Yesterday I caught about an episode and a half of this show Extreme Couponing and felt maybe 10% intrigue and 90% anxiety and terror. If you haven’t seen the show, the basic rundown: they follow maybe two families a show, with some alpha-mom type that has giant binders filled with coupons that makes an attack run on a big grocery store, filling multiple carts with whatever items are on sale, and strategically using coupon-doubling days along with store loyalty programs, store coupons, manufacturer rebates, and whatever else is needed to drive the cost of a thousand dollars of items to something like twenty dollars.
Each episode also does a profile on the family, and they always have a house that is filled entirely with stockpiles of canned goods, every closet and spare room containing stacks and stacks of cereal boxes and paper towels. They always show the couponer with piles of newspaper circulars, clipping away and stuffing things in whatever anal-retentive organizational solution the person uses for keeping straight what packaged goods are on sale that week. At the store, they bark orders at the poor cashier, intermixed with reaction shots of other Kroger customers amazed at this woman buying 150 bottles of Excedrin because the five dollars off the four dollar item offsets the cost of the twenty pounds of cheese and 38 packs of hot dogs in carts four and five.
There is some intrigue in this. I remember way back when I first got to Seattle in 1995, and I used to try to shop for as little as possible. I’d been lowballed a bit on my salary at my first job, and I got stuck with a huge car payment and even more on insurance, and I was living in an expensive city (or more expensive than Indiana, anyway) and living alone. I dig back through my old journals and see entries where it was 10 days until payday and I had $7 and a full tank of gas to last me until then. And I didn’t know how to cook and didn’t know how to budget or shop or any of that. So I’d get the Safeway circular in the mail – this was long before the explosion of loyalty cards – and I’d only buy the things in the little newsprint booklet, only get the items with coupons or deals. And there was nothing more exhilarating than getting ten bags of groceries for something like $40. Of course this was countered with the realization that I’d have to eat rice-a-roni for my next ten meals.
I still try to exploit these deals as much as I can, without going overboard. I mean, I use my Amazon Visa card to buy damn near anything I can find, just to get the points. And I only buy Coke when either Target or Safeway has the big sale on it, and then I buy ten cases at a time. But I don’t have one of those plastic accordion files that’s sorted and color-coded and organized by aisle and expiration date. I don’t even know where to get paper coupons now – do they still print newspapers? I think I remember looking at one about ten years ago.
So this show is obviously fake. I did a quick search, and all of the people on the various coupon sites call bullshit on the whole production. Stores are tightening the reins on these double coupon days, and many of the offers have transaction limits or limits per customer that would prevent you of clearing out the entire Albertson’s of shake-and-bake in one swoop. They show some of that on the show, with the people dividing up the purchases into different transactions, dragging along friends and spouses to ring up items in batches. They showed this one lady breaking up her purchase into 18 different transactions, taking up about an hour of this cashier’s time. I don’t know what bizarro world this person lived in, but in any of the places I’ve lived, that shit would get you a beat down. No cashier is going to let you break up your 244 boxes of Uncle Ben’s into however many under-$50 purchases you need to fly under the radar without pulling out a blackjack and beating you in the head until you leave and pay full price for everything from now on. And if a cashier doesn’t do it, I’m sure the person behind you will. (And every fucking time I go to Safeway, I swear this person is in front of me.)
And I’m sure they also pick the families that have the biggest crazy-factor to them, the ones that will make the best reality TV. God forbid they find some quiet introvert who has no goofy soundbites and won’t lose their shit when they find out the manufacturer’s coupon is limit-5. They’re going to go with the loud, obnoxious woman who goes mental in the freezer aisle when she finds out the Pack-and-Save doesn’t keep twelve dozen boxes of Gorton’s fish sticks in stock at all times.
Another thing not addressed is that many of the people spent all day, 30 or 40 hours a week, clipping coupons and strategizing these mass purchases. And then they spend three or four hours at the store, and maybe another couple of hours packing the stuff away. I don’t know how much your time is worth, but if someone told me I could spend an entire work week getting paper cuts and newsprint dust-induced asthma and the payoff would be a savings of a few hundred bucks, I’d pass.
Also consider storage costs; you’ve got some 2000-ish square foot house in the Midwest, and let’s say you are paying a grand a month in mortgage. Turning a third of your house into a Costco is going to effectively cost you $300 a month in lost square footage. Yes, you can whittle that down by calculating the tax savings on a mortgage, and you pay off the house in 30 years, blah blah blah. But the cost of turning your spare bedroom into the back room of a Wal-Mart is not free. And that goes for any of this hoarding shit – there’s a cost, either financial or psychological, to playing the “die with the most toys” game. That line from Fight Club about your stuff owning you is true.
And there’s the health risk issue. Feeding your family high-fat cold cuts and having a million calories of potato chips on a rack in your living room has to be unhealthy from a BMI standpoint. Maybe half of the people on the show are of the rotund midwestern category, and given that fresh vegetables don’t have manufacturer’s coupons or mail-in rebates, I’m guessing these people are eating nothing but pure sodium and nitrites in the form of packaged and processed meals. In one of the episodes I saw, this woman was filling her cart with cases of Maalox bottles, and I was thinking, “you probably wouldn’t need to take that much antacid if you ate something other than stockpiled Frito-Lay products for five meals a day.”
One of the things that disturbs me the most is that most of these families are religious, some extreme form of right-wing christianity. They don’t advertise this in the most blatant of terms, but it’s something you can pick up quickly. When a blonde-haired family of ten from Idaho shows up and the soccer mom uses “oh my gosh” all the time, my Mormon indicator is flashing bright red. There is this weird intersection between the highly evangelical and the “I’m going to get mine” crowd that seems more than just causal, and probably wasn’t what the authors of the New Testament had in mind when they laid down that whole meek inheriting the earth thing. Jesus didn’t do the whole fishes and loaves thing to bring it all back to his house and fill the shelves in his basement for himself.
I’d absolutely love it if one of the people on the show filled their minivan with five thousand dollars worth of stuff, drove over to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and said “merry christmas” and left everything. Instead, we get “I’ve got three years’ worth of Dinty Moore stored under my toddler’s bed!” Ugh.