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Reader mail: The facts of life about coupon overage

A reader wrote in with a question about overage. It's an issue many Super-Couponers ask me about.

"I recently printed some coupons for $2.50 off picture hanging hooks. Then, I saw the hooks on clearance for 99 cents. I was so excited to think that I would get the item for free and possibly make money. The checker and the manager weren't going to let me use the coupon, but decided to give me the item for free, with 99 cents of the coupon's value. When I told them that I thought the company reimburses the amount of the coupon to them and that they should give me the difference, they said that was not true. What do you think?"

Whenever the value of a coupon exceeds the cost of the item that a shopper buys, interesting things start to happen! Couponers refer to the difference between the cost of the item and the value of the coupon as "overage."

When a coupon exceeds the cost of an item, many stores will scan the coupon, give you the item for free and automatically apply the coupon overage to everything else you're purchasing. If your stores allow overage, clearly, this can be a great way to reduce your entire bill! But it's important to remember that overage is a privilege, not a right. Stores also reserve the right to adjust the value of the coupon down to match the cost of the item, which is what happened to you.

You still got your item for free, but the coupon didn't "pay you" to take it home.

If you find yourself in a situation where you may have a negative total at the register, you must add other items to your shopping trip to "eat up" that overage before you start to check out, or you will have issues with the register. Most cash registers will lock up if they go into negative numbers, simply because the store can't legally issue you that overage difference in cash. If you were only buying your 99-cent item with a $2.50 coupon, the register could not proceed. The cashier would have no choice but to adjust that coupon's value down.

Now, if you were purchasing additional items in the same transaction and your store allowed overage, that extra $1.51 would be automatically applied to the cost of the other items. Again, this is a privilege, not a right. We can never demand overage, but it's definitely a big bonus of coupon shopping.

Stores allow overage because they will be reimbursed for the full value of the coupon when they go to redeem it with a manufacturer. So while your item cost 99 cents, when the coupon goes to the clearinghouse, a machine will scan it and calculate the total redemption that the store will receive. Your coupon will deliver the store $2.50 in value. It's important to remember that when stores allow customers to use overage, they're not losing money – they're simply passing that savings onto the shopper. They will be reimbursed for the full amount of the coupon.

If a store chooses to adjust a coupon's value down to the point where the item you're purchasing is free, but the store doesn't "pay you" the remaining value of the coupon, the store keeps that overage difference for itself, instead of passing it onto you. Again, it's important to understand that they're well within their rights to do so.

Using coupons at all is a privilege. Stores do not have to accept coupons, although most do. And stores do not have to allow you to receive coupon overage, either. Of course, the stores that allow us to keep our overage are among my favorites to shop!

Remember, too, that we can also get coupon overage via stacking coupons. If we stack one store and one manufacturer coupon together, the value of the two coupons together may also exceed the item's cost. I bought a deodorant recently that was on sale for $2.19. I had a $1.50 store coupon and I also had a $1 manufacturer coupon. Stacking those two together gave me $2.50 savings on the deodorant. I took the deodorant home for free. The 31 cents in overage was applied to some bananas I bought in the same trip.

Next week, we'll discuss overage in conjunction with instant-savings deals at the store. These sales can be an excellent way for the store to "pay you to shop," too –– with overage you're guaranteed to get!