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Extreme Couponing: Are These People Brilliant or Just Plain Crazy?

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about extreme couponing. The hit reality show on TLC and dismal economy seem to be driving interest in this phenomenon that takes clipping coupons to, well, extremes. (This is not the neatly-organized coupon folder your mom used to keep.) Extreme couponing is a hobby less about saving money and more about gaming the system of manufacturer promotions and stockpiling-dare I suggest hoarding-absurd quantities of household products.

For the uninitiated, the show’s stars spend hours searching for and then meticulously organizing their coupons before traveling to stores with lenient coupon redemption policies, often with dozens of coupons for the same items. They proceed to buy hundreds of dollars worth of products but, thanks to their coupons, wind up paying only a few dollars for the entire haul. Inevitably, the show ends with the couponers unloading the bounty into a pantry overflowing with five-year supplies of canned goods, mustard, and pain reliever.

We know this fad is extreme-but is it a crazy or brilliant extreme? I set out to investigate.

First, I wanted to see what was happening in the news with extreme couponing. I searched through recent news articles and found some interesting stories. It was enlightening to read about others’ opinions and about the habits of so-called extreme couponers.

Here are some of the better news clips:

Couponer Banned From Walmart Following Argument

“A self-proclaimed extreme couponer says Walmart banned her from all stores for life following a heated argument with a manager over coupon policy.” –The Consumerist

Extreme Couponer Arrested For Stealing 185 Newspapers

“A woman who “just loves to save money” is in legal trouble after surveillance cameras caught her stealing bags of unsold newspapers from newspaper boxes. Her goal was to snatch up as many coupon inserts as possible.” –The Consumerist

Extreme Couponing: Student Saves $300 a Month

“On that first shopping trip, she presented her coupons to the cashier and felt the adrenaline rush of watching her total drop from $263 to $50. “Pretty good for my first time!” she recalls.” -CNN Money

Shoppers Save Hundreds on Groceries, Staples

“Clarissa Eggers is an unabashed, extreme coupon commando from way back. For that, she thanks her extremely frugal mom. During a memorable coupon-fueled run a few years ago, [she] rode the Charmin wave all the way to Two-Ply Nirvana: For just a few pieces of [money], she acquired a two year supply of toilet paper” –The Daily Mail

Next, I asked our Facebook fans (if you’re not a fan yet, join here) what they thought about extreme couponing. Here’s what they said:

I also asked tweeters, who seemed pretty passionate about the topic.

After asking around and digging through news articles, it became clear that a lot of folks shared my initial reaction: extreme couponing isn’t exclusively crazy or brilliant, it’s a little bit of both.

THE CASE FOR CRAZY

First things first, extreme couponing does seem like a gateway drug to hoarding. One woman had stockpiled 62 bottles of mustard for her and her husband. 62 bottles! I don’t know about you, but I’m a mustard-lover and one bottle still lasts me, like, a year. Even if I double my mustard consumption, it’d still last me 31 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive!

And that brings up the question of perish-ability. Does mustard maintain its edibleness for 62 years? I’m guessing it doesn’t. So, unless I were to increase my one-bottle-per-year rate of usage, this wouldn’t be a good deal for me.

And, as a couple tweeters mentioned, hoarding is a serious problem and extreme couponing seems to feed the addiction. Many people don’t seem to care about getting good deals on things they really need, rather they care about how much they can get and how little they can spend on it-no matter what it is.

The second questionable thing I notice about extreme couponing is the time commitment. I’ve clipped coupons before, but just those thin, shiny circulars you find in the big Sunday newspaper. (And, I only buy one newspaper-not 185.) Even digging through one Sunday coupon leaflet takes me about 15 minutes, give or take. When I clip the Sunday coupons, I usually save $4 or $5.

So, if I wanted to start saving hundreds of dollars, obviously I’d have to start devoting several hours per week to the practice. That’s not something I’m sure I want to give up. The opportunity cost doesn’t make it worth it to me.

I think the time commitment reaches full-on crazy when you’re spending full-time working hours on your coupon clipping habit. And people actually do spend that much time on extreme couponing. These people are sometimes even called “professional couponers” and there are countless blogs and forums devoted to becoming a successful extreme/professional couponer.

Finally, doesn’t it seem that extreme couponing makes people act, well, a little extreme? I mean-being arrested for stealing over 100 newspapers and being banned from Walmart for life?! Both seem like almost unbelievable stories. And both crimes-albeit harmless-seem like ones that were committed by people who have lost some sense of reality in the extreme couponing game.

THE CASE FOR BRILLIANT

There seem to be two common extreme couponing trends that make the habit brilliant: saving money (obviously), but also the ability to give products away to charity.

The student couponer from Missouri was able to buy 30 cans of infant formula (and make money in the process since her coupons were more than the actual price-this is referred to as “the holy grail” of extreme couponing) and donate the formula to nearby Joplin, Missouri, which was hit by a monster tornado earlier this year.

And stories of charitable giving through extreme couponing are numerous. Another woman donates $1,000 worth of extreme couponing goods to local charities on a monthly basis. And probably the biggest couponing donation ever was shown on the TLC show that kick started the phenomenon: a woman has donated over $100,000 worth of food since she began couponing.

Reading those stories swayed my perception of extreme couponing quite a bit. If saving extreme amounts of money inspires people to do extreme good and help others out, then it maybe it’s not that crazy after all? In my eyes, charitable giving is the heart of all that is good in the world and it seems that extreme couponing gives some people the ability to give and help which is something they may not have been able to do before.

And, of course, the biggest personal perk of extreme couponing is the insane amount of money that you can save. People really do save hundreds, even thousands of dollars. One new couponer said she saved over $2,700 in her first 12 weeks of couponing; another slashed her monthly grocery bill in half.

Statistics like these sound pretty enticing to many-especially as our country heads into a possible second recession. Jobs are at stake, the housing market is still struggling and everyone is eager to save an extra buck.

Charitable giving and saving money are two powerful motivators for couponing. So much so, that I think they outweigh the crazy side of extreme couponing.

HOW I SEE IT

I’ll admit that I became intrigued while reading these stories. I read one about someone who was able to coupon her way to a two-year supply of toilet paper for a mere $10. That’s a deal I could get into (I mean, we all need the stuff, and it doesn’t go bad).

But beyond a few necessary basics that everyone uses, I’m not sure I care to spend my time taking my couponing to extremes. I know some people get a thrill buying and owning, but I just don’t. In fact, owning too much stuff-especially stuff that I’ll never use-mostly just stresses me out (I guess that’s the inner-minimalist in me).

Plus, I think I’d become overwhelmed by feeling like I had to use up all those cans of spaghetti sauce. The pressure to consume my coupon winnings seems like it would take the fun out of using those items (besides, I like spaghetti and I’d like to keep it that way).

I prefer coupons to come to me rather then having to scout them out on a full-time basis. And I think this is true for many people. Everyone likes a good bargain, but smart bargain-shoppers recognize that there is an opportunity cost involved and weigh the options to decide on the best result (which isn’t usually spending your weekends inside, surrounded by tall stacks of coupons).

OK, let’s hear it. Are you a couponer? How extreme are you? What tricks do you use to get the best deals couponing? Let us know in a comment.

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