Most weeks, I receive around 1,000 emails from readers. Since TLC's "Extreme Couponing" reality TV series hit, my email has quadrupled. Many of them sound like this:

"I've read your column off and on but I don't really use coupons hard-core. Then the "Extreme Couponing" TV show came on. How do I get all the free stuff those shoppers do with coupons?"

Extreme couponing is such a popular topic now, in the next few weeks I'd like to address some concerns. Anyone can learn to cut their grocery bills dramatically using coupons. There is no magic. But understand that the TV version isn't the way most coupon enthusiasts use coupons on their own shopping trips

One notable difference between perception and reality:

As seen on TV: People on the show get most of their groceries free.

Reality: People on the show get large quantities of a few specific grocery items free.

An easy way to get products free with coupons is to match a high-value coupon to a low sale price. This week at my store, three-pack bars of soap are on sale for $1. The newspaper inserts had a $1 coupon for the item. Using the coupon with this sale, the soap is free.

Many coupon shoppers get multiple copies of the newspaper during good coupon weeks to acquire more coupons to match sales. This week I got four papers, so I was able to buy four three-packs of the soap, all free.

An extreme couponer won't stop there. On the show, few are content to stop at using four coupons to buy the same item. Some shoppers were shown Dumpster diving to retrieve discarded newspaper inserts. "Extreme" practices on the show raise legal, safety and ethical issues.

Assume the extreme couponer collects 100 inserts, each with a $1 soap coupon. If the terms of the coupons allowed and the store permitted it, the shopper could buy 100 three-packs of soap and "cut" a $100 grocery bill to $0 using coupons. But the cart only would be full of soap. I'm all for stocking up, but I know that the soap sale repeats every few months. Twelve bars are plenty to last me until the next sale. I would not want to store 300 bars of soap.

Now imagine that in the same week, soap was on sale for $1, pasta for $1, toothpaste for $1 and frozen vegetables for $1. If I have one $1 coupon for each, all four are free. But if I have 100 $1 coupons for each, 400 are free. That's the start of an extreme couponing shopping trip. Next week, I'll address more reader questions on extreme couponing.

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