Companies offer coupons for dining, manicures, activities and travel.

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Most of us are used to thinking of coupons as something you sort of, well, stumble upon. Checking the newspaper, you find one for the brand of chicken you pretty much live on. Serendipity! The kid next door is selling coupon books for charity and there happens to be one for $10 at a hair salon you've been wanting to try. You would've bought it anyway, but still.

In the past decade, the coupon paradigm has shifted. You can now purchase the coupons you want, just the coupons you want, for pretty much anything you want, and exactly how many of them you want. No clipping, no searching, no luck involved.

Lots of different types of Web sites have popped up to facilitate this new mode of bargain hunting, but they all have one thing in common: You pay them so you can save somewhere else. You're making an investment.

The approaches differ. Some sites sell coupons in bulk (like 20 coupons for $1 off General Mills cereal); you buy them and they send the coupons to you. You can find coupons on auction sites, too. Other companies offer coupons for dining, manicures, activities and travel (and pretty much anything else), and you receive your coupon by e-mail once you pay. Sometimes there's a gimmick, like, "We need 400 people to buy this deal before the coupon is activated!" Oooh, exciting. Will I get to have my $20 worth of pastries for just $10?

However it works, there's one thing to keep in mind: You're only saving money if the coupon is for something you would have bought anyway -- and if you actually use it.

The thing about buying coupons online is that it's just so easy, and the deals can be so appealing, you can end up buying a coupon you don't need. Or even really want.

When considering purchasing coupons online, always consider:

  • Is this Web site legitimate? (Type the name into Google and look for any complaints.)
  • Is this coupon for something I need? Something I want? If it's the latter, is the savings substantial enough to justify the purchase?
  • Does the coupon have an expiration date, exclusions, limitations or any other fine print that could get in the way of getting the savings you're paying for? Can you transfer it if you don't end up using it yourself?

If the coupon you're eying passes the value and utility tests, you could end up with a really nice deal on your hands. Little tip: If you do a lot of online couponing, you might consider a "coupon board" (either physical or digital) with coupons and their expiration dates, and make a plan to use each one you bought. If you don' use the coupon, you're just throwing your money away.