THE BLOG
07/18/2012 12:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Learning From My Elders: How to Use Online Coupons

I come from a family of cheap -- I mean frugal -- coupon clippers. We'd shop around half a dozen stores every week, me festooned with a mitt-full of coupons to bust those per-person limits on butter, microwave dinners and bottles of Coke. I was embarrassed to have to do it -- to take part in the coupon ritual every week, something that took an extraordinary amount of planning and logistics. The local paper made it easier, as it was -- and still is today -- stacked with flyers from every grocery, clothing, tool and department store in town.

As I grew into my teens I shrugged off the "limit" buying and made excuses if someone needed me for my body. I had other fish to fry, and my own hard-earned money from Baskin Robbins to spend as I pleased. In protest I vowed to never to use coupons again, never caring if I was paying the highest price on new jeans, shoes, sweaters, CDs or junk food.

By the time I was in university, my anti-coupon sentiments continued. I am sure Mom tried to stuff some in my backpack when I would come home from Toronto on the odd weekends. But nope, not for me. I was never going to look back to those $2 off butter sales, limit three per person. I would buy any butter I pleased, and from where it was most convenient.

I'd have to eat my words: this was all before the big business and Internet craze of digital coupons began. Today I have made a 180-degree turn, and have started putting my best coupon forward, since some online deals are too easy to find and too hard to pass up. My new fondness for coupons started when I was visiting my folks in Florida. Before entering the Gap Outlet somewhere along the Gulf coast, I found an Internet coupon on the sidewalk: 50 percent off any purchase!

Too good to be true? I could save a couple of hundred bucks if I bought a lot of stuff. I tried it out on $100 and it worked. I saved $50. This windfall started a small addiction, and I've become quite good at finding online deals without investing more than 10 minutes. I've found so many deals that my parents, who are still clipping coupons faithfully, ask me to help them find deals at stores like Michaels, for wool or at theme parks for parking.

Tips to finding coupons online

1. The store itself: Some companies offer deals right through their site, and usually if you sign up in the shop for email alerts, they'll send you some of the best coupons you can get, without even having to do online sleuth work. I have tried this and it works.

2. Finding dedicated coupon websites. There are hundreds of online coupon stores to be found and many of them repeat the same coupons. I normally don't choose a specific one but just search with the terms on Google "coupon code + store name" or "coupon online + store name" to find the best deals. I am not talking about group coupon sites like Groupon, but sites providing a listing to recent coupons that have come online. I've used coupon code sites when I was in Canada when I was clothes shopping.

One tip here for directories like this is to scroll through the deals, see how many days are left on them, and on what conditions. Then try to find another coupon site that offers the same or better.

Some stores will accept coupons on your iPhone or Android smartphone so you don't even have to bother printing them out. And if it doesn't work the first time, then go back to the free WiFi at the closest cafe, or hook up to your phone Internet and try another. Some sites let you comment for others, letting them know if the coupon worked. Note that some of these deals are restricted to the US only.

3. Coupons on forums. There are an unlimited number of online forums that share coupon codes or links to digital coupons that can be printed and used at stores. On these forums you'll find coupon codes for corporate days at theme parks, or coupon codes for free shipping, or a certain percentage off your purchase when checking out. A lot of these types of coupons really only work when you are buying something online. And this way there is zero embarrassment for coupon-phobic people -- you can try any number of promo codes until you get one right. I've saved cash this way when buying online software, digital hosting space or e-books. I've even offered a code like this for 50% off to people who bought my e-book. I was kind of hoping the coupon would go viral so I would sell more e-books, but it hasn't yet.

If you are really coupon crazy and don't mind a pile of junk mail, then assign a special email address just for collecting digital coupons. Sign up for them whenever you can and share liberally with your friends. I've had people from around the world ask me for certain coupons. Some stores give money to charity as a special promo if you use them: one Gap coupon I used let me choose a wildlife charity as the beneficiary, so coupon clipping in 2012 has a lot more meaning and fun to it than it was back in the boring butter days of 1983.