THE BLOG
11/30/2012 02:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2013

Coupons, Then and Now: Secrets of Extreme Couponing

Forty years ago when I handed over my first coupon, there was no such thing as a blog. There was no Internet, no cell phones and no apps. Couponing was part of an underground network of folks sharing tips, ideas and coupons -- all in the hopes of saving money.

Back in 1973, the average coupon value was about eight cents, and they were cut from newspapers and magazines; there were no separate inserts. Stores had their own coupons, which needed to be cut and presented at the checkout.

"Double coupon" offers didn't exist, and coupons did not have bar codes; as a matter of fact, neither did products. All were individually item-priced, read, and entered manually by the checker. Coupon deductions were added up on the brown paper bag your items were deposited into and given to the consumer in cash. The cash register was nothing more than a fancy adding machine.

Despite this unique and seemingly primitive (by today's standards) beginning, coupons still helped save me, and others, thousands of dollars. My first year, I accumulated $1,500 in refunds, which I deposited into the bank: my own holiday fund account.

Today, it's a different matter. First of all, coupons aren't a rare or new concept to any modern-day consumer. Just a few years ago, people were embarrassed to use coupons because of the stigmas associated with them.

But now, coupons are the new cool. Extreme couponing is a phenomenon which is expanding on a daily basis. Paying full retail is a thing of the past. Competition is fierce, and the consumer can reap all the benefits. Stores and manufacturers make it almost too easy for us.

Thanks to new technology, a receipt comes out of a sophisticated computer-style register. You can find your percent-of-savings, your dollar savings, the number of coupons used, and in some cases, an annual total of money saved. All this information is gleaned automatically from your store loyalty card.

I have been couponing, refunding, and saving for nearly 40 years. As the original 'Coupon Queen' (dating back to 1973), I have seen it all -- every technological advance, every type of discount offer and every exasperated look from the checkout clerk when I approach, which is always followed by a huge grin and a, "How did you do that?!"

So what's my secret? Determination, experience and flexibility. That, and an over-worn accordion-style coupon organizer.

My story is a unique one. I started couponing and refunding in 1973, slowly gaining steam and renown over the next decade. In 1984, I bought $522 worth of groceries for $22, and it was all documented on television. I remember announcing my victory to the audience and hearing the gasps echo throughout the room for what seemed like an eternity.

That shopping trip created a tremendous amount of buzz throughout the country. From there, I went on to become one of the foremost experts in consumer savings, and the rest is... well, you know the old saying.

After hundreds upon hundreds of similar coupon-related experiences, I have retained my original system, refining it over the years with new technological advances and new tricks.

When I first started, there was no one to guide or teach me. I needed to save money for my family, so I kept working at it until the savings really started to add up.

Over the course of my life, I have saved over $100,000 and earned an additional $80,000 in refunds. Not to mention the assorted t-shirts, a coffee maker, crock pot and many other gifts, all free. I regularly save between 50-60 percent on a typical shopping trip. This year alone (and keep in mind, I have a whole month left), I reached a total savings of over $3,000. For me, extreme couponing has been one of the guiding lights in my life.

Saving requires a little creativity, organization and flexibility. Stockpiling non-perishables, trying different brands, and learning how to use store policies to my advantage were just some of the methods I began to employ.

As time has passed, technology and savings techniques have also evolved. I now use loyalty cards and programs, smart phone apps, printable coupons, electronic and digital coupons, and assorted supermarket websites to search for store sales and create shopping lists.

And still, even though technology plays such an important role nowadays, the basics still do count. Setting up a system in a simple and easy-to-use way is key.

I file my coupons categorically, mimicking the supermarket layout, and I follow this same category order when shopping.

Starting with the store flyer (also broken down into categories, such as frozen items, dairy, cereals, etc.), I make my shopping list based on what I need, what is on sale, and what I have coupons for. I also keep a keen eye out for unadvertised specials

My savings only begin at the supermarket. Retail stores offer coupons with enormous savings. Some coupons come via the good-old postal service, others as part of the Sunday newspaper, and still others via email. Simply sign up for a store's e-newsletter, and you'll have an inbox full of coupons. I suggest having a separate email address just for these bonuses.

All of these tools are helpful, but the real rewards come from dedicating the time to finding sales, being brand flexible, knowing product prices, staying organized, and of course, having thousands of coupons at your beck-and-call.

But fortunately for you, savvy reader, there are coupons for most everything: from groceries to toys, hardware to stationery, drugstores to restaurants, and even department stores -- which is especially helpful come the holiday season! I was able to purchase a complete Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, touting a retail cost of $271 at Gristedes in New York, for $28. Use my tips, and your holiday shopping will be an absolute breeze.

If you want to know more about me or my system, I am always happy to speak to fellow supershoppers. You can email me at susan@couponqueen.com or visit my website: CouponQueen.com. Plus, you can buy my new book: Supershop Like the Coupon Queen, available on Amazon and wherever books are sold

Happy Holidays, and Happy Shop-idays!

TLC's Extreme Couponing airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m./9 p.m. central time.

Check out a sneak peek from tonight's episode!