The spectacular sport of coupon-clipping has been practiced in homes around the nation for more than a century. In 1894, Coca-Cola revolutionized the marketplace with handwritten tickets for a free glass of soda in order to encourage tastings of its new pop. Just one year later, grocery guru Post jumped on board with a $0.01 off coupon to boost sales of its healthy cereal, Grape Nuts. The consumer-friendly move paid off big for both grocery giants, encouraging many other companies, large and small, to follow suit and prompting many individuals to begin sharpening their best scissors.

In the 1930s couponing became a necessity as families struggled to pay for their groceries during the Depression. By 1965 despite economic improvement, half of all American households were still clipping coupons. By 1997 that number climbed to 83 percent. Although coupon usage declined slightly in the early 2000s, as the economy weakened in the latter part of the decade, couponers got back in the clipping habit. A whopping 9 percent jump in coupon redemption was seen between 2008 and 2009. It appears that couponing is negatively correlated to the economy. When cash flow is low, coupon redemption rates grow.

With terms like “financial crisis” and “the great crash” being used to describe today’s economy, Americans are clipping coupons like crazy. Totaling an annual savings of $3.6 billion and 4.5 billion coupons redeemed, to be exact. That’s a lot of coupons clipped and a lot of silver saved. Stereotypes and labels like “extreme couponing moms” lead one to assume that only stay-at-home moms or lower income earning individuals are the ones redeeming coupons. However, that is hardly the case. In fact, 69 percent of men use coupons, and statistics show that the higher the income the higher the coupon redemption rates.

So what is so great about couponing that the vast majority of Americans go to the trouble of clipping, organizing and redeeming these tiny slips of paper? The savings can be huge, so huge that your grocery bill can be cut in half or more. This frees up funds that can be set aside to pay off debt, cut back on work hours to spend more time with family, or splurge on items that would have otherwise been out of the question.

Intrigued? If so, here’s some insight into the science behind the savings. These step-by-step directions allow you to join the millions of people savings thousands of dollars on their grocery bills each year.

Collect Coupons

In today’s world, coupons are everywhere. They can be found in newspaper circulars, magazines, direct mail pieces, on the Internet and in your email, in product boxes, on grocery store shelves and on your grocery store receipt.

When it comes to newspapers, it is best to buy the regional papers with the largest circulation. The Raleigh News & Observer, for example, is an excellent source of coupons. Buy it local, though, because mailed subscriptions do not include coupon inserts. Look for distribution boxes at BrunswickCounty area gas stations or retailers, or reserve a copy at your local bookstore.

Another great place to find a large selection of coupons is the Internet. Sites like www.coupons.com and www.smartsource.com feature regularly updated coupons to click and print. If that’s not easy enough, there are even coupon databases like www.afullcup.com that, when searched for a particular product, will show you all of the places where the product-specific coupons can be found: Internet links, magazine issues, newspaper circulars, direct mail pieces, etc. If you can’t find the coupon that you need (or enough of them) in newspapers or on the Internet, go straight to the source. Contact the manufacturer via phone or email, tell them how wonderful their laundry detergent is, how your family uses it regularly because it is the only brand that makes their skin soft and itch-free. Most  manufacturers will mail or email you product coupons, sometimes very high in value, as a thank you for being a loyal customer. This is an excellent way to get great coupons on high-dollar items like organic foods and household and healthcare products.

Always scour your magazines for the few coupons that can be hidden in product ads, and don’t forget to check inside your cereal boxes and other food containers for coupons printed inside the box. And when you are at the grocery store, keep an eye out for “blinkies” and “tear pads.” Coupons can be found blinking at you from the store shelf, in the form of notepads placed on product displays in the middle of the aisle, and even on your way out as they print directly onto your store receipt.

Get Organized

Once you have a collection of the various forms of coupons, you will want to organize them so that they can easily be found when needed. There are three common ways to keep the coupon clutter to a minimum.

The No-Cut System

This is the most popular system for beginners, as it requires the least amount of time to maintain. Get a large, 13-pocket accordion file. When you buy a paper, put that week’s inserts in one pocket and write the date on the tab. Each week, fill the next pocket. This way, when a coupon is referenced by insert date, you will simply pull the inserts from that dated pocket. The drawback to this system is that, for one, it assumes that you are only utilizing newspaper inserts as your coupon source. And, two, if you are searching for a coupon for, say “cheese” in general, you must search through all of your inserts page by page to locate to best cheese coupon. The other systems rectify this problem, while also requiring more of your time.

The Cut and Categorize System

With this system, a small accordion folder, also known as a cancelled check file, or a small box with dividers is utilized. Each divider represents a section in the grocery store: dairy, frozen, rices/pastas, etc. Every coupon that you collect is clipped and filed into its respective category. This system takes longer, as you do cut each coupon out rather than simply filing whole insert. However, finding a cheese coupon is easier, as you simply look in the “dairy” category to see all related coupons.

The Crazy Couponer System

This is the system that is the most time-intensive and only utilized by the most extreme of couponers. Coupons are clipped from various sources, lumped into categories like the Cut and Categorize System, but this time, the coupons are placed into baseball card sleeves and stored in a three-ring binder separated by category tabs. The benefit to this system is for those who are visual. Having the coupons laid out on pages helps to quickly locate the coupon needed. The time spent to place each coupon within each slot is intense and can result in an uncomfortable condition called “coupon neck,” but the payoff of time saved in the end is great.

Start Saving

With coupons collected and organized in the manner that best fits your needs and personality, the next step is to start saving. The key to saving money with coupons is to change your shopping strategy. First, always shop with a pre-written list. And, second, on that list should only be items that are on sale. Never, ever pay full price. A sale item, when paired with a coupon, can bring the price down significantly, sometimes resulting in free, or nearly free, products.

Once the item is on sale and you have a coupon to match, buy as much as you can of that particular product. This is called stockpiling. Once you have been through a few cycles of this process, which typically takes at least six months, you will have a fully stocked kitchen. Ideally, at that point, your only weekly needs will be milk, bread, produce or other necessities, as well as that week’s sale items to maintain your stockpile.

How do you know what to buy, when to buy it and what coupon to use? Fortunately, there are hundreds of websites that do the hard work for you. Sites like www.SouthernSavers.com and www.Hip2Save.com  publish the  sale lists of several major grocery chains each week upon announcement of the specials. With the sale list, these sites also publish corresponding coupons to pair with the sale items. Coupons are referenced by newspaper or magazine publication date, specific direct-mail flyer and even include links directly to the online coupons available. Assuming that you never buy a newspaper, call a manufacturer or check your mail, and only rely on the website sale lists with Internet coupon links, you can still have an aggressive couponing career.

The good thing about couponing today is that no matter how much or little time you have, there is an option available to you that will still result in great savings. Even if you never clip a coupon in your lifetime, you can still save approximately half of your grocery bill by simply shifting your shopping habits. Buy only what is on sale, coupon or no coupon. If you choose to add coupons to the mix, your savings will skyrocket even further. Shopping smart will cut hundreds of dollars off your bill each month, allowing you to save more and stress less.

 Great Savings Sources:

SouthernSavers.com

Hip2Save.com

AFullCup.com

Savvydollar.org

HotCouponWorld.com

Coupons.com

Smartsource.com