Extreme Couponing… (Plus, the Renegade Writer)

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?

In other news:

  • The Renegade Writer runs a lengthy Q&A with me on time management, writing, core competencies, etc.
  • Over at OwnTheDollar, Hank Coleman writes a nice review of 168 Hours. As he says, “I have a bookshelf full of hundreds of personal finance, investing, and productivity books. There are very few that I read cover to cover, and there are even less that [I] break out my highlighter for. Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours is yellow through and through.”


13 thoughts on “Extreme Couponing… (Plus, the Renegade Writer)

  1. I just came across your blog by way of a guest post at Renegade Writer. For the past few months I have been concerned about how I am using my 168 hours. I began to review what I was doing and what I was not doing. I was very surprised. That exercise placed me on a quest to use my time wisely and effectively. Good subject and blog. Thanks!

  2. I did not catch the show, but I am also fascinated by these extreme coupon clippers. I often forget to use coupons because I don’t have the time to clip and then drive to different stores to use them all. Plus, here in Canada, there are less oppurtunities for the extreme couponing that is possible in the States. I look forward to your next book. I absolutely loved 168 hours!

    1. @Morgan – thanks, glad you liked the book! I haven’t found any stores lately with double coupons – seems like the kind of practice that would leave you open to abuse, though I am sure most people wouldn’t do what these extreme couponers do. But yes, once you’re driving to different stores, I doubt it’s worth it for most people. The problem is we often don’t value our time.

  3. My mom always used coupons when we were kids and shopped sales at 2 different stores. Cutting coupons was on our chore list! I swore I’d never do it and in my 20s I reveled in the freedom of dropping into the supermarket and buying whatever I felt like.

    Since having kids though, I’ve turned into my mother (eek!) with the coupon file and sale papers. (And I wish I’d saved some of that food money from my 20s!). I actually find it a “game” in a way so the time I spend strategically planning my shopping list is actually relaxing in a way. I aim for at least 30% savings, which is nothing compared to those extremists but still money in my pocket!

  4. My local (and favorite) supermarket has double coupons, with the occasional extra coupon in the flyer to double your $1 coupons. I try to use coupons too, but I wonder what these extreme couponers eat, as fresh produce, meat and dairy very rarely have coupons. I also don’t feel that the time spent clipping and filing coupons for food is always worth the return.

    I have a meal plan, a food budget, and shop sales, and I find that keeps me from overspending. If you stick to one store, you get to know the rotation of the sales, so you can keep extras on hand, but not stockpile.

    I do use coupons for entertainment, kids playplaces, dinners out etc–if they come in the mail, or the local paper that I’m reading anyway. I just got a coupon for Peapod food delivery, I’m looking forward to using that one.

    I too, look forward to your next book, as it amazes me how you think about money in such a real cost vs. time way. (i.e. the Ostrowski paragraph). I don’t think in that way, and would like to expand my understanding in that area.

    1. @Denise – glad you’re looking forward to the book! Yes, time is valuable. I tend to assume that time can easily be turned into money in the form of income, not just money saved. So that if you’re looking at how much time it takes to save money, you really need to assume that you could take in at least $7.25 an hour (roughly minimum wage) in a job instead if you desired. And probably, you could take in quite a bit more than that if you tried. So is it worth it? I understand the caveat — you can’t just work 1 hour, I need childcare, what about taxes, etc. — but on the margins this is true. There is a lot of freelance work out there, or opportunities to do something on the side (even babysit other people’s kids). This means that time can be turned into money.
      The question of fresh produce is a good one. I have never seen a coupon for a banana. Store sales, maybe. But basically you have to be a product manufactured by a consumer goods company for there to be a coupon. And a lot of that stuff is not so good for you. I cringed when coupon shopper #1 put 150 candy bars in her cart. Yuck! I prefer to shop the way you do. When I had a roughly $40/week food budget for just my young single self, I’d look at what was on sale and plan my meals around that. Focus on store brands for prepared foods, eat produce in season, etc. I almost never found coupons to be worth it (it would be $1 off 2 huge Cheerios boxes – my single self was not going to eat all that before I got sick of Cheerios). Now, I have decided that on the margins I will buy what I want in the super market and earn the extra $.

  5. @ Laura,I did do babysitting for a while when I my kids were younger.

    I only recently realized that I didn’t plan well when I went to college. If I would’ve thought ahead, then I would’ve majored in secondary education, and done some college level teaching while I’ve been on child-care leave. Substituting for $100 a day, while paying someone $50 a day, once a week might’ve worked too, but as I said, I wasn’t thinking that way! I only subbed when I had free grandma-sitting.
    I didn’t want to tutor, as I had tried that, and found it unreliable, with people canceling on you.

    Had I been thinking this way earlier, I could’ve made more and worried less. Alas, I will be returning to full-time teaching in the Fall, but will keep these things in mind as my kids get older and need me less.

  6. I spend about an hour each week comparing sales and cutting only the coupons I’ll use, and it has made quite a difference in my grocery spending.

    You are correct – coupons don’t exist for fresh vegetables. But I’m blessed to participate in a food coop in my area. For $16.50 I get a laundry basket full of fresh fruit and veggies! I figured the retail value is generally $50, so it’s a tremendous savings. You can’t choose what’s included, but it’s like Christmas each week – pineapples, berries, kiwi, squash, etc. in addition to the “regular” items like bananas, apples and lettuce.

    My family loves it.

  7. I concur that food coupons are seldom worthwhile. But if one has the space (unlikely in NYC) to stock up on cleaning supplies or toilet paper, it can be worth it because you can buy a 6 month supply at one time and then not have to think about it for a long time. My goal is less than half of Costco’s price.

    The other point is how much you like doing the job vs. how much you like couponing. I bought 80 rolls of Charmin toilet paper, 4 boxes of Cascade dish detergent, 4 Gillette razor cartridges, one gallon of milk, 4 boxes of Special K cereal and two small craft kits for my children yesterday for a net cost of $3.75. Could I have earned a pre-tax $200 instead? Sure! Would I have enjoyed being a night-shift CNA for 2 1/2 nights to do so? Not particularly.

    Admittedly, one can only buy a 6 month supply of toilet paper once in a while and one could work two weekend nights as a CNA every weekend.

    1. @Twin Mom- both good points. Yes, it depends what you like to do with your time. I really think it’s important that people think about what they’d like to spend their time doing, and come up with some way that can translate into money. Career decisions matter and doing what you love is a good way to make work hours happy hours. But I think you also make a good point on the financial pay off. Long term, if you need more cash in your life, you can only save so much on toilet paper. We don’t need that much of it! If you need cash for a big goal (getting out of debt, starting a business, buying a house, etc.) then there’s a limit to how much you can save on consumer products, whereas working a few weekends would put a fair amount of cash in your pocket.

  8. Aaaah, ladies but there ARE coupons for things like fresh fruits, vegetables, salad mixes, etc. and there are a TON of coupons for dairy products. You just have to know where to look for them. I’ve been able to get fresh pineapples, raspberries, blueberries, baby carrots, salad mixes, celery (some of these organic), yogurt completely for free by using coupons. Yes, a lot of coupons are for packaged, not good for you products, but there are increasingly large numbers of coupons becoming available for natural, wholesome, good for you foods. And, like the one person featured on “Extreme Couponing”, I too never pay for things like toothpaste or dental floss. I pay the sales tax on those items, but by using coupons combined with store incentive programs (like CVS’s Extra Care Card), I rarely pay anything more than the sales tax for toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, contact lens solution, razors, and many other beauty products.

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