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Coupons rev up instant-savings offers

Any time a store offers an instant-savings dea,l I get excited. Sales that offer instant savings of a specified dollar amount, when shoppers buy certain items, are great opportunities for us to stock up at sale prices, and to actually get the store to "pay us" to shop.

Recently, my store had a "Buy 10, Save $3" sale. The store's weekly advertisement showed a group of assorted products. Buying any products on the page in combinations of ten would yield an instant savings of $3 at the bottom of my receipt. This particular ad was divided into sections: one section with items priced at $1, the next group with items priced at $2.50 and so on.

When I see a sale like this, I immediately start crunching numbers. In this type of sale, the least expensive items tend to be the best deal. For example, if I buy ten items from the dollar group of products, I'll reach $10 in cost – but I'll receive instant savings of $3 for buying ten items. So, I'll ultimately pay $7 for my ten items – 70 cents each.

So far so good. But what happens if I use coupons on these items? The real fun starts! Remember that coupons will apply to prices of items before the instant savings is applied at the register, so shoppers can often enjoy coupon overage during these sales. Overage refers to the phenomenon of receiving more coupon value for an item than it cost in the first place. And, as a coupon shopper, I love working overage into my shopping trips to bring my entire grocery bill down.

To make the most of the instant savings promotion, I focus on the items for which I know I have coupons. During this sale, a few of the items in the dollar group caught my eye: boxed rice mixes, packages of latex gloves, bottled teas and sandwich bags, all priced at $1. I had the following coupons: two 75-cent coupons for rice mixes, three $1 coupons for latex gloves, one Buy One, Get One Free bottled tea coupon, and three 50-cent coupons for sandwich bags.

Now, if I purchased these ten items at $1 each, I'd qualify for the $3 in instant savings promotion. But of course, we want to use our coupons, too. Here's what my shopping trip looks like so far:

2 boxed rice mixes ($2 cost) – two 75-cent coupons = 50 cents

3 packages of gloves ($3 cost) – three $1 coupons = free

2 bottled teas ($2 cost) – BOGO coupon = $1

3 packages of sandwich bags ($3 cost) – three 50-cent coupons = $1.50

After applying all my coupons, my register total comes to just $3 – but that's not what I pay. Remember, buying these ten items during this sale qualifies me for $3 in instant savings. And when that instant savings is automatically applied at the register, how much did I really pay for these items?

Zero. That's right, I paid nothing (but sales tax) for these ten items.

How did this happen? I received overage from the coupons I used for several of these items, which in turn was applied to the price of the other items in the list. So, let's break it down.

The rice mixes, priced at $1, actually cost 70 cents each when purchased in a group of ten items during the instant savings sale. The 75-cent coupon I used on this item scanned automatically, applied to the $1 price of the rice before the instant savings. But since the end cost of my rice was just 70 cents a box, the extra 5 cents per coupon was applied to the other items I bought in the same trip.

The same thing happened with the latex gloves and one bottle of the tea. They were priced at a dollar, but my coupons made them totally free; and since the actual price of each package was reduced to just 70 cents for the instant savings sale, I gained 30 cents in overage for each of the coupons I used. (I didn't even want the gloves! But I often work things like this into these kinds of deals in order to help bring the price down on the other items I do want. My unwanted items go to friends, family and the local food pantry.)

Take a close look at the next instant savings sale at your local store. I'll bet you'll never look at them quite the same way again.