons, she says. I'm learning that the more time I have available to search for coupons, the more I would be able to find. Since I have a 2-year-old with me all day, I don't have tons of time to do it, so I just do what I can.

Bashkoff is not alone in her coupon craze. Since the debut of Extreme Couponing in April, consumer interest in coupons has surged. Many retailers, including Target and RiteAid, have recently begun tightening up or, at the very least, putting down in writing - their coupon policies to prevent coupon-carrying shoppers from wiping shelves clean of certain items or  combining coupons that shouldnt all be used for the same items. Coupon fraud has also become a growing issues.

The Coupon Information Corporation has even criticized Extreme Couponing for setting unrealistic expectations about how coupons work and promotes the misuse of coupons.

Stephanie Nelson, known as The Coupon Mom who founded her coupon site 10 years ago and wrote The Coupon Moms Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half, says traffic to her site more than quintupled since the show debuted.

What weve seen is not just this huge amount of traffic, but the return rate. Weve never seen such a high number of people sticking to it & maybe people are saying well, is this a recession or is this the new normal? Nelson says.

Nelson offers five tips to newbie couponers to get started and get the biggest bang for their buck:

Tip No.1 Plan, Plan, Plan

Check your local stores ads for whats on sale and plan your meals and purchases around those items. Making a detailed plan avoids impulse purchases and saves time by avoiding unplanned trips to the store that can break a budget.

Tip. No.2 Know Your Stores Savings Policies

To maximize savings, it is crucial to understand how your stores savings program and coupon policies work. For example, does the store except double coupons? Do they have other promotions? Do they accept competitors coupons?  Can you use two coupons with a buy-one, get-one-free deal? Its important to know what is allowed so you can plan your list and shopping strategy.

Tip. No.3 Pair Up for Biggest Savings Punch

It is important to actually use your grocery coupons when the items are on sale. Remember that more than half of available coupons are for non-food items (toothpaste, razors and shampoo, etc&) that are easy to get for free if you coupon correctly, the experts say. Dont use the coupon unless somethings on sale. For beginners, thats a big idea, Nelson says.

Tip No.4 Know When to Stock Up

Study the pricing habits of stores (they often repeat sale cycles) to know when an item has hit its lowest price point and stock up. Dont wait until you need something. Freezing on-sale items like chicken can save also be a big money saver.

Tip No.5 Forget About Loyalty

Be flexible about brands and stores. Do you really care if its Kraft dressing or Wish Bone? Does it matter that much? Nelson asks. Switch to shopping at stores that offer better discounts or have less stringent coupon policies, it will help your budget go further.