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.").