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Deborah E. Gauthier: Shopping for coupons

Deborah E. Gauthier

Years ago, I worked with an editor whose wife was a coupon clipping queen. He bragged that because of coupons and rebates he and his family got money back just for eating.

The thought of following his wife's example was enticing. "If she can do it, so can I," I thought. But it wasn't as easy as it looked. One needs an organized system to save with, or like Jim's wife, profit from, coupons, and organized I was not. I gave it a half-hearted try, then went back to being a seat-of-the-pants shopper.

Given the current state of the economy, however, I'm ready to try again. And this time, because of the Internet and a stronger commitment, I think I've got a better chance of success.

At least that's what I thought until I tried to access coupons online. Getting to those coupons was like navigating a canoe, against the current, in a raging river used by the lumber company upriver to get logs to sawmill.

Not that I've ever canoed in a raging river - the placid Blackstone River in the spring is the closest I've come.

What I'm saying is, be prepared for the obstacle course you'll encounter before you get to the coupons. It took 15 minutes to click "no" to what seemed to be 100 offers of magazines, vacations, and other services I don't need or want.

It was another five minutes clicking on coupons for products I use regularly. I clicked to print the coupons and nothing happened. Why? I needed to download coupon printing software to the computer. Virus anyone? So much for that experiment.

But then I read an article by Kim Rowley in Ezine, a Web magazine. Rowley has been clipping and saving for more than 20 years. She owns an online coupon portal called ShoppingBookmarks.com. With her experience, surely she's simplified the online coupon experience. So I paid her site a visit.

At first glance, it is a hodgepodge of offers from major stores and Web sites. I don't need a new cell phone for $39.99 or a new desk chair from an office supply chain or a jacket from Amazon.com.

I poked around a bit and success - a link to coupons. I clicked and up came an offer for a free box of Cheerios. Honey Nut, thank you very much!

Then came the tedious offers, even more offers than the previous site. No, no, no, no, no. And again, the same offers in a different graphic form. No, no, no, no, no. And again. No, no, no, no. All I wanted was the advertised free box of Cheerios.

Finally. The end. Except this time I'm told I must accept at least one of the offers to qualify. OK. I click on the "Big Bucks" survey through which I could win $50,000. All participants guaranteed $20.

More offers. Even more than the first, second and third times. No, no, no, no, no. Can I have my Cheerios now?

Nope, I've got to purchase something from one of the sponsors and show proof of that purchase before getting the "free" box of cereal.

No thanks.

To be fair to Ms. Rowley, her Ezine article does offer some sound shopping advice. One that I particularly like is: "The best source for coupons is Sunday newspapers... With the cost of a Sunday paper usually ranging from $1 to $1.50, it is a good investment with sometimes hundreds of dollars worth of coupons."

Don't want to buy a newspaper? Rowley goes so far as to suggest a "Dumpster dive" for coupon inserts, so many of which are thrown away. Better yet, ask family and friends to give you their newspaper inserts before they're thrown into the trash.

Going directly to the source is also a good way to get manufacturers' coupons, Rowley said. The telephone numbers are usually toll-free and flattery might get you a coupon or two. Most manufacturers also have Web sites.

That's an idea. I went to the Web home page for Cheerios and clicked on the coupon box. The page wouldn't load. So much for that idea.

Lesson learned. There's no such thing as a free breakfast. But maybe the Sunday paper will have a coupon.

Deb Gauthier can be reached at dgauthie@cnc.com.