As the price of food keeps going up, it's getting harder for my family to justify the extra cost of buying organic and brand-name products over generic ones.
That's led us to take a fresh look at grocery coupons. A huge $201 billion worth of coupons was distributed last year for food and other common supermarket items, according to the PMA Coupon Council. But consumers redeemed just $2.2 billion, or about 1%, of these. Even a small sliver of these could help clip higher food prices, which the Agriculture Department this week said would rise between 4.5% and 5.5% this year, adding about $350 to a typical household's expenses.
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In an effort to get our hands on some of this free money, we tested some Web-based services that promise easy access to discount coupons. Some of the sites allow users to print coupons directly, while other services, for a fee, clip the coupons from newspaper inserts and mail them to you. And many manufacturers' own Web sites offer coupons for both new and popular products.
We were initially excited about printable coupons: free discount coupons that can be used instantly -- what's not to love? But the selection of printable coupons on these sites was disappointing -- there are more snacks than healthy food options -- and there were no search tools available to cut down on the mouse work. Clicking through antiperspirant and mouthwash coupons in search of something we could eat for dinner was even less fun than cutting out coupons from the Sunday paper, and without the funnies to read afterward.
Sites that offer to mail coupons to users require a little planning because it usually takes four or five days to receive them. The coupons are clipped from weekend newspaper inserts from around the country. When they run out of a particular coupon it disappears from the site until the next week, so we learned to visit the sites on Sunday and Monday for the best selections. Despite initial reservations about the snail-mail approach, the system worked well for us. The coupons arrived in time for our Saturday shopping trip, and keeping them in the envelope made them harder to lose.
Selection at mail-order sites was much more extensive than that of our local paper, including green cleaning products, brand-name goods and health foods. All the sites have search tools and arrange coupons by supermarket aisle -- meat department, dairy, etc. So we found it quicker to find and select the coupons online than to clip them on our own and clean up the paper cuttings after.
|Sites for Coupon Clippers|
|COUPON SERVICE||FEES||SELECTION||HEALTH- |
|50 cents per order plus 10% of the face value of each coupon. Shipping is 58 cents.||Very extensive||Yes||Our favorite site, for ease of use and its variety of organic-product coupons. Users can shop by department or via search tool.|
|centsoff.com||$7.50 annual membership fee plus $7.50 for up to 50 coupons.||Extensive||No||Good site, but it is only cost-effective if you use a large quantity of coupons.|
|smartsource.com, ppgazette.com, coolsavings.com||Free||These sites all link to the same coupons, which are skewed toward snacks and beauty products.||No||Coupons are printable. But with no search tool, locating coupons is time-consuming. Also, only one or two coupons print per page, so stock up on printer paper.|
|Your local Sunday newspaper||The cost of the newspaper.||Mostly lots of cleaning and beauty coupons.||No||Unless your local paper is your preferred Sunday read, you'll likely be stuck with wasteful newsprint to recycle or toss.|
|grocerycoupons.com, onlinecoupons.com, grocerycard.com||$9.95 a year for grocery |
coupons.com, and a whopping $99.95 a year for the others.
|Also, 10% of the face value of each coupon, and 75 cents for postage.||Fairly limited.||These sites all link to the same coupons. No Too much money for too little reward.|
Even if you aren't usually a coupon clipper, it may be worth searching for costly items at a manufacturer's own Web site. In our household, the cost of buying organic milk over regular milk can add $1.25 per half gallon. We googled "organic milk coupon" and were rewarded with free, printable $1-off coupons at organicvalley.com.
Among other high-end items that are worth a coupon search are vitamins and dietary supplements. Click on the Special Offers tab at vitamin-maker centrum.com, for instance. Or find discount coupons at the home pages of fiberone.com and caltrate.com, two popular nutritional-product makers. Such manufacturers' sites typically let users print out coupons directly from the Web site.
For general coupon hunting, our favorite site was thecouponclippers.com, a mail-order service based in Dade City, Fla. The site was easy to search and the selection was large, including a generous assortment of coupons for meats and health foods.
It was also the only site that consistently had coupons for organic milk, which made thecouponclippers.com the money-saving champion for our family. The site charged 50 cents for five $1 coupons for Stoneyfield organic milk, reducing our weekly milk bill to almost regular milk levels.
One section offers expired coupons that military families can still redeem in a program for U.S. bases overseas. And in case we over-order coupons in the future, we found a list of participating bases to send coupons to at www.ocpnet.org.
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Other mail-order services we tested charged a membership fee, so users need to be sure they will order enough coupons to make the initial cost worthwhile. Membership at centsoff.com was $7.50 a year, and there is a flat fee of $7.50 for up to 50 coupons. The coupon selection is extensive, but skewed toward frozen foods on the days we checked. They had coupons for soy milk, but no organic cow's milk.
Grocerycoupons.com, onlinecoupons.com and grocerycard.com are three mail-order services that all link to the same coupons. They also have the same company address in Knoxville, Tenn., and coupon mailing fees, but membership fees vary significantly. Grocerycoupons.com charges $9.95 a year for membership, while the other two charge a whopping $99.95. When we called customer service to find out why the huge difference in fees, a representative would say only: "Do the math, which would you rather pay?"
Among free services, smartsource.com, ppgazette.com and coolsavings.com all link to the same coupons. But with no search tools, finding our way around was time-consuming, even though the selections were limited.
Printing the coupons at the free sites was easy, but wasteful: Coupons usually print only one or two to a page. In order to print, we needed to download a free applet, after inputting personal information on a registration form. Unfortunately, at one site we tried to test, coupons.com, downloading the applet froze both a Mac and a PC, and we have yet to get back into the site. Suggestion: Check your computer for browser compatibility before installing the applet.