‘Extreme Couponing': More ‘Hoarders’ Than How-To

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In a TV show debuting tonight on TLC, seemingly normal people exhibit some pretty strange behavior. They jump into dumpsters, steal parts of newspapers off of neighbors’ porches, and stuff their collections into elaborate storage units and under their kids’ beds. They also save tons of money on obsessively plotted shopping excursions, but that’s almost beside the fact.

In the preview for “Extreme Couponing” (below), a woman says she sometimes spends as much as six hours a day preparing for a shopping trip. So right away, you should be aware that if you’re not spending money, there’s a good chance you’re spending something else—namely, your own precious time.

Note that they’ve used that “More, More, More” song in the preview. Funny! As I recall, this song was also featured in a series of “Sex & the City” ads that aired constantly way back when. My, how things have changed. This is the new fabulous of the post-recession era. It’s not about shoes or picking up guys. It’s about figuring out a way to game the system and stick it to the man—by way of getting $500-odd dollars of groceries for $5.97.

An initial episode of “Extreme Couponing” aired around New Year’s, and it was such a hit—a million viewers were expected, and more than double actually watched—that TLC OK’d a 12-episode season starting on Wednesday, April 6, at 9 p.m.

Why has this struck a chord with viewers? Well, for one thing, there’s the combo of puzzlement and envy. As in: How the heck do they do that? And: Hey, I want to stock my pantry for next to nothing too!

Also, there’s the “dorky thrill,” as an EW writer put it, of watching the drama unfold as a woman “faces the threat of a $1,200+ grocery total, with only her coupons to save her.”

As an AP story noted, TLC is becoming known as the network devoted to strange, obsessive, and extreme behaviors, with shows such as “Hoarders” and “My Strange Addiction.” Come to think of it, the most extreme couponers out there could probably be featured on either of those programs.

The NY Times’ review says that the show “passes for a docu-series on people who are unhealthily committed to savings, but it’s really a revenge fantasy and a heist flick all in one.” The Times piece also points out that the people featured on “Extreme Couponing” aren’t really desperate or particularly poor. Truly poor people say they don’t have the time to clip coupons, and they’d never pay to get coupons through a coupon-clipping service. They also couldn’t afford the homes nor the storage space used for stockpiling years worth of paper towels, toothpaste, and tomato sauce brought home by the expert couponers:

There are hidden costs: the coupon clipping services that sell in bulk and, of course, the endless hours devoted to planning these scores. It all smacks of a middle-class pursuit.

For that matter, studies have shown that coupons—whether used in extreme ways or not—are used in much greater numbers by affluent consumers, not poor people. The point is that, while it makes perfect sense to use the occasional coupon to save money, figuring out a way to game the system on a broader level requires more time, strategy, and patience than most shoppers can afford. That’s just not a game most consumers want to play.

But is “Extreme Couponing” a fair depiction of the most expert coupon ninjas out there? Nope, not based on the feedback after that initial episode aired.

Jill Cataldo was initially asked to be on the show when it was presented as a less extreme program about “super couponing.” After getting the impression the show only wanted to feature “crazy coupon ladies,” her interest in being part of the program faded.

A NewsObserver blogger had plenty of criticisms for that first episode, starting with a defense of healthy couponing:

I want to tell the general public that couponers are not all hoarders. I advise people to live by the “rule of two” or, for those who wish, the “rule of three.” That means you try to keep two (or three) of an item in your house so that you never run out and hopefully never have to pay full price because you need an emergency replacement. I do NOT advocate going into stores and picking up bins of product and dumping them into your cart (something that was shown on this show).

And also the plain impracticality of what was shown on TV:

Shopping in the manner depicted on this show is darn near impossible to do in “real life.” From what I gather from other coupon chat boards, the shoppers featured on this show were allowed to pre-order items and tell the stores exactly what they would need. It would be darn near impossible for a regular, not-on-TV couponer to walk into a store and buy 100 of one item.

An MSN blogger also noted that it would be impossible to replicate many of the purchases shown on TV—for one thing, because a supermarket involved (Safeway) changed its policies. But more importantly, this post raises two questions: When does stockpiling become hoarding? and Are the extreme couponers greedy?

There’s nothing wrong with trying to save money. But hoarding and greedy behavior? They can be disturbing, and just plain wrong.

MORE:
The Year of the Coupon
Q&A: Coupon Expert and ‘Consumer Queen’ Melissa Garcia
Q&A: Coupon Tips from Eversave.com’s ‘Chief Savings Officer’

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