Lessons Taken from “Extreme Couponing”

Now that summer has arrived, I finally have the time to clean out my DVR and catch some re-runs.  Last month, I caught a part of TLC “Extreme Couponing” marathon.  For those who have never heard of it, “Extreme Couponing” is a show about people who have mastered and perfected the art of using coupons to stretch their budget.  For example, on the first episode, a woman walked away with $2,000 worth of groceries by paying just $100.  Rather than dismissing such people as “crazies,” I have come up with concrete reasons why the show, though entertaining, is inapplicable to younger professionals just starting out in the real world.

  • You must have coupons.  This is obvious enough.  In order to extreme coupon, well, you must have coupons.  There are different ways to acquire coupons.  Many of the people featured purchase multiple Sunday newspapers, up to 30 copies in one instance, for the coupon inserts.  Some dumpster dive.  Others use an online service where you can purchase already cut coupons for a fee.  And at least one woman had five computers in her house so she can print more online coupons (apparently you can print only two per computer).
  • You must have the time.  A lot of the people on the show are families where only one spouse is working, so that the other spouse can devote up to 60 hours a week planning their shopping trip hauls.  They are also willing to sacrifice and get up extra early to go to store before the store runs out of what they want to buy.  Further, some of these extreme check-out take up to two hours.
  • You must have a huge family or be somehow responsible for feeding  your friends and their friends.  Most of the people featured have families or extended families of four, six, eight, and ten.  And with the recession, it is absolutely necessary for these people to stretch their dollars, but they also have the body count to use up all that toothpaste, shampoo, cereal, and canned soup before they expire.  That said, not all these people are hoarders.  A lot of these people donate their hauls to charities, churches, and military families.  One woman lets her kid’s friends come over and take whatever they want.  If anything, these people are prepared for any sort of natural disaster.  Further, you need to bring along a helper so that (1) the two of you can push and maneuver three or four carts and (2) at check out, one can keep an eye on the cash register while the other continuously places items on the conveyor belt.
  • You must have the space.  These people’s stockpiles of groceries, health care and bathroom products will put most mini-mart stock rooms to shame.  This is simply not feasible for a younger person just starting out, living in a studio or one bedroom apartment.  By space, I also include your set of wheels.  No way are you carting home all that haul in your little compact car.  An SUV or truck is a must.

On the one hand, some of these people do seem to be suffering from a combination of addiction and hoarding.  They obviously experience some sort of high when they are able to save more than 90% at the cash register and that motivates them to continue chasing after that high.  And they also love admiring their stockpile.  I understand that, without doing what they do, they may not be able to feed and support their families.  At the same time, however, there are some issues that need to be dealt with.

On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing illegal or even wrong with what these people are doing.  All their coupons are offered by the manufacturer or the store.  They want you to use their coupons!  These extreme couponers also check and follow each store’s coupon policy.  And even for the woman who saved $1,900, that is not an amount that will be entirely footed by the store.  That amount is borne by the manufacturers of all the products she purchased.  And the manufacturers and the store ultimately are not losing anything – they are still making a profit.  That said, there are some key lessons that everyone can take away from the show.

  • Wait for sales – I think most people have figured this one out.  There are few reason to pay anything full price – except maybe the bus fare.  Otherwise, no one should be paying $4 for a bottle of shampoo or $3 for a pack of toilet paper.
  • Stockpile – I don’t mean stockpile like the people on the show.  You do not need a thousand tubes of toothpaste or forty pounds of chicken.  But when something does go on sale, buy a couple more than you need so that when you run out, you don’t have to go to store and purchase something at full price.  And hey, you have waited for the sale, so you deserve to splurge.
  • Forego brand loyalty – This may actually be hard for some people, because we are a picky generation.  I recognize that we must put our foot down when purchasing certain items.  It might be a particular brand of coffee or soda or deodorant, but I find it hard to believe that there is a certain brand we must use for each and every single item.  For example, I never purchase Scott tissue toilet paper, but I am neutral among Charmin, Quilted Northern, and Cottonelle.  I only use Schick razors (which have never given me a nick), but say “no, thank you” to Gillette.  I really cannot tell the difference between Jif and Skippy peanut butter, or all those pasta brands.  So you see, while there may be a few products we are stubborn about, there are plenty others where the brand simply does not matter.  And if you are willing to be just a little bit flexible, well that is money in the bank.

In sum, the show “Extreme Couponing” was entertaining enough, but as the saying goes, we should do “everything in moderation.”

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