By Jennifer Derrick

I know quite a few people who have tried to use coupons but ended up quitting because they got discouraged. They felt like they weren't saving enough, or that somehow they weren't doing it “right.” One woman put it simply when she explained, “I see these people on TV who get $600 worth of food and only pay $50. I can't get anywhere near that kind of savings or even find that many coupons, so I end up feeling like it's not worth my time somehow.”

What I tell people that express this feeling is this: If you get into couponing expecting to have those kinds of great savings week in and week out, you're probably going to end up disappointed. If you want to coupon, you need to have a more realistic expectation of what you, personally, can achieve and then work from there. Couponing is a great way to save money, but the people that are trotted out on these TV shows are not representative of the “average” couponer for four main reasons.

First, many of these super-couponers are not buying a true weeks' worth of food when they are being filmed. You won't usually find them buying milk, meat, eggs, cheese, produce, and fixings for a weeks' worth of dinners. Most of the time these people are stockpiling. Their cart is likely full of twenty boxes of pasta, ten boxes of cereal, ten packs of clearance meat, and tons of paper and beauty products. These are things that they have waited to go on sale, have amassed large numbers of coupons to use, and have waited to strike when there is a triple coupon promotion going on.

By combining sales and coupons they are able to get many of the products free or nearly so. However, this isn't stuff that they will use to feed a family for a week. It's stuff that will go into a pantry or freezer to be used as time goes by. While getting to the point where you can work the system like this is a good goal, many people can't do it because they don't have the kind of storage space necessary. If you were to follow one of these super couponers when they buy their “regular” perishable foods you'd find that they don't come close to getting a cart full of stuff for free.

Second, super couponers devote hours to planning their shopping trips and have no problem driving to multiple stores to get the best deals, all while figuring out what can be gotten for free by using rebate programs like CVS's Extra Care program. There's nothing wrong with this approach and it can save a lot of money. But most people don't have that kind of time or the inclination to plan that much. Most of us just want to go to one store, get in and get out. You can certainly still use coupons with this approach, but you won't get the same value out of them that someone who is willing to drive to multiple places and cherry pick the deals will.

Third, super couponers are fortunate to live in areas with multiple stores that have to compete for their business. If you live in an area with four or five large grocery chains, some super-centers and warehouse clubs, drugstores on every corner, and alternative food sources like outlets and Aldi's, you're going to be able to save a lot more than the person with one grocery store nearby. When there's a lot of competition, more stores double and triple coupons and have more aggressive sales to drum up business. When there's no competition, you have to take what you can get price-wise.

Fourth, super couponers are able to make use of Internet coupons. In addition to the coupons they get from the Sunday paper, they can print many more coupons for the same item, giving them big savings when they buy five tubes of toothpaste and have a coupon for each. Some of us are not so fortunate. There's not a store around here that routinely accepts Internet coupons. They used to, but fraud scared them off. Other areas are the same way. That avenue is simply closed to many people.

Being a super couponer who can get a cart full of groceries for nearly free is something that you can do if you are willing to devote the time and storage space to stockpiling, meal planning, and trotting to multiple stores to snag the best deals. If you're willing to treat shopping like a war with a battle plan, you can get a lot of things for free. If you live in an area with great stores, sales, and coupon policies, your job is even easier. However, most of us just don't want to put that kind of effort into it, or we don't live in an area where that kind of coupon use is even possible. And that's fine. You can still save with coupons.

It's not hard to save $30 or $40 per week with just the coupons from your Sunday paper and shopping at one store to buy your weekly necessities. No, it's not $500 in savings, but every little bit adds up. That $30 per week is $120 at the end of the month. You have to understand what is available in your area and then decide how much effort you're willing to put forth to reap some savings. Do you want to just clip a few coupons and call it quits? Do you have stores that make holding out for triple coupon day a good deal? Does any store near you take Internet coupons? Do you have a lot of time to plan meals, compare circulars, and hit multiple stores? Find the answers to these questions and you can figure out how much you can realistically expect to save.

Understanding how much you can do within the context of your daily life and where you live will give you a more realistic picture of the savings you can expect. No, you might not be able to get a cart full of food for free, but you can probably trim your bill by a decent amount. Just think of every coupon as if it were cash. That $1.00 coupon is a dollar bill. Even if you save no more than that one dollar, that's still a dollar you didn't have to part with. There's no need to get discouraged or feel like a failure just because you can't match the savings of someone on TV. Save what you can and be happy about it.

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