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Five simple steps to saving at the supermarket

Looking to cut back on those growing grocery bills? "Today" food editor Phil Lempert offers simple strategies to help you save money.

Coupons are everywhere. Industry experts estimate a whopping 400 billion coupons will be distributed this year in an attempt to build sales and convert shoppers to a particular brand.

Tom Lemke, a talk-show guest on "Oprah," once explained how he bought more than $400 of groceries for less than $120 using coupons. And while Lemke's level of success is rare, coupons can shave 15 percent from every grocery bill. That's an annual savings of $700 for a family of four.

Manufacturer coupons are found in newspapers, inserts tucked in weekend papers, direct-mail pieces and magazines. Right now, manufacturers are testing the elimination of coupons. So use them now, before it's too late!

How coupons work
The face value, plus a handling charge, is paid by the manufacturer. The other coupons — retailer coupons — are offered and redeemed by supermarkets. Many times, manufacturers pay promotional fees to grocery stores to compensate for the expense.

Some supermarkets give shoppers two or three times what a coupon is worth, called double or triple coupons. Usually, though, only manufacturer coupons up to a certain face value are accepted.

How to make the most of coupons
Follow these five simple strategies, and you'll be surprised how much you can save:

  • Collect coupons from as many sources as possible. You may find them in your newspaper, newspaper supplements, magazines, mailbox, mail-in rebates, in-store samplings, circulars, on-shelf tear pads, coupon dispensers and online services. Nielsen Coupon Clearing House reported that 98 percent of coupons are never used — get your fair share!
  • Discard coupons for products you don't use.If it's the wrong product, wrong flavor, whatever, toss the coupon. Check expiration dates, too. If you don't expect to redeem the coupon by that date, throw it out. Don't feel guilty discarding coupons. The object is to save money on products you want and use.
  • Keep your coupons organized. Don't just throw coupons in a drawer. Divide them by product type (cereals, frozen dinners, salad dressings, etc.) and then put them in order of descending value, keeping the highest-value coupons in front. Note the expiration dates and put those expiring soonest up front. Put those with the "no expiration date" last.
  • Experiment with new brands and new products. This is one of the easiest (and cheapest!) ways to discover new pleasures. Be open to new brands (including store brands) or new package sizes. Most supermarkets insist that manufacturers distribute high-value coupons when they introduce new products.
  • Combine offers to save even more.The ultimate way to save is to wait for your supermarket to feature a special price, use your coupon, mail in a rebate, get instant savings from using your frequent shopper card and shop on specially advertised discount value days. It doesn't come together all that often and it's hard work. But if you start thinking about combining offers, you'll often get two discounts on one item.

For more money saving tips, visit Phil’s Web site:

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .