It's a month after Christmas, the bills have started rolling in, and the cost of groceries is rising like bread dough in a warm kitchen.

The cost crunch is prompting more shoppers than ever to use coupons to stretch their dollars. For most, that means leafing through the shiny Sunday supplements, clipping coupons for a few products.

But for others, couponing is serious business. Extreme couponers devote hours a week to finding, clipping, sorting coupons and making the rounds of several stores to get the most bang for their cents-off buck.

Laura Kennedy of Hometown is one of those extreme couponers. Kennedy has saved about 40 percent on purchases so far this month.

"The biggest and best deal I got last week was Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen foods, which are usually between $2.29 and $2.79 each. They were on sale at five for $10. There was also a promotion when you buy 10, you get $5 off your order instantly, and I had a $3 off 10 coupon. Therefore, I got 10 various breakfast, dinner, and dessert Smart Ones for $12, or $1.20 each," she said.

"They also have a promotion going on right now where you buy four General Mills cereals with your (Giant) Bonus Card and get a coupon for a free gallon of milk (up to $4.50 value). I took advantage of this last week. By using coupons (that Giant doubles) I got a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a box of Multi Grain Cheerios, a box of Peanut Butter Cheerios, and a box of Dulce de Leche Cheerios (and a gallon of milk on my next trip) for $9.16 total," Kennedy said.

Giant spokesman Christopher Brand said that in "2007 and 2008, we had what we call normal coupon usage. Then, with the advent of the recession, in 2009, coupon usage peaked. The numbers leveled out and stabilized by 2010-2011."

The company does not release the numbers of coupons redeemed.

As seen on TV

The coupon frenzy is fueled by shows like TLC's "Extreme Couponing." However, experts caution the program is unrealistic.

"Most shoppers on the show deliberately left out produce and meat purchases (two areas that are a little harder to coupon) in order to keep their register totals low. But most of us eat those things. I wouldn't want people to be discouraged from eating well or eating healthy just because they want an extremely low total at the register. Aim to cut the bill in half or better, which is a much more achievable, enjoyable goal," said Super Couponing founder Jill Cataldo.

"While there are elements of realism in it, many of the shoppers have stated in interviews that the stores special-ordered large quantities of the items that they were buying so that the shoppers could 'clear them all' out in their trip. We saw shoppers using coupons for items that they did not buy at all something that most shoppers would never be allowed to do at the register. These coupons beeped at the register for not matching any item, but the cashiers pushed them through it's coupon fraud, and it shouldn't have been allowed," she said.

Consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch had a similar caveat.

"Extreme couponers who save their families thousands of dollars a year are harmless. However, lots of other consumers are taking cue from the TLC show and doing unethical things to reach those same savings, like stealing newspapers and coupon circulars. Newspaper theft is at a high right now."

The Coupon Information Corporation also has weighed in on the subject, saying it is "disappointed" with the show and asked producers to make it more realistic.

"Professionals in the coupon industry believe this show creates unrealistic expectations about how coupons work and promotes the misuse of coupons," CIC stated in a press release.

"In real life, individuals attempting to use such large quantities of coupons or attempting to use them in violation of the terms stated on the coupons would most likely have their coupons refused at the register or, depending on the circumstances, be investigated by law enforcement," CIC said.

Stores respond

The extreme couponing trend is triggering changes in some stores' coupon policies, Woroch said.

"Unfortunately, many retailers are now limiting coupon policies in reaction to the extreme couponing trend. For example, Target no longer allows customers to use more than one BOGO (buy one get one free coupon) on the same purchase," she said.

Eric B. White, consumer communications specialist for the Berks County-based Redner's Warehouse Markets, is educating its employees and customers.

"We did not change our policy, but formalized it in writing so that all of our employee-owners and customers had a defined acceptance policy from which they could operate," he said.

Rite Aid spokesman Eric Harkreader said his company has seen an increase in coupon use, and revised its policy in May.

In the event that any item's selling price is less than the value of the coupon, Rite Aid will accept the coupon in exchange for the selling price of the item.

Coupon redemption can never exceed the selling price of an item and no cash back is allowed. Also, more than one coupon can be used on the purchase of a single item under the following conditions: All coupons match the item being purchased, and the total of the coupons is equal to or less than the selling price of the item before sales tax, he said.

Further, no more than one "48" Rite Aid Valuable coupon, one "49" Rite Aid Manufacturer coupon, and one "5" Manufacturer coupon can be used on a single item. Rite Aid may accept up to four identical coupons for the same number of qualifying items as long as there is sufficient stock to satisfy other customers within the store manager's sole discretion, Harkreader said.

Brand said Giant's coupon policies have been consistent for about a decade.

Among the rules is a limit of one coupon per item. If a customer has a coupon that is doubled and exceeds the value of the item, Giant gives the customer the item for free, but does not give money back. It also only accepts online coupons for $5 or less, and no online coupons that offer items for free, he said.

"Online coupon sites have multiplied, so we have had to place limitations on their use," Brand said.

Real savings

Cataldo doesn't define herself as an "extreme couponer."

"Most of us using coupons recoil when we hear that word, because the term 'extreme couponing' has become so associated with coupon fraud within the online couponing community," she said.

Cataldo cautions against unrealistic expectations.

"What is important to keep in mind is to aim for a goal of 50-70 percent savings each week. That's a range that is very achievable by anyone," she said.

Cataldo suggests that shoppers start by "understanding that everything about shopping the 'old' way is wrong.

"Most people head to the store and buy what they 'need' that week. Super-Couponers understand that for every item at the store, there's a price cycle. The price will cycle both high and low on that same item. We buy only when prices are the lowest, and then we use our coupons to cut that lowest-possible price even more."

She urges would-be savers to have patience.

"Saving big on groceries is just as much about shopping during the 'right' sales as it is using coupons. So, we wait for those best sales, then stock up for the short-term until we can expect another sale. Most supermarkets operate on a 12-week cycle, so if pasta sauce is cycling low in price, it's likely that I will buy 12 jars," she said. "We can enjoy one pasta meal each week until another sale on sauce comes around."

Cataldo said it's also important to "understand that the coupons that come in the newspaper get better with age. Typically, the week we receive them is not the best week to use them again, because of the cycles at the store.

"It's important to save your coupon inserts and match them to sales weeks from now. I recently used coupons from an insert that was five months old ... but the coupons were not expired, and they lined up to a great sale.

Woroch shares a few simple mistakes novice couponers make, including driving all around town to various stores to take advantage of sales and coupons; stockpiling items they don't necessarily need; clearing off shelves; being rude to fellow shoppers or grocery staff; and shopping during peak hours.

Kennedy, who learned couponing from her mother, spends about one to three hours a week finding, clipping and matching. She gets coupons online, from newspapers and clipping services.

Kennedy typically buys two copies of the Sunday paper for the coupons, but only if the inserts include coupons for items she typically uses.

She also subscribes to couponing blogs. Kennedy has recently started a price book. Before that, she just kept the information in mind.

"I know what I'm willing to pay for certain things," she said.

Although she's sometimes gotten odd looks, Kennedy has never had stores balk at accepting the coupon deals.

"I don't think I go overboard with it. I've had people make some comments on things," she said.

Earlier this year, she flummoxed a drugstore clerk who was convinced there was something wrong with her cash register when Kennedy's bill came to $0.00.

Couponing, Kennedy said, is "definitely worth it. It only takes some times and effort to get half price off your groceries or get items for free. Anybody can do it."

She often feels exasperated when she sees people paying full price.

"There were these people in front of me who had like $300 worth of food. The clerk asked if they had any coupons. The woman said, 'No, we don't do that'. They could have gotten $50 or $60, at least, off their order by spending an hour clipping coupons," she said. "To me, it's free money."