When you first start couponing, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by sales cycles, sales-to-coupon matching and expiration dates. It's definitely a big shift from the "old" way of shopping -- buying what you want or need for the current week, regardless of price. This week we hear from a newbie:

Q: As a new couponer, I am trying to do my best to save money. After I made my first purchase with coupons, I realized I might not be using them for optimal savings.

A: This is one of the most common mistakes new coupon shoppers make. They get the newspaper, cut out the coupons and take those coupons to the store in the same week. With a few exceptions, the week a coupon appears in the paper is typically not the best week to use it.

To get the most value from coupons, it's important to realize that prices of products in stores fluctuate in a fairly consistent pattern. Savvy coupon shoppers never pay the regular, nonsale price for an item they wish to buy. They understand that from week to week, the price of an item will vary widely. Sale prices can dip as deep as 50 percent to 65 percent off the regular price; that is the best time to buy the item if you want it. Move in with a coupon, and you cut that good price even more.

When I teach the concept of sales cycling to students in my Super-Couponing workshop, some seem to have trouble with the idea that prices do change that much at the store. They assume that a pack of paper towels or a gallon of juice costs about the same every day. But that's not true.

Imagine you need to buy a new car. The car you wish to buy usually costs $25,000. In a few weeks, the dealer will put the car on sale for $12,500. Also, the manufacturer is offering a $3,000 incentive to buy the car this month. If you buy the car today, you will pay $22,000. But if you wait for the half-off sale to use the incentive, you'll pay just $9,500!

If you know a sale is coming and that it will involve a significant discount, wouldn't you wait to buy? This is the game we play when we grocery shop each week. Prices fluctuate, and smart couponers move in with a coupon when they do.

Experienced couponers also consider another pricing game. Stores know weeks ahead of time the coupon promotions that will appear in newspaper inserts. Because many people take their coupons to the store the week they receive them, the store will make a greater profit by keeping those items at higher prices the week that those coupons appear in the paper.

Jill Cataldo is a coupon workshop instructor. Visit www.jillcataldo.com.