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The Truth About Extreme Couponing

By , April 18th, 2011 | 25 Comments »

Lately I’ve been watching TLC’s new show, “Extreme Couponing” which is sort of like watching a train wreck. You know you should look away but you just can’t. The show profiles people who get hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of merchandise for free or close to it, thanks to their use of coupons.

This show has sprouted a lot of interest in couponing and many people are wondering how they can do this, too. The truth is, you probably can’t. At least not on any sort of consistent basis. Real people who use coupons probably save anywhere between ten and fifty percent on their average shopping trips. This is great but it’s not the extreme shown on TV, which leads some to feel like they’re failing. You’re not failing. You’re normal. These people on TV are not normal. Here’s the truth about how they get those deals.

These are not normal shopping trips: There is a reason the word “extreme” appears in the title of the show. Many of these people have been planning their attacks for weeks. They aren’t going for the typical items like break, milk, or produce. They are buying things like boxed pasta, health and beauty aids, canned food, and other items that don’t expire. While it may look cool that they’ve saved all this money, this isn’t (or I hope it’s not) all that they feed their families. Off camera, they are probably making other trips to fill in with other items. They aren’t getting everything for free.

Some participants resort to fraud or actively circumvent/abuse store policies: The show profiled one woman who wanted to divide her order into multiple transactions to take advantage of the fact there her store was offering $10 off of every $50 purchase. She broke her huge order into multiple $50 transactions to further her savings. The manager came over and told her the policy was one discount per person. Since she had her husband with her, she was eligible for two discounts. Rather than be happy with that, they called all their friends to the store and made them each do a transaction. Is it legal? I suppose so since the manager didn’t complain (but then again he probably didn’t want to come across as mean on national TV). Is it within the spirit of the policy? No. Another woman is now suspected of engaging in coupon fraud. She used a convoluted process to exploit a technical flaw in the store’s computer system. There’s a good explanation of what she allegedly did here. If this is true, what she did is illegal. If you have to resort to cheating to get the savings, you haven’t saved anything.

They give couponers a bad name: These people are the reason why cashiers roll their eyes when you show up with your coupons. They take hours to check out and some are rude to cashiers who make mistakes or who don’t process their orders in exactly the right way. The ones who resort to fraud or sketchy practices are why cashiers and managers scrutinize every coupon you present and why some stores have stopped taking coupons altogether or have limited their doubling practices. At least now I know where some of the hostility toward coupon users I discussed last week comes from.

The show does not adequately track the “real savings”: Many of these people pay to get coupons from clipping services, or by buying multiple copies of the Sunday paper. Many are printing large quantities of online coupons. If you factor in ink and paper, each coupon may cost a few cents to print. One couple on the show carried supplemental insurance to the tune of $35,000 to insure their stockpile. The premium for that policy eats into the savings. One woman took a day off work to do her shopping trip. That’s either lost wages or lost vacation time. To be a true representation of the savings, all of these things would have to be accounted for.

These people live in areas with great coupon policies: Not every area has stores that double coupons or triple coupons. To get these kinds of savings, you have to have stores that multiply coupons. You also need to have stores that don’t limit the number of coupons you can use. For example, my stores here say that I can’t use more than five coupons for the same item in one transaction. Therefore, if I had ten coupons for the same brand of cereal, I’d have to make two trips. My stores double coupons, but only the first five. You also need a store that will let you make “overage” on coupons. That means that if the price of the item with coupon ends up being lower than the price of the item, that the store will apply the overage to the order. Many stores will simply cap the amount of the coupon at the price of the item, meaning you have no “overage” that reduces your bill for your non-sale items even further.

They are borderline hoarders: I don’t think it was coincidence that TLC’s other show, “Hoarders” aired right after “Extreme Couponing.” These people have stockpiles of stuff that they will never be able to use before it goes bad. Even things like deodorant will lose their effectiveness and toilet paper will start to degrade. Cereal will go bad. It may be great that you have two years worth of cereal, but unless you can eat all of it before the expiration date, it’s wasted. They have devoted whole rooms of their homes to their stockpiles, stuffed items under every bed and in the shower stalls, and stopped using their garages for cars to accommodate the piles of stuff. Stockpiling is fine, as long as you balance using your stock with replenishing it. Most of these people spend too much time adding to it and not enough time using it. They’ve sacrificed living space to service this addiction.

They dedicate a lot of time to this: One woman spent six hours in the store. She logged in to her computer first thing in the morning to look for deals and spent all day on the computer. She admitted to leaving family events early to go shopping. Others spend hours managing their stockpiles. At the very least, they spend hours collecting and organizing coupons and matching coupons to sales and then shopping and checking out with multiple carts full of stuff. This is a full time job for most of these people and for some, it’s an obsession. The time they spend allows them to get big savings, but most couponers don’t have the time or desire to devote this much time to this.

They eat a lot of processed food: There are coupons out there for healthy items, as I’ve discussed before. Not every coupon is for junk. However, these healthy coupons do not appear en masse every week. This is why you see many extreme couponers packing their carts with Ramen noodles, boxed mac and cheese, cereal, and jarred/canned food. You can use coupons and eat healthfully, but you will never get everything in your order for free. There just aren’t enough coupons for fresh produce, meat, and organic items. If that’s all you’re willing to eat, extreme couponing is never going to work for you.

So can you save with coupons? Yes, but probably not to this extreme. The most oft-quoted coupon strategies still apply. Match your coupons to the sale items and only use coupons for things you can and will actually use. You’ll save money. Maybe not the extreme that these people do, but you have to remember this is “reality TV” where things are often anything but real. Even if you can’t save hundreds of dollars, ten dollars saved is still ten dollars. You’re still doing well at couponing. Don’t fret if you can’t be like these people. Chances are, you don’t really want to be like them, anyway.

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  • 20 and Engaged says:

    Thank you for bringing light to this! When I first watched it, I was saying “wow!” but then as I continued watching I felt sad and slightly disgusted. Couponing was taking over their lives, and they were losing room in their homes, taking hours upon hours out of their day. Like you said, it was lots of the same things, not necessarily healthy food, beating the system. I live in the OC and places here don’t do double/triple coupons. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do it.

  • rob62521 says:

    Thank you for writing this…I watched it last night and thought who needs 1000 tubes of toothpaste? And although it was great the guy was donating some of his items to the military, he wasn’t making a sacrifice. He was donating because he got it from the store and the manufacturer’s generosity. I think that these extreme couponers are going to make it rough on the rest of us as companies get pickier on the sizes and how many and stores get even tougher on their policies all because of the greed of a few. And yes, I consider it greed…stockpiling diapers because there’s a possibility of having a baby some day?Come on!

  • Sara says:

    I watched Extreme Couponing for the first time last night after a cashier told me about it( I only saved $15.00 and this was a big deal to me). I love couponing! I love to get free or almost free stuff and I love sharing them with friends and family but what I saw on the show was just greed. The woman who had all those packages of diapers but did not have any kids?! That is just unbelievable! And the guy who had over 1000 tubes of toothpaste..wow. It is already tough going up to the register with a hand full of coupons and watching the cashier roll her eyes or the people in line behind you sigh but now I feel that people might think I am as greedy as the shoppers on this show, they are sort of giving regular couponers a bad name.

  • Joann says:

    don’t forget about clothing store discounts and reward programs to save money. Last weekend I got sweatshirts and jackets and snow boots for my kids for next year. I just got them a few sizes bigger. Also I got discounted books from Borders which is going out of business. I went grocery shopping (my first time with coupons and none of my stores double), and with the store loyalty programs and the coupons saved quite a bit. Total savings for the weekend were $414, about 43%. Some big things were not discounted like my son’s new bike for him birthday.

  • Rosie says:

    It’s true that not everybody will “save” BIG amounts as the TV coupon people. But not using a coupon that only takes a few seconds to get is like throwing money away!

  • ALeigh says:

    I usually save somewhere between 30-40% on my grocery bill and I am happy with that.

  • Angie says:

    I would like to know how many stores in the country allows stacking of coupons and doubling of coupons with no limits on how much a person can buy. I have checked the stores in my area and have yet to find one. I really have to wonder if the stores depicted in these shows did it for the show only. I believe that one can save with coupons but I have a hard time believing that any store will deal with that type of exreme couponing. I’m just not buying it

  • Minny says:

    I used to follow a blog called Jane4girls, using coupons a mother spent $800 a year on the grocery bill. It means that she could save for her daughters college education.

    It will be like many things – while only a few people go to extreme lengths shops and manufacturers can let it happen – too many doing it and they will start to restrict the offers.

    The chap on here who lived for $1 a day after a bet was interesting to read, he pretty much carried on after the period of the bet was over it all worker so well.

  • Jeffrey says:

    I think that is the first time I have ever been called a chap 🙂

  • bexbell says:

    I saw that show and thought, Wow! I’d love to do that! But then I kept on watching, and saw…
    1. An unhappy husband, whose main job is to carry sacks of cr*p from the grocery store.
    2. The wife of that man who admitted that her obsession took away from time with her family.
    3. Ranch dressing stockpiled under a little girl’s bed.
    4. A pallet of Total cereal that will last 3 lifetimes.
    5. Several hours of life wasted hyperventilating at the cash register.
    Er, extreme couponing is not for me. I’d rather LIVE.

  • Shannon says:

    Ha – we always say in our house that those extreme couponers are one bad life event away from hoarding!

  • Robert says:

    I’ve gotten to know the local Stop and Shop cashier and I asked if he has ever seen anyone get a full order for free and he said no. He said he has seen people shave up to $40 off a big order but not free. It doesn’t make sense to spend much time buying stuff you will not even use. Saving as much money as you can on things you need makes sense.

  • Ed says:

    I can verify that cereal goes bad. I had once bought 20 boxes of cereal because it was on a 10 for $10 deal which would also produce a $5 coupon for future purchases, so in essence a 10 for $5 cereal deal.
    Well soon after I bought the cereal my kids decided to move on to another type of cereal as their fickle tastes change. Ii had the boxes for over a year, then we went back to them. Yuck, they were stale and no one wanted to eat them.
    I suppose if we were starving it would work but for now, they are garbage. ;(

  • Carol says:

    I don’t think the people on that show are “borderline” hoarders, I think they are hoarders, period! They are just somewhat neater about their obsession compared to the more stereotypical people shown on the “Hoarding” show. In fact I heard a psychologist on the “Hoarding” show say that over-shopping is part of the hoarding syndrome. I think it is a shameful waste of money. Maybe they believe they are preparing for the end of the world! At least a few of the people did donate items to charity so that people could be helped. That is so much better than having 60 bottles of shampoo piling up in your basement. I believe that one woman had something like 6 years worth of deodorant stockpiled. Idk I find that show a total turnoff and don’t watch it anymore.

  • Anon says:

    I agree with most of the people here. There are very few stores that allow doubling, or tripling on coupons. It would be VERY nice, if the people who spent all the time extreme couponing to excess would donate some of their goods to charities, like Second Harvest Food bank, etc. After all, they are getting it for “free” anyway (the couponers). I’m sure the charities would be grateful and not have to rely on so many other donations. You can only eat so much anyway before it goes bad. It’s nice to save money, but what are they sacrificing to save?

  • Carol Lree says:

    I’m watching the show right now, and the lady known as The Diva for Coupons just disgusts me. This is shameful and pure greed. How can it be called anything else?

    And you’re all right; these greedy freebie addicts HAVE ruined it for the rest of us who coupon NORMALLY. There are NO stores in my areas that accept double coupons and they are becoming extremely picky about accepting ANY coupons. Thanks you greedy hoarders!

  • tahrey says:

    Ha… I always knew it, somehow. I saw a feature on this phenomenon on the news over here in the UK, and many of those points immediately sprang to mind:

    * “It’d never work here” … though we’re not a coupon desert, there aren’t e.g. whole pages of them in the local paper or anything like that; they’re more often occasional promotional things for one or two items to draw you in… also, stores have MUCH more restrictive policies and can’t be swayed as much. Much the same as the whole “mail-in rebate” thing failed to take off after a couple of scandals with cellphone companies that either wouldn’t, or _couldn’t_ honour them because their assumption that only a small fraction of customers would apply proved to be disasterously optimistic.

    * “Just how much time and effort is she spending on this?!” (nb, the shopper featured was female, no sexism here 😉 … I’m soon to move into my own house for the first time and will have to be super-hot on the bills, so being able to make a killing on groceries is a very attractive prospect. However, I also work long hours and have some other out-of-work committments. I bare have enough spare time to indulge a few hours of leisure for myself, or to give up that time to research and make judgements on large occasional purchases… e.g. a new mobile phone contract (until recently it was actually cheaper to pay monthly round here, now I’m not too sure), a new (or “new”) car / TV / computer / etc to replace one that’s finally worn out, etc. If I put even a fraction of that effort into scrounging up every last grocery discount there wouldn’t even be time left to actually go to the shop, let alone do anything else. Presumably, the mother featured is a stay-at-home parent… one wonders how much extra INCOME she could garner just by giving up that coupon-and-stockpiling time and using it to fit in a part-time hourly paid job instead. Enough to more than offset the extra money that would be spent at the cash register?

    * “Seriously, that can’t be ALL she’s buying?” … though it wasn’t ALL cereal, tinned and dried food (and some frozen “junk” like Pizza (hey, I’m more than happy to buy and eat that too… but not more than once a week unless time is very tight)), and she picked up e.g. a very carefully measured amount of fresh fish and meat, I didn’t see so much in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, bread or other wholegrain staples etc. Though you probably wouldn’t end up malnourished or TOO deprived of essential vitamins etc, it’s still far from being the ideal diet.

    Now, can we have some more sensible, balanced kind of guide to coupon use? 🙂 ((possibly by-country and/or state?))

    hmm … I have a feeling the spacing I’ve put in between my bullets may be about to disappear. If the above is hard to read, my apologies – direct all complaints to the blog software!

  • Dubious says:

    I watched a marathon of this show last night and indeed wished someone would do a study on the “real” cost of couponing. For example, many of those women were unemployed and admitted to spending 20-30 hours of week collecting, cutting, organizing coupons. What salary were they giving up? They were paying for extra copies of newspapers at what cost? They were devoting entire rooms of their homes to stockpiles What’s the extra rent/mortgage payment of an extra room just for a stockpile? What’s the extra cost of heating and lighting it? Plus the shelves? Plus the notebooks and crates for storing coupons? It sounded like one woman had an extra computer or two she devoted solely to couponing? What’s the cost there? Also, what sort of eating habits are you teaching your children? Juice is not healthy, the kids should be eating fruit. I’d never get my kids hooked on sports drinks; water is better for them. And free. And what’s with taking home over a hundred bottles of headache medicine that you don’t need just because you can make money off it it? That;s sinful in my book, and I’m not even a church goer! These women are sick.

    Coupons tempt to make me buy things I wasn’t going to buy in the first place. In other words, rarely are the coupons in the paper on items that I planned to buy in the first place.

  • emily says:

    i agree & at the same time disagree w/ most of you i think if you have a BIG family then get a lot of food & also if your living pay check to pay check get a lot & i agree some of these people have stuff they don’t need i mean some of these people go overbord & those people give us that need to use coupons a bad name but not all of them. also people need just get these that they need rite know & use a lot. anyway anyone who wants to talk more bout this w/ me look me up I JUST WANT YOU ALL WHO ARE BULLYING THE SHOW STOP IT PEASLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Lillian says:

    I do couponing and I do stockpile, and there seems to be a misunderstanding on why couponers stock pile. As an example I bought 10 deorderant free with coupons and store savings, if I bought them regularly they would cost 3.99 each wich is roughly 39.99. So I can use free deorderant as needed and use the money that I would use to buy the deorderant for food. Yes there isn’t alot of coupon for fresh produce and all that, but that were some of the coupon saving go to. Plus I go to the famers market and butcher shops to find better saving then what the big stores will sell and that encourage money tword the little business. Couponing is not the easiest hobby and it can get hard and competitive at times, but it’s not the evil that everyone keeps thinking it is.

  • Aleesha says:

    ok thanks for putting this stright yeah its a good show but its soooooo stressful and these people have got to have a problem like ocd or something. I have been trying to do this and there is absoulty no way a NORMAL person can do this. Thank you so much for putting this out there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • TheTechDude says:

    I tried to start a couponing adventure some time ago but faced two problems. It was a time sink and there were not many places that accepted coupons at all. Sometimes it is a pain to print them and from experience those smartphone apps that offer them on screen are laughed at by many cashiers. What I have been doing is using loyalty rewards cards from stores I visit and stack them with other benefits. For example, some sits like Upromise give you a cash back if use their affiliate links. What I do is to use a credit card that offers me rewards to use it and I use as my checking account for day to day expenses. I pay all the balance monthly to avoid any interest or unnecessary fees. After I earn some gift cards I use them to buy stuff through the Upromise link which pays a 5% cash back or 10% on Thursday’s. From Upromise you can request a check or use the money to pay down your Sallie Mae loan if you have one.

  • Violette_Crime says:

    They are correct, there are a few conditions that must be met, double coupons and the time, space and ability to fudge a bit. The ones who print coupons on all their office machines to get around the one per family/household condition bugs me. And the ones that use 5 printers from home, that is one reason couponing is tightening up.

    I was at a local pharmacy and 2 women were sitting on the floor in a corner scanning and cutting out hundreds of Sunday circulars. They pay 1.00 per insert x 200 and hope it is something they can use or they have to trade or resell them. This takes time and my time is worth more than cheap weinies, “digestive aids” and “flavored water”. That being said I do save around 10 – 15 % when I use coupons myself.


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