Saving at the Register, Paying in the Long Run: The Costs of Extreme Couponing

By Katie Andrews

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 “Coupons are money, and you wouldn’t believe how much money people throw away.” - Extreme Couponer, dumpster diving for coupons

On Wednesday nights at 10pm, there is a show on TLC that is so intriguing, I found even my reality TV adverse husband glued to the screen. Extreme Couponing is a reality show that follows families, particularly female heads of household, that use enough coupons to purchase the bulk of their family’s groceries for free.

Given the effects of the mortgage crisis, the rates of unemployment, and the stalled economy, it seems appropriate that Americans are looking for deals, but Extreme Couponing highlights individuals who take saving a penny one step further. Each episode trails a different woman as she collects coupons, organizes them in her personal binder – which every “real” couponer has – then plans her weekly “haul” at the grocery store, which can take up to 12 hours.

No well-trained couponer enters a store without a thorough plan of attack. These women calmly navigate the aisles, locate their targeted purchases and buy in bulk to maximize savings. The predictable climax of each episode comes when the resister totals over $1,000, before coupons are entered. But, due to all that careful clipping and planning, these ladies walk out the door often spending under $50. In one episode, a shopper owes just 7 cents on her $450 bill.

The Real Cost of “Free” Food

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? There is one glaring downside – it is rare to find a coupon for fresh fruits and vegetables. What do you find coupons for? Soda, processed refined grains, snack foods, cookies, hot dogs, cinnamon rolls, ramen noodles, candy bars, potato chips – practically anything that comes in a package. And when you’re buying 20 of each item at a time, it’s hard to make the case for “everything in moderation.”

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In one episode, a woman shops for deals with her mother. The day’s haul includes:

  • 20 2-liter bottles of Hawaiian Punch for $.80 each (full price $1.50)
  • 18 Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls for $0.50 (full price $2.09)
  • 6 packages of Hot Dogs – FREE!

In another episode, during “dairy month” at a local store, two sisters stock up on 20 half gallons of ice cream, only to find that with the purchase of every two, they get a 2-liter bottle of Sunkist soda…for free. Now that is maximizing your energy density.

A Well-Planned Stockpile or An Excessive Hoard?

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While most of us enter the grocery store with a list of what we want, or at least with the plan to browse and find what we’re in the mood to eat, these women purchase food based on what coupons they have on hand. And the goal is most definitely quantity, not quality. Referred to as their “stockpiles,” some worth around $75,000, these hoards include food, beauty, and cleaning products by the hundreds. “People’s first reactions to my stockpile? Oh my gosh; you have a grocery store in your house,” says one couponer.  And when you’re shopping and storing in bulk, which products keep the best? Well those with a long shelf life, of course.

While you may see the rogue can of tomatoes, jar of pickles, frozen bag of peas, or canister of oatmeal, most stockpiles are comprised of snack foods, condiments, and desserts. These women are more focused on the deal they are getting than the food they are bringing home.

One mother shopping with her three children says, “do you see those blue wrappers right there? [pointing to Nestle Crunch bars] We’ve gotta get 20 of them – cause they’re free!”

A particularly proud woman describes the basement room she must padlock to keep her kids from devouring the contents: “My cookie jar is too large to fit on a shelf, too large to fit on a counter – my cookie jar is an entire room.”

While there may be no harm in bringing home candy and cookies for your family, what kind of message do you send when your guest room has been transformed into floor to ceiling shelves to store them? That seems excessive, even for a lifetime.

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Is There Any Benefit to Exceeding to Excess?

There is fortunately often a silver lining to the excess. Many of the women choose to donate items to local shelters or food pantries. On a recent episode, two couponers pick up free nail supplies, toothbrushes, and floss to make baskets for teens struggling with addiction. The only item the ladies don’t have a coupon for? Fresh milk. The girls had specifically requested fresh instead of powdered milk, so the ladies choose to pay full price for 5 gallons.

Another woman and her sister have collected so many coupons for one “haul” that they actually get money back on the purchase, and use the excess funds to buy kitchen utensils to donate to the Ronald McDonald House Charity. And another couponer donates 500 cans of dog food and 100 containers of Similac formula from her stockpile to charities in need.

Although, I’m convinced she might be intentionally winnowing down her stash so she has the opportunity to hit the stores and experience that euphoric rush that only a true extreme couponer understands.

Without attempting to understand the reasons why these women have to own enough body wash to shower twice daily for eternity, let’s instead consider what kind of message Extreme Couponing sends about the affordability of food. Should we encourage people to buy 20 Nestle Crunch bars just because they are free? By offering incentives for these processed foods, couponers often overlook the produce section entirely. The bottom line: if I’m not getting a deal, it doesn’t go into the cart.

Clearly the way into these women’s hearts is through cold, hard cash. And as long as coupons for bananas don’t make it into the paper, 20 packages of banana-flavored pudding will be consumed in their place.

Katie Andrews is a 2nd year dual Nutrition Communications/DPD student at the Friedman School.  She is the current Editor-in-Chief of The Sprout and is passionate about getting accurate, science-based nutrition information into consumer’s hands. As ‘The Aspiring RD,’ she blogs about current nutrition news, ways to stay healthy and fit in Boston, and the interesting and delicious foods that cross her path. Find her at http://www.theaspiringrd.com.

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