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Digital coupon options vary widely in savings and usability

Digital coupons don't seem likely to replace paper ones anytime soon.
Digital coupons don't seem likely to replace paper ones anytime soon.
Beth McIntire

The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of digital grocery coupon options.

You don't have to print or clip digital coupons. Though they don't double or triple, you can usually use them in conjunction with regular paper coupons.

For example, if you have a coupon for 40 cents off an item, any digital coupon you have for the item will also apply, along with any doubling or tripling of the paper coupon that the grocery store offers. If you use that 40-cent coupon at a store that doubles coupons and you also have a 40-cent digital coupon offer, you'd save 1.20 on that item. Many, but not all, digital coupon options only work at stores that have loyalty cards.

Here's how some of the more popular digital coupon options stack up in terms of usability and potential savings.

SavingStar
SavingStar Beth McIntire

SavingStar

SavingStar offers an extremely user friendly interface and a large enough coupon selection to make it worthwhile. Setup takes only a few minutes. You need to enter the numbers from loyalty cards of participating stores, such as CVS and numerous grocers like Kroger and Food Lion. Unfortunately, Walgreens' rewards card doesn't participate with SavingStar, at least not yet.

About once a week, before you shop for groceries, you'll need to go through the site and look for new offers to add to your account. The coupons don't double, but they range from relatively low value ones such as 40 cents off on six Yoplait yogurts to high value ones that accumulate over time, like $5 savings when you spend $20 on Goya brand products or $5 back when you spend $20 on Ziploc bags or containers. For offers such as the Goya and Ziploc ones, you can build up $20 over a period of time; you don't need to buy everything in one shopping trip or even all at one store.

Each weekend, the site even offers an item that's free after savings ("Friday Freebie") along with a coupon for fresh produce such as lettuce, asparagus or bananas. The produce and freebie items generally expire after only two or three days. Other offers can last for a month or more, giving you plenty of time to wait for the products to go on sale and/or for you to match them with paper coupons.

As stores report back to SavingStar with your coupon purchases, you get emails saying that savings have been added to your account. Some stores take only a week, but some can take two weeks or more. Once you accumulate a bit of money in your account, you can cash out using PayPal or an Amazon gift card. SavingStar takes very little participation time and is definitely worth using.

Grocery store sites
Grocery store sites Beth McIntire

Grocery store sites

Most grocery stores now offer their own digital coupons, too - discounts that you add to your loyalty card which automatically come off your bill at checkout. Many also offer special sale prices on certain items to customers who sign up to receive email sales alerts. It's definitely worthwhile to sign up for email offers with stores where you shop regularly, but you need to carefully make note of the exact product particulars, including size, included in the sale. Since email offers aren't available to everyone, there won't necessarily be a sale sign on the product to let you know you're buying the correct item to receive the sale price.

Grocery store digital coupons vary in the ease and navigation speed of their Web sites. Some sites require you to click on a coupon, wait a few seconds, select another coupon, wait a few seconds and so forth. Others let you click on a box beside each coupon that you want and then click "Add Coupons" when you're done.

It's always important to make sure to click "login" and enter your user credentials before selecting coupons. Some sites will let you select and add coupons without logging in, but the coupons then won't actually make it to your account.

As with the email offers, it's important to make note of which specific items the coupons cover. You must buy the exact item described in the digital coupon to receive the discount, and you must have been logged into the site when you selected the coupon. Whether store digital coupons are worth your while depends on how much time and patience you have for matching coupons to deals.

Smartphone apps
Smartphone apps Beth McIntire

Smartphone apps

A spate of new services recently came on the scene which involve using smart phone apps to select offers and upload pictures of grocery store receipts in order to receive cash back on certain items. Options in this category include Checkout 51 and Ibotta.

It seems like a simple concept - except that in Ibotta's case, it's not. After signing up for Ibotta, you need to go through the digital coupon options for each store you may want to visit, even though some coupons are available for multiple stores. Then, after purchasing some of the items, you have to use your phone to scan each item's bar code. Finally, you take a photo of the receipt and upload it to Ibotta.

Given how hard it is to get a good photo of a long receipt with a cell phone, it was no surprise when Ibotta didn't accept my receipt. In order to make another attempt at processing my discounts, I would have had to rescan the bar codes for each item, then try taking another photo of the receipt to upload. No, thanks.

While Ibotta's implementation of receipt-based digital couponing leaves a lot to be desired, Checkout 51 does a great job with their service. Each week, you get an email from Checkout 51 with a list of their current offers. You don't have to choose any offers ahead of time. If you buy something Checkout 51 has a current offer for, you simply go to the Checkout 51 app, select which products you purchased on a particular receipt and upload the receipt.

The app lets you photograph your grocery receipt in sections, making it easy to send a clear copy of even the longest grocery receipt. You can upload multiple receipts each week if you happen to buy items at different stores or in different shopping trips to the same store.

You should get an email in less than 24 hours letting you know that Checkout 51 accepted your receipt and added money to your account. Checkout 51 sends you a check when your account balance reaches $20.

Digital coupons probably won't replace paper ones anytime soon, but they can augment regular grocery and drug store sales and coupons to reap additional savings.