Is it really that simple to hack the power of the noble coupon? It depends on how much time you have.
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never had the misfortune of being stuck behind an extreme couponer in a checkout line.
You know the type—a cart overflowing with items, a binder filled with every coupon imaginable, a determined smirk on their face as they hand the frazzled person at the register coupon after coupon, unfazed by the growing line of cranky people behind them. And while it might be infuriating to have to wait an hour behind one of these folks, it’s pretty impressive to watch as they exit the store with hundreds of dollars of merch at a serious discount.
TV shows like TLC’s aptly named “Extreme Couponing” portray this practice as the ultimate life hack. These people walk into Target with nothing but a box of expertly clipped coupons, and walk out with several cartfuls of free stuff. Some episodes feature extreme couponers using their discount smarts to get money BACK from the store where they’re shopping. It’s mesmerizing to watch, but the truth behind all this is a lot more complicated than TLC makes it look. Here’s why extreme couponing probably isn’t worth your time.
The show depicts things that don’t actually happen IRL.
One major component to extreme couponing, both on TV and in real life, is the concept of coupon stacking. In order to get huge discounts on all that stuff, extreme couponers use coupons on top of other coupons to lower their costs down to basically nothing. While this looks like magic, the reality is that most stores don’t actually allow it at the extreme scale it’s shown on TV.
In order to understand how coupon stacking works (or doesn’t work), you first need to understand the various kinds of coupons available. In general, most stores offer five distinct types of coupons and discounts on products:
- Storewide sales on certain brands
- Store-specific coupons that you can ONLY use there. Most of these specify that they can be used once per sale.
- Manufacturer coupons for specific brands that you can use wherever those brands are sold
- Percentage off or dollar amount off a future purchase
- Double coupon days, where you can double up coupons—even ones that are typically one per sale.
Most stores allow stacking of different KINDS of discounts. For example, let’s say your local grocery store is offering bags of family-sized Doritos for $3. If you had a store-specific coupon for $0.50 off any bag of Doritos, AND a manufacturer’s coupon for $1 off, most stores will allow you to “stack,” or use, both of those coupons on top of the sale price, bringing your total down to $1.50. What stores WON’T allow you to do is use multiple copies of the same coupon on one item. So even if you had three different manufacturer’s coupons for $1 off that bag of Dorito’s, you’d only be able to use one of them.
You’d never know this was store policy from watching Extreme Couponers, though. The show features thrifty shoppers coming in with 30 of the same coupon and using all of them to get things completely free. But a 2012 report from the Coupon Information Center (CIC), a nonprofit organization that’s “dedicated to fighting coupon misredemption and fraud” found that many of the stores featured on the show were allowing the illegal use of coupons in order to please producers.
According to the CIC report, participants on the show used both counterfeit coupons and illegal coupon stacking methods in order to walk away with free stuff. Some of the stores allowed it for marketing purposes, but some were outright duped on air.
“In an episode that aired in October, a 16-year-old boy from California named Joel used nearly three dozen coupons at a supermarket to get 408 rolls of Quilted Northern toilet paper entirely for free,” wrote Brad Tuttle in a 2012 article for TIME Magazine. “Turns out the coupons were fakes, and the kid’s mom wound up repaying the store for all that toilet paper. None of those details were aired on “Extreme Couponing,” though. As far as viewers of the show knew, Joel received all of those toilet paper rolls free of charge, and saved 93% in total on his extreme coupon-fueled shopping excursion.”
Real extreme couponing is a full-time job.
So what happens on the show might not be real, but there ARE people who work within the constraints of the law and store policy to coupon their way to free stuff. But these people aren’t just spending a few minutes every morning clipping out of the local paper. They’ve got dedicated couponing rooms, a family that helps them sort through hundreds of pages of mailers every day, and a LOT of time on their hands.
In order to maximize coupons that can be used together, extreme couponers subscribe to several different papers, and hoard multiple copies of each every day. They scour stores for coupon brochures, spend hours searching online for digital coupons they can print out, sign up for loyalty programs everywhere they go, pay coupon clippers on eBay, and even dumpster dive for discarded coupons hiding out in old newspapers and circulars. And this doesn’t even include the time you need to actually clip and organize all your coupons.
In short, extreme couponing is far from glamorous, and the results might not be worth the effort of digging through the trash like a hungry raccoon.
The stuff you can get for free isn’t stuff you actually need.
Even on the show, this fact is apparent. While the extreme couponers on TLC might walk out of Walmart with two carts full of free stuff, it’s not like they’re loading up on groceries for the next year. Look closely, and the things they get are usually not that useful—think 70 jumbo bottles of shampoo, 80 24-packs of an unpopular flavor of soda, or 90 boxes of weird cereal.
There’s a reason retailers and manufacturers allow certain kinds of items to go on sale, and that reason is usually supply and demand. When no one buys any boxes of that new experimental oatmeal, stores would rather sell it at a discount than throw it out entirely. So yeah, you might be able to get 60 bottles of infant formula for $12, but if you don’t have a baby, what’s the point?
Extreme couponing can actually be addicting.
Maybe you have an extreme couponer in your life. If you do, chances are they have a storeroom somewhere in their home that’s filled with the fruits of their couponing labor. If they’re organized, this room will contain shelves filled with purple hair dye, weird flavors of toothpaste, and adult diapers, ready and waiting for the impending apocalypse. If they’re … not so organized … this room could take up their entire house, and could consist of untouched shopping bags filled with random, expired products.
According to a 2011 TIME article, “studies have shown that coupons—whether used in extreme ways or not—are used in much greater numbers by affluent consumers, not poor people.” And people who have the time to devote to extreme couponing and the space to store their winnings aren’t the kind of people who actually need to be getting cartfuls of stuff for free. In fact, Goal Auzeen Saedi, who has a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from the University of Notre Dame wrote in an article for Psychology Today that the behaviors displayed by people who appeared on the TLC show were troubling, to say the least.
“Though the show is intriguing, I wonder if there is also something sad about this,” wrote Saedi. “I’m not a licensed clinician and in no way claim to be. I do not advocate blind “diagnosis” off of anything shown on television programs, and do not intend to in any way. I wonder though if I’m the only one who sees possible touches of addiction, obsession, compulsion, and perhaps even hoarding tendencies to some of this behavior. At the very least, I am comfortable to say it seems unhealthy. Hence, I ask this: Is extreme couponing really something that should be celebrated?”
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