By DAN SEWELL

CINCINNATI — With her household budget tightening, Michelle Fox treats couponing like getting a part-time job to help make ends meet. In her case, it's a job that pays about $20 an hour.

"Every little bit helps. It's something I do for my family," said the Pueblo, Colo., resident, who helps offset rising costs for her five-person household by spending a few hours each week scouring the Sunday newspapers and Internet sites for opportunities to save quarters and dollars per item.

Fox, whose full-time job is in a telecommunications company call center, has been a couponer for years, enduring snickers or grumbles from customers waiting in line behind her as she handed over fistfuls of coupons. But that's changing, she said. Now, people trying to cope with $4-a-gallon gas and higher grocery prices are asking her for tips on finding and using coupons.

The expanding availability of printable coupons online, of paperless digital coupons that can be accessed from cell phones and store loyalty cards, and an explosion of Web sites and bloggers focused on sharing coupon information are also feeding a comeback of what had been a fading Sunday tradition in American households. But it's mainly the economy that has people of more diverse ages and incomes clipping and clicking.

"That lackluster economy brings out the couponing tendency in all of us," said Sharon Baker, executive director of Shortcuts, a digital coupon distribution service started this year by Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.

Amid soaring fuel costs and a housing and credit crisis, Americans last year halted a 16-year trend of declining redemptions by turning in 2.6 billion manufacturers' coupons, according to CMS Inc., a coupon processing agent and promotions logistics service based in Winston-Salem, N.C. That marked the first year since 1992, when nearly 8 billion coupons were used, that redemptions had not fallen.

CMS says historical trends show coupon redemption rates rise when prices and unemployment are going up, so more coupon use is expected this year.

Coupons Inc., which specializes in offering printable online coupons, says usage trends spiked up last September.

"We saw a huge leap. We think consumers really started to feel the pinch then," said Steven Boal, founder and chief executive of the 10-year-old company. "We're just seeing the numbers continue to climb."

Stephanie Nelson, an Atlanta-area woman behind the "Coupon Mom" Web site that offers coupons, information and advice, said daily visits to her site have more than tripled this year to some 25,000 a day.

"People are seeking out ways to save money," she said. "Coupons are free money, if it's something you would buy anyway."

"You can't really cut the price of gas, but you can cut the cost of food in half," said Teri Gault, founder and CEO of TheGroceryGame.com, a site that helps users coordinate coupon use with supermarket and drug store sales to maximize savings.

About 100,000 now use the site, Gault said, and many of them signed up in just the past few months. She's also seeing more single professionals and double-income families logging on.

Coupons are also available in more ways than ever.

"It's really easy to print the coupons, especially if you're at a computer all day," said Julia Kozlov, a 32-year-old Los Angeles mother of two. She typically saves about $50 on an $80 bill, using mainly online coupons.

Another trend: a younger demographic getting involved in an activity traditionally dominated by 50-plus women.

"My generation is electronically based, so anything you can do by point and click, we're more likely to do," said Ariel Redmon, 23, a pharmacy student at the University of Kentucky and a regular couponer.

The trends aren't lost on retailers and manufacturers, who have increased coupon offerings. Companies such as consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co. and grocery store chain Kroger Co. have stepped up coupon offerings and are trying new delivery methods. P&G teamed up with Kroger late last year to offer paperless coupons online, and since then, both have expanded digital offers with other tie-ins such as with Shortcuts.

Kroger, which also offers Unilever coupons online, is trying out coupons via texting to cell phones through San Jose, Calif.-based Cellfire.com and looking at other new delivery methods, said Ken Fenyo, Kroger's vice president for corporate loyalty. The nation's largest traditional grocer credited drawing bargain-hunting shoppers with helping cause a 15 percent rise in profits and 12 percent increase in sales in its recent fiscal first-quarter earnings report.

"We're really just trying to experiment a lot, to find out what works for our customers," Fenyo said. "We've been very active, and we have seen really great response."

Digital coupons tend to have much higher usage rates than traditional paper coupons; as few as 1 percent of manufacturers' coupons usually are redeemed in a given year. Advertisers also are using coupons increasingly to attract attention to new products, and online coupons are helping them reach consumers more efficiently.

Coupons Inc. recently unveiled its "Brandcaster" system, targeting Web surfers with coupon offers that relate to the content they're viewing. For example, someone reading online about healthy food might see a coupon for organic milk. Participating companies include General Mills Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Kraft Foods Inc.