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Catalinas: The Cadillacs of shopping coupons

By Carrie Kirby, Tribune Newspapers

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When Joanie Demer used coupons to take a $600 grocery bill down to $2.64 on the TLC show "Extreme Couponing," she had a secret weapon.

Demer, who blogs at TheKrazyCouponLady.com, used plenty of ordinary coupons, the ones you clip from the Sunday newspaper for 50 cents off this or $1 off that. But her secret weapon was her stash of "Catalinas," supercoupons that took up to $5 off her bill with each swoop across the barcode scanner.

Catalinas — also known as "YourBucks" or dollars-off coupons — can be a bargain shopper's best friend, but you won't find them in the newspaper, and you can't print them online. These valuable coupons are available only from one source: a little printer at your grocery or drugstore checkout. The printers spit out a narrow tape of coupons for each customer, and far too many shoppers ignore them. Some of the things that come out of the Catalina printer are low-value coupons or worthless ads, but sometimes you will hit the jackpot with coupons for $1, $5 or even $20 off your next shopping trip.

Catalina Marketing is a St. Petersburg, Fla., company that works with manufacturers to target offers to specific customers with the help of data from loyalty cards. It makes sense that the company's machines print higher-value coupons than the ones in the paper or online: Through Catalina, manufacturers can issue fewer coupons overall to a more targeted group of customers, based on what they bought.

The most exciting thing about Catalinas is that, unlike a coupon you clip for 50 cents off a certain brand of toothpaste, dollars-off Catalina coupons can be spent on nearly anything, almost like cash.

"Some health-conscious consumers use them to save on categories for which coupons aren't typically or widely available — like fresh fruit and vegetables," said Catalina Marketing executive Susan Gear. "I've even heard of a woman who tipped a restaurant server with a $2 YourBuck reward."

If you buy $5.25 worth of bananas and hand over a Catalina coupon that reads "Save $5 off your next order," you'll pay only a quarter for the bunch.

The Frugalista gets so many dollars-off coupons that sometimes even the checkers at my local grocery ask me: How can I get some of these coupons to print for me?

Catalina does several types of coupon promotion, each with its own kind of "trigger purchase":

Big Catalina

Trigger: You spend a specified amount on products included in the promotion.

Example: "Spend $30 on these products, get $10 off your next order."

How you find out about it: Big Catalinas usually run only at one grocery chain at a time and are advertised in the weekly ads and in stores.

Little Catalina

Trigger: You buy a certain number of products included in the promotion, no matter how much they cost.

Example: "Buy four boxes of Brand X fruit snacks, get $2 off your next order."

How you find out about it: Catalina Marketing lists them at CouponNetwork.com. To view, click "YourBucks Offers." They may also be marked on store shelves or advertised by printouts from the Catalina machine. They often run simultaneously at multiple stores nationwide.

Product-specific Catalina

Trigger: You may get this kind of coupon out of the Catalina machine without knowing why. Sometimes if you buy one brand of something, the machine prints a coupon for a competitor.

Example: $1 off Brand X children's cold medicine.

How you find out about it: Usually unadvertised.

Now it may not seem like you can get ahead spending $30 to earn a $10 coupon. But you can sweeten the deal for yourself by using coupons for your initial purchase — coupons from the newspaper, the Internet, or even Catalina coupons earned on previous purchases. The amount you have to spend to trigger a Catalina print is generally calculated before your manufacturer's coupons come off. Imagine you buy $30 worth of the products in the promotion, but then you hand over $10 worth of coupons. Now you're paying $20 to get that $10 coupon — essentially getting 50 percent off the sale price. Not a bad deal, assuming you selected items you needed anyway.

When an attractive Catalina deal comes to one of my local stores, I set aside time to make multiple trips through the checkout lane and collect as many Catalina coupons as possible. This kind of deal has been a big help in building my grocery stockpile.

Carrie Kirby is a mom and the self-proclaimed Frugalista. Write to her at ckirby@tribune.com.