Sara Volk
Ibotta's "Unlocked Deals" section allows you to view which deals you've marked to use later, as well as the store the rebate is available at.

Checkout 51 offers a wide variety of rebates for basic staples like bananas and eggs - and a substantial rebate for items like diapers! Checkout 51 changes their offerings every week, so it's always different.

Checkout 51 allows you to star offers to view and use later. The app will give users a cash rebate once they've collected at least $20 worth of rebates.

Apps such as Ibotta, Checkout 51, Cartwheel and Shopmium help consumers access coupons and rebates faster and easier than ever.

Ibotta sorts its offers into several categories; the app has a little something for every need, from groceries to pharmaceuticals to clothing.

My least favorite part of my household budget, even more than rent or utilities, has got to be the grocery bill.

Not only can it fluctuate depending on how many grocery staples I need to get (how did we run out of laundry soap, eggs, sugar, flour and bread at the same time?!), but also because groceries just feel unnecessarily expensive. $12 for a bag of frozen berries? $6 for a bag of chicken breasts? $5 for a box of granola bars? It all adds up. I wanted to see how I could save a little on my monthly grocery bill.

I didn't want to go down the path of Extreme Couponing (though I have to admit, I find those who do it have positively legendary math skills). I simply don't have the time, patience or energy to sort through an enormous booklet of coupons, cost-compare at three different stores or wait until double couponing day. I just wanted to see what the difference was if I casually used two of the simplest tools of the trade: readily-available coupons and apps. Minimal effort, but hopefully with at least a small reward!

Coupons can compound the savings

There are several types of coupons, and all of them can help you save a little on your total bill. Some of them are more readily available than others, so you may need to experiment a little to discover which coupons work best for you, and how much effort you want to go into when comparing coupons.

* Manufacturer's coupons: These are coupons released by the manufacturers of products in order to promote their products.

* Store coupons: Issued by the store you shop at, store coupons are often found in newspapers and in the front of stores in racks. Be sure to check your store's policy - some will allow you to stack a store coupon on top of a manufacturer's coupon, and some will even accept competitor's coupons!

* On-product coupons: These are placed on the packaging of a product; they can peel off of a bottle, hang off the neck of a container or are otherwise attached to the product. These are often found on nonperishable food products, so it's worth checking the packaging for these little bonuses!

* Mobile coupons: These coupons can be found using smart phone apps such as RetailMeNot and Favado. They are simply scanned off your cell phone screen! Some stores also have their own app, such as the Cartwheel app from Target.

* Internet coupons: These coupons are found on the internet and then printed out; some are manufacturer's coupons and some are store coupons. Some store policies do not accept printed coupons due to an increase in fraudulent coupons, so check your store's coupon policy!

Stacking different types of coupons together on an item can allow you to get them at a fraction of the sticker price; in the case of some items, you can even get them for free, if you're lucky! The next time you're shopping, don't forget to bring your Sunday paper or snag the coupon book from the front of the store to see if anything offered is on your list.

"App"licate yourself

And this is where I found my favorite little niche: Cash rebate apps. I had absolutely no idea that there were dozens of apps that offer a cash rebate on purchased groceries; all I had to do was scan a receipt or two! Some of the more popular ones include:

* Ibotta

* Checkout 51

* Shopmium

* Berrycart

* Saving Star

* Jing It

* Walmart Savings Catcher

* Find&Save

* Receipt Hog

* Check Point

The details on each of these vary, so you have to research the individual app for their specific rules and procedures. The general idea is that you share the receipt with the company, and receive cash in return. Some are looking for data trends about what consumers are purchasing; others are working with retailers, and are more akin to couponing. Regardless, they usually carry staples such as eggs, bread, milk and more in their apps, so they're definitely worth a try!

The experiment put into practice

After researching all the options available to me, I decided to use two of the most popular apps for couponing and cash rebates, Ibotta and Checkout 51, in combination with readily-available coupons in the newspaper and at the front of my grocery store. I stuck to a few rules to see how genuinely effective these apps were at saving me money, and to avoid any "false promises" of extra savings:

1. I had to make my shopping list for the week without looking at what was going to be on sale. I only bought what I needed. This also prevented me from making extra impulse buys, which would artificially inflate the app's "effectiveness".

2. If the item was on my list, I could cost-compare coupons and rebates between brands. I could also double-up offers (for example, if Ibotta and Checkout 51 both had an offer for cash back on bananas, I could use both offers on the same bunch).

3. I could only grab coupon sheets at the front of stores or from the newspaper. Printing out coupons was an extra step I wanted to avoid (and paying for printer paper an expense I didn't want).

4. I had to wait until the end of my "Experiment period" of one month before I could add up the difference it had saved me.

So, how much did these little apps and coupons save me with their casual use?

Ibotta: $11.75

Checkout 51: $5.50

Coupons: $20.50

Total savings: $37.75

Overall, the biggest winner was definitely the coupons. By far, they saved me the most. But I was also pleasantly surprised with how much I managed to earn on Ibotta and Checkout 51. The only down side? Both apps won't cash out my balance until I reach at least $20, which means that I didn't receive the fruits of my labor... this month. Given that I was shopping for a household of two, I can only imagine that those feeding a family would have an even greater success with apps like these.

I do think I'll continue to use my "experiment" tools, especially just after a particularly large "grocery haul". Eventually, I'll hit that $20 mark and get that rebate. Maybe then I'll treat myself to a dinner out.

Quick tips

* Stack your coupons. Use both a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon, if allowed by your store's policy, to bring down the price even lower!

* Use multiple apps. Cast out a wider net! Find more coupons and double the amount of rebates by submitting your single grocery receipt to multiple avenues.

* Wait for sales. Items will periodically go on sale; if possible, take advantage of it and stack the sale with a coupon!

* Compare per unit prices. The best way to tell if you're getting a good deal is looking at the cost per unit (per oz., per can, per lb., etc.). Buying in bulk isn't always the best deal, so make sure to check!

* Go generic. Some items are worth buying brand-name, but other items aren't!

* Don't shop at eye level. Most stores keep the most expensive options at eye level or in the middle of the shelf, since that's where you'll look first; look around the top and bottom of shelves to compare prices!

Sara Volk is a Bismarck native and the current Special Sections editor at The Bismarck Tribune. When she isn't working to give her cat a better life, she dabbles in baking, sewing and anything nerdy.