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Feeling like a thief in the checkout lane

Q: "Are you ever treated like a scam artist, or like you are trying to pull a fast one when you use coupons? I am treated that way often at the stores I frequent, which is surprising after learning stores are reimbursed for our coupons.

"I recently had a $1 coupon for a name brand of apparel. I had a package of this brand of underwear. When I gave the cashier the coupon she told me that the underwear did not match the picture on the coupon, which showed T-shirts, so I could not use it. Wouldn't you think underwear is apparel? Since I couldn't use the coupon, I didn't purchase the underwear. Do you run into these situations? If so, how do you handle them?"

A: I'm never ashamed or embarrassed to use coupons. I think of my coupons as cash. They are cash to shoppers and they're cash to the stores where we shop, too. Whether I use a dollar manufacturer coupon or a dollar bill, the store will receive a dollar for that purchase -- but I will spend a dollar less because of that $1 coupon. That said, have I raised a few eyebrows in the checkout lane when I've managed to reduce a $130 grocery bill to $7 and change? Yes, I have.

I don't often have issues with cashiers -- but on occasion, everyone does. I always try to be as pleasant as possible when I hand over my stack of coupons. It's important to note that I use coupons correctly. I don't use expired coupons at stores that don't accept them and I don't try to "slip in" a coupon for an item if it's not the correct size or type specified. Following these simple rules of "coupon etiquette" can go a long way with cashiers, too, if they regularly see you in their store using coupons correctly.

Your $1 coupon for a certain brand of apparel likely would have worked not just on the T-shirts made by this manufacturer, but also on the company's underwear, socks and sweatshirts. It's a common misconception that shoppers are limited to the exact item displayed on a coupon. Not true. Regardless of what product the photo depicts, the coupon's fine print will always detail which products the bar code will cover. In this case, because the coupon's text didn't specify a certain kind of apparel, the bar code was coded to work on any item from this manufacturer.

Where things can get really interesting is when a coupon's wording is ambiguous. I recently received a Catalina coupon after purchasing some facial tissue. The coupon stated, "$3 off your next visit to [store name] to help you plan and prepare for cold and flu."

Now, most Catalina coupons for a dollar amount off your "next shopping trip" have no restrictions on them; you can buy whatever you'd like. And, while it's likely that this coupon will scan on any order, the text stating that what I buy should "help plan for cold and flu season" leaves a lot of room for cashier interpretation.

A cashier could state that I should use this on cold medicine, but in my opinion, chicken soup, orange juice, vitamins or even hand soap could all qualify as items that might help me plan for getting sick ... or staying healthy.

With a coupon like the one I just described, it's impossible to code a coupon that would scan on every cold-and-flu item in the store, regardless of brand, and exclude non-cold items. This text is a guideline for the cashier, but the bar code is typically coded to scan on any transaction of $3 or more in value.

Any time I have an issue similar to the one you described above, I pleasantly ask, "Could you try to scan it? The register will let you know if the coupon isn't coded to work on this item." That's usually enough to prompt the cashier to try to scan the coupon. Nine times out of 10, the coupon will scan and you'll be on your way.

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.