Coupon contest

You can win $250 by showcasing your couponing skills. Go to www.postandcourier.com/savvyshopper for contest details.

It's Wednesday and Leigh Ann Garrett of West Ashley begins her day driving to a Mount Pleasant convenience store to purchase a newspaper. She is in search of the highly coveted Harris Teeter coupon that gives $10 off a purchase of $40 or more.

"If you go too late in the mornings, places will be sold out. No doubt about it," she said, adding that papers are usually sold out by 10 a.m. The coupons are inserted into newspapers only in the Mount Pleasant area.

Unlike many customers, Garrett said she purchases only one paper because she wants others to be able to get them as well.

"I'm an ethical couponer," she said. "I don't want someone going in at 7 a.m. and buying all 20 newspapers that a store has -- that is not fair."

Using coupons, Garrett is able to keep her weekly grocery budget to less than $50 for herself, her 16-month-old daughter, Mollie, and husband Matt.

The couponing craze has taken off in recent years, no doubt fueled by a weak economy and efforts by businesses to provide incentives to pull customers into stores. In the first six months of 2011, consumers saved $2 billion using coupons, according to the U.S. Mid-year 2011 Consumer Packaged Goods

Coupon Facts Report, released by NCH Marketing Services Inc.

This statistic doesn't surprise Jill Cataldo, a national couponing expert whose weekly column appears in The Post and Courier and other publications. Even though more coupons are being printed than ever before, she said, as much as 98 percent of them go unredeemed.

"It seems like everyone is using coupons right now, but the reality of it is, unfortunately, not everyone is doing it," she said.

Why? Mostly due to misconceptions, Cataldo said. To some, couponing seems like a waste of time. Others find the process of searching out and clipping coupons an intimidating chore. Many feel they'll end up with unnecessary items, and yet others worry about needing a lot of storage space.

All untrue, said Cataldo, adding that couponing is all about saving money:

"It's free money. It's tax-free, you're cutting your bill down on things that you would buy anyway and you're getting better prices."

Believe it -- it works

Cataldo, whose "Super-Couponing Tips" column runs in 130 newspapers each week, said her couponing goal is to cut her grocery bill in half or better each shopping trip.

The Chicago mother of three said she spends about 30 to 60 minutes a week planning her shopping trips.

"Nothing makes me cringe more than when I see the show ("Extreme Couponing") and people say, 'I spend 40 hours a week couponing,' " she said.

Teri Bennett of Johns Island agrees. After couponing for a few months, she perfected a system that helps her save 70 percent to 80 percent -- sometimes as much as 100 percent -- on everything she buys for her household.

"Once you get a system down, it's a lot less time consuming," Bennett said. "Now that I'm in the swing of things, I don't have to spend near the amount of time I used to."

Bennett's average weekly grocery bill is $50 to $60 for her family of four. Most of the time is spent organizing her trip, and it doesn't take her very long to shop.

How it works

To save big, Bennett said people must forget about brand loyalty. Buy the store brands when possible.

Her family has tried a lot of new and different products. "Things I never would've spent money on before. When they're on sale or I'm paying a quarter for it, I'm more likely to try it out."

However, when a brand-name product goes on sale, stock up. "A name-brand item on sale with a coupon will beat a store brand price every day."

Being successful at couponing also requires knowing where to find, and how to organize, coupons.

"Your main source of coupons is going to be the Sunday (newspaper) circular," Bennett said. "You have to spend the $2 on the paper, but it's going to save you sometimes over $100."

She also finds electronic coupons online and is always on the lookout in stores for tear pads, coupon booklets and "blinkies," which are machines that distribute coupons. Bennett also interacts with manufacturers directly by phone or via the Internet. They often send her coupons just for getting in touch with them.

Bennett, a home-schooling mother of two and blogger for Charleston Savvy Shopper, never throws away coupons, even for products she doesn't use because they might come in handy later on when that item is on sale.

Bennett's schedule affords her the flexibility and time to shop. She uses coupons and shops sales at a variety of stores, including drugstores and discount department stores. Many personal-care and cleaning products cost less at drugstores.

For those new to couponing, Cataldo recommends focusing on one drugstore and one grocery store.

"Most people don't chase store to store," she said, "although some people love that chase. But you have to factor the price of gas into it as well."

Another tip to remember, said Cataldo, is that a store sales cycle is in six- to 12-week increments. During that time, a product will hit a high-end price and a low-end price. For example, a jar of pasta sauce might hit a high of $2.99 and a sale price low of 99 cents.

"Logic would dictate I should only buy it when it is 99 cents, regardless of whether I have a coupon or not because it's a third of the (regular) price," she said. "I'm also going to buy a little bit in quantity.

"I don't have any rooms in my house filled with groceries, but I know my store is on a 12-week cycle, so I'm going to buy 12 jars of (on sale) pasta sauce if we want to eat it once a week. But I'm also not buying it again for the next three months."

There are a number of websites that provide consumers with easy access to information about sales cycles, and they match sales to available coupons.

Southernsavers.com, for example, is a Columbia-based website that rapidly has become a go-to place for couponers in the Southeast.

Jenny Martin, the website's founder, said finding coupons isn't difficult. Digging out deals is even easier, once you are wired.

A Google search will reveal hordes of couponing sites. Two that are good for anyone starting out are www.super-couponing.com and www.couponmom.com.

Organizing and storing

Once you find the coupons, organizing them is a matter of personal preference, said Martin. People shouldn't feel obligated to be super-organized with coupon binders and the like, she said. Do what works best.

Cataldo agreed. Experienced couponers usually just keep coupon inserts whole, only clipping what's needed for that week's shopping trip.

"I detest the binder," she said. "That's kind of the old way of doing things. Most of us are using a clip-less method. We try to cut the planning time down as much as possible."

The best way to keep your coupon- fueled purchasing under control is to watch for sales, said Cataldo. Estimate how much you will use during the store's sale cycle and purchase accordingly.

"You don't have to go overboard," she said. "Just buy a little bit more than your needs -- anticipating what you will need. The exception to that is if something is a really good deal and is completely nonperishable, like toilet paper, detergent or paper towels, and you have the space. Stock up on that item because you don't have to worry about expiration dates."

Bennett also uses the "smart stockpile" technique, taking advantage of buy-one-get-one-free sales.

"Some places will tell you a 12-week supply, but I find it hard to stock that much stuff. In a normal house, I don't know where you're going to store that much supply. You'd have to get really crafty."

Reach Shannon Brigham at 958-7393. Visit her on Facebook .

Individual stores handle coupons differently. It can also be helpful to take a copy of the policy with you to the store. Johns Island mom and couponer Terri Bennett said she’s noticed store policies have changed a lot over the past several years. It’s important to know the store’s policy

“Sometimes it’s a benefit to couponers, and sometimes it’s not,” she said.

Click the links below to find out each store's coupon policy:

Publix

Walmart

BI-LO

Harris Teeter

CVS

Walgreens

Rite Aid

Family Dollar

Some quick statistics on coupon clippers:

96% still would use coupons even if they won the lottery.

92% indicate they are using coupons for groceries.

81% are using more coupons.

73% are planning more prior to shopping.

60% spend up to two hours looking for coupons, deals and savings from print sources.

31%spend three or more hours each week online looking for deals, up 265% from 2010. Mobile couponing is gaining popularity with the under-50 set.

2011 RedPlum Purse String Study of more than 23,000 respondents