Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Extreme Couponing…At What Cost?

If you watch any sort of cable reality shows, chances are you’ve heard of one of the newer ones: Extreme Couponing. I’d heard about it and rolled my eyes at the very thought–how on earth could clipping coupons be extreme, much less worthy of television coverage?

And then we saw it.

The other night, after finishing my DVR’d Housewives, the television returned to TLC in the midst of an episode of Extreme Couponing. And Todd and I watched transfixed. The stashes, the hours spent clipping and checking out. The sheer mass of products accumulated in only a year to 18 months!

We sat through 2 shows back to back just trying to make sense of it all. And this is the conclusion I’ve come to.

Beginning with the Best of Intentions

Many of the women profiled told as how they’d turned to couponing when their budgets felt the crunch of the current economy and, really, who can’t empathize with that?

If you haven’t been let go at some point in the past few years or kept your job at reduced hours, you’re one of the lucky ones. And if you did keep your job and hours intact, chances are those raises that got you through cost of living adjustments haven’t been showing up in a while. We’re all feeling the pinch.

So clipping coupons to stretch the budget makes perfect sense.

A Decision Made Out of Fear, Often Goes Too Far

And that’s the crux of what I saw over those two shows: the fear of not being able to feed one’s family takes root deep in the mind, and overcompensating is the result.

Within a very short time many of these women went from barely making ends meet to having stock-piles of non-perishables with values in the several-thousands to the tens of thousands, paying only a small fraction (between 1% and 5% if the example trips are any indication) of that value out of pocket.

So the practical side of me starts wondering: how often do these shopping trips happen? Every couple of weeks was the impression I got. How often do they really use the products they purchase? Hard to tell, but how fast does any household go through half a dozen bottles of shampoo or 100+ 2L bottles of soda? Not to mention the shelves of cereals and cupboards full of chips?

And then there was the woman who has cases of kitty treats even though she didn’t own a cat.

Shopping By Coupon Limits Your Options

This is a big reason why we don’t bother clipping and using coupons: we don’t buy the sort of things that have coupons available.

How often do you see coupons for a 5lb bag of potatoes? But one coupon extremist schools us on her money-saving strategy of skipping the large box of potato flakes by buying the individual packets and getting more bang for your couponing buck. Let’s ignore the fact that mashed potatoes are one of the simplest foods to prepare and that a raw potato gives you far more options than a box of preservative-laden flakes, by going for the single-use packets over the larger box you’re opting to create more paper waste.

Not that I advocate buying in bulk just because it’s there, but if it’s something you use regularly, why not also do your part for the environment?

Looking Beyond Your Own Home

Yes, these shoppers are ensuring their families against famine and being budget-friendly to boot. But what else is going on, here?

There’s a coupon for detergent so one coupon extremist helping her daughter-in-law start her own stock-pile clears shelves of the product from her local store. Granted, the daughter-in-law has a new baby and there’s a lot of laundry involved with a small child, but what about the other non-extreme shoppers who come after this shopper and find empty shelves? What about only taking what you need, instead of what you can just because it’s there?

Most of these deals, by the way, are achieved by taking advantage of stores who offer double-coupon discounts either as a rule or on certain days of the week. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the case of double-coupon promotions, it’s the store that finances the doubled coupon, not the manufacturer. So the shopper who saves $990 on her groceries just cost the store approximately $445. Considering the value of at least one of these shoppers stashes was over $10,000, I’m beginning to wonder how many minimum-wage cashiers or stock clerks have been laid off due to the actions of the couponerati?

Where Does it End?

Going back to my theory of this being a fear-response, the adrenaline rush these shoppers experience when they get their final total (after several hours spent in the store) is highlighted. The fear of a single total being off (many trips have to be broken down into several transactions in order to take full advantage of the various offers and coupons being applied) heightens the exhilaration when they succeed at gaming the store out of so much for so little.

We all know the thrill of getting a good deal every now and then but I think the extreme couponers are actually addicted to this feeling–very much like a gambling addict!

And these stacks of stocks, squirreled away in basements and closets and finished attics give the shoppers a feeling of security. They are proud of their cache. It is a sight to behold. But I also wonder if, having tasted the victory over the shopping budget as these women have, will it be enough? When will they have enough cereal and extra-strength pain killer stashed away so that they can relax? Or will it continue to the point we see these same shoppers featured on another shock-reality series: Hoarders.

It’s Not All Negative

Don’t get me wrong–I think everyone should have a hobby that gives them a sense of fulfillment. And I’m not anti-coupon across the board; we use the occasional one on the rare occasion a promotion fits our plans (not the other way around).

One woman is reported to give away some of her coupon-gotten-gains to her local food pantry–that’s excellent and I applaud her for sharing her windfalls with those who could really use it. Another family hunts and gets much of their meat that way (which, if you’re going to hunt, having it be for sustenance is a great reason) and does grow a few items and even preserves tomatoes (as salsa) and pickles–another great use of resources.

But that level of sustainability was rare to see.

Many of the women spent 35-40 hours a week clipping coupons, organizing coupons, reading store sales paper and searching online for the hot deals of the week. If I had that amount of time available I like to think I’d skip the couponing, garden a number of my vegetables, and make even more food from scratch, spending my money on basic ingredients which can be bought, safely, in bulk and turned into healthy, nutritious food without all those extra chemicals and preservatives that are in so many of today’s coupon-frequent-fliers.

But that’s me.

There’s no doubt that the Extreme Couponers are organized and, hey, using their math skills in a very practical way. But the show, in general, highlighted a level of obsession rooted in fear which leads to greed and potential obsessive hoarding in the future that I cannot condone.

All things in moderation, folks, even coupons.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

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