I’ve been doing some research for all of you by watching TLC’s Extreme Couponing on Netflix. This show reminds me of why I generally don’t bother with coupons. In the interest of exploring couponing from a thoughtful consumerism perspective, I thought I’d offer my observations, and perhaps we can have a dialogue in the comments.
First things first: what is “extreme couponing?” It is the art of clipping coupons and shopping to take home the maximum amount of product from the grocery store using the minimum amount of cash. One trait that all the extreme couponers have in common is that they love the challenge of couponing. Each person on the show spends 30+ hours a week on their couponing hobby, so their time investment is on par with part- or even full-time jobs. They are also extremely organized and plan out detailed shopping lists and strategies to get the most product for their efforts.
Because they all view their couponing as a fun activity, it’s easy to overlook how much time they put into it. But the time spent is significant. Even if they are able to walk away with $500 worth of groceries for $50, those groceries don’t pay the mortgage or the electricity bill. Therefore couponing , by itself, cannot be seen as equivalent to a job. But it’s a great complement for a single-wage-earner household. Many of the extreme couponers are stay-at-home parents; I can definitely appreciate that their work is valuable to their families. Beyond that, a number of couponers do huge grocery hauls and then donate the items to charity. That is admirable, and I love how they use their talents to help others.
Now that we’ve established the basics, here are a few of my thoughts, broken down into discrete bites.
* Extreme couponers often talk about how they got all this stuff “for free!” I find this language misleading. If you exchanged 30+ hours of your time for $500 worth of groceries, those groceries cost you 30 hours of your life. I think extreme couponers would say it was worth it, and I wouldn’t argue with them—that’s their call. But don’t talk about people’s time and labor as though it’s free, because it’s not. We each get to decide how to spend our time and how much money we require in exchange for our time. Time is one of our most precious resources.
* Extreme couponing seems to involve a lot of junk food. Vitamin water, sports drinks, soda, chips, cereal, cookies, baking mixes, and candy show up again and again in the stockpiles and grocery hauls. I try to minimize my consumption of all those processed foods, so the junk food coupons do not appeal to me at all.
* I wonder how much product couponers take home simply because they have a coupon. The show doesn’t go into this much, though one lady had a stash of cat food even though her family did not have a cat. When I draw up my shopping list, whether it’s my grocery list or my wish list, I really try to focus on what I want to buy, regardless of coupons or sales. It’s so easy to be tempted by marketing to buy stuff you don’t need. Even if it’s “free” with coupons, you still have to deal with the stuff you’ve bought: taking it home, unpacking it, and finding a place to store it or finding someone else to whom you can give it. That effort costs you time and can easily fill your house with a lot of stuff you don’t need.
To their credit, extreme couponers also have great home organizational systems for their stockpiles. Typically, they have an entire room devoted to storage, and they have systems for rotating goods in and out based on expiration dates. It’s impressive stuff, no doubt.
* Extreme couponers often seem obsessed with never paying retail price. This strikes me as kinda sad, because they have decided that their true wants must be subjugated to the almighty coupon. Sometimes they buy products that they know their family members don’t like simply because they have a coupon. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I’m just not willing to eat food I don’t like for the sake of a coupon. Those calories are better spent on something tastier than bad cereal. (Besides, organic oats are $1.69 a pound—that’s plenty cheap that I don’t need a coupon for my favorite breakfast grain.)
* Do extreme couponers buy fresh produce? I can’t tell how much fresh stuff they buy because the show doesn’t share with us that side of the grocery haul. My best guess? Not much. While there are often in-store sales or coupons for fresh produce, there aren’t a lot of manufacturers’ coupons for products that are not manufactured.
* The extreme couponers in this show are not buying organic. It’s hugely important to me to support organic farmers and food-makers. My groceries are not 100% organic, but I do the best I can. Sometimes there will be in-store or package-based coupons for organic stuff, and I try to take advantage of those offers.
* The main reasons I don’t bother much with coupons? Because the stuff I want to buy doesn’t tend to have coupons. At the grocery store, I tend to buy organic, minimally processed food. I buy a ton of produce and some frozen produce, such as broccoli and blueberries. In addition, Paul and I eat a lot of beans, tofu, rice, tortillas, eggs, and soymilk in addition to our fresh produce. We try to get the most bang for our buck by buying in bulk, either literally from the bulk section or by buying bigger packages. But for the way we shop and the way we earn money, coupons may not be worth the effort. We’ll use them if we find them while shopping, but otherwise, we’re not couponers.
What about you? Are you a couponer? Have you watched Extreme Couponing? If so, what did you think?