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Couponing's best-kept secrets:
Keep your eyes on the prize

I'm sure you know by now that I love getting groceries for free with coupons whenever possible. But we can't get everything for free all of the time. Here's a fun way to maximize coupon savings and get items very inexpensively, even when they're not completely free.

Super-Couponing Secret: Buy 'Small' and Save the Biggest for 'Free'

Manufacturers will often issue coupons for an item that's free "when you purchase any of these 3 brands." The coupon often shows various other brands or products sold by the same manufacturer. I recently had a coupon offering a free package of hot dogs if the shopper purchased three other items from the same manufacturer.

During the sale at my store, the hot dogs were on sale for $3.99. If the total cost of the three additional items is less than the sale price of the hot dogs, I'll get the hot dogs cheaper than I could have purchased them otherwise - plus, I'll have three additional items to take home as part of the deal, too.

When I spot coupons like these, I will look closely at the additional brands featured. I do not necessarily think about whether I want or need these items. Instead, I calculate what would be the least expensive thing to buy to make the larger item cost as little as possible.

The additional products with the hot dog deal included coffee, crackers, condiments, gelatin desserts and powdered drink mixes.

Of those items, the gelatin desserts and powdered drink mixes seemed like the best candidates. They're both usually pretty inexpensive, and buying three of either will qualify me for my free $3.99 package of hot dogs. After checking the prices on both, I saw that the gelatin was on sale for 33 cents a box. I could pay 99 cents for three boxes and get a free package of hot dogs, too! Not bad at all.

But then I checked the price on powdered drink mixes. They were on sale for 10 cents each! Whether I plan to drink them or not, buying 3 packets of drink mix became my means for acquiring the $3.99 package of hot dogs for just 30 cents!

In my coupon classes, I refer to this as the "take one for the team" couponing strategy. Sometimes it's necessary to buy something we don't necessarily want because it's our means to acquire the item we actually do want for a much lower price.

Here's another example. I recently saw tear pads of coupons in the produce department of my store near the salads. The coupons provided $2 off produce when you purchased any of a certain manufacturer's salad dressing. I looked at that brand of salad dressing and realized that the manufacturer makes both bottled salad dressings and the dry seasoning that comes in a small packet, the kind you mix at home with oil and vinegar. The packets of seasoning cost 79 cents. So, for each packet of the salad dressing I purchased, I used one of the coupons. I was able to buy $2 worth of fresh produce for 79 cents. I didn't necessarily want the salad dressing, but it allowed me to purchase my produce items at a much lower cost.

Next week, I'll answer some more reader mail and we'll take a brief break from coupon tips to discuss the best way to organize all of the coupons that we receive each week in the newspaper.

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.