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Couponing's best-kept secrets:
Don't believe everything you see

One of the most common misconceptions about coupons is that the item that you buy must match the picture that appears on the face of the coupon. It's true that you can use the coupon to purchase the item that's pictured. However, you want to pay close attention to the text on a coupon, too. After all, the text contains the precise information that the coupon's bar code is programmed to deliver at the checkout counter. Which brings us to this week's tip.

Super-Couponing Secret: Forget the Photos, Read the Fine Print

It's a very common marketing technique for a manufacturer to show a new or more expensive variety of a product on the face of a coupon in the hope that you will buy this new or more expensive variety. If you read the coupon, though, you'll discover that the offer is good for "$1 off any [brand] product."

Consider a coupon for a new variety of cold medicine put out by a leading manufacturer. The coupon may show the new, multi-symptom medicine in the picture, hoping that you will want to try it, but the text states clearly that you can use the coupon on any medicine from this manufacturer.

Learning to distinguish between what the photo suggests and the full terms of the deal that the text actually spells out is a skill that can really help shoppers, giving us more freedom to buy the item we may prefer, versus the variety shown in the photo. I recently had a coupon for a new variety of skin-care product.

It showed a photo of the lotion, and the text read "$1 off [brand] lotion, body wash, or any [brand] product." That wording is key! When I didn't see a good sale for the company's lotions or body wash, I did see a bar of the same brand of soap for 99 cents. With my coupon, it was free.

Brand-name sandwich meat is an area where it can pay to read coupon wording closely. People often ask me how to save at the deli counter. It's not always easy to get discounts on fresh-cut cold cuts. But many meat manufacturers sell pre-packaged deli meats, too, and there are often coupons for those.

Look closely at the wording on these coupons. While the coupon may show a boxed or bagged variety of meat, the wording often spells out a wider deal, such as "$1 off 1 package of [brand] sliced meat, or 1lb. of [brand] sliced meats at the deli." These coupons are a great way to save on fresh-sliced meats of the same brand at the deli counter.

Ready for another tip?

This one involves brand loyalty. While we all have favorite brands of things, our brand loyalty can cost us in the long run, if we aren't shopping smart for those favorite-brand items when they're on sale. Major brands often engage in what the industry calls "price wars" with one another. We see this frequently with items such as pasta sauce, where numerous brands compete to sell what is essentially the same product.

Brand A may be cheap one week, but next week, Brand B barrels in with an even lower price. This works out well for shoppers who aren't particularly partial to any specific brand. But, if we think "I really like Brand A, and I will always buy it no matter what," it's great when Brand A is on sale for $1.29 a jar and we've got a 75-cent coupon for it. But when the sale ends and Brand A goes back up to $3.29 a jar, we'll be paying the price.

If we can let some of our brand preferences slide a little bit, and fluctuate along with the sales, we can save more money in the long run. Next week, I'll share one of the biggest and most surprising tips with you. It involves which days of the week are the least expensive days to shop at the grocery store. You might be surprised to learn what they are!

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.