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The Myths of TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” – How Couponing Really Works


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If you’re a reality TV junkie like me, you’ve probably seen the TLC show “Extreme Couponing.” In the show, devout couponers score major deals, procuring items for as much as a full 100% discount. Some shoppers even work the system so they’re essentially paid to take the items from the store, receiving credits, points, and vouchers that exceed the value of the items they’ve purchased.

It sounds like these are pretty amazing deals, right?

Unfortunately, what “Extreme Couponing” doesn’t show is exactly how these shoppers acquire such deals. It also depicts the subjects embroiled in some serious ethical issues, all for the sake of building their “stash.” Sure, sometimes the shoppers are purchasing items for an upcoming church supper, the homeless shelter, and stationed troops – but this is not the norm.

After watching a number of episodes, I began to wonder whether “Extreme Couponing” is even close to depicting “reality.”

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Hidden Aspects Behind Extreme Couponing

I readily admit that couponing doesn’t appeal to me. Sure, I’ll redeem a coupon for $10 off a $40 purchase at a department store every now and then, but otherwise I turn to comparison shopping and sales to save money. But the couponers depicted on “Extreme Couponing” attack the task with ferocious intensity. Is it even possible to shop like that all the time? Some of their techniques are not only unrealistic, they’re downright wrong.

Before you grab your coupon binder and a ton of newspaper inserts, make sure that you get all the facts about hardcore couponing and what it could mean for your shopping habits.

Big Work Load

The TV program always shows the couponers sitting down and clipping coupons in piles, and even going house-to-house to collect inserts and sheets of coupons. Of course, an episode is only 30 minutes in length. But to get the kinds of deals that the couponers snag in a show, you’d have to devote hours each day to the pursuit of extreme couponing: gathering, clipping, surfing the Web for deals, and shopping. Is the amount you’d save while couponing comparable to how much you’d earn at a full-time job, or even at a part-time job?

Couponers are seriously dedicated to their craft, which means you can’t expect to get the same deals unless you’re willing to put in the time. Some people find that time is better spent earning money as opposed to saving money grocery shopping.

Smoke and Mirrors – Fake Deals

Extreme couponers always seem to know where to shop to get the cheapest price, and some of the best deals occur when a store doubles coupons. For example, in one episode, a woman wanted to buy bagged salad that cost $1. She had a $0.50 coupon, and the store happily doubled it, therefore allowing her to take the salad for free. You could do the same, right?

Well, not exactly. Many of the stores featured in the show came under fire when it was discovered that coupons were doubled for the show only. When other couponers headed in to claim the same deal, store owners pointed out that the show was done for promotional reasons only, and coupon doubling was not allowed.

Store managers are well within their rights to change store policies as they see fit, but you might be caught by surprise when you try to get a deal that doesn’t pan out. Just remember that the stores featured on television might offer promotions during filming only – you probably won’t get the same deal.

Coupon Fake Deals

Frequent Store Squabbles

In the show “Extreme Couponing,” shoppers are always shown interacting with cheerful cashiers who are more than happy to scan hundreds of clipped coupons, even applauding when the final total is just pennies on the dollar. It’s important to remember that these cashiers have been coached for this televised transaction. When there’s a problem, the manager is called, who then easily retools the system to accept more coupons and deeper discounts.

The mere mortal who shops with coupons definitely shouldn’t expect the same treatment. Unless you’re shopping with a camera crew following you around, you may experience a variety of roadblocks. Each store has different policies on how many coupons are allowed for each item or each transaction, and you might be turned away when you try to redeem too many.

Furthermore, you might get an attitude from cashiers or managers who don’t appreciate your method of shopping. On “Extreme Couponing,” it’s common practice to purchase entire palettes or cases of free or cheap products. However, if you’re planning a big shopping trip during which you expect to purchase a large quantity of the same item, or if you plan to save more than 50% off your total bill by using coupons, it’s best to call ahead. Introduce yourself, explain which coupons you’d like to use, and the amount of products you want. That way, the store gets a heads up that you’re coming in, which they will surely appreciate. Additionally, you can get the inside scoop on what’s acceptable for redemption – and the store can even order more product so you’re not clearing out their entire inventory.

Hidden Costs

Extreme couponers display their store receipts like a badge of honor on the show, online, and in their homes. Almost any hardcore bargain shopper can easily tell you about his or her best score; specifically, how much was bought and how much was saved. While it’s definitely thrilling, the couponers don’t always tell you the hidden costs of saving all that money.

Plenty of hardcore bargain shoppers purchase extra copies of the newspaper to ensure that they have multiples of each and every coupon, and the cost of newspapers can add up over time. If your Sunday paper costs $2.50 per copy and you purchase four for couponing purposes, it adds up $40 a month for the paper alone. That definitely cuts into your savings, doesn’t it?

Next, you need to consider your gas costs. Most couponers happily bargain shop by driving around to several stores in one day, but if you drive a gas guzzler, that will eat up your fuel budget – perhaps by as much as $50 per month.

Lastly, if you print your coupons at home, you’ll probably go through at least one ink cartridge per month, which costs around $30. Add it all up, and saving money could actually cost you $120 per month – or $1,440 per year!

It pays to do the math. Make sure that you’re saving on stuff you’ll actually use and that your savings add up to more than the cost of couponing – otherwise, you could end up doing a lot of work for nothing.

Unused and Unhealthy Products

Seasoned couponers can tell you that it is possible to score great deals on healthy foods like produce, baking staples, and dairy, but it’s definitely not the norm. Much of the time, the best deals are for processed foods, condiments, and toiletries. That’s great if you’re in the market for a bunch of new toothbrushes for your family, but you could end up spending money on unhealthy foods and stuff you don’t need and won’t use. Think about it – getting a bottle of ketchup for $0.50 is a great deal, but if that great deal entices you to purchase 30 bottles, you’ve just spend $15 on more ketchup that you may not use before the expiration date. That’s not smart.

The people on “Extreme Couponing” might purchase hundreds of the same product for their “stash” or to divvy up for various causes. But unless you can use the product before the expiration date and it’s something healthy for your family, leave it on the shelf.

Unused Unhealthy Products

Ethical Issues

There’s really no problem with using manufacturer’s coupons at the store. Most offer the store a full rebate, as well as additional funds for handling, shipping, and processing. But when “Extreme Couponers” depicts a shopper clearing out an entire store’s supply of yogurt, pain relievers, or toilet paper, it begs the question: It might be legal, but is it right? When the manufacturers create coupons or stores offer promotions, they’re hoping to attract more customers, not offer a single person free product. Coupons are made for the casual shopper, not the extreme type.

I’ll admit that I’ve blamed overzealous and inconsiderate couponers for causing me inconveniences. When an entire shelf of a product I need is gone, or if I’m stuck in line for an hour while a couponer price checks and ad matches, my blood begins to boil.

There’s an ethical difference between grateful couponers and extreme couponers. Grateful and considerate couponers use their coupons to get the best discounts without affecting other shoppers, while extreme couponers do what they can to stretch their money, regardless of how it affects others. This might be a controversial opinion, but I appreciate it when couponers show a little restraint in the grocery store by shopping during slower hours, or by leaving product on the shelves despite the ability to buy it all due to a deep discount.

Final Word

You can’t believe everything you see on TV. The show “Extreme Couponing” opens up a world of savings for budget-conscious shoppers, but it doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. To be a real extreme couponer, you need to have a ton of time, a large investment, and very thick skin. For some, it’s a way of life, but extreme couponing is definitely not for everyone. Tread carefully so you don’t completely lose your head, time, or money.

What do you think of “Extreme Couponing”?


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Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.