CINCINNATI With her household budget tightening, Michelle Fox treats couponing like getting a part-time job to help make ends meet.
In her case, it's a job that pays about $20 an hour.
"Every little bit helps. It's something I do for my family," said the Pueblo, Colo., resident, who helps offset rising costs for her five-person household by spending a few hours each week scouring the Sunday newspapers and Internet sites for opportunities to save quarters and dollars per item.
Fox, whose full-time job is in a telecommunications company call center, has been a couponer for years, enduring the snickers or grumbles from customers waiting in line behind her as she handed over fistfuls of coupons. But that's changing, she said; now people trying to cope with $4-a-gallon gas and higher grocery prices are asking her for tips on finding and using coupons.
The expanding availability of printable coupons online, of paperless digital coupons that can be accessed from cell phones and store loyalty cards, and an explosion of Web sites and bloggers focused on sharing coupon information are also feeding a comeback of what had been a fading Sunday tradition in American households. But it's mainly the economy that has people of more diverse ages and income clipping and clicking.
"That lackluster economy brings out the couponing tendency in all of us," said Sharon Baker, executive director of Shortcuts, a digital coupon distribution service started this year by Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.
Amid soaring fuel costs and a housing and credit crisis, Americans last year halted a 16-year trend of declining redemptions by turning in 2.6 billion manufacturers' coupons, according to CMS Inc., a coupon processing agent and promotions logistics service based in Winston-Salem, N.C. That marked the first year since 1992, when nearly 8 billion coupons were used, that redemptions had not fallen.
CMS says historical trends show that coupon redemption rates rise when prices and unemployment are going up, so more coupon use is expected this year.
Coupons Inc., which specializes in offering printable online coupons, says usage trends spiked up last September.
"We saw a huge leap; we think consumers really started to feel the pinch then," said Steven Boal, founder and chief executive of the 10-year-old company. "We're just seeing the numbers continue to climb."
Stephanie Nelson, an Atlanta-area woman behind the "The Coupon Mom" Web site that offers coupons, information and advice, said daily visits to her site have more than tripled this year, to some 25,000 a day.
"People are seeking out ways to save money," she said. "Coupons are free money, if it's something you would buy anyway."
"You can't really cut the price of gas, but you can cut the cost of food in half," said Teri Gault, founder and CEO of TheGroceryGame.com, a site that helps users coordinate coupon use with supermarket and drugstore sales to maximize savings.
About 100,000 now use the site, Gault said, and many of them signed up in just the past few months. She's also seeing more single professionals and double-income families logging on; a two-month subscription costs $10.
Coupons are also available in more ways than ever.
"It's really easy to print the coupons, especially if you're at a computer all day," said Julia Kozlov, a 32-year-old Los Angeles mother of two. She typically saves about $50 on an $80 bill, using mainly online coupons.
Another trend: a younger demographic getting involved in an activity traditionally dominated by 50-plus women.
"My generation is electronically based, so anything you can do by point and click, we're more likely to do," said Ariel Redmon, 23, a pharmacy student at the University of Kentucky and a regular couponer.
The trends aren't lost on retailers and manufacturers, who have increased coupon offerings. Companies such as consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co. and grocery store chain Kroger Co. have stepped up coupon offerings and are trying new delivery methods; P&G teamed up with Kroger late last year to offer paperless coupons online, and both have since expanded digital offers with other tie-ins such as Shortcuts.
Kroger, which also now offers Unilever coupons online, is trying out coupons via texting to cell phones through Cellfire.com and looking at other new delivery methods, said Ken Fenyo, Kroger's vice president for corporate loyalty. The nation's largest traditional grocer credited drawing bargain-hunting shoppers with helping a 15 percent rise in profits and 12 percent increase in sales in its recent first-quarter fiscal earnings report.
"We're really just trying to experiment a lot, to find out what works for our customers," Fenyo said. "We've been very active, and we have seen really great response."
Digital coupons tend to have much higher usage rates than traditional paper coupons as few as 1 percent of manufacturers' coupons are usually redeemed in a given year. Advertisers are also increasingly using coupons to attract attention to new products, and online coupons are helping them more efficiently reach consumers.
Coupons Inc. recently unveiled its "Brandcaster" system, targeting Web surfers with coupon offers that relate to the content they're viewing. For example, someone reading online about healthy food might then see a coupon for organic milk. Participating companies include General Mills Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Kraft Foods Inc.
Couponing can be as easy as using scissors, but the dedicated develop their own systems, learning which coupons can be doubled, what nights Web sites post new coupons, and what manufacturers' cycles are for issuing coupons.
"I thought it was very labor-intensive, but when I got out on my own, saving a quarter here and there began to add up," said Redmon, the University of Kentucky student who says she began using coupons when she got her first apartment three years ago.
She began buying the Sunday newspaper for coupons and keeps them in baseball card sheets. Then she looks for online coupons, checking out blogs and sites devoted to coupon deals. She usually is able to cut her grocery bill by at least 25 percent in a recent trip, a $135 total shrank to $79 after she used her coupons.
"It's like a little scavenger hunt," she said. "And it's rewarding."