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Extreme couponing has hurt the average coupon clipper. Although finding coupons is a snap in the Internet age, new limitations prevent shoppers from replicating the savings showcased on programs like Extreme Couponing. Moreover, some methods flaunted in the broadcast media were actually fraudulent and fake coupons have circulated. Still, there is value to be snatched in couponing and best couponing lessons to be learned.

We're not advocating devoting an entire room to store free and very cheap goods. But a smart approach to couponing can pay off big. Instead of following in the footsteps of obsessive couponers, a savvier approach adheres to the 80/20 method. That is, focus your energy on the 20 percent of couponing techniques that result in 80 percent of the savings.

For example, the best way to save money without spending too much time on the process involves checking the local weekend newspaper and a coupon website weekly for discounts on staples and other items the household uses and enjoys. As Mary Potter Kenyon, an inveterate couponer and author of Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession, points out, savings on groceries will be maximized when coupons and sales overlap. (Money Saving Queen lists available matchups at several stores each week.) Just remember to buy only what you need; it's all too easy to squander coupon savings on surplus goods just because they're on sale.

Kenyon now leads couponing seminars and lays out a few ground rules for online coupon shoppers. "Always search for a coupon or promo code for the site," she advises, which frequently results in a discount with less than a minute worth of effort. She also urges consumers to "always go through Ebates," a site that rewards shoppers who link through the site by returning a percentage of the purchase price (in cash). Several similar sites also exist and shoppers can go to Ev'reward to discover which offer the biggest returns.

The desire of some extreme couponers to track down and get hold of free goods even when they have no need for them is, from Kenyon's perspective, a waste of energy. Storing 500 tubes of toothpaste obtained for next to nothing (or, in fact, nothing) demands lots of storage space and the planning required to create that stockpile is better directed elsewhere. Kenyon admits to having fallen into this trap herself and writes in her book that "the savings were sometimes only an illusion…Deal shopping could have the potential of taking valuable time from something else in a person's life, like their husband, family, or other hobbies."

If the importance of couponing stems from the associated activities shared with friends, family, and the community of enthusiasts rather than from the potential or realized savings, it could be viewed as a hobby. Indeed, many wealthy couponers who have little need for the savings or the products frequently donate their finds to charities. Even when couponing serves as a true leisure pursuit, shoppers should beware of the psychological effect of scoring big discounts and free items. Bluntly put: Avoid being sucked in.

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