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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.

Keep it simple, saver

Some people take it even further. Check out forums and message boards and you'll see shoppers who boast about making money on their deals. For example, if someone has a $1-off coupon for a $3 item that's free after rebate, then she profits up to $1, depending on whether sales tax applies.

Does all this seem complicated and a little scary? So did riding a bike without training wheels, but not for very long. Couponing sites generally have forums where readers can share tips, and some even have tutorials. You will likely have to sign up as a user, but registration is free. I'd suggest starting a new e-mail address for this, because even if the site doesn't sell your information, you may be getting regular communiqués. Who needs even more inbox clogs?

Here are some basic tips to get you started:

  • Search online for printable coupons, at sites like A Full Cup, Deal Seeking Mom or Hot Coupon World, or by typing the name of a product plus "coupon" into a search engine. If you're not a My Points member, consider signing up and earning points for every coupon you print and redeem; you can save points for drugstore gift cards.
  • When possible, "stack" coupons -- that is, combine a store's in-ad coupon with a manufacturer coupon. (Not every store allows this.)
  • Ask whether your store accepts a competitor's coupon. Then, if possible, stack that coupon with a manufacturer coupon.
  • If it's a particularly good week for Sunday-ad coupons, buy two newspapers. (Some dollar stores sell them at less than cost.) Or ask relatives, friends or co-workers to save you their coupon sections.
  • Don't throw away those coupon sections when you're done snipping. Paper-clip them together, write the date on the front, and save them in a big envelope or file folder. "You don't know what's going to go on sale a few weeks from now. Don't cherry-pick the coupons," CouponMom's Nelson cautions.
  • Check clearance bins. Sarah M. found six-packs of protein drinks being remaindered for $2.50 each; the packages had peel-off $2 coupons. She bought eight packages for 50 cents each -- and because she used Extra Care Bucks, she didn't pay anything at all.
  • Store cheap treats at work. Those protein drinks and other food items that Sarah M. gets for free keep her from buying snacks at the office.
  • Two CVS-specific tips: Pay attention to expiration dates so that the Extra Care Bucks don't expire. Scan your card in the store's coupon machine each time you shop.
  • Don't overdo it, and choose stores that are near your home or workplace so that shopping doesn't take hours out of your day.

Remember: RIC doesn't have to be time-consuming. Laura N. estimates she spends two to three hours a week on scanning ads, clipping coupons and shopping. In return, she gets at least $150 worth of products for free each month. Her car gets paid off quicker, too.

Amiyrah M. is a busy woman -- a full-time mother to a preschooler, student, personal-finance blogger, member of the National Guard -- but RIC is a priority for her. Visiting four stores for the best RIC deals means getting all her family's needs -- food, baby items, toiletries, and cat food and litter -- for a little less than $240 a month.

It also means money in the bank. Initially, Amiyrah's husband thought the RIC idea was "silly." She told him that for one year she would put whatever she saved into a bank account.

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"I did that for a whole year. Last December, I had more $6,300 in the account," Amiyrah said recently.

"It becomes your hobby. Some people knit. I like to hound," she says. "And I end up paying myself to do my hobby."

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").