Can you really save money with coupons?

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesI started clipping coupons when I was a dirt-poor college student, having to decide whether to spend an extra 60 cents on a couple of packages of Ramen noodles or use that money for bus fare to get to work. (Sounds terribly dramatic, but it's true. It was Syracuse, N.Y., and it was worth going without dinner in order to avoid a three-mile walk home in the snow at night). Back then, the quarters I scraped together went a long way -- a couple of coupons could yield savings equal to the amount needed to wash a load of laundry -- and so the sorting and clipping was definitely worth my time.

I still clip coupons, but now it's more an exercise in frugality, as well as a challenge to see how little I can pay for the things I usually buy anyway. Every once in a while I hit a jackpot -- a buy-one-get-one free item for which I have coupons, for instance -- and I find myself wondering: What if I did this all the time? Can you really save that much money with coupons?

Kathy Spencer says yes. And she can help teach you how.

The Boxford, Massachusetts mom spends less than $10 a week to feed her family of six -- plus several pets. "The trick is stockpiling," she told me, via email. "Look at the expiration and figure out how much you think you will need between that time frame and stock up!" (You can read our entire interview here.)

So, what led her to think about saving money as a source of income? "A few years ago my husband became very sick unexpectedly," she says. "In between trips to the doctors, I ran into the store to get some juice that was on sale for $1. I had three $1 coupons and that made it free. Thats when I started thinking... what if I had 10 coupons? What about 20? How much extra money would he make if he got a promotion versus how much money could I save us if I figured this all out?"

There are other tricks, of course. Kathy is the founder of the online couponing community How to Shop for Free on Yahoo; the community grew so quickly that she started a second How to Shop for Free group at Big Tent, and when it comes to money-saving tricks, she knows them all. "Once you establish a stockpile, you can go weeks without stepping into a grocery store," she points out. "We all work together so the sales get posted and you can see what will work out free and not even have to look at the sale paper if you are lazy that week. We also post some sales a week in advance, which gives time to get coupons for them" by buying them on eBay or swapping with other group members. (For more tips, check out this great list of grocery-budget busters at Work It, Mom!).

The time she spends clipping coupons leads to significant savings for her -- and a better family life. "A lot of people fight over money," she points out. "Take the $200 to $300 hundred a week grocery bill out of that and how much happier could that make you?"

Don't really need to save money by clipping coupons? Lucky you. But consider... you could buy items for next to nothing, and donate them to people who really do need help. Members at How to Shop for Free have donated surplus stockpiles to food pantries, neighbors, churches, family, and friends. "We just get too much for free and have to give it away! It has been amazing how many people have been helped just through coupons," Kathy says. "It just seems to snowball! The more people I helped, the more they help, and it goes on and on. No one should have to go hungry or have to choose heat versus food."

That last idea put coupon clipping in a whole new light for me. I'm going to take a closer look at the circular when my Sunday paper comes this weekend, and I'm taking Kathy's tips to heart.

Lylah M. Alphonse writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and Work It, Mom!, is the Child Caring columnist for Boston.com/Moms, and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat.