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Sure, it's not very flattering to pull out a key chain full of not only keys, but also those cards from all the stores you visit, often and not so often.

But there's a reason grocery stores and other retailers still use them: they give you "perks."

Here are my favorite ways to use them.

1. You pay less when you use a loyalty card. Whether it's called a "club price" or a "thank you price," you'll notice there's often a different price for loyalty card members. Consider it a discount; you pay less if you're a loyal member. For example, at Fry's grocery stores, your "VIP" card rings you up at a lower total because of sale items. If you don't use it, you pay full price.

2. Loyalty cards are like memberships, and memberships have rewards. Some grocery stores track what you buy each time you swipe your loyalty card and sometimes they reward you by sending you coupons for the items you buy often. Others may allow you to accumulate points with your purchases, which you can then cash in for additional discounts, cash or free items. For example, at Safeway, the "Just for U" program remembers what you buy and will give you extra savings at checkout.

3. The more you go, the more you save. If you like to go to only one pizza place or one coffee shop, this one's for you. You've seen them, the little card the cashier stamps or punches a whole in. You get rewarded for being a loyal customer. For example, at Papa Murphy's, you'll get a free pizza once you get 12 stamps on your "Take ĎN' Bake" club card. Problem is, it might take you a while before you get your free pizza. After about a year, I'm on number 10.

4. Use your card, save on gas. It's nothing new, everyone wants to save a buck on gas. So why not take advantage of discounts at the pump when you shop. Whether it's using a credit card that rewards you by giving you cash back on gas purchases or a store card that lets you add up points and cash them in for gas discounts, it's worth using.

For example, at Fry's, you earn one point for every dollar you spend, before coupons. Once you have 100 points, you can go to a Shell or Fry's gas station and get $0.10 off per gallon. At Fry's gas stations, you can use up to $1 off per gallon, depending on how many points you have.

5. Buy gift cards, save on gas. To piggy back on #4, some grocery stores like Fry's and Safeway will run promotional periods where they'll double or even quadruple the points you get on your loyalty card if you buy gift cards.

For example, say you have a favorite place you and your family love to go for dinner. Before you head to the restaurant pick up a gift card for that restaurant at the grocery store. If you buy $100 worth, you get 100 points, which will take 10 cents off per gallon at the pump for that store's gas station.

Watch for promotional periods.

Whenever a store rolls out their 4x the points promotion, I stock up on Subway gift cards, since I know I'll go to Subway a couple times a month. A $25 gift card will get you 100 points = $0.10 off per gallon. And when the holidays come around, that's when you should really take advantage of this promotion.

6. Some loyalty cards remember you. When it comes to home projects and renovations, chances are you'll have to go to the hardware store more than once and pick up extras of an item. But what if it's been months since you last bought that item and now you can't find the receipt?

Your loyalty card can help you remember exactly what you got. Lowe's is a good example. By using your loyalty card, it keeps track of all your purchases so you know exactly what shade of green you got last time you bought that can of paint.

7. When you travel, it pays to be loyal. Almost all major hotel chains have some sort of loyalty program. These are ideal for the frequent business traveler or for those who take vacations often. Some accumulate points for each dollar spent, others offer discounts, perks or free nights with several visits. Airlines also have loyalty programs rewarding their customers with various levels of added savings and rewards for using the same airline each time.

8. Link different loyalty cards to get paid to shop. With the advances in the mobile age, the app world has exploded. There are some, like "Savingstar" that will pay you back part of what you spend with your loyalty card. See my previous post.

9. Fill your prescription: get rewarded using your loyalty card. Pharmacies are looking for ways to keep your business. And if you fill one up often, why not get some perks out of it? After all, chances are filling that prescription is non-negotiable. At CVS pharmacy for example, you get $5 extra care bucks for every 10 prescriptions you fill. It prints in the form of a coupon at the end of your receipt that you can use on your next purchase.

10. Use your loyalty card to pay for college. OK, there isn't a loyalty card you can swipe to get discounted college tuition, yet. But there are programs that help you plan your future or the future of your kids using the purchases you make every day. For example, you can create an account at "Upromise," where you'll earn money for shopping at certain retailers, eating at participating restaurants, buying at the grocery store or making referrals. You can then put those earnings toward a high-yield savings account, a tax deferred plan, pay down a student loan or cash in a check to pay for expenses. No plastic loyalty card necessary. It's all online.

Of course, with everything, keep in mind there are disadvantages to using loyalty cards. Your personal information could be at risk of being tracked, shared or misused. Poor planning can lead you to spend more on unnecessary purchases in an effort to get more rewards. And remember, not everything works for everyone. Find the reason that works for you and stick with it, and watch the savings add up.

Martha Maurer, News Editor

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