Extreme Couponing

First, a confession: I am a total deal-monger. I’ve been following sites like FatWallet and Money Saving Mom for years, even though I have neither a fat wad of cash, nor a fat bunch of kids. I think the idea of getting something for practically nothing is endlessly fascinating. Just the idea of walking into a store and getting something for free is mesmerizing to me. It’s simple, I know, but it makes me feel like I’m beating the system. They don’t just give free paper towels away to anyone. Some people pay retail.

It’s that kind of mentality that drew me to TLC’s new show, Extreme Couponing, despite its semi-laughable name. Extreme and couponing don’t exactly go together, especially when you think about the stereotype of people who might actually take grocery shopping incredibly seriously. (Think Baptist moms wearing sweatpants and dragging toddlers with Juicy-Juiced hands around for hours on end.)

But the thing is that, heck, while watching this show, you realize that couponing can really be extreme. It’s cheesy as hell, but consider the following: J’aime, from Bethesda, Maryland, just started being a mega-couponer a year ago when her husband lost his job. She has a full pantry in her basement full of all sorts of stuff, like 450 rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, 60 boxes of cereal, 200 different soaps, and 100 containers of those Lysol cleaning wipes. Granted, 60 boxes of cereal, especially for someone who lives in an apartment like me, sounds incredibly daunting. How would you eat it all before it went bad? How could you make sure you wouldn’t get tired of Cheerios every single morning for the rest of your life? But at the same time, man, 60 boxes of cereal is impressive, because you know that she got that stuff for next to nothing.

The premise of Extreme Couponing is as follows: Over the course of 22 minutes, we follow two different women—well, people, but in this case, women—as they explain the tricks of the trade and then go shopping.

The tricks are kind of neat, too. Totally mundane, but neat. J’aime, for example, has the company that stuffs the circulars in the newspaper deliver any extras they have to her house rather than the recycling plant. It’s completely insane but completely ingenious. You have to wonder how she got them to do it.

Using lists online of which stores have what on sale, those circulars, and different coupons she collected, J’aime can spend about six hours planning just one of her four weekly shopping trips. She figures everything out, down the last penny she’ll spend. It pays off, though, because when she goes shopping at her local Safeway, she gets 1300 items totaling—get ready—$1902.63 for just $103.72.

That’s impressive, right? She bought so much that at one point, the store’s computer locked up because it couldn’t process an order that big. When she finally paid—the actual checking out process took two hours, which I’m sure the store isn’t too happy about—the store’s managers and J’aime’s fellow shoppers actually applauded her. They were that impressed.

It seems stupid, absolutely, but money’s money. Maybe it’s more stupid that TLC has a show about this whole process, but it’s also kind of exhilarating. As the subjects are checking out, they talk about how nervous they’re getting. They don’t want to spend too much. They don’t want to have to put things back. It must already be embarrassing enough to push four carts through the store without having to find out your credit card’s been declined or something.

So, yeah, it’s a little white-bread, absolutely, but as a viewer, I have to admit that I was found myself totally wrapped up in the whole process. I sat thinking about my own pantry and how I could start saving some more money with just a little bit of work. It’s practical, if nothing else, and so, hey, at least this TLC show gives someone a skill, rather than just shines a light on more wacky Duggar hijinks.

Consider the following: The second shopper, Tiffany from Spring, TX, has seven kids, whom she unfortunately refers to as her “litter.” In her family home, she has over 6,000 food, beauty, and home items that would last her family—in the event of some horrible incident, not that she thinks there’s going to be one—three whole years. She has specially designed shelving that rotates older cans to the front of racks. She gets 12 papers a week just to check out the coupons. Her local grocery store manager knows her by name.

But it pays off. Tiffany’s been couponing for just two years with the goal of saving money for her kids’ college funds. It’s worked, too. In just two years, she’s saved about $40,000.

On her shopping trip, after being briefly thwarted by some new Kroger coupon doubling policy—thank God she called ahead to check—Tiffany nabs about $550 worth of food for just $5.97. That’s right, not even six dollars. Her husband, Paul, who checks out separately because of said new coupon rule, gets $526.07 worth of food for just $37.95. They walk away with 15 jars of peanuts, 18 packs of hot dogs, 40 packages of cheese, and 14 pounds of steak.

From the outside, Extreme Couponing is absolutely ridiculous. It’s American suburban consumerism at its absolute worst. No one needs 15 jars of peanuts, even if they have a whole litter of kids to feed. At the same time, though, it’s kind of awesome. These women are beating the system at least a little bit, and, especially for a total deal-nerd like myself, it’s a joy to watch.