Ashley Birk was inspired to clip, save and shop with coupons from the TLC show “Extreme Couponing.”

Gone are the days when people clipped coupons on the sly and slid them to cashiers at the last possible moment with an awkward, “Oops! I almost forgot. I have a coupon.”

Coupon redemptions shot up 27 percent to 3.3 billion in 2009, according to industry giant Inmar, which tracks and reports coupon use nationwide. And in 2010 — with the recession supposedly over — redemptions stayed steady at 3.3 billion.

Coupons are back to stay, industry officials say. The recession was so painful, they believe, it permanently changed spending habits, and consumers will continue snipping, organizing and redeeming the vouchers even after household budgets and the economy recover.

Local coupon user Marissa Geerdes agrees that any stigmas attached to using coupons are ending.

“With all the attention couponing has been getting and with all the coupon websites, I think more people are starting to realize just how much money you can save,” Geerdes said. “I can’t say I’ve ever really had a circumstance where I’m embarrassed to use a coupon.”

Nita Froderman has never feels stigmatized when she whips out a coupon either.

“I get a ‘wow’ at the checkout a lot of times,” Froderman said. “I laugh and tell them it’s my only hobby — which is true. Something has to pay for my husband’s expensive hobbies.”

Geerdes has been using coupons ever since her first child was born 5 years ago and she realized how expensive baby items are. Froderman’s coupon ties go back to her mother, who also uses them. Both women use organizers and say that keeping coupons orderly is a huge help when it comes to savings.

“I spend about two hours a week organizing my coupons or printing out online coupons,” Geerdes said. “I keep them in a three-ring binder with baseball card pages and with dividers for each section.”

Froderman estimates that she spends a few hours a week getting her coupons in order. She separates her coupons by stores and uses her vouchers wherever she knows the prices are the lowest. She also likes to use grocery coupons doubled up with manufacturer coupons to increase her savings.

“I have never bought gas without a coupon,” Froderman said. “I also use milk coupons and bread coupons at stores that give customers cards.”

Savings for both Geerdes and Froderman vary. Geerdes estimates that her family saves between $25 and $30 a week using coupons, while Froderman says her family usually saves between $25 and $100 a week. Geerdes and Froderman agree that Mankato is a good town to use coupons in, even though there aren’t any stores that currently double coupons.

“Mankato has plenty of stores that offer aggressive sales, register rewards or stackable coupons,” Geerdes said. “Those coupled with manufacturer coupons can often make items nearly free.”

Another local coupon user, Ashley Birk, is a relative newcomer to the world of clipping and saving. Birk was bitten by the coupon bug after watching the show “Extreme Couponing” on TLC. Although she has been using coupons for only a few months, she is hooked.

“I’m to the point now where I don’t buy anything without a coupon,” Birk said.

The most Birk has saved so far is when she brought a $132 grocer bill down to $52 at a Rainbow Foods in Chaska that offered a double coupon day.

“Some people were skeptical about how much I saved after driving up there,” Birk said. “But I figured that I used about $10 worth of gas and saved $80. I think that’s worth it.”

Birk’s couponing strategy includes buying two copies of the Sunday Free Press and also getting coupons from friends. Like Geerdes, she uses a trapper keeper type notebook and sorts her coupons by category. She estimates that she spends about two hours a week cutting and sorting coupons. She also has a growing stockpile of goods in her apartment.

“When I first started using coupons, I felt like I had to use them right away,” Birk said. “But then I figured out that it’s better to wait and use coupons when stores have sales.”

Birk recently got three rolls of Reynolds Wrap for a mere 14 cents apiece.

“I never use Reynolds Wrap, but my mom said it was a great buy,” Birk said.

Only time will tell, but what is clear is that couponing itself is quickly and dramatically changing in the face of new technologies, social networking and a new generation of tech-savvy shoppers. And those changes — regardless of economic conditions — could eventually make coupons easier and more convenient for consumers.

Geerdes, Froderman and Birk don’t use Groupon — coupons that come via cell phones, Facebook or Twitter — but they aren’t ruling out the possibility in the future. And all three agree that, for them, time spent clipping coupons is time well spent.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this story.

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