Melinda Eddington decided to use coupons about six years ago when she wanted to become a stay-at-home mom.
Barbara Terry started using coupons more about two years ago as a way to deal with the economy.
Allie Marshall began couponing a few months ago after seeing TLC's show "Extreme Couponing," which follows people buying hundreds of dollars in groceries almost for free.
Kyle Hooper uses coupons to help feed her family of four for $1.15 per meal.
All of them are part of the couponing craze across the nation.
Dillons, Target and Walgreens say they are seeing an increase in the number of people using coupons.
In response, several grocery stores have updated their policies this year to clarify what they will accept.
Preparation is key
Eddington knows how to buy groceries cheaply.
Sometimes stores even pay her at the register, instead of the other way around. Once she made $110 using coupons at Walmart.
Primarily, she shops at Dillons, Walgreens and Walmart. She even knows the work schedule of one of her favorite cashiers, which makes the shopping process go much more smoothly.
She has a space downstairs with shelves that hold the extra food she buys in bulk. With the stress of a recent move, her family of four is living off the stockpile. She only goes to the store for items such as milk, she said.
"That's the nice thing about couponing," she said.
Before the move, she devoted one day a week to couponing. Because she stayed organized, she said the more she did, the less time it took.
Eddington also sells items from her stockpile at a discount so they won't go bad. To do this, she had to register her house as a warehouse and get a tax license.
Though what she does might seem extreme to some, her methods work for her family, she said. Her husband has lost his job twice, but her coupon habits have made it so the family could still afford necessities, she said.
"It's kind of a way to help me and help others," she said.
Eddington, a former teacher, offers free classes each month to show others in the Wichita area how to save money. She said helping others understand their coupons is important so they use them correctly and follow stores' policies.
Her best tip for people trying to save is to use blogs where people research and share deals. Rather than visiting specific blogs, she recommends shoppers search the Internet for the name of the store, the word "deals" and the date the ad came out.
Though couponing can seem overwhelming, Eddington suggests couponers pick the stores they want to focus on so they don't get overwhelmed.
"You don't have to do it crazy...You can do as little or as much as you want," she said.
'A way of life'
Hooper has also made couponing work for her family. Though she said she does some extreme couponing when she buys in bulk, she said she only purchases things she will use.
After working more than 40 hours each week, she said she doesn't have time to devote 10 hours a week to couponing, like some people do on the TLC show. Instead, she sits down Sunday mornings with the newspaper and her kids help her find deals — which also teaches them the value of saving.
"It's become a hobby more than a hassle for us because it's just a way of life," she said.
Millions of people have watched "Extreme Couponing" since it first debuted in December 2010 and returned as a series in April 2011. Shoppers on the show use traditional paper coupons, but they also have coupons they find on the Internet.
Even before the series, grocery stores were on alert about counterfeit coupons that were circulating online. The National Grocers Association issued a warning in 2009 as couponing made a fierce comeback during the peak of the recession.
The coupon-processing company Inmar Inc. reported coupon use doubled in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier. U.S. coupon redemption held steady in 2010 with customers redeeming 3.3 billion coupons.
As shoppers began using coupons more, they wanted more specifics about which ones they could use, said Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie. Kroger, Dillons' parent company, released a coupon policy in May to create consistency among stores, she said.
Though she said the policy didn't include many changes, she said it clarifies electronic, manufacturer and print-at-home Internet coupons.
The policy states that customers cannot use an electronic coupon and a paper manufacturer coupon on the same item, but they can use both a store coupon and a paper manufacturer coupon.
Dillons shoppers are limited to one store coupon per item. Internet coupons cannot be altered or blurry, and customers can only use one per item.
Some shoppers have noticed the changes to the policies. Terry said a local Dillons store told her in early June that they would not honor a coupon to the end of the month that it expired, like they used to.
"They're changing the rules so I can't save as much or use the coupons as long," Terry said.
Lowrie said the company has always discouraged the use of expired coupons and no longer accepts them.
Similarly, Target spokeswoman Erika Winkels said its new coupon policy provides more transparency about which coupons stores would accept. It took effect in June.
Target accepts one manufacturer coupon and one store coupon for an item. It also accepts mobile coupons and Internet coupons with a clear, scannable bar code.
Homeland in Haysville has made a more noticeable change to its coupon policy. It used to double five like coupons, but now customers buying five of the same item will only get the first coupon doubled and the rest for face value.
Customer service supervisor Judy Bryan cited the "Extreme Couponing" series and local extreme couponers as reasons the policy changed early this year.
Under the new policy, people can only use the like coupons once a day per family. Bryan said she sees husbands and wives going to separate registers to try to bend the rules. The store also has to look at each Internet coupon to make sure it's real, which can upset customers, she said.
Bryan said the coupon craze could cause stores to make policies even stricter.
"It's really soured a lot of businesses on coupons," she said.
Finding a balance
People jumping on the couponing bandwagon need to use caution, said Wichitan Jill Cooper, who used to practice extreme couponing about 20 years ago, though it wasn't called that at the time.
On average, she said she got about 80 percent of her groceries for free using coupons. She kept up the couponing for six years.
"I was all excited," she said.
Once she moved from Wichita to a small town in Colorado, she realized how coupons had controlled her.
While shopping, she would worry in the store over whether to buy something she wanted but didn't have a coupon for. Conversations centered on how much she saved at the store.
"It just starts absorbing you more so than you realize," she said.
The extreme couponing method also requires time that many people forget to factor into the savings, Cooper said.
While in Colorado, Cooper developed other ways to save money on groceries without relying heavily on coupons, which she now shares at livingonadime.com — the website she started with her daughter. About 90,000 people visit the site monthly.
The couponing fad can also cause guilt for people who don't want to join in, making them feel like they're failing in their role as a spouse or parent, Cooper said. Sometimes, she sees that same effect from visitors to the website, but she reminds people to find a happy medium in the ways they save money.
"If you overbalance in one area, things are going to topple over," she said.