Extreme Couponing: Never Hotter, Yet Never More Pointless

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Spending a good chunk of the work week hunting and gathering coupons, then strategically shopping at the supermarket for hours, all to save $50, $75, even $100 on groceries, is a dubious use of time. Now that supermarkets, drugstores, and other retailers are making it more difficult to utilize coupons to the extreme like the pros on TV, it’s much harder to argue that couponing pays off.

Coupon usage is hot. Some 332 billion coupons worth $3.7 billion were redeemed last year, representing an all-time high. The popularity of the TLC show “Extreme Couponing,” in which coupon-obsessed consumers put on stunning shopping displays ($500 worth of groceries for $11.27, cereal boxes by the truckload), seems to have pushed couponing to the next level. In a recent “Hot or Not” BIGresearch survey, 6 in 10 adults gave extreme couponing the “hot” nod. Stories have even surfaced that coupons are also hot in the “stolen property” sense, with loads of coupon inserts being stolen from newspapers, presumably by seriously extreme couponers.

(MORE: How Coupons Became Cool)

Even with though extreme couponing offers the potential to save big—with or without breaking the law—many personal finance writers don’t care for it. The folks at Bargaineering, BrokeProfessionals, LenPenzo.com, WiseBread, and YesIAmCheap have all bashed extreme couponing (the show and/or the idea), mainly because even these frugal-minded folks have better things to do with their time, and/or they don’t like or wouldn’t use many of the foods and products discounted via coupons.

For the most part, these writers were taking shots at extreme couponing even before retailers changed policies to limit shoppers from scoring the eye-popping savings like those on TV. In the past few months, CVS, RiteAid, Target, Publix, and Kroger are among the stores shifting their coupon redemption rules, often making it impossible for crafty couponers from snagging items for free like they used to.

From the time “Extreme Couponing” first aired, there has been plenty of skepticism that the savings exploits were remotely possible to replicate in real life. Now, with widespread coupon redemption policy changes at the chain stores, extreme savings via coupons seem more impossible than ever.

(MORE: The Backlash Against Online Daily Deals)

So why are people like those profiled in a Money mag story devoting four hours a day to coupons?

Wouldn’t their time be better spent earning money at a job rather than saving money via coupons? For some people, this simply isn’t possible, given other commitments and the economy. But a part-time job typically pays much more per hour than the equivalent saved by couponing. By forgetting about coupons, or using them only when they’re for products you’d buy anyway, you’re also saving the time and effort needed to plan meals around the random items gathered from coupon-based shopping trips.

All couponers love to save. But some just plain enjoy it—especially the idea of getting the best in the never-ending battle of consumers versus manufacturers, marketers, and retailers. There’s an undeniable thrill of getting something for nothing, especially when you’re getting it from companies that have been making handsome profits from consumers for generations.

But strictly as a time-money discussion, is couponing worth your time? Probably not when it’s taken to the extreme. The answer depends on how much you really save—”saving” on certain items by purchasing lots of other stuff you don’t need doesn’t count—whether you’ll actually use and like the goods that wind up in your pantry, how much time all of this takes up, and what you’d otherwise do with that time if you weren’t scurrying around trying to make the most of coupons.

Devoting a half-hour or hour a week to round up and use coupons sounds reasonable. But four hours each and every day? Haven’t you got something better to do?

(MORE: Rich People Clip Coupons. Poor People? Not So Much)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.