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Are Extreme Couponers Crazy, or Smarter Than the Rest of Us?

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By Aaron Crowe, dealnews writer

Some call themselves shopoholics; others are simply couponers. And others are admittedly dealnews addicts. We're talking about the people who spend 30 hours a week at their craft, clipping coupons, searching for deals or even jumping into Dumpsters. It's essentially a full-time job saving money.

In the new TLC series Extreme Couponing, which started Wednesday night, coupons are an obsession that helps one woman get a few hundred candy bars for free, and another to buy $238’s worth of groceries for $6.92 after discounts and the grocery store’s loyalty card discounts were subtracted from the bill.

“Coupons have allowed me to be absolutely debt-free. I don’t owe anybody anything,” one woman says in a preview on the TLC website.

Even though coupons save money, what would move someone to clip enough coupons to buy more than 10,000 items and fill their garage so it looks like a grocery store? One person in the show bought enough deodorant with coupons to last 150 years.

It is not, as you might suspect, the pure thrill of saving money, according to the psychologists and marketing experts we consulted. In the mind of an extreme couponer who is obsessive about the habit, saving money is only part of the reason, according to Elliott Jaffa, a behavioral and marketing psychologist. More important is the thrill of the chase and beating the system. “Psychologically they’re getting something for free where they feel they beat the system," he says.

It is also “really about not wanting to be left out” and being able to brag to their friends that they saved a lot of money, says Michigan psychiatrist Sally Palaian. People who can’t pass up a bargain are compulsive shoppers, and they go overboard on couponing and buy things they don't need.

”The marketing purpose of coupons is to get you to try something you might not normally try,” says Jaffa. If you’ll use the item (and use it up before it expires, breaks or goes bad), then saving money with coupons is a healthy pastime. Extreme coupling, however, can be turn into an obsession that’s no different from overeating or being an alcoholic. Beating the system is great, Jaffa says, “but beat the system with things you’re going to use, not store in your garage.”

Diane Schmidt, who runs a website that helps people find coupons, says that some people in the online couponing community aren’t happy with the TLC show because it goes too far. Some couponers profiled in the show are on the verge of hoarding, with garages filled with products they won’t use, such as a childless couple who buys diapers.

The show could end up actually encouraging hoarding by showing how much money people can save, she says. And it could even lead to shortages on store shelves, she foresees. While some people on the show are getting groceries for free — or almost free — by using coupons, that’s actually a difficult goal to reach for on a regular basis, because it often requires store sales, combined with triple or double coupon days at the stores.

“Everything has to line up perfectly,” she says.


Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked as a reporter and an editor for newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter — @AaronCrowe.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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11 comments
gizmovision
I'd just wish more coupon users and regular folks that want to use a coupon would
One: read the coupon, item(s) it CAN and CAN NOT be used on.
Two: follow the dates its good for. (out of date coupons are not good. I do not have extra ads or coupons in the store, that is part of being a savvy shopper being pre-paired with coupons and or digital ones if the store your shopping in takes them)
Three: follow the store your using it in policies not what the other guy would do or does...

I mean gee if your gonna travel to a store from way out of town to use a 50% off coupon on a .67 item try to follow the rules...
doconnell864
kroger stopped doubling in several area - namely parts of tx for a while now..
joey85
I watched the show last night too, and was disgusted at the way most of the people on the show were acting. I've worked in retail in the past for some time, and depending on the specific item, there usually aren't too many products that are a really good deal to go around, which is why retailers usually put limits on certain sale items.

Even though limits are in place, some customers (Maybe like the ones on this show) argue that they can just split every transaction to get around the limit. Where I worked at least, typically it was fairly difficult to restock a hot sale item once it was sold out. Items arrive weeks in advance of the sale and by the time the sale actually occurs the distribution chains for the stores are completely out of the item because they're now working to get product for the sale in two weeks.

What I usually noticed is that the customers who hoard items (Like the lady from the show that bought 200-some boxes of pasta) would shop as soon as the sale hits, then everyone else would be SOL because the item wouldn't be in stock until later in the week or until after the sale ends. Normal people would accuse the store of "false advertising" because the advertised item wasn't in stock. Instead of losing customers, we would usually substitute a similar item, or offer rainchecks - Both cost the store money (which is passed to customers) just so someone can buy 200+ boxes of pasta for no reason other than its free.

I'm not saying using coupons to get things for free is a bad thing... I'm just saying that hoarding items because they're free is just greedy and disrespectful to other customers.

At the very least, if for whatever reason you feel that you need to stock up on 15 years of toilet paper, please call the store like the gentleman at the end of the show did who bought the 1000 boxes of cereal. This will let the store's purchaser order enough for your stockpile and regular customers' pantries.
Roger01
Kroger just announced last week that they have stopped doubling/tripling manufacturer's coupon so here goes one because of some extreme couponer's and may be it's good to put some checks to avoid such waste by people who take coupons to extreme and waste the product which other shoppers could have really used
cs85b03
Not hogwash. Stores that double coupons pay the extra. The manufacture doesn't pay for a coupon twice. So if they have the item on sale, and there is a coupon available for it, they are providing an additional discount on top of their sale. They don't want to do this. It only takes a few hours (well, probably around 20 hours) a week to database all the coupons and affected products. For a national company, this time is nothing and the savings they will make to ensure they aren't doubling sales is exponential to the time it cost them to flag the item with a possible additional discount.

If you think this isn't possible, you aren't thinking about how much money the coupon doubling can cost a company. I can tell you they have been doing this much more often in the past 2 years; at least for The Kroger Co. I used to be able to get many things for free with coupons and they have definitely smartened up. It seems the best I can do now (except some rare circumstances) is 75% off the normal price.
doconnell864
@ cherri, i agree with a couple things you hit on - specifically, stores are doing away with doubling and tripling - i also noticed that the people on the show were appearantly in no grocery tax states - im not sure where you live but tax is 8% here in illinois on most groceries... where i disagree with you is in regards to you thinking stores play technology games - that is hogwash... the manufacture pays the bill for the coupon and it is in the stores interest to get the coupon to go with the sales price so that the sale is made... and even after saying all this, i must say - you are not trying very hard if the numbers you gave are actual.... my savings is constantly better then your best day you gave above... couponing and saving money does take time but your wrong to say it is impossible and quite frankly this show is going to have no effect on couponing...most people dont coupon because they are too lazy or dont have the time, couponing is far from rocket science and 1 show will not change that....have a nice day
CherriJunkin
This form of "extreme couponing" is impossible in most areas. A lot of grocery stores have "wised up" and no longer have double or triple coupon days (often the stores still that offer double or triple coupon days have prices that are double and triple those of other stores, so you have to watch out for that). The stores that still have double or triple coupon days often have a max savings of $1.00. In other words, if you have a coupon for 50 cents and it is triple coupon day, they will not give you $1.50 off, instead will give you the max of $1.00 off. Many stores are also no longer allowing coupons that have been printed from websites. Some of the stores in my area will not allow coupons to be used on items already on sale. Even worse, a good many stores are only allowing their "in store" coupons and no manufacturer coupons whatsoever -- the warehouses are notorious for this.

The latest thing I have noticed is where they are using technology against the shopper -- if a coupon was available in the newspaper they will not run specials on those items. They coordinate the coupons and the sales where the shoppers can no longer get the coupon discount on top of sale priced items. I used to believe it was just a coincidence that the coupons expired the day before the items went on sale. Now I know better.

The best I ever did with couponing was to save $48 on $250 worth of groceries and that was over a year ago. Now I average coupon savings of $2 -- $5 if I am lucky.
psychgaltea
These people are crazy and are just a different type of hoarder. I watched an episode yesterday and wanted to slap the lady. She was ruining her marriage just to stock up on random stuff and being a control freak along the way. I could maybe see some merit in this extreme behavior if they were doing so to help others - such as donating a portion of their hoarded goods to a homeless shelter or a neighbor in need. There's much more to life than taking a binder of coupons to a store or spending 6 hours a day just comparing prices on products. I admire those who keep their couponing habits in check to a reasonable level and refuse to watch another show on extreme couponing.
gimmeabreak
I haven't seen the show yet, but will as I've been waiting for it. I'm a modest couponer and have fallen into the trap of the marketers many times by buying things I don't want or need. Since, like snewby above, we are also trying to do as much natural and organic food shopping as financially possible, my weekly "take" at the grocery store has diminished quite a bit. But even if you save $20, it does offset some of the higher cost of the organic food.

TV seems to have an obsession now with hoarding and I'm not at all surprised that Extreme Couponing is riding those coattails. If my collection of 22 toothbrushes and 10 deodorants gets any larger, I'll re-evaluate my mindset. :-)
snewby
Watched the show last night. My wife does great at the coupon-game, typically saving up to 50% on our grocery bill, but we don't buy processed foods and try to eat organic as much as makes sense. As with many things there are hidden costs involved. When you look at what they are buying; hot dogs, ground beef in the plastic tube, chips, soda - what are the hidden costs? Higher sodium intake, high-fructose corn syrup, both of which will likely lead to health problems such as heart disease and obesity. So you save hundreds of dollars, but the long-term risk is that those foods are not the best thing for your diet and in the long-term you could be causing yourself more problems. If you are truly on a tight budget, great eating is better than not eating - I'll be realistic, if you aren't and it is just a game and you are buying things you don't need - donate it like the one guy did, and that was great to see.
jbrsci
Wow, I just heard about this. This does smell like a pack-rat mania more than a bargain-spree. I think it's a bit shallow of TLC (though certainly not surprising) to make this a TV show because I bet viewers will almost certainly take away the wrong message: "coupons and planning allow you to buy groceries for nearly no money." What these people are actually doing is buying "stuff" for nearly no money, and they are hoping the "stuff" happens to be something they can use and even need. Also, they are banking on the supermarkets not fixing the coupons to prevent anomalous and bizarre combo-deals.
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