Can you really save 90% on food bills?

Everyone likes a bargain but the world of extreme couponing takes it to a whole new level.

Coupons are the savvy supermarket shopper's best friend. Around half of us now take them with us on our weekly shop as the price of food creeps steadily higher.

While many of us think we've done well cutting 10% off our bill, a small group are determined to squeeze every last penny out of all the discounts and promotions available. In the US, "extreme couponing" fans claim that they can save as much as 90% through careful planning, a strong resolve to avoid impulse buying - and a huge wad of coupons.

These are painstakingly collected from newspapers, direct mailings, discount voucher websites and newsletters and cross matched with in store promotions so they end up getting hundreds of dollars worth of goods for free and paying the smallest amount possible for everything else.

Ideally you only end up forking out on the things you actually need while paying nothing for the goods you don't need.

[See also: 10 ways to save at the supermarket]

Hard graft

While this sounds great in theory, in reality it requires hours — even days — of preparation and the patience of a saint as you circle the store loading several trolleys with armfuls of goods. Extreme couponing fans say it works particularly well for health and beauty products, cereal, pet food, baby care items and cleaning products.

Most rely on certain tactics: To get the most out of coupons you often need to double them — that is use those from both manufacturer and the supermarket on one item. Some US stores also let you use buy one get one free coupons on a buy one get one free deal essentially getting the items for free.

It helps that coupons are very much part of the shopping experience in the US and a huge amount of them are readily available. Around 21 billion coupons were in circulation last year with shoppers saving £3.7 billion.

Oliver Felstead, sales and marketing director at Couponstar, told Yahoo! Finance: "There's a tremendous culture for coupons. No one gets frustrated if someone is slowing down the check-out because they're using them too. There's no taboo that people are using them because of financial hardship."

Changing times

In the UK, attitudes towards coupons are changing as shoppers try to cut their spending. According to Couponstar, the market grew by 17% last year with 537 million coupons worth £500 million redeemed. Supermarkets are also getting better at profile building through the use of loyalty cards to tailor discounts to each shopper's needs.

Jo Challis of Beforeishop.co.uk, a website which lists all the latest coupons from manufacturers and supermarkets, says shoppers are increasingly going online to print off individual coupons. "Consumers want power and control and they only select what they are interested in."

While there's generally no difference in the terms and conditions of coupons in the US and the UK, the coupon markets are very different. The US may have more coupons which cover almost every product on the shelf but they are usually of lower value. They also tend to avoid offering freebies like they do in the UK.

Couonstar's Felstead says the US market is much more fragmented with its multitude of retailers and brands which creates opportunities for people to exploit coupons. In the UK, it's much easier to differentiate campaigns so coupons will not usually be issued while other promotions are running.

Although there could be the potential for a small amount of double discounting then it wouldn't be anywhere near the levels of that in the US.

Then there's the whole difference in the mentality of shoppers. "Extreme couponing can't and won't develop in the same way in the UK as it has in the US," Felstead said.

"Extreme couponing behaviour would be frowned upon by others in the queue and by the shop's management. It's fine when people use coupons in the spirit of goodwill for which they're intended but not when they take advantage."

Protecting the system

The use of barcodes in the UK helps prevent abuse of the system although whether or not a coupon is accepted generally comes down to the cashier and individual store policies. Usually there's no limit to the number of vouchers you can use, although terms and conditions often state that you can only use one coupon for each item in your basket in each transaction.

However, UK supermarkets have clamped down on the improper use of coupons in recent years. At some stores, you used to be able to get money off your final bill even if you hadn't bought the product the coupon was intended for as the supermarket could still claim back the cash from the manufacturer. In October 2009 Tesco overhauled its policy so shoppers have to abide by the coupon's terms and conditions.

Couponstar, which oversees 80% of internet printable coupons, says it's possible to track an individual shopper's footprint across all of their websites so they can spot those who are abusing the system as much as suggesting the most relevant coupons based on a shopper's history.

Price guarantees backfire

Intense competition between supermarkets has also opened up new avenues for shoppers to get the best deal on their shopping.

Tesco recently came a cropper after its Price Check pledge to give customers double the difference if comparable products were cheaper in Asda. Some shoppers scooped more than £100 in vouchers after using online comparison sites to search for the products with the biggest price gaps although Tesco has now introduced a £20 limit.

[See also: Shoppers cash in on Tesco price pledge blunder]

In April the supermarket relaunched its Clubcard Voucher Exchange which allows you to trade in Clubcard vouchers in multiples of £5, £10 and £20 from any statement for a token worth twice the amount which can then be spent in specific departments. So a £5 voucher becomes a £10 token which can then be spent on clothing, beauty products, garden and BBQ equipment or Pampers.

There are other ways to get goods for nothing - in return for a little time and effort. Some manufacturers will occasionally run "try me for free" deals which give you your money back if you send in the receipt. Meanwhile websites such as foodfreebies.co.uk allow you to get products for free sent through to your home.

Savvy supermarket shopping is all about buying what you want and need at the cheapest prices and when used carefully, coupons are a useful way to save cash. If you are planning an American style coupon coup then you'd better clear out space in the garage and get down to some serious planning before all those vouchers hit their use-by dates.

The easy way to save

Even if you don't have the time or inclination to hunt down hundreds of coupons and money off deals, you can still substantially reduce the cost of your shop with a little preparation. Here are our top tips for spending less in the supermarket:

  • Sign up to newsletters and twitter feeds from the supermarkets and discount voucher sites for the latest money off codes
  • Compare the price of your shopping basket from Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Ocado on websites such as mysupermarket.com
  • Free smartphone apps such as Red Laser and Vouchercloud can help you check prices and access vouchers on the move
  • Carry whatever coupons you have picked up in your bag or wallet
  • Always use your Nectar card or Clubcard wherever possible

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