The humble coupon -- which in the past gave consumers a few cents off soap or cereal -- has mushroomed into a lifestyle for millions of Americans with its own television programs, websites and trading platforms.

A total of 167 billion coupons were distributed to US consumers in the first six months of 2011, according to the research firm NCH Marketing Services, and the value of redeemed coupons rose 5.3 percent to $2 billion.

But it's not your grandmother's Sunday newspaper coupon clipping anymore.

Websites with names like Southern Savers, or give consumers an edge on how to find the the right discounts in the art of "couponing," which has now evolved into a verb.

The principle is simple. First buy several copies of the Sunday papers which have pages of coupons tucked inside. Print others out from the Internet. These coupons give the bearer the right to a price reduction.

But the real "pro" combines all the offers to maximize reductions by adding on those offered by store cards as well as promotions on certain products.

Take a humble $2 tube of toothpaste. Look for it on offer for $1.50, then add a 0.50 cent store reduction coupon and a 0.50 cent off manufacturer's coupon, and suddenly it can be bought for just 0.50 cents.

Some days the coupon can be doubled in value. Which can then mean the store has to return money to the buyer... either in cash or more coupons.

Coupon aficionados get advice from websites on coupon schedules, how to get coupons doubled or combined with other promotions.

Sites contain testimonials such as one on Southern Savers from a woman identified as Jenny, who says: "I thought it would be temporary only until the roof loan was paid off. It only took one trip to CVS to become hooked, leaving with over $100 in merchandise that I paid a quarter for."

Picking up on the trend, the TLC cable channel has launched its program "Extreme Couponing," which is starting its second season this month and which the Washington Post called "a fascinating yet deeply disturbing show."

The show features coupon addicts such as Scott, who admitted on the show, "I love my wife and my kid, but I love my (coupon) stockpile."

Some social observers say the obsession with couponing is a sad reflection on the consumer society.

"Some people do it because they want to fill up some kind of internal emptiness, some people do it to regulate their mood. Other people do it because they feel more in control," says April Benson, a psychologist specializing in shopping addiction.

A Washington Post review of the TLC program says it allows couponers "to boastfully present themselves as newfangled heroes of the Great Recession, rather than as the piggy stockpilers they come off as, who voraciously amass paper towels, pancake syrup, spaghetti, deodorant, ketchup and more... Or it's just another weird reality show about the freak next door!"

Even some coupon users say they object to the extreme coupon movement.

Jennifer Savage, an acknowledged couponer, said she does uses coupons for discounts but finds it "distasteful" when people try to game the system.

"We do it to help feed our families during this tough economic time," she told AFP.

"And when other people like these extreme couponers break the rules, it really hurts everyone that tries to use coupons in the way that they are intended, because it is stealing from stores, which in turn drives up prices for everyone."