Image: Coupon © Photodisc Green, Getty Images

Love them or hate them. Take them or leave them. The truth still stands: Using coupons can save you a lot of money -- if you know how to use them correctly.

Let's face it: No one wants to spend hours clipping coupons just to save a couple of bucks.

But if it's done right, couponing shouldn't take more than an hour a week of your time -- and it could save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a year.

At least that's what couponing looks like for Andrea Deckard of SavingsLifestyle.com (a LearnVest site). She saved $6,500 in her first year of couponing -- and she's willing to share her secrets with you.

What's the best way to start?

Deckard points out that printable coupon sites, like CouponNetwork, are particularly convenient for grocery coupons, along with newspapers. "I encourage people to subscribe to the newspaper," she says, "because if you purchase one in-store, you may not receive the same coupons." For online shopping, she likes Savings.com, which constantly updates coupon offers for hundreds of retailers.

Deckard also advises looking at your spending over the past three months. Set a small goal to reduce your expenses by 10% to 20% in three months, and aim to spend no more than one hour searching for coupons each week. "In the beginning, it could take a little longer to scope out where the good deals are for your favorite stores," she says, "but setting a goal for one hour, once you figure that out, is realistic."

After three months, challenge yourself to spend 10% less, and continue to set small challenges for yourself in this way until you reach your desired savings. According to Deckard, focused efforts could realistically shave 50% to 75% on your grocery bill. "Whatever you do, don't compare yourself to others," she adds. "Your family's situation is unique, and your goals will likely be different. Make only small changes that you can stick with for the long haul."

5 tips for successful couponing

Before acting on the below five steps, start with Deckard's rule for beginners: If a store doesn't have at least five sale items that you need, don't bother going. You'll waste time and gas if you're driving around to different stores for just one or two items.

No. 1: Get organized

Whether you clip and sort coupons in a binder or file them all by store into separate folders, experiment with different methods that will help you save time both when searching at home ("Hey, I already have a coupon for mustard!") and when you're in the store.

No. 2: Focus on one store -- to start

If you purchase most of your cleaning supplies at Target, for example, begin your coupon search there. You'll be less overwhelmed this way, and you'll gain confidence as you start to see how much you're saving on the things that your family needs. When you feel you've conquered one store, you can branch out to others.

No. 3: Clip based on need

Figure out exactly what you'll be shopping for and base your coupon search on those items only. So if you're heading to Shop Rite for three dinners that you plan to make, focus your coupon search for items on your "to buy" list, and ignore everything else.

No. 4: Stockpile to save even more

Once you've gotten the hang of general couponing for a purpose, you can start stockpiling purchases for your favorite nonperishable items, like rice, pasta and coffee. To do this, keep a running list of the items that are in constant rotation in your house, and update the inventory each week so you'll always know what's running low. This way, when you come across that 15% coupon savings on pasta sauce, you'll know if you need to use it or not. Not only will you be stocked up on things that you'll actually use, but you'll also have gotten it all for a great price.

No. 5: Learn the drugstore rules

Shopping at stores like CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid can take more time to master, since each has its own reward system. So read all the fine print on their coupons, and when you find a store that you believe offers the best rewards, do the majority of your shopping there to get the most savings. (And check out LearnVest's comparison of online drugstores for even more money-saving advice.)

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