Aug. 8, 2011 -- After years of decline, coupon usage rose markedly in 2008, coinciding with the U.S. financial crisis. Today, as the U.S. faces more bad economic news, coupon enthusiasts -- defined by Nielsen research as households who purchased 104 or more items using manufacturers' coupons -- can teach you how to stretch your dollars further.
Coupon newbies might consider coupon clipping arduous and overwhelming, but the savviest shoppers say it's a game that can be easily learned.
"It's a lot like chess," says Nathan Engels, founder of the website We Use Coupons. "If you know how to play the game, it's going to be a fun game, all the time."
Engels says he used to spend approximately $120 a week on groceries but says he's trimmed that figure to $50 since he started using coupons.
Here are some ways to spend a lot less to get a whole lot more:
Become organized and get online:"I saved our family of seven over $8,000 last year by using coupons — and I only spent 1.5 hours a week doing it!" says Ellie Kay, the author of "The 60 Minute Money Workout." "It's easy, if you are organized."
Newspaper inserts are still the primary method of coupon distribution, but the Internet offers more deals and time-saving tools.
Get organized by creating a solid system for listing things you need, and cross check the list online to see what coupons are out there that offer deals for the products.
Stock up when appropriate:"People say stock piling is crazy," says Engels. "But it's about understanding what you consume and pushing that to make a smart financial decision."
Engels says he has 32 toothpastes at his house, because his family uses 15 toothpastes a year. He found a deal in which the toothpastes were on sale for $1, and he had a 50 cent off coupon that doubled. Toothpaste has a long shelf life, and Engels is confident his family will use all the tubes.
With this steady stock of essential, nonperishable staples, Engels rarely has to make last-minute toothpaste runs to the market, which can turn into accidental shopping sprees for other items.
Know your stores and store policies:Regardless of tighter restrictions on coupon usage announced by such stores as Target and Rite-Aid, there are plenty of opportunities to save.
For example, according to Kay, most Super-Walmart stores match competitors' ads. Just take in all the local sale ads and have the store match the sale price from the circulars.
Engels says that since stores modify their coupon policies all the time, it's best to understand the policies. If there is a grocery store your family frequents, understand its policy. "Sometimes it's good to even bring a copy of the policy," says Engels. "Sometimes even the store managers are unaware of coupon policies."
Here are other simple tips from coupon enthusiasts Kay and Engels to keep you from breaking the bank:
• Use a list: An organized list minimizes time spent in the store, keeps the "buy" on target, helps avoid impulse buying and serves as a reminder of sale prices.
• Never shop when you are hungry: You'll be tempted to buy products you don't need.
• Leave your children with a neighbor: "Children are always hungry and will bully you into buying junk they don't need — take it from a busy mother of seven," says Kay.
• Search high and low for bargains: Many of the bargains are located on the top and lower shelves. The pricey, expensive items are at eye level.
• Download apps such as Coupon Sherpa and Yowza to regularly save 30 percent or more in the stores: These apps use ZIP codes to bring you the good deals, show you the stores that accept coupons and help you find the best values.