A new show on the TLC network debuted last week, showing America that it's possible for shoppers to get $600 worth of groceries for less than $10 at checkout.
"Extreme Couponing" – which airs at 9:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday nights – follows the lives each week of dedicated so-called "couponers" who spend countless hours cutting coupons, seeking deals and strategizing how to hunt the supermarket.
By pairing manufacturer coupons from the Web and Sunday newspaper with items that are on sale at the supermarket, couponers can walk away from the grocery store after paying only mere cents for their items. (In some cases, items coupled with coupons can even be free).
But some people like 27-year-old Joanie Demer — the co-founder of popular coupon tip blog TheKrazyCouponLady.com, who was featured on the show — take couponing so far that they even jump into dumpsters to collect a number of the estimated $57 billion worth of coupons Americans throw away each year.
Although big savings can be had in stores, not everyone has the hours or ambition to go to such extreme lengths. But the good news, according to these extreme coupon enthusiasts, is that anyone with Internet access can trim hundreds of dollars off online purchases if they want to.
Heather Wheeler — also co-founder of TheKrazyCouponLady.com, which has experienced a big jump in traffic since the show aired — said that while you can't hand over a stack of clipped coupons through your computer screen to online retailers, there are still great ways to save.
"Whether you are shopping online or in stores, you should never ever pay full prices for items," said Wheeler, who started couponing about three years ago to cut back on expenses in the middle of the recession. "While you might not be getting products for free or 'money-makers'" – when coupons save more than the price at the store, so shoppers actually walk away with a profit – "there are still big savings online. You just have to work for it a little."
Tips on saving
Free shipping codes and coupons are often available from popular retailers, so online shoppers can easily save money by simply staying at home and not using up gasoline to head to the store. Sites such as RetailMeNot.com offer Web discount codes that include everything from free shipping to 20 percent off an entire order for more than 65,000 stores.
Retailers also send out information about new sales, promotions and coupon codes via e-newsletters. Signing up for these lists can also increase savings.
In addition, merchants often tout savings and discount codes on Facebook and Twitter, so "liking" and "following" these companies will bring shoppers even closer to sales and deals.
Another trendy way to save these days is through daily deal sites, such as Groupon, Living Social, Mamapedia and No More Rack. Not only do they offer 50 percent off deals on a variety of restaurants, apparel and services, most of these sites offer a $5 to $10 credit just for joining the site. They also offer credit incentives for referring friends.
Where and when to shop
The best online deals are often found via mainstream shopping sites, similar to how the best grocery store deals won’t be found at the local corner store but at a national chain location, Wheeler said.
For example, Safeway, which also offers groceries online, accepts digital coupons and promo codes on orders, which are two essential ways to lower a bill. Safeway also features free shipping on first-time orders.
Meanwhile, some sites already factor in coupons from manufacturers ahead of time so shoppers don't need to hunt for discounts. For example, Alice.com — named after the maid from the TV show "The Brady Bunch" — directly applies coupons to the list price of items on its site.
It's no secret that the Internet makes it easy to comparison shop, too. Not only do comparison shopping sites help shoppers find the best deal, the information learned from these searches can be leveraged to mark down prices with competitors.
For example, Wheeler and her husband recently bought a new mattress and carefully selected a store that would meet and beat any competitor, including online prices.
"After some research, we found a great online price on a mattress we wanted," Wheeler said. "The store verified it and beat it by 5 percent, including free delivery to our home. This saved us over $400 just by doing some extra research."
When buying airline tickets, Wheeler also suggested checking out Kayak.com, which searches multiple discount sites simultaneously. She also said to then search airlines such as Southwest for deal opportunities.
But knowing how to shop is just the first step. Knowing when to make a purchase is also important.
The best time to buy airline tickets is on Tuesdays, according to Wheeler, and about three or four months ahead of time before you want to fly. Prices will also be lower when traveling during off-peak times.
In addition, online retailers have seasonal sale cycles just like physical stores: "Warm-weather clothes are more expensive now, but clearances will start to happen in late July and August – similar to how winter clothing goes on sale in January," she said.
"When new product models come out, older ones will often go on sale, making it a great time to buy."
Save on shipping
Just like clipping tons of coupons, organizing them in a binder and waiting for those items to go on sale is important for in-store shopping, patience is something you need that will save a lot of money when it comes to online shipping methods.
"Choosing the cheapest shipping option available when checking out online will help shoppers save substantially, even if it takes a few extra days to get to you," Wheeler said.
Shoppers can also avoid high shipping costs by visiting sites such as Walmart.com and Payless.com that offer a buy-online, pick-up-in-store option, so buyers can purchase products online and then pick them up in a store for free whenever they have time.
Some retailers such as Amazon offer programs to help certain types of shoppers save. Amazon Student – a no-cost program for college students with an email address ending in "edu" – provides free two-day shipping for one year with Amazon Prime shipping benefits, as well as exclusive offers via email. Meanwhile, Amazon Mom members, a group that includes parents and caregivers, also receive benefits, including 30 percent off diapers and wipes, with discounted shipping and deals.
Another program called Amazon Subscribe and Save gives people who frequently re-order household products (from grocery and office supplies to health and beauty needs) via the site an extra 15 percent off and free shipping on products.
"The bottom line is that you can get crazy deals online, just like you would in a store," Wheeler said. "But just like shopping in stores, we will not make a purchase online unless it is on sale and we can get a coupon code, too. All of this is just smart shopping.