Watching reality TV, one always risks turning over some new rock of humanity. But even so, I was a bit flabbergasted by Extreme Couponing on TLC. I watched the pilot episode a few weeks ago, and recently saw that, based on ratings, TLC ordered up a whole 12-episode series.
In the pilot, four coupon enthusiasts took a camera crew shopping and explained their tricks. They followed roughly the same methodology -- match manufacturer coupons with store sales and stock up when you get a steal -- but they each had their own quirks. Amanda Ostrowski of Cincinnati, OH bought a $35,000 insurance policy for her stockpile. Joanie Demer of McKinleyville, CA took her son and her pregnant friend dumpster diving for discarded circulars, in order to cut a $638.64 grocery bill down to $2.64. Joyce House, a retired nurse in Philadelphia, claimed not to have paid for toothpaste or deodorant in 34 years. And Nathan Engels of Villa Hills, KY ("Mr. Coupon") invested in an industrial paper cutter for faster clipping. He special ordered 1100 boxes of Total once he realized he could get $4000 worth for about $150.
For Engels, it was all a game, “like chess,” he said in the show. “You’re trying to beat the opponent, which is the store.” He donated the Total to a food bank, thus playing Robin Hood with his coupons -- certainly a creative way to help the needy in his community. But I don’t think the reason the show is so popular is the potential for low budget philanthropy. Rather, in these tight times, people are fascinated by coupons because they represent a certain mindset -- a certain thrifty mindset, which has been celebrated since Ben Franklin told us that a penny saved is a penny earned. Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to stretch a dollar, even if this stretching is sometimes absurd. As Betty Friedan summed up the gospel of thrift in The Feminine Mystique, “Women can save more money by their managerial talents inside the home than they can bring into it by outside work.” (We’ll consider Engels an honorary woman).
How often the gospel of thrift is true in practice is an open question. Ostrowski works full time as a storage facility manager, yet still told Extreme Couponing that she devoted 70 hours a week to her habit. I’m always skeptical of 70-hour workweek claims, but if this is true, in 70 hours she cut her $1,175.33 bill down to $51.67, after paying $70 to a clipping service. So that’s $1,053.66 in savings. If that was one week’s haul, she’d net about $15 an hour. That’s decent, and if she’s overestimating her couponing time, the rate per hour comes out much better. However, since a normal 2-person household with no children would never have bought four-figures worth of groceries for one week (it’s a fine line between stockpiling and hoarding), it’s not clear how much she’s actually “saving.”
I find the whole thing fascinating. I'm currently slaving away on my money book, and am working on the income chapter right now. While we all have fat in our budgets, I believe that for increasing numbers of us, it's actually much more pleasant to try to earn more than spend less. Unless you sell your stockpile (an interesting idea), clipping coupons definitely falls in the "cutting" category. There's always a limit to how much you can cut -- and groceries represent a relatively small percentage of the average family's budget. But at least in theory there's no limit to how much you can earn. What do you think?
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