Thursday, May 26, 2011

Extreme couponing

I decided to write a post on extreme couponing, since it is such a hot topic right now and since I couldn’t have this blog without trips to various grocery stores (though the phenomenon is not limited to groceries). Extreme couponing refers not only to using coupons (which everyone probably does to some extent), but to using so many coupons in conjunction with special deals and sales that one saves anywhere between 90% and 99% of their total bill. We’re nowhere near that; the most we saved in a single grocery trip was $16.90, which was 13.85% of the total.

I first became aware of the trend on The Nate Berkus Show in January, when Joanie Demer from The Krazy Coupon Lady was on (she and partner Heather Wheeler have been on a few times since). Their book has been out for two years, but I hadn’t heard about this before 2011. Now TLC has jumped on the bandwagon with its new show Extreme Couponing, which gives a lot more concrete examples of how to accomplish this. There are also a lot of blogs and websites that give advice, as well as those that group coupons and deals (a Google search will help you turn up a lot of them).

Here’s how it works: match store sale prices with coupons, then stock up. For example, you have a $1.00 coupon for a snack bar. You wait until the store has a sale along the lines of “2 bars for $1.00”, then use your coupon: you just got two snack bars for free. Or use a manufacturer’s coupon along with a store coupon to save more money on a single item. Extreme couponers don’t just buy one item, though: they’ll get 50 copies of the coupons and buy 50 items at little to no cost, which is how they can get the grocery bill so low. So this isn’t necessarily something you can do each week for only your weekly food; you end up buying 50 jars of mustard, 20 cans of coffee and 60 bottles of soda, which then helps you build a stash of food in your own home.

Our local HEB store has weekly specials that can be interesting, but it depends on your eating habits. This week, for example, if you buy two packages of Ball Park franks, you get 4 items for free with coupons: a 15-oz can of HEB chili (with or without beans), a 2-liter bottle of HEB soda, a 20-oz bottle of HEB ketchup and an 8-oz package of Borden shredded cheese. The Engineer and I occasionally buy franks, but not very often. I make my own chili, we cut back on soda (we both avoid HFCS, I avoid artificial sweeteners, and the Engineer has trouble with carbonated drinks during the local allergy season), we already have a big bottle of ketchup (Heinz is our brand) and we don’t buy shredded cheese, which is always full of lactose and additives. There are also deals where HEB will pit one of their products against the leading brand in the hope that you’ll compare the two and prefer theirs (like buy Fritos corn chips and get HEB corn chips for free) or the store will otherwise entice you with BOGO deals (like buy HEB flavoured tortilla chips and get free Hill Country Fare barbecue sauce); again, we don’t eat any of those products, but if you do, those are some pretty good deals.

While the Engineer and I have started being more careful about how we spend money at the grocery store (after all, his income after taxes and health insurance is lower than last year, I no longer have an income, and we have a lot more expenses), we do not intend to become extreme coupners. That is literally a full-time job: people easily spend 30 to 35 hours a week researching deals, checking out sales and looking for coupons (both paper and electronic), sometimes literally dumpster-diving for them, then organizing said coupons and planning the actual trip to the grocery store. I may be a homemaker, but that is time I do not have. Also, checkout times for them are usually 1 to 2 hours, for a total time in the grocery store that is often 3 to 5 hours, and we’re not willing to do that.

Moreover, I tend to be a brand-loyal person. Once I find something I really like or that works well for me, I want to stick to that brand and not buy another just because it’s on sale that week. This goes for types of products, too: I prefer organic or vegan cane sugar to processed granulated white sugar, despite the price increase, so if the sale is on white sugar, I’m just not interested. And let’s face it, because I’m lactose-intolerant on top of that, some things are just more expensive for me (lactose-free milk is more expensive than regular milk; real parmesan is more expensive than parmesan from a can). Extreme couponers cannot afford to be brand loyal.

Another major hurdle is the fact that in the vast majority of examples I’ve seen on television and online, shoppers went to grocery stores that allowed them to double coupons, that is to say allowed them to use two coupons on the same product. If something is on sale at $0.99 and you have two coupons for $0.50 off, then the product is free. But I don’t know of any stores in my area (here or in Canada) that do that; they certainly don’t do it with manufacturers’ coupons, and store coupons I’ve seen always specifically say it’s forbidden.

While the Engineer and I are all for having a modest stash of non perishable items in case of emergency, we do not wish to stockpile food and toiletries in the year-long (or lifetime) supplies to which extreme couponers resort; that’s border-line hoarding to me. (There were people on Extreme Couponing who bought diapers and antacid tablets just because they got really good deals, but those people did not have children or heartburn!) The space in our house is worth more to us than the coupon savings. If that works for them, fine, but it’s just not what we want to do. That being said, I’ve got to give kudos to the one person on Extreme Couponing who gave his purchases to charity. The first time I saw him, he bought something like $1,200 worth of non perishables and paid a total of $100 thanks to coupons. He then donated everything to a homeless shelter and kept the receipt for his tax credit, worth $1,200! See, I think that charities should employ people who have that talent, and that way they would get more for their money, while the extreme couponers would actually get paid for doing this. Perhaps they would even make more money than they save with coupons!

The way extreme couponers shop is also very different than the way I shop. While we both believe in making a grocery list ahead of time, they make a menu based on what is on sale that week. While that is smart, it doesn’t work for me because I literally have hundreds of recipes I want to try, so I make a menu based on which ones I can see myself doing that week (this depends on seasonal produce, what I already have on hand and the time I have that week). So I often buy ingredients that are not on sale; the peace of mind of checking a recipe off my to-do list is worth it to me.

As the Engineer pointed out, this trend exposes some loopholes that are bound to be closed pretty soon. I can’t imagine grocery stores accepting double coupons if it means losing hundreds of dollars on a single transaction. There is also coupon fraud, admittedly committed by someone on Extreme Couponing – the shopper doesn’t believe it’s a crime, but according to the law, it is. Basically, there is a portion of the coupon’s barcode that matches a portion of the product’s barcode, but as of now, the register will match a coupon to any product containing that portion of barcode. For example, if General Mills makes a $0.75 coupon for Fiber One cereal, the register might accept it instead as a rebate on a box of Cheerios. Both products are by General Mills, but the Fiber One sells for more than the Cheerios; therefore, coupons for Fiber One might be $0.75 while those for Cheerios are usually $0.50. If you use the bigger coupon on the cheaper but mismatched product, despite the fact that the register may not detect it, you’re committing fraud. The manufacturer could ask to see the receipt and then refuse to reimburse the store, since the coupons used did not match the product; then, in essence, the store has been robbed.

Finally, I don’t see extreme couponers buy produce. The bulk of what I see in their carts is pre-packaged or processed, because that’s where the sales and coupons are. But I try to stick to the outer perimeter of the store, with the notable exception of the baking supplies aisle. I did notice that well over half of participants on Extreme Couponing were overweight, but I’m not sure how much of that is due to their couponing habits and how much is just prevalence in the general population.

So, those were my thoughts on the trend, and my explanation as to why I won’t become an extreme couponer. That being said, I still love getting a good deal when I can, and the Engineer and I will continue keeping an eye on the purse strings for the foreseeable future.

1 comment:

Amélie said...

Well, the Engineer was right! I just read an article by Farnoosh Torabi (, and she says that stores are now closing some of the loopholes that enabled extreme couponing. This is a follow-up to her article on 5 reasons not to do extreme couponing (;col1).