Recycle expired coupons and help military families

Q: "What can we do with coupons that we do not use? I have heard of organizations that coordinate coupons for use by military families. Do you have any information on this?"

A: It's easy to take coupons for granted. The newspaper arrives each week with its load of coupons and we start planning our shopping lists. United States military families don't have the same luxury. Servicemen and women stationed overseas cannot receive a weekly newspaper filled with coupons. However, the military commissaries where they shop do, in fact, accept manufacturer coupons. And just as we do, many people serving in the military want to use coupons to reduce their grocery bills.

How do our military families get their coupons? From us. Last year, civilians sent more than $10 million worth of coupons to U.S. military bases.

Many organizations send coupons overseas to military bases. One of the largest and longest-running groups spearheading this effort is the Overseas Coupon Program (www.ocpnet.org). The OCP's web site details how to participate and support our military families.

Not only is this a good way to share coupons for items you won't use, but it's also a great way to recycle expired coupons. Military commissaries accept coupons up to six months past the printed expiration date. Long after you might have thrown out some expired coupons for cereal, say, a family thousands of miles away could be using those little pieces of paper to reduce their grocery bill.

Mailing your unused coupons overseas is not as difficult or expensive as you might think. Sending mail to an overseas military base costs the same as mailing a package domestically, since the bases have U.S. addresses. The OCP recommends using a flat-rate Priority Mail envelope, which costs $4.95 to mail no matter how many coupons are inside or how heavy it is. To fit as many coupons in the envelope as possible, clip the coupons out of the inserts before mailing.

Military bases typically have two kinds of stores: commissaries for groceries and a P/X for non-grocery items. To help keep coupons organized once they arrive on a base, the OCP recommends separating grocery coupons from coupons for personal care and non-grocery items. You can mail them in the same envelope if you like -- simply place each group in a re-sealable bag and write "grocery" or "non-grocery" on the front. That way, the coupons will quickly go to the right destination.

Only manufacturer coupons can be used on base. Do not send store-specific coupons; shoppers on military bases cannot use them. However, you're not limited to sending what comes in your newspaper insert. Unused manufacturer coupons from in-store coupon dispensers or tear pads can be used on base, too.

While military families can use coupons up to six months past their expiration dates, the OCP recommends not sending those that are more than two months past their expiration date. Once the coupons reach a military base, volunteers sort and organize the coupons for use, which takes time. But, if nothing sent is older than two months beyond its date, there will still be plenty of time for people to use these coupons while shopping on base.

Recycling your coupons in this manner is a small, easy way to make a big difference.

If you'd like to participate in this program, visit www.ocpnet.org to "adopt" a military base. The Overseas Coupon Program currently serves bases in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and Spain, and you can choose any base you'd like. Addresses for each base are listed on the site.

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.