While deal-hunters have oodles of online coupons and promotions to choose from these days, finding the real discounts just keeps getting tougher.
In the last two years, the number of web sites offering coupons and discount codes has more than tripled, to more than 500, says Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers. But what many of them are offering has gotten increasingly lousy. The number of counterfeit printable coupons has also grown three-fold, while lousy code sites now outnumber legit ones by at least four to one, according to estimates from manufacturers. The problems are so widespread that as few as 50 coupon-clipping sites are "really worthwhile," says Vonder Heide.
The explosion of coupon-clipping sites is largely due to how easy it is for would-be entrepreneurs to start their own operation thanks to cheap and simple technology and plenty of retailers willing to pay pennies per click for the referrals. But for consumers, the crowded market makes finding real deals more difficult. Many sites only offer coupons they make money on, while the better sites try to round up all the best deals even those they don't directly profit from. Some sites have ditched "coupons" altogether, relying on a one-two punch of fake offers that get you to click and spyware that lingers on your computer to earn the site a commission for any future web purchases, says Vonder Heide.
Separating the good from the so-so and outright bad sites isn't easy. Many of the latter still show up in the first page of Google results when you type in a retailer or brand name and "coupon." The difference is clearer once you visit, as poor sites typically offer only codes with "unknown" expirations (indicating outdated deals or fakes) or just one with a version of the site name in it (which means they're getting a kick-back from the store when you use that deal). Legit coupon-clipping sites often require special software for barcode printing, and limit the number of copies you can print, while fakes do neither. The better code sites also tend to allow submissions by site users, which experts say leads to a wider variety of deals, many of which might only be sent to email subscribers, loyalty-program members, store card-holders and other targeted customer groups.
Or you could just bookmark the list below. Two and a half years ago, we compiled a list of the five best coupon sites on the Internet -- a list that still makes the rounds today. But the landscape has changed so much that an update seemed in order. Once again we polled money-saving experts, including Super Couponing workshop founder Jill Cataldo, "How to Shop for Free" author Kathy Spencer and frugal-living expert Mary Hunt, and asked them which resources they use to cut their bills.
And while many of the perennial favorites are still on the list, two sites from the old list -- CouponMom.com and SmartSource.com -- were edged out by newer sites our experts are more excited about for ease of use and variety of coupons. A CouponMom.com spokeswoman responded: "We've quadrupled our numbers, to more than 4 million members, so obviously somebody likes us. We're a very popular site." SmartSource.com, which is owned by SmartMoney.com parent News Corp., did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, with hundreds of sites out there -- many of them posted by individual coupon-clippers we likely missed one. It's still reasonable to look for other coupons or discounts by typing the retailer or brand name and "coupon" into Google. To spot the good sites, look for recent dates on coupons and comprehensive coupon lists.
Here are seven that top bargain-hunters' lists:
For printable grocery coupons, Coupons.com usually has the biggest selection, which -- because the printable market is still small is usually between 100 and 200 grocery coupons on a given day. (A spokesman for the site says although the number of coupons is small, they're printed frequently.) Many other reputable deal sites like CouponMom.com are actually affiliates. Some can be loaded to your supermarket loyalty card and redeemed when you swipe at checkout -- no coupon printing required, says Mary Hunt, founder of Debt-Proof Living. Recent printable deals included $3 off Claritin-D and $2 off any pack of Huggies.
The site's 15-person testing team works to test thousands of coupons daily, even going so far as to guarantee some of them from major retailers, says Edgar Dworsky, the founder of ConsumerWorld.org. (If it fails, they promise a $25 certificate from Restaurant.com. But don't get your hopes up only a handful of codes get that guarantee.) Jackie Warrick, the chief savings officer for CouponCabin.com, says the site is working on expanding its guarantee to all offers, but currently, only guarantees those the retailer offers, and not those users submit. There's also a selection of printable coupons provided by Coupons.com. Recent codes included $10 off for every $50 spent at J.C. Penney and 30% off any purchase at Gap.
Most shoppers are familiar with so-called "catalinas," the string of manufacturer coupons that print out at the supermarket checkout along with your receipt, says Cataldo. The company behind the service, Catalina, now has a web site with more printable deals and a rewards program. Buy participating products and you'll get dollars-off coupons that can be redeemed for anything in the supermarket, she says. The catch: your supermarket must participate in the program to earn or redeem those rewards. (A spokeswoman says coupons clearly indicate which stores accept them, and that many big chains including A&P, Safeway and ShopRite currently do.) Recent deals include a $1.50 printable coupon for Rubbermaid glass containers, and $4 off a future purchase after you buy five DiGiorno frozen pizzas.
In addition to listing the latest coupon codes for major retailers, DealNews staff monitors available sales and uses its database of past promotions to assess how good or bad a current offer is compared with earlier discounts. Most other sites just note the deals, so the analysis could help someone decide whether to buy now or wait for a better offer, says Cataldo. User ratings push hot deals to the top of the page, and a local deals tab tracks daily-deal site offers in your area. But with so much on the site, it's not the fastest way to find deals. Chief executive Dan de Grandpre says the site offers several options for consumers to search for and obtain coupons, including a dedicated webpage on sister site Dealcoupon.com. Recent sales include 40% off at Lane Bryant and $80 off a $260 Dell 24" 1080p LCD display.
At DropDownDeals, a downloadable tool bar syncs with the site's coupon database and automatically displays a pop-up with available deals at the retailer you're browsing. It's a helpful feature for people who sometimes forget to look for discounts, or don't look until checkout and then have to revise their order, says Kathy Spencer, the author of "How to Shop for Free." Recent deals include $5 off $50 at Sears and 10% off at Target. Spencer says she sometimes finds deals elsewhere that the tool bar doesn't catch, but that the pop-up is always a great reminder to factor available deals into what goes into her virtual cart. (A spokesman says the site uses customer feedback to update its deals list to limit such instances.) Recent deals include $5 off $50 at Sears and 10% off at Target.
Facebook exclusives and coupons awarded in exchange for "liking" a particular brand are becoming more common, says de Grandpre. Follow a few of your favorite stores and brands to see offers and sales in your news feed. Keep in mind that brands you "like" may be able to access some of your basic personal information when you opt to download a coupon via an app. A spokeswoman says simply liking a page won't transmit any information. But you can also remove them from your account as soon as you nab the coupon, which prevents retailers from accessing that information in the future. Recent deals include a $0.75 Jimmy D's coupon that doubles to $1.50 when shared on Facebook and a mailed $2 Tide Stain Release coupon.
"RetailMeNot is still hands down the best place to look," says Kathryn Finney, the founder of The Budget Fashionista. The site has an active user community, which means plenty of user-submitted coupons -- where allowed. Some retailers have asked that the site block user submissions to control redemption, she says, so some stores have a narrower selection than others. A merchant alert feature sends shoppers an email when a favorite retailer posts a new code. (RetailMeNot CEO Cotter Cunningham says only 0.3% of retailers on the site -- roughly 200 to 300 -- have blocked user submissions, and that such a decision is always noted on a retailer's page.) Recent deals include a free cinnamon-stick dessert at Domino's Pizza and 25% off at Teleflora.