Sunday, May 22, 2011

Extreme Couponing: What are the Real Costs?

I couldn't sleep last night probably because I took a nap in the afternoon. So I did what I always do when I have insomnia: watch mind-numbing television in hopes of falling asleep. Last night's show of choice was TLC's Extreme Couponing. Maybe you've seen it.

The show follows women whose entire mission is to pay nothing or next to nothing for their groceries. Having only seen the three episodes I saw last night, the show may follow some men as well, but it didn't seem that way. At the beginning of the episode, the women provide a tour of their homes, showing off their specially built shelving units that hold overwhelming quantities of food, cleaning supplies and personal care items. In many cases, toilet paper is stored under the children's beds, salad dressings fill dresser drawers, and custom armories hide soup in the master bedroom. Closets are stuffed to the gills and shelves line basements, dining rooms, living rooms, and garages. As I watched the home tours, I kept thinking, "isn't this just another form of hoarding?"

Keep in mind that all of this was bought with little to no money thanks to the manipulation of sales and coupons.

Now I'm a girl on a budget. I love getting good deals. I clip coupons. I shop the sales. But I purchase what I need and can consume in a reasonable amount of time.

The show then moved on to how the women collect their coupons. Boy, do they have systems. And they get their entire families involved. I don't think I can explain any of the systems, but they seem to consume hours upon hours of time.

Once the coupons are collected and organized, the women head out to the store. And this is where I became truly horrified. I watched the women fill multiple carts with all sorts of processed food - chips, macaroni & cheese, pasta sauce, chips, ground beef, ice cream, canned vegetables, sugary cereals and juices, bottled water, and candy, for example. One woman who wore no make-up loaded up with 87 tubes of lipstick. Another, after filling her cart with more junk food than I've ever seen, added 35 bottles of Maalox. Seriously.

Do you notice what's missing? There was no visible sign of fresh fruits and vegetables anywhere. I saw no lean meat. Just every form of processed food known to man.

The other thing I couldn't help but notice was that all of the women I saw ranged from overweight to extremely obese. I know that sounds really judgmental since I've got my own weight issues, but (1) I'm actively working to change my weight and (2) come look at my pantry - you'll find very little processed food, but lots of fruits and vegetables that I eat daily. My friends sometimes tease me that I rarely take short-cuts in cooking, instead making almost everything from scratch using fresh rather than processed foods when possible.

To the credit of each of the women featured on the show, they purchased hundreds of dollars (in a couple of cases over $1000) worth of groceries for $5 or $10 or less. They do this by manipulating the sales, making use of double and triple coupon values (evidently some stores will double or triple the value of coupons), and using multiple coupons on each item. In some cases, the double and triple coupon values allowed them to get paid to take items out of the store. I was impressed. I would love to walk out of the grocery store with enough food for a week and have only paid out a small fraction (if anything) of the actual cost.

But I can't help but wonder what are the real costs of this extreme couponing?

Food prices have been rising. Do stores keep their prices artificially high to allow them to double and triple the value of coupons? Stores aren't in the business of giving away all that food, cleaning supplies, and personal care items. Somehow they must get reimbursed for all the food, cleaning supplies, and personal care items they essentially give away. How do they get reimbursed?

What about the time consumed by extreme couponing? Spending 5 to 8 hours in the grocery store for each trip, plus the time to organize the coupons and put the groceries away seem like time that could be spent doing other things with their families. Time costs money too. One woman talked about how she wakes up thinking about how to get better deals with her coupons and goes shopping in the middle of the night to save money.

One woman had an estimated $20,000 worth of food, personal care, and cleaning supplies in her home. If you don't wear make-up, why do you need 87 tubes of lipstick? How many loads of dishes have to be washed to empty 25 boxes of dish washing detergent? Why do you need 72 bags of potato chips (the big bags, not the size to fit in a lunch box)? Even though it's all neatly organized, isn't this just another form of hoarding, which the Mayo Clinic describes as a mental illness?

Most importantly, what are the physical health costs of this extreme couponing? In a time when diabetes, obesity, and heart conditions are at all time highs, these extreme couponers seem to be teaching their children all the wrong information about nutrition and taking care of themselves by only serving processed foods high in fat, salt, and preservatives. I don't mean to sound snarky, but you don't need 35 bottles of Maalox if you have a balanced and less-processed diet.

I don't mean to sound judgmental because I've certainly written about how I save money on gas, food, and entertainment, but I just don't see how this extreme over-consumption is anything to be celebrated. Of course it's important to live on a budget, but rather than spend upwards of 10 to 15 hours or more per week clipping coupons to purchase overly processed foods, why not teach children the joys of gardening and growing your own fruits and vegetables? A $70 investment in a garden can save a family $600 annually and a $200 garden can save a family $5,000 annually. Granted, it's not the same as $100s per week, but it adds up.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I totally agree - the majority of these "extreme couponers" can barely walk through the store without their carts propping them up. The JUNK they buy is absurd. Are they going to get "good deals" on statins, blood pressure meds and insulin next?

  2. I am so disturbed by this type of person that would feed their family processed, sugar ridden, artificial food simply because they got it for "free" or heavily discounted. Your point is excellent that stores are simply raising their prices to everyone to combat this "Extreme Couponing".

    Another thing to consider is this food is "free" at what cost? These families have to be unhealthy, so how much are they (or we) paying for their health care. Diabeties, heart disease, cancers, etc. are all directly related to eating processed foods and using artificial products.

    I planted my first vegetable and herb garden this weekend. I am looking forward to enjoying fresh, truly organic foods that I grew!!! For "free".

    Thanks for the post!

  3. That show was the bastard child of "Obsessed" and "Hoarders."

    One woman did donate a lot of what she purchased (is that the right word when it was pretty much free?) but everyone else seemed very proud of their stockpiles.


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