May 10th, 2011

The Real Costs of Extreme Couponing

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Everyone’s abuzz about the latest TLC show, “Extreme Couponing.” It shows real people saving hundreds of dollars—or paying nothing—on grocery trips. They do it by clipping coupons, stacking deals, and shopping when they can use coupons on sale items. And they go to extremes, like rifling through dumpsters, to make sure no coupon goes to waste.

I’ve been watching the show—for research purposes, of course—and I’ve noticed some common things that would keep me away from the coupon-clipping madness. Extreme couponing is meant to save you money in the long run by cutting down on grocery costs. But is it worth all the other costs, like your health or time?

Let’s look at how extreme couponing could cost you in other areas of your life, and how to coupon the practical and effective way.

Ethical Cost

While couponing saves you money and typically helps manufacturers and stores rid themselves of overstocked items and feature particular products, extreme couponing can raise some ethical questions.

Just last week, the Coupon Information Corporation issued a statement about their stance on “Extreme Couponing,” raising some questions about illegal use of coupons on the show, such as using a coupon specified for a certain size of a product on a smaller size to get a bigger discount. The grocery store computer will often still scan the discount because it’s in the same product family, with a similar UPC.

What to do: Keep couponing, but adhere to the terms and conditions of each coupon. It’s unethical—and illegal—to break the rules, even if you get away with it. So don’t steal your neighbor’s paper just to get the coupon insert.

Health Cost

One couponer featured on the show posted her grocery list on her site. Although she walked away with two pounds of bananas and five of strawberries, that was it for the fresh produce. The rest of the haul was filled with items such as 10 2-liter soda bottles and six cans of Hormel Chili, which has nearly 1000mg of sodium per serving. Without fresh produce and vegetables, I wonder what meals often come out of extreme couponing; I fear there are many cans of sodium-rich soups involved.

What to do: Get coupons for items that won’t compromise your health. Vitamin Water, a frequently couponed item on the show, is little more than sugar water. Tap water is much cheaper and healthier. As for produce, if coupons for fresh fruits and veggies aren’t available, find coupons for frozen instead of canned items. Canned produce typically has a good deal of added preservatives, decreasing the health value. But frozen veggies are often flash frozen, helping them retain their nutrients.

When it comes to recipes, take a hint from Coupon Connections, an extreme couponing site with health-conscious recipes. Try these bran muffins or these turkey lettuce wraps.

Cost to Your Home

Extreme couponers stack their goods in “stockpiles,” generally in their basements or garages. The most common stockpiled items are condiments, toiletries, and canned foods. When couponers don’t know when to stop, it becomes a problem. In one episode, an extreme couponer had begun storing her stockpile under her children’s beds and in closets alongside clothing.

What to do: Set a stockpile limit. If you already have 10 stockpiled deodorants, you don’t need more deodorant just because you can get 20 for free with your coupons. Once you hit your limit, start donating some of your non-perishable stock items to local food banks and churches. Do good with your couponing while keeping your stockpile out from under your bed.

Time Cost

Several extreme couponers interviewed on the show spend 30 to 60 hours a week clipping coupons and shopping. It’s essentially their part- or full-time job and how they contribute to their family’s household income—not by making thousands of dollars a year, but by saving it. However, this can also become a serious fixation rather than a way to cut back on the grocery bill.

What to do: Limit the time you use each week to coupon, and tell your family to alert you if you’re spending too much time on it. Having healthy finances isn’t just about finding every little opportunity to save money; your time is valuable too, so spend it with the people you love.

Bottom Line: There is a reason this show is called “Extreme Couponing” instead of “Casual Couponing.” The scenarios portrayed are extreme, even to the point of being ethically questionable. But if you can manage to coupon wisely while keeping your priorities intact, it’s definitely worth a shot. To get started, check out a site like WeUseCoupons.com, an online coupon forum, which provides resources like a coupon schedule and a coupon database.

9 Comments

  1. I agree with all these comments and points whole-heartedly. I don’t watch the show, I have no interest in it. I’m a couponer, and I know that the only way to get your entire grocery order for free is to exaggerate the convenience of couponing just as you have described. I used to OBSESS over coupons. I used to cut them ALL out of multiple papers, because it is such a waste that they are not being used. I would hand them out in the grocery store, looking in ppl’s carts to see if they were buying something I had a coupon for, and give them a coupon. Just because this is MONEY that the manufacturers are handing out, and it is going to waste. Creepy? Obsessive? You bet. I’m better now. I cut out what I need or want to use, and throw the rest away. Do I feel bad about wasting them? Maybe a little. But I had to learn that I can’t save the world. I have to think about myself, and all the stress and the waste of MY time. And as for buying a ton of things just because you get it for free or nearly free, even if you don’t need it… WELL, don’t even get me started on THAT point…

    Tabikat at 5:26 pm on May 10, 2011
  2. My husband and I watched a few episodes of the show and were HORRIFIED by the amounts of CRAP that these people filled their carts with. Much of the “stockpile” was processed food, sodas, high sugar drinks etc. If I have a coupon for a product I can actually use, fine. But I won’t bring that junk into my house.

    Hotmama at 11:29 am on May 19, 2011
  3. I think the Extreme Couponing show needs to get in contact with the Hoarders show. They can have a 2-stage process set up as such: have Extreme Couponing show off how they can save, then have Hoarders swoop them up to help cure their stockpile OCD. :P

    You make an EXCELLENT point about health. My girlfriend is very conscious about what she puts in her body, and throughout the show she could hardly find a single thing she would actually eat. I can get behind a 6-month supply of TP, but who needs a 6-month supply of Butterfingers?

    I also have to wonder how much food in the stockpile expires before it gets used, or how many poor families could have taken advantage of the savings while the food rots in someone’s stockpile. I guess that falls under the ethics section as well…

    Ryan M. at 12:49 am on December 13, 2011

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