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Use coupons and get paid to shop

It's no secret that I love $1 sales at the grocery store. They're one of the easiest ways to get items for free -- and who doesn't like getting something for free?

For example, when a bag of frozen vegetables is on sale for $1 and I use a $1 coupon, the coupon's value essentially "pays" for the vegetables -- they're free.

But, what if the frozen vegetable happens to be on sale for 75 cents and you use a $1 coupon? This is an example of what couponers call overage -- and it's one of my favorite aspects of couponing. Overage occurs when the value of your coupon exceeds the cost of the item you're buying.

If I use a $1 coupon on the 75-cent vegetables, what happens to that extra 25 cents? At checkout, most stores will apply the extra quarter to the rest of the items I purchase that day. So, if during the same shopping trip, I also buy some bakery rolls for $1.25, the extra quarter of coupon overage is automatically applied to the rest of my total. In this example, after giving the cashier my $1 vegetables coupon, I would owe just $1 in cash for the rolls.

Overage can play a big role in reducing your total grocery bill. If I have many items in the same transaction, each with a coupon that exceeds the value of what I'm buying, I can gain several dollars of overage. That overage can be used to buy anything: fruit, vegetables, dairy or whatever I'd like. With a family of five, I can always find plenty of other items that my household needs.

However, it's important to remember that no store is going to give a shopper cash back for overage. I can't walk into my local grocery store with that $1 coupon, buy the 75-cent vegetables and then ask for a quarter in change. It just doesn't work that way. But, because I'm also buying other items during the same trip, coupon overage helps save money on everything else I take home.

When I explain overage in my coupon classes, I'm sometimes asked if this is "ripping off the store." The answer is, No! Remember, the manufacturer that issued my $1 vegetables coupon will reimburse the store not only $1 for the full value of my coupon, but also an additional 8 to 12 cents per coupon. (Read the fine print on your coupon and you'll find this spelled out.)

So, think of your coupons as if they were cash. If I hand the cashier a $1 bill to pay for my 75-cent vegetables and $1.25 rolls, the extra 25 cents over the cost of the vegetables isn't lost -- it comes off the price of the rolls.

Most stores automatically allow overage. A few reserve the right to "adjust down" the value of your coupon to the point that the item is free, but the shopper does not receive the overage. To determine how your store handles coupon overages, ask your store for a copy of its coupon policy.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail your couponing coups and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.