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Couponers go extreme This new breed of bargain hunter get items nearly free

Getting $1,000 worth of body wash, toothpaste and other personal products nearly free with coupons?

Impossible, right?

Not according to "extreme shoppers" who got the items by paying only sales tax.

The shoppers are part of a new breed of bargain hunter who scour the Internet for creative ways to use coupons that can cut a $300 Target shopping trip down to $150, and bring some bills down to zero.

Inspired by the new TLC show "Extreme Couponing" and the economic downturn, the trend is taking hold across the country.

"We can find coupons for anything," said Jen Dote of Fresno, Calif. "You never should pay for toothbrushes and toothpaste."

Dote says she isn't as extreme as some of the couponers featured on the show -- like the woman who has a 40-year stockpile of toilet paper or the man with 1,000 tubes of toothpaste.

Many shoppers give up on coupons when they realize generic versions are often cheaper even without coupons. But extreme couponers say there's a method for even bigger savings than buying generics.

They troll blogs and websites devoted to couponing and visit multiple stores.

They combine manufacturer and store coupons. They hold onto their coupons for future sales they learn about online. And they get money back from drugstore register rewards.

Dote and friend Rebekah Hescox, both stay-at-home moms with five kids between them, started extreme couponing after seeing the show in February. When they realized they could get items for free, they began donating them to charities and families dealing with layoffs.

The friends collect between 20 and 50 Sunday newspapers each week -- buying some, collecting some from friends, and asking Starbucks for leftover newspapers.

After the kids go to bed on Mondays, they clip coupons and put together their game plan. Throughout the week they hit up stores, usually one a day.

The two run a couponing blog, fresnocouponing.com, and have started teaching other shoppers how to find deals.

Other couponers look for deals on a smaller scale out of necessity.

"I don't have 40 years worth of toilet paper," said Shelley Spencer, a Latin teacher at Fresno High. But she does stock up on items she knows she'll use -- like the four boxes of 80-load Tide in her cabinet -- to get her through to the next sale.

Spencer started extreme couponing more than a year ago when her husband's hours were cut by 20 percent. The family realized it needed to make financial changes, and Spencer said she now saves about $100 a month on groceries and household items by couponing.

It takes time, however.

Spencer spends about nine hours a week browsing blogs and websites, clipping coupons and organizing them in a 2-inch binder with clear plastic baseball card holders.

Jackie Cromwell, a home-schooling mom with four kids younger than 10, describes herself as a "medium couponer."

She writes about extreme deals on her blog, NerdFamilyThings.com, but says she doesn't shop at different stores every day, nor even use coupons every week.

She knows how to get a deal -- like the $4 pair of shoes she scored using a coupon on shoes already on clearance.

She signs up for retailers' newsletters to get coupons and notifications of sales. And she'll try a new mascara if it comes with a coupon and register rewards.

The money she saves by couponing allows her to spend more freely elsewhere -- like Starbucks.

She can spend more on fresh vegetables and meat, which rarely have coupons.

"The reality is, I have somewhat expensive tastes and I want to feed my family real food," she said. "You cannot live on chicken nuggets."

The dark side of extreme couponing?

What do you do with 100 bottles of mouthwash? Some extreme couponers are labeled "hoarders."

You can't live on discount cookies alone. Coupons rarely apply to fruits and vegetables. Instead, they're mostly for processed foods that critics say aren't healthy.

It guzzles gas. Driving from store to store can save money, but that much driving costs money.

Stores hate it, said Arun Jain, a University at Buffalo professor of marketing strategy who has researched the topic. They don't like couponers who clean out a shelf, leaving nothing for others. It also slows down the checkout line. And it defeats the point of a coupon: Getting a customer in the door with a deal in hopes they'll buy other things too.

Some might be gaming the system. Some extreme couponers complain that a few methods used on TLC's "Extreme Couponing" involve tricking cash registers into discounts on items other than the ones featured in the coupons.