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preet banerjee

Couponing is one of those money habits that are essential to some and the stuff of fascination to others, kind of like collecting hockey cards. But the logistics of cashing in can be daunting.

Is it worth the hassle to drive to four different stores to get the best prices each week on beef, breads, juice and eggs? And it seems like those extreme couponers on television have to fill up three or four grocery carts. Just how much of a time drag is it?

Canadians realized only 3.72 per cent of all the savings available to us through the use of coupons in 2006, according to a study by the Coupon Industry Association of Canada. That's $134-million saved out of a possible $7-billion that year.

With a nasty downturn in the economy and the popularity of Extreme Couponing reality TV shows, it's safe to say those numbers have probably risen, but many people I speak to today still don't take couponing seriously.

Extreme couponing doesn't really exist in Canada. You're not going to get $600 worth of groceries for $5 as they do on American TV shows. That's because our retailers generally don't have coupon policies that are as liberal as our southern cousins. Across the border, it's possible to stack coupons (use more than one for the same product), and some stores have coupon-multiplier programs that allow you to claim double the discount stated on the coupons on certain days.

An exception is London Drugs, a drugstore chain with operations in Western Canada, which allows coupon stacking, but there are restrictions. You need to comb through your favourite retailers' coupon policies to see exactly where they stand.

But while 90-per-cent discounts are generally out of the picture, we can still save 10 to 30 per cent regularly. That could be over a thousand dollars per year for many Canadian families. So how do we do that?

The first step is to get the coupons. Yes, those flyers delivered to your home are good for more than lining the hamster cage. You can also sign up for coupons directly from manufacturers. There are many Canadian websites dedicated to the art of couponing, which can point out further sources .

To maximize grocery dollars, savvy couponers will spend an hour or two creating a meal plan based on the coupons available. Couponers also factor in mileage. You might get the biggest savings by shopping at four different stores, but if the savings are negated by added fuel costs and hassle, it might make more sense to shop less frequently or limit yourself to one or two stores.

Taking advantage of price-matching can help . If you bring in proof of lower prices from other stores, it's possible to have those prices honoured at your regular grocery store. Some even allow you to come back and claim a discount if the competitor's price is lower for 30 days after the purchase.

Some people might draw the line at holding up the checkout lane as they pull out the proof for multiple items, while even more wouldn't bother to continue to monitor prices for another month unless the items were substantial. Everyone has a limit.

As with all good deals, it's important to realize that a discount on something you wouldn't normally buy is no savings at all. But apathy toward money-saving on groceries is something we all need to cut out.

Websites for finding deals and coupons: Multiple ways to categorize coupons (by location, by store, etc.) Online copies of flyers for various retailers You can order coupons to be mailed to you

Check generic alternatives. They can often be cheaper at their regular price than discounted premium brands.