Not everyone is paying more for their groceries this year. In fact, a bad economy is fueling a robust trade in coupons.
The use of coupons had been in a long, steady decline until last year — when food prices started to climb.
Coupons require some investment of time and organization, though technology is making that process a little simpler. Web sites and plenty of blogs offer tips and links to online coupons. There are now 36 million people who use Internet coupons, or nearly quadruple the number from three years ago, according to a study released in July by Simmons/Experian Research and Coupons Inc.
Meanwhile, some companies are sending out text-message coupons that arrive to your cell phone. And sites like AOL's shortcuts.com make it possible to load coupons on customer loyalty cards, which means going paperless.
Many people are starting to show renewed interest in coupon strategies, according to Kim Danger, a family savings expert who consults for the Web site coupons.com and also runs her own site, mommysavers.com.
Danger says she's personally cut as much as 70 percent off some grocery bills — including one deal on two racks of ribs she recently scored for $6, instead of the original price of $20.
While coupons are largely considered practical, there are some advanced couponers who've come to consider it more of an art form. And a game.
Erin Gifford, of Ashburn, Va., managed to cut a grocery bill that feeds six down by half, to $500 a month. She's set up a system that involves checking circulars and matching sale items with good coupons. She tries to maximize savings by going to stores that double or even triple her coupons. And she keeps a log of prices of items at all the stores, so she can track where the real values are.
"You get this high, it's just so fun," says Gifford, a working mother of three who in her spare time also writes a blog to document all her conquests. Her husband, she says, is supportive of saving money, but doesn't get her new hobby. "A, he wouldn't use coupons. And B, he'd mess up my system," she says. Sure enough, she recently sent him to rent a movie with a dollar-off coupon, and he failed to execute the deal, she says.
Coupons date back to the late 19th century, when a drug store started using them to promote Coca-Cola, and C.W. Post used them to promote Grape Nuts cereal, according to the Promotion Marketing Association.
During the Depression in the 1930s, coupon use became a mainstay of many American households. The peak year for coupons was 1992, when nearly 8 billion coupons, worth an average of 60 cents each, were redeemed for a total of almost $5 billion in savings. Since then, coupon usage has declined at an annual rate of between 5 percent and 7 percent, according to the research firm CMS. In 2007, 2.6 billion coupons, worth an average of $1.06 each, were redeemed for a total of nearly $3 billion in savings.