Ever feel loyalty-card overload?

It's not only groceries and drugstores that ask you to tote a loyalty card for sale prices and goodies. The free bar-coded cards are offered by retailers selling electronics, books, office supplies, sporting goods and pet-care products.

Good news: Now you can ditch those plastic cards and still obtain the discounts you want.

The cards, variously known as loyalty, club, membership and rewards cards, have been essential for frugal shoppers. For example, at many supermarkets, there's the sale price if you have a card and a higher price without one. Since 2000, membership in U.S. loyalty programs increased to more than 1.8 billion from less than 1 billion. And while American households on average belong to 14 loyalty programs, they don't use them regularly. On average, eight of those 14 hadn't been used in the past year, according to research firm Colloquy.

Savvy spenders view using the cards as receiving something for nothing. After all, you were going to buy the item anyway. Why not flash a card and obtain a discount or rack up points to get cash back?

Retailers figure that customers with club cards are more likely to shop at their store rather than a competitor. And retailers can use information collected from consumers for marketing - a fact that gives some consumers the privacy willies, including those at Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. With many programs, however, consumers can give fake personal information in their application and still receive a card.

Not all retailers require the physical cards. Some will credit a purchase to your loyalty account by asking for your name or phone number.

Other retailers, however, require the cards.

That leads to bulging wallets, purses and key rings.

What if you could combine those cards? That might be attractive to savvy shoppers.

Here are three resources to make those membership cards more manageable:

- KeyRingThing

"It's to the point where people are turning down offers for new cards that could save them money just because of the annoyance of having to carry them," said Tim Jackoboice of Naples, Fla.

When Jackoboice became fed up with all the loyalty cards on his key ring, he took action. He cut out the bar codes and glued them to an old casino membership card, fitting five or six bar codes on a single card.

Thus, the idea was born for a service Jackoboice makes available at KeyRingThing.com. Instead of cutting and pasting bar codes, you visit the Web site, choose the retailers whose cards you have and enter bar-code numbers from your cards. Then, for free, you can print a paper version of a wallet card with up to six loyalty-card bar codes. For $3.97, Jackoboice will ship you a plastic version of your customized card. You can also download the bar codes to your computer and upload them to a phone as you would a photo.

When using the combo-card at checkout, direct the cashier to scan the appropriate bar code. Retailer names label each bar code.

Your local retailer's card not listed? The Web site provides instructions on how to easily create the right bar code to add to your combo card.

- Just One Club Card

JustOneClubCard.com is a hobby site similar to KeyRingThing, without sponsors or ability to order a plastic card. It allows you to combine eight club cards into one.

"It just started out as a tool for me and my girlfriend," said creator Gregory Pinero of Elkridge, Md. "I figured I went through all this trouble to make it, why not share it with everyone?"

Pinero also has a site, Grocist.com, that helps you use a bar-code scanner to make a grocery list by scanning bar codes of product packages before you discard them. And, of course, your club card is printed at the top of the shopping list.

- Cardstar

If you carry an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can combine your loyalty cards into a single software application on your device using Cardstar. In this case, you hand the cashier your device, which displays the bar code to scan. See MyCardstar.com or Apple's iTunes App Store. The company says it is working on versions for other smartphone platforms, such as BlackBerry, Android and Palm.

(Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa. He can be reached at greg.karp@mcall.com.)

(c) 2009, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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