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Related topics: Donna Freedman, free, giving, save money, savings

Amiyrah M. can't remember the last time she paid for breakfast cereal.

Laura N. recently spent just $4.03 to buy toothpaste, shampoo, toilet paper, dishwasher detergent and disposable razors.

Emelyn de la Pena scored two bottles of shampoo, three bottles of lotion, two tubes of toothpaste, three boxes of high-fiber cereal and some organic face powder for less than $10.

If you live near a major supermarket or drugstore chain, there's no reason you should pay retail either. By combining rebates, store incentives and coupons -- a combo hereinafter referred to as RIC -- you could stretch your dollars further than you ever imagined.

Devotees of RIC have shelves, dresser drawers and closets crammed with free or nearly free body wash, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors, makeup, cold medicine, vitamins, pain relievers, laundry and dishwasher detergent, cleaning supplies and food items. Why stop at one free bottle of low-dose aspirin if you could get three or four?

"I started doing it to save money, but now it's kind of an addiction. I love finding good deals," says 20-something Sarah M., who works for a utility company in the Midwest.

Don't let a good coupon go to waste

 At times that means getting freebies that Sarah herself doesn't use, such as 10 boxes of hair color. She'll donate them; some food pantries and social service agencies accept toiletries.

Usually, Sarah focuses on things she can use -- makeup, lotion, frozen pizza -- or items that someone she knows can use. "When I hear of friends or family losing jobs, I fill up a grocery bag or two to help tide them over."

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

All the shoppers I talked to donate some of their freebies. So do I.

My daughter may never run out of dishwasher detergent, and every couple of weeks I take a plastic shopping bag full of toiletries to an emergency pantry. We're not alone; 84% of subscribers to give away some of their finds to family, friends, co-workers and social service agencies.

And why not? Once you figure out the system, you'll get more stuff than you could ever use. Or ever would use: Julie, a teacher from Ohio, recently bought a couple of glucose monitors, although she isn't diabetic, and disposable diapers, although her children are grown. The monitors were free after rebate, and three large packages of Huggies cost her $5 plus tax, thanks to coupons and an instant store rebate.

When she sees such deals, she thinks, "Somebody somewhere needs this." The monitors will go to a medical charity, and the Huggies are headed for a "diaper pantry" in her town.

"I hate to see a good coupon go to waste," says Julie, who notes that this practice helps her stretch her giving dollars.

Why shoppers do it

The shoppers interviewed say it's fun to get free stuff -- several used the phrase "treasure hunt" -- and gratifying to donate it. But they also know that a leaner grocery bill can mean a fatter emergency fund or extra payments against credit card debt or mortgages.

Or a hedge against unemployment. Cathy Jensen, a controller for a metal-recycling company, and her husband have "two pantries full" of toiletries, cleaning supplies and food. She initially started RIC-ing so she could put extra money toward the mortgage. Now she does it "because we don't know if we'll have jobs tomorrow," she says.

An hour's worth of planning gets de la Pena, a California resident, all the free toiletries she needs, plus free or nearly free items for a couple of shelters and, recently, a relative who was laid off. De la Pena also gets food items this way, such as a stockpile of instant oatmeal: "Three months' worth of breakfast for $1. Can't beat that!

"This frees money up in my budget to help me meet my goals," she says. "It's about spending money on the things that are important to me."

Internet makes it easier

Couponing and rebating have never been easier, and not just because stores are vying for your business. The Internet is loaded with free RIC-related sites that give consumers everything from a sneak peek at the next week's Sunday coupon inserts (check out Taylortown Coupon Preview) to state-by-state lists of the best weekly deals and which stores will let you "stack" coupons.

"I call it 'strategic shopping' -- matching the sale with the coupon," says Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom. The site offers, among other things, weekly updates of the best sale, coupon and rebate deals for grocery and drugstore chains.

"Let other people do the hard work for you," she says.

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The savviest savers really know how to work the system. Those who live near a CVS drugstore sing the praises of that chain's ExtraCare program, which gives quarterly payments of store certificates called Extra Care Bucks. These dividends are based on 2% of total expenditures plus one Extra Care Buck for every two prescriptions filled; additional scrip is offered on weekly specials (e.g., buy a $4 shampoo and get four Extra Care Bucks).

Those who love CVS love it a lot. Laura N., a Florida teacher, is unstoppable when it comes to playing the game. First, she gets coupons from the MyPoints rewards program. Next, she uses the rewards points to get free CVS gift cards. Finally, Laura combines those free gift cards with coupons, Extra Care Bucks, additional coupons that print out when she scans her card in the store's coupon machine, and occasional rewards that CVS sends, such as a recent coupon good for 25% off her next shopping trip.

Laura has used the savings to help pay off her auto loan.