Some retailers and manufacturers have revised their policies lately, restricting the number of coupons consumers can use to prevent them from stripping shelves bare or from paying little or nothing for baskets of groceries. Rite Aid, for example, changed its policy in May so savvy shoppers can no longer double up on buy-one-get-one-free coupons and not pay anything.
Interest in coupons has ballooned during the weak economy.
Americans redeemed 2.6 billion coupons at grocery and drug stores in 2006, the year before the recession hit, according to coupon processor Inmar. Redemptions last year reached 3.3 billion.
Coupon blogs, many of them belonging to stay-at-home moms who have turned their shopping talents into a career, also have proliferated.
TLC's popular "Extreme Couponing" show showcases over-the-top practices, such as stockpiling enough toilet paper to last for years and dumpster diving for coupons.
Even the Baltimore Sun Media Group is promoting a workshop this month on coupons.
Bloggers and others blame the excesses exposed in the TLC show for tighter coupon policies.
"Clearly, the show has shifted the entire industry toward more of these restrictions," says Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corp., a Virginia-based trade group that combats coupon fraud.
"I don't think anybody ever thought that someone would buy 1,000 units of a product and stack it in their driveway," Miller says. "It's just excessive."
Dustin Smith, vice president of communications for TLC, says companies have a right to change their policies.
"I can't assume there is a correlation between the policy and the show," he says.
But whatever the reason, consumers can expect more limits.
Miller's trade association recently developed a list of recommended practices for retailers that includes banning the use of two buy-one-get-one-free coupons so consumers get both items for free. And the list is growing. Miller says the group also will be suggesting that retailers limit households to a maximum of four identical coupons on four items within a 24-hour period.
Procter & Gamble adopted the four-coupon limit in October to prevent stock depletion at stores and long checkout lines, says P&G's Monica Sakamoto.
Rite Aid also added a four-coupon cap.
Coupon bloggers say Target has reined in coupons, although Target spokeswoman Erika Winkels says the retailer simply clarified its policy. Unlike the old policy, the new one released in June clearly states that Target won't allow shoppers to combine buy-one-get-one-free coupons so both items are free.
"Almost everyone has become more stringent," says Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, a savings website.
Coupon bloggers see some good out of the changes.
"At first, among couponers, we were kind of outraged for the people who were doing it right for so long," says Amy Edmiston, founder of the SavingwithAmy.com blog. On the upside, she adds, "This eliminates shelf-clearing … when the couponer comes in and gets 50 things and nothing is left on the shelf."
Coupon bloggers acknowledge that some fellow consumers have gone too far in pursuit of a deal and might spoil it for the rest.
Aubrey Nix, the founder of the EasternShoreMom.com blog — that's the Eastern Shore of Alabama, not Maryland — says some consumers tear the packaging on items to get at a coupon, while others steal inserts from newspapers or coupon binders out of their fellow shoppers' grocery carts.
And some people take advantage of coding to use coupons on products not intended for the discount, she says.
"The game will be over if they keep treating it this way," Nix warns.
But the industry is addressing that last no-no.
New bar codes are being rolled out gradually and will replace the older version eventually, Miller says. Once that happens, shoppers won't be able to use a coupon for a product other than the one intended.