BY CATHY JETT

When three of her siblings lost their jobs, Sara Baucher wanted to help without increasing her expenses.

The Spotsylvania County woman decided a savvy use of coupons would be a solution.

Last year, Baucher began scouring the Internet for tips, got a zippered three-ring binder to organize her coupons, and started shopping.

Soon she had not only lowered her grocery bills, but had food and toiletry items to give away.

To learn more, she signed up for yesterday’s free, introductory couponing class offered by The Free Lance–Star at its offices at 616 Amelia St. in Fredericksburg. The next one will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on March 10.

Baucher was among about 200 people who heard coupon blogger Tiffany Cutts of Richmond discuss where to find coupons, how to organize them and the smartest ways to use them.

Cutts grew up clipping the coupons that her frugal mother had check-marked in the Sunday newspaper inserts. She continued using coupons when she put herself through Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2009, she decided to start youngandfrugalin virginia.blogspot.com after seeing similar sites spring up on the Internet.

Cutts recommends that couponers start out the way her mother did, by buying newspapers and clipping coupons in the advertising inserts. They appear most Sundays except on holidays, and a sneak peek of what coupons will be included is available at sundaycouponpreview.com.

“I stress buying more than one copy [of the newspaper],” she said. “If you have five $1 coupons for pasta, you can stockpile until the next sale cycle.”

Subscribers of The Free Lance–Star can get a second subscription for half price. Also, copies of the Sunday paper are available all week at the newspaper office and at Walmart.

Several participants in yesterday’s class said they also buy other newspapers because they may have different coupons.

Cutts, a probation officer for Henrico County, recommended checking to make sure inserts are included before buying a Sunday paper from a newspaper rack. Theft has become more common with the economic downturn and the rise in popularity of the TLC show “Extreme Couponing,” which she detests.

“It’s overexaggerated and some people are doing fraudulent and unethical things on the show,” she said. “I don’t want you guys to think you can get $2,000 worth of groceries for two cents.”

KNOW THE POLICIES

Many stores are changing their policies on the number of coupons that can be redeemed at one time because the show has caused runs on certain deals. She urged participants to go to retailers’ websites to get familiar with their policies, and to take a copy when they shop in case of a dispute with a cashier.

“I had a cashier tell me one time that the grocery store did not accept coupons,” she said.

Besides newspapers, coupons are available for download at such websites as coupons.com, redplum.com, smart source.com and couponnetwork.com.

Target.com also has store coupons, and will let customers pair, or “stack,” them with manufacturers’ coupons.

To maximize clarity, Cutts said she uses an inkjet printer to print out coupons. But she doesn’t cut the pages unless she uses one. That way she can use the back of an unused sheet to print additional coupons.

Other ways to find coupons include subscribing to All You magazine, which has enough ads in one month to pay for itself. She also suggested “liking” companies on Facebook and sending favorite manufacturers a note saying how much you like their products and use their coupons. In return, many will mail you higher value coupons than can generally be found elsewhere.

Cutts also scouts stores for unadvertised sales. Target is a favorite, and she uses its credit card to snag an extra 5 percent on purchases. She advised looking for “catalinas,” those coupons grocery stores often dispense at checkout, as well as coupon dispensers in the aisles and tear-off pads of rebates in the beer and wine aisles. The latter are often good for purchases other than alcohol.

New coupon sources are on the horizon.

Beginning next Sunday, The Free Lance–Star will include its new, weekly Big Deals coupon book inside the paper. It will have an average of $209 worth of savings on such things as a cup of coffee, restaurant meals and hobby supplies at local businesses.

The paper already offers one free item from a local establishment each day on page A2 and a weekly Shop Local Deals at fredericksburg.com/shoplocaldeals.

It’s also running a Show Us Your Savings contest for a $50 Visa gift card. There are two winners per week, and entry forms are due to the paper by 5 p.m. each Monday through March 19.

This week, five people have submitted entries with savings topping $123, said Sue Baker, The Free Lance–Star’s circulation service manager.

GETTING ORGANIZED

Using coupons is easier if they’re organized, and there are a number of ways to do this. Cutts clips the ones she knows she’s going to use immediately and puts them in a burgundy accordion folder she found on sale for $1 at Office Depot.

Others go into a zippered, three-ring binder filled with clear plastic pages originally meant to hold baseball cards. The pages are divided by tabs to make them easy to find while she’s shopping. She saves the rest of the advertising inserts in case she spots an unadvertised deal while shopping and can pair it with one of the unclipped coupons.

“Always bring your binder with you for unadvertised sales,” Cutts said.

Her personal best was getting $98.16 worth of groceries for 64 cents during a recent “mega sale” at a Richmond Kroger.

“It’s like I hit the lottery that day,” said Cutts, who had the exact change in her wallet.

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

WANT TO GO?

The Free Lance–Star will offer another free introductory couponing class at its offices at 616 Amelia St. in Fredericksburg on March 10 from 10 a.m. to noon. To sign up, call 540/374-5002.

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