Concern over the rising cost of food and other consumables has led Americans to seek out effective money-saving measures. National Coupon Month serves as a friendly reminder that spending just 20 minutes a week clipping coupons can save a family of four close to $1,200 a year, according to a Promotion Marketing Association study.

First making its appearance in 1998, you have just one week left in September to celebrate National Coupon Month. Whether you shop at Albertsons, Fresh Market, Harmons, Macey’s, Sam’s Club, Smith’s Food and Drug, Walmart or Whole Foods, coupon shoppers have continued their frugality in a recovering economy.

Concern over the rising cost of food and other consumables has led Americans to seek out effective money-saving measures. National Coupon Month serves as a friendly reminder that spending just 20 minutes a week clipping coupons can save a family of four close to $1,200 a year, according to a Promotion Marketing Association study.

First making its appearance in 1998, you have just one week left in September to celebrate National Coupon Month. Whether you shop at Albertsons, Fresh Market, Harmons, Macey’s, Sam’s Club, Smith’s Food and Drug, Walmart or Whole Foods, coupon shoppers have continued their frugality in a recovering economy.

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Extreme coupon shopping can save big bucks

Concern over the rising cost of food and other consumables has led Americans to seek out effective money-saving measures. National Coupon Month serves as a friendly reminder that spending just 20 minutes a week clipping coupons can save a family of four close to $1,200 a year, according to a Promotion Marketing Association study.

First making its appearance in 1998, you have just one week left in September to celebrate National Coupon Month. Whether you shop at Albertsons, Fresh Market, Harmons, Macey’s, Sam’s Club, Smith’s Food and Drug, Walmart or Whole Foods, coupon shoppers have continued their frugality in a recovering economy.

The coupon itself dates back to 1886 and a handwritten one for Coca-Cola. While the most common coupon today is the manufacturer's coupon, digital coupons and promotional codes are fast becoming the norm. Providing a discount on a particular product is generally distributed by the manufacturer. Grocery stores routinely accept manufacturers' coupons as they receive reimbursement upon redemption, along with a processing fee.

“National Coupon Month is a great opportunity for consumers to take a look at their shopping habits and make sure they’re shopping as smart as they possibly can,” Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for The Real Deal by RetailMeNot, said. “It's a reminder that we are a frugal nation that likes to save money when we shop.”

Coupon distribution and use have increased substantially over the last several years. According to the PMA, over 89 percent of Americans admitted using coupons in 2012. The latest Shoppers Trend Report from RetailMeNot reports that nearly all Americans (96 percent) have admitted using a coupon in the last year. This growth expands on over 175 billion coupons offered by retailers in the first half of 2011, and builds upon the record-breaking trends of 2009 and 2010, when 311 billion and 330 billion coupons were distributed nationwide.

Most shoppers use the Sunday newspaper as their main source of grocery coupons. While grocery retailers allocate about 85 percent of their coupon distribution to a free-standing insert, Internet distribution has grown faster than all other sources combined. The most popular online printable coupon sites are Smart Source, Coupons.com, Valpak, The Krazy Coupon Lady, Money Saving Mom, P & G Everyday and Red Plum.

In the last few years, online digital coupons and promotional codes have become increasingly popular, providing incentives ranging from a percentage off discount to free postage. While over 88.9 million shoppers used digital coupons in 2011, according to eMarketer, it is predicted that over 55 percent of Americans will redeem a digital coupon or code at least once this year while shopping on the Internet. Smartphone or device users will exceed a 70 percent redemption rate.

A recent survey, though, has found that the use of traditional paper coupons has dropped about 15 percent over the past four years.

“The savvy shopper is more discount-focused than ever,” Lee Feldman, president of Pops Corn, said. “We have experimented in the past with discount codes and special offers through social media and found that shoppers not only expect them but demand them.”

Obtaining coupons is as simple as searching the Internet for your favorite product, brand or store and typing it and the term “coupon” into your browser. For instance, typing “Starbucks” and “coupon” into Google yields over 2,850,000 results. Most companies have a section for coupons, offers and special discounts. Printing the coupon or saving it to a smartphone app for redemption at the retailer is as easy as 1-2-3.

Whether you shop at Albertsons, Fresh Market, Harmons, Maceys, Sam’s Club, Smith’s Food and Drug, Walmart, or Whole Foods Market, each of these grocery retailers offer an online section for coupon policies, savings and store discounts.

Thousands of websites exist that allow coupon users to buy, sell, and/or trade coupons. Although illegal and frowned upon by eBay, this popular auction site has become number one in coupon sales. Some of my personal favorites are Jill Cataldo, Super-Couponing, RetailMeNot, Coupon Dad, Coupon Cabin, CouponMom and FatWallet.

When it comes to “deal-of-the-day” discounts, Groupon, LivingSocial, Amazon Local, Angie’s List, EverSave, GottaHalfIt and DoubleTakeDeals are the industry leaders.

“As a recently divorced mother of two, clipping coupons and saving money has become increasing more important,” Ruth Swissa Kline, clinical director for Bridges to Change in Fort Lauderdale, said. “From the behavioral perspective, there has to be something said to walking out of the grocery store with a basket full of groceries for next to nothing.”

Speaking of mothers, Plum District is an e-commerce platform focused strictly on moms, providing them with trusted recommendations and community discounts.

Restaurant.com is my personal favorite for gift certificates when dining out. With over 18,000 restaurants nationwide and more than 50,000 daily gift certificate options, customers have saved over $500 million since program inception. Restaurant.com frequently offers deeply discounted promotional codes for loyal e-mail subscribers and Facebook friends.

With the exception of those in the military, a common misconception among Americans is that coupon clippers have low incomes, are unemployed, disadvantaged or struggling financially even as the economy improves.

“Military service has certainly taught me new budgeting skills,” Remington Longstreth of Fort Benning, Georgia, said. “Extreme coupon shopping in my family is more sport than hobby. The savings, though, are tremendous.”

According to the Nielsen Co., white women under the age of 54 with incomes exceeding $70,000 a year are the biggest coupon clippers. Contradicting preconceived notions, these women are defined as being “heavy coupon users.”

For those who indulge, coupon clipping means additional retained income — essentially free money — and a new hobby that could be hard to break. According to the Nielsen report, “better educated and more affluent consumers are much better at looking for deals, as they recognize the value of money.” With grocery bills exceeding 13 percent of an average family budget, coupon clipping can improve their quality of life.

Between the printed coupon insert, online coupon or digital code, finding the right coupon for a specific product has become a simple measure. Using them to their full potential, though, can be a challenging experience. Redeemed on a regularly priced product, coupons save money, but combining them with sales or BOGO’s will save substantially more. The savvy shopper will hold coupons and use them on “stacked” specials that result in huge savings or even a free item.

Not found clipping grocery coupons are the consumers who could benefit the most. A recent study found that fewer than 2 percent of shoppers making less than $20,000 a year clip and save. Coupon clipping among those receiving food stamps or SNAP benefits remains at less than 5 percent.

On the other hand — and in a category in which I squarely belong — the coupon savings is much more dramatic. As a “coupon enthusiast,” I frequently “stack” my way to a great money saving deal, earning money back on a BOGO item using a manufacturer’s coupon for each, then combining a competitor coupon or double coupon offer. “If it’s free — it’s for me” easily works for me.

Coupon enthusiasts are in love with their coupons and use them with such frequency that it has become a way of life. Using in excess of 208 coupons a year, coupon enthusiasts accounted for 66 percent of all coupon usage in 2013 and 21 percent of all purchases. The avid coupon user was known for making approximately 20 percent of all grocery purchases.

Simply stated, approximately 22 percent of shoppers are responsible for 83 percent of all grocery coupons redeemed. Aside from coupon enthusiasts and heavy coupon users, the remaining 78 percent of shoppers used just 17 percent of all coupons redeemed.

Whether the traditional paper version or the increasingly popular online digital coupon or promotional code, coupons represent free money and are here to stay. Even in a recovering economy, “if it’s free — it’s for me” is part of my vocabulary and here to stay.

Bill Lewis of Fort Lauderdale is a radio talk show host, Starbucks connoisseur, social media whiz, political consultant, identity theft expert, columnist, extreme coupon shopper, philanthropist and his kids’ dad.