Clip This Money-Saving Coupon Advice

You're a busy person, so you probably hadn't noticed that September is National Biscuit Month, National Pediculosis Prevention Month, and -- my favorite -- National Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month. (Extra credit to anyone who knew without looking that pediculosis is head lice.)

The Promotion Marketing Association tells us that it's also National Coupon Month, and shoppers saved about $2.6 billion last year clipping and redeeming manufacturers' coupons. That's no small chunk of change, but how much of that represents "spaving" instead of saving?

Spaving? I don't know who to credit for coining this brilliant term, which describes the act of spending money in order to save. Think of the can't-miss, 2-for-1 sale on hats with beer holsters that let you slurp from two cans at once. Congratulations! You've just spaved $14.99!

In other words, coupons can prompt you to spend money you'd otherwise keep in your pocket by pushing you to purchase something that you would otherwise leave in the store. Watch for these five traps to get the most from your coupon clippings:

  1. Accidental upgrades. You usually buy store-brand diced tomatoes, and they're quite tasty for $0.89. Today, you have a coupon for $0.25 off Famously Branded Tomatoes. What a deal! When you get home, you do a little math and realize that you paid $1.10 for your can of tomatoes, or $0.21 more than usual. If you're happy with the cheaper item you purchase regularly, this coupon is not a money saver. Stick with your less-expensive products.
  2. Novelty purchases. "Try our new Sweet-N-Hyper Cereal, now with more sugar!!!" How can you resist, especially with a $1.00-off coupon in your hand? Manufacturers' coupons introduce new products, and they entice you to put that colorful box in your cart. If it's not a product you would ordinarily buy, resist the urge. Once you've tasted it, you (or, more likely, your kids) might be tempted again next week, and suddenly it's a regular item on your shopping list -- at the regular price. Use these coupons with care.
  3. As long as I'm here ... I'm a merchandiser's dream customer when it comes to buying books, and book coupons can be my nemesis. Borders (NYSE: BGP  ) and Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) send out tons of coupons to customers, so I trot to the bookstore with a 30%-off coupon, planning to pick up that novel everyone's talking about. It's not long before I've got more books than I can carry, and I've retreated into a corner, mumbling, trying to talk myself out of most of my choices. Beware of the temptation to keep buying when a coupon lures you to a store. Once they've got you in the door, you're an easy target.
  4. Supersize it. Among my favorite coupons are the ones that promise a big discount on any item over a certain dollar amount, and I seem to get a lot of these from cosmetics and clothing stores like Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN  ) . Let's say you're promised $10 off any item over $50. That's a 20% discount, and a pretty good deal. Let's go shopping! Once in the store, tempted by that discount, you buy a $100 item. You've now saved 10%, and you've spent twice what you planned. Recalculate the savings for your purchase, and don't let these coupons bust your budget.
  5. Sudden needs. Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) picked up on a great way to sell its electronics to coupon-clippers. You lived happily watching "Seinfeld" reruns without a 56-inch flat-panel HDTV, but now that you have a store coupon, you must have one. You race to the store, present your coupon with pride, and wonder how you ever got by without seeing every single pore on Kramer's face. Before the coupon frenzy overtakes you, ask yourself whether you're really in the market. If you had planned the purchase all along, take your savings and run. If not, leave your money in the bank.

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