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Coupon Clippers Work A Little, Save A Bunch

By Kimberly Lord Stewart

Many of our regular expenses, from the mortgage or rent to utilities and car payments, barely budge from month to month. But when it comes to your groceries, you should be able to find some wiggle room - and save "a bunch" - says Stephanie Nelson, coupon-shopping expert and contributor to Good Morning America.

A common misconception is that you must shop at five different stores to save money, Nelson says. Given the fluctuating state of gas prices, driving all over town not only eats up precious time but also your fuel budget. For optimum savings, military families need to shop at only two places: your local commissary and, if you live off base, a conventional grocery store with a customer-friendly coupon program.

Commissary prices average at least one-third lower than conventional supermarket prices, says Bonnie Powell, chief of marketing for the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). Powell estimates that a family of four can save as much as $2,700 annually by shopping on base. She wants shoppers to remember two months - September and May - when DeCA sponsors case-lot sales that exceed 50 percent savings on commonly purchased items.

Commissary manager's specials, national promotions and coupons can drop the already-low prices by roughly half during almost any other month. For example, during the second week of December 2006, a 16-ounce box of General Mills Multi-Grain Cheerios was on sale at the commissary for 42 percent off the regular price. The very same week, General Mills offered dollar-off coupons. The same brand would have cost about $4.80 in a conventional store; with a coupon, the end price fell below $2 (prices and coupon values may vary).

With a bit of homework, servicemembers and their families who do not live near a commissary or military installation can save money at off-base stores, Nelson says. Most grocers will not advertise all the different ways customers can save money, she says, so you will have to do some homework. You can start by asking questions, such as:

1. Does the store double the value of coupons? A common misconception is that double-coupons are limited to one day a week, but this is not always true.

2. What is the policy for buy-one-get-one-free deals? Some stores charge the full price for one item, while others charge half-price for a single purchase.

3. Does the store accept competitor coupons and match competitor prices? If so, this can pare down your shopping choices to one store. For proof, always take your weekly flyer with you!

4. Can you combine competitor in-store coupons with those from the Sunday newspaper or online? Add the two and the final price can dwindle down to only a few cents.

DeCA has developed some useful online tools to help simplify your shopping. In addition to highlighting weekly specials at all locations, the DeCA website (www.commissaries.com) now boasts a virtual shopper tool with store diagrams and printable shopping lists. Federal law prohibits DeCA from listing prices; however, the site includes links to military shopping websites that contain sale prices and printable coupons.

Powell says the commissary will accept online coupons but, because of problems with counterfeit coupons, she asks shoppers to make certain their paper tender is valid. To avoid coupon fraud, download coupons from websites with secure software, such as www.coupons.com, www.smartsource.com and www.coolsavings.com. Some stores prefer to see the entire printed coupon page (with the URL) as proof that the coupons came from a reliable source.

For conventional grocers, Nelson and her staff will match up coupons and grocery store sale flyers in all 50 states at www.couponmom.com. Simply click on your state, your preferred store, the products you like and presto - you get a money-saving shopping list!

Looking for other ways to save on the cost of eating? Consider Entertainment Book (www.entertainment.com) and Restaurant.com (www.restaurant.com) for two-for-one dining certificates. Through Nelson's site, I paid $6 (normally $10) for a $25 restaurant certificate from Restaurant.com; the only caveat was to spend $35 total on food (not including alcohol, tax or tip; conditions vary). So I wound up paying $16 for a $35 meal for two.

It's hardly a free lunch but still a great deal on a nice restaurant meal!