Weighing in on “Extreme Couponing.”

A lot of people have strong feelings about the TLC reality series “Extreme Couponing.” My own impression of the show is secondhand, since I don’t own a television.

Technically I could see the next two episodes because the TLC publicist kindly gave me online access. Ultimately I decided not to watch. Based on what I’ve read and also on what my daughter told me and wrote about the show, I would just wind up depressed.

Abby thought it was to have been “a celebration of couponing.” Instead, she says, the stories are presented with “bemused condescension, with occasional moments of admiration.”

One of the women featured on the program also shows up in my MSN Money column this week, “Shopping pays off big for couponers.” I met Tiffany Ivanovsky when I attended the SaveUp 2010 conference last November.

Tiffany, who blogs at MyLitter.com, spends just under $500 a month on food, toiletries and household products for her nine-person family. That’s why I called her for the coupon column; at the time, I didn’t know she was going to be on the show.

Strategic editing?

She’s a kickass shopper, so it’s no wonder that TLC wanted her. But as a mutual acquaintance pointed out, the program didn’t mention that Tiffany regularly donates food and toiletries to charity.

Her most recent project was over spring break, when she and a few of her friends went through their stockpiles to fill 350 one-gallon Ziploc bags with personal-care products. The “hygiene kits” went off to quake/tsunami survivors in Japan.

Apparently that wouldn’t have made good television.

Yes, I know you can’t include everything you film. But the fact that she doesn’t hoard is a vital part of the story: Here’s how my strategic shopping not only helps me stay on budget, but lets me help others.

With seven kids it’d be hard to hoard very much anyway. The little stinkers want to be fed every day.

That’s entertainment – not reality

“Extreme” is an adjective that can inspire either admiration or derision. “Extreme” sports figures, for example, are edgy daredevils whose fearlessness is just plain fascinating.

Even when they crash it’s exciting. Especially when they crash it’s exciting. Who knew a bike could go so high? Who knew a dude could bounce so high?

Heck, there’s even TV coverage of “extreme eating,” aka competitive eating. The notion makes me profoundly sad. In a world where so many people are hungry, why do we have an organized league of gluttons? Yet the contests inspire laughter and cheers from audiences (audiences!), to say nothing of corporate sponsorships.

The phrase “extreme couponer,” on the other hand, may well become shorthand for “you people need help.”

Obviously TLC is in the entertainment business. The network wants viewers, and what better way to get some butts in the seats than to show a guy buying 1,100 boxes of cereal at a time?

I’m not saying such people don’t exist. I’m just wishing that (a) TLC didn’t exploit their tics and anxieties for ratings, and (b) we everyday frugalists won’t have to hear “What are you, one of those extreme couponers?” the next time we try to use some Qs.

I fully expect to hear that, and to hear it spoken with a tone of impatience or, yes, derision. Saving money doesn’t have the same cachet as, say, BASE jumping or eating 39 slices of pizza in 10 minutes. And that quake/tsunami thing is so last-week.

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30 Comments

  1. Isn’t that life? Someone ruins it for everyone. I think that soon the frugal badge of honor is going by the wayside.

  2. I saw the first three people of the first show. On the first show I’d say the first woman shown was the most extreme her house was filled with stuff. She had 2 rooms dedicated to her stockpile.

    The second woman shown had her stockpile in the garage all nicely labelled. She seemed fairly reasonable, one of her strategies was to see how often staples go on sale adn then collect enough coupons for enough to last through that period. For example pasta and sauce goes on sale every 3 months, she’d then save the coupons and buy 3 months supply of pasta and sauce. (or juice or whatever) and use it and then buy more.

    She also said her husband was out of work for several months and that having the stockpile really helped because they only had to buy very minimal groceries.

    This woman got her coupons from a recycling center – she got permission to ge the extras. In the episode it showed her with a friend and her son and they got in the “dumpster” (it was really all paper). But later I read that the shows producers ASKED her do to that and so she did, but it wasn’t anything she’d done before.

    The third woman was really less of an extreme couponer. She walked around her neighborhood and collected flyers and because she was single she had less stuff. BUT she also teaches neighbors and friends how to use coupons. The show followed her as she was showing someone who to use coupons and combine sales, she even was giving tips to other shoppers.

  3. I wish the show would highlight how they donate to charity. If I was able to get things for free for the heck of it, and i wasn’t going to use it, i’d donate the supplies too.

    They could just take 30 seconds at the end of the show and just have just have the screen display something like:

    “Last month, Mrs. Ivanovsky filled 350 one-gallon Ziploc bags with personal-care products she recieved through her “couponing.” These homemade “hygiene kits” went off to quake/tsunami survivors in Japan.”

    and end the show that way. They get their ratings still for the “Extreme” Factors, and in the end, people get to see how much they donate to charity.

  4. I got curious when I heard about the show and pulled up some clips online. I did get a negative vibe from it too and even wrote about it today as well…except it was more about obesity and excess than hoarding.

    I hope they can paint a balanced story. I use coupons, but I’m not one of those people who can manage to save 90% on my grocery bill. A good day is 40%.

    It’s definitely a conflict of interest because TV shows are paid for by advertisers of consumer products. How do you think advertisers would feel if you had a show glorifying the people getting your advertiser’s products for free? It’s much more entertaining and business savy to show the guy with 4 tons of toothpaste in his garage.

  5. I’ll be interested in seeing tonights episode..it looks like they are showing two gals who save money massively on restaurant eating, clothing shopping and the like…i’d like to see a show about coupons on non food items and see if they do any better, attitude wise.

  6. jestjack

    Saw the show….can anyone say “glutony”. I’m a “couponer” but to buy 50 packs of deoderant just because their free…..not a fan. IMHO the marketing departments of these manufacturers and markets will be clamping down on couponing. Making it harder for the “everyday Joe” to save a couple of bucks….

  7. christy

    It is funny. I watch both EC and Hoarders. Hoarders profiled on the show compulsively buy, their purchases unused, unpacked and stacked high, they are overwhelmed and living in filthy, unhealthy conditions. I find myself cleaning during commercial breaks and finding things I no longer want or need to donate or sell on ebay. the show is good motivation to go through that stack of papers or clean out the miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen.

    However on EC one could get a sense that these are shopaholics or food hoarders, granted some of them might be, but I know this is often not the case. These woman are organized, rotate thier food, know what they have and donate loads. I am a couponer, however not an extreme one. The thrill isn’t in the buying it’s in the buying something you would normally buy but getting a great deal on it. It becomes a game with yourself to see how far you can stretch a dollar. I don’t usually save 99% on groceries. I do however routinely save at least 50%. I am single and live alone, I think if I had to feed nice people I would probably save more. Why would I not try to save money? Now all my friends contact me asking if I have coupons for such and such and I keep coupons to give to people I know would want them. I’m that person who will also stop another person in the aisle to hand them a coupon I won’t be using.

    I will be watch EC tonight and working on ebay listings during the commercials.

  8. christy

    @jestjack, one mans glutony is another mans smart shopping, deoderant has a shelf life, most people who are organized enough to extreme coupon also donate stuff so that it gets used before it goes bad. Additionally. Most coupons printed in newspapers etc are not used at all. If even 10% of coupons are used than for that person getting 100 items for free there are 1000 people out there paying full price. I think I read a number of years ago only 1% of coupons in circulation are used, but maybe donna can find out more on the subject.

  9. Thank you for showing the other side of the story. I recently watched an episode and have been forming my own post on this topic in my head. It was a strange show that definitely stays in your mind. I couldn’t help but see the similarities to the Hoarders show.

    • Donna Freedman

      “Hoarders” does have some similarities with this one. But not every couponer is a hoarder, and while Tiffany Ivanovsky has a lot of stuff, she uses it. With seven kids, you’re going to go through a lot of stuff. She also donates regularly. I don’t see her as a hoarder.
      Some of the other folks may need an intervention, though.
      Me, I’m living off my “hoard” — all the stuff I stocked up on over the past few years — and am going to the store relatively rarely. My goal is to finish up everything before buying new stuff.
      If there’s an irresistible deal, i.e., free, I’ll buy it and put it way in the back of the stockpile. But the free stuff is usually in the form of toiletries, which as Christy pointed out have long shelf lives — and which I also tend to give away. I’ve got a donation bag at the ready (it need to be delivered right now, in fact) and when I recently mailed birthday gifts to my niece I filled every spare corner of the flat-rate box with things she and her kids could use: toothpaste, toothbrushes, cold meds, etc. Ditto when I mail things to my daughter and son-in-law: Along with whatever I’m giving them, there will likely be some items I got cheaply or free. And when I pack my bag for my next Anchorage house-sitting trip a few weeks from now, it will include two cans of (free) shaving gel for my niece.
      It saves them money not to have to pay for stuff like this. And as Christy also said, I get a kick out of paying little to nothing for items I’d be buying anyway. When I take that bag o’toiletries down to Urban Rest Stop (a place where homeless folks can shower and do their laundry), it won’t have cost much to make a difference — which means that I can stretch my giving dollars even further.
      Thanks for all for your comments.

  10. Hi Donna,
    I don’t really have a comment on the blog post. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing style. I followed you on MSN Money and the old boards, but I’m just a lurker on the new proboards. I also see your byline pop up on other frugal/finance blogs, too. Not only are your articles well written, but you are a hoot! :)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sheri: I wish I knew how to do the emoticon for “blushing.” Thank you for your kind words. I hope you’ll come back often.

  11. I’ve met Tiffany a few times, personally. I think TLC did her a disservice featuring her on the same series as blatantly greedy, unethical couponers like J’aime (who it seems actually cheated with the coup0ns.)

    Using coupons to bless others is commendable but I hate the ones that show people who are just nuts and only get stuff because its free. One “local” extreme couponer worked a CVS deal to get a $1 overage on a diabetes meter. She bought EIGHT of them and just stockpiled them away- for what? So she could make $8 profit while the product itself just sits around doing no one any good. Those kinds of things are a problem, IMO.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Milehimama: I agree that stockpiles that aren’t used aren’t doing anyone any good. It’s likely that some individuals and/or programs would have loved to take those diabetes meters off her hands. Heck, she might even have been able to take a tax deduction if she donated them to a nonprofit!
      One woman I interviewed for a different article collects diabetes meters and other medical items free after rebate and donates them to a program that ships the stuff to hospitals in impoverished countries. Another one buys disposables and donates them to a “diaper pantry” run by her church. That bag of stuff I’m taking to Urban Rest Stop includes deodorant, body wash, toothbrushes, toothpaste, sanitary napkins and incontinence pads. All it cost me was a little time and keeping track of the Register Rewards and coupons — and more to the point, not spending the money there means I can spend more money elsewhere (e.g., the Red Cross tsunami/quake efforts).
      Some of the people I interviewed for this piece do enjoy the overages, which help finance the items they need that don’t have coupons. But they wouldn’t hoard stuff they couldn’t use. Wow.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  12. Catnip Gypsy

    If this type of program distresses you, just don’t watch it. I’m boycotting Project Runway for just that reason!!

    Alas, the only thing I really go overboard with couponing and hoarding is catfood. You do this when you find yourself rescuing strays. And to paraphrase Donna, the little buggers have to eat.

    I’ve come to enjoy the stares and disapproving looks of the cashier and/or other people in line. It’s not my fault that stores now require each individual can be scanned (remember the days when the lady would just punch in the price times the number of cans?).

    Any couponer who finds themself under scrutiny should come up with some brilliant remarks. Some gems I use are “The Lord spoke to me and told me to help homeless animals” and “Oh, all this? My Nana’s coming to live with me”.

    Nana would be proud.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Catnip Gypsy: “My Nana’s coming to live with me”? Ha! I love it.
      Or if you’re buying the kibble, how about this: “It stays crunchy, even in milk!” :-P
      Thanks for reading, and for making me laugh today.

  13. Escalade

    Amazing that so many viewers watch this kind of stuff. Am I really t he only person on earth who finds so-called “reality” shows voyeuristic, patronizing, and just downright weird?

  14. Extreme Couponing is a strange show. I watched the first episode and couldn’t help but feel as though some of the people profiled would fit in almost as well on the Hoarders show. One of the women profiled had 30 years or so worth of TP stockpiled at her house (it was just a husband/wife couple w/ no kids). My question at that point is will she pass up the TP when the next great deal come around or is she a bit of a compulsive shopper? I just don’t see the point in spending 40 hours a week (which they claimed some of the women profiled do) finding coupons, organizing, planning, and executing these shopping trips. I love coupons, but some of them are really going overboard.

  15. I watched some episodes of EC and found myself a little jealous of some of the stuff in their stockpiles. I NEED that stuff! LOL!

    I use coupons and is someone asks if I am one of those extreme couponers, my response will be, “I WISH!”

  16. Colleen

    When I first saw the show I was outraged!!!!!!!! How selfish, hoardish, and destructive can one person, family be! The law of the planet is merely take what you need and can consume do not help KILL the planet!
    I pray that each and every person donates to the homless, soldiers overseas and to devistated areas like Japan and its victims!
    That would make amazing tv! Just pull up with a truck load of new free stuff to the homeless shelter or a food bank!
    There is a show about dumpster divers who get free food out of dumpsters and feed the homeless every Tuesday! All couponers are being villianized on this show….shame on TLC!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Colleen: At least some of those profiled do donate — but that’s not exactly emphasized. I agree that it would make great TV to have followed these folks to emergency pantries and to see the look on the directors’ faces when 1,100 boxes of cereal were rolled in.
      Nothing succeeds like excess, though, so TLC chose to focus on the more unfortunate-looking aspects of “extreme.” I guess a show called “Philanthropic Couponers” wouldn’t pull in ratings.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  17. christy

    ah, using coupons I got $170 worth of stuff yesterday for about $21, with minimal “(coupon) attack planning” including a 40lb bag of dog food which normally costs $36.99 (the normal kind I get for my dog as well :) . The only thing I got that I don’t use are a pack of disposable razors which I will give to my b-inlaw. Utilizing the coupon websites such as couponmom.com and then digging through my stack of coupons it was less than an hours work, an hour I was multi tasking, watching the news while waiting for the dryer. I reused old bags at the checkout and the man behind me asked the checkout lady if I got a credit for my bag too, he was being snarky, (I didn’t) but I spent less on my carload of stuff than he did on his jack daniels and beer. Actually one item that was $11 I didn’t have a coupon for, but only because it has been out of stock for 6 months did I make the decision to buy it and the rest of my out of pocket expense was for dog biscuits ($10-$1 coupon)and tax. Last night in between commercials I emailed companies requesting coupons for products I like or those that I want to try. It is usually successful.

  18. I have to remember that email tip. There are plenty of products we could get savings off by doing that. LOL

  19. Holly

    I’ve just discovered this blog and I love it! I know what I’ll be doing for the next few hours — reading back entries! I haven’t seen EC (can only get PBS over the air in this rural area) but from what everyone has said it seems incompatible with my goal of living simply. I buy very few “name brand” items — no cleaning products except vinegar, baking soda, & bars of Octagon soap (Which works for laundry & dishes); no paper goods except TP; no mixes or convenience food, or if I do, only generics. It just seems easier to me to opt out of the consumerist game than to try to get ahead of it with extreme couponing.

  20. christy

    @Holly, the thing is often by using coupons stacked on sales you can easily get the name brand stuff for less than the generics items. I keep a calculator with me (or use my cellphone one) to figure out the per oz price of groceries, the labels on the shelf use to all have them but fewer and fewer do :( Couponers are using the “consumerist game” against “the Man” to win free or near free items. (You can gift these items or donate them). Also I watched a show recently on the “grocery store machine”, the margin that grocery stores make on most items is 1%-2%. The coupons/sales combos come out of the pockets of the big product companies, not the store where you are purchasing the items. So I feel glad knowing that P&G and the like makes less (or no) money off of me, but the check out girls job is still being paid for with my pennies on the dollar purchases. I have a full time job, a part time online job, am single, I do this to stretch my money, but we all do what works best for us. I am happy that you are living a your life as you call it “simply”, we do what we need to do for ourselves.
    Also, I joined http://www.recyclebank.com (donna you should add an affiliat link to your blog?) You can get points for recycling (varies) which you can then use to get coupons/deals. Since I have joined they have added many ways to get points, so I think the website will just keep growing.

  21. I’ve been reading your blog and msn posts for a long time and while I generally respect your writing, I’m a little flabbergasted that you’ve now posted criticism for a show you’ve never watched. It feels irresponsible.

    The way the show is laid out is that each half-hour episode features two self-proclaimed extreme couponers. So each person gets maybe ten or twelve minutes, after commercials, to tell their story. The woman you reference has a large family. She says she started couponing because she didn’t want her kids to have to pay for college. When she clips coupons and later goes shopping, her family is right there with her. Her family IS her story, and not having some honorable mention that she gave away some toothpaste isn’t to the point. It’s not why she coupons. She, like pretty much everyone else on the show, started out of financial necessity and kept at it because it made sense to her.

    There are several charitable people who are highlighted in other episodes. One donated $21k in supplies (deodorants, jeans, protein bars, even bacon) to local charities; at the end of his episode, you see the city mission workers come and, working in an assembly line, load up everything in his basement, leaving it bare (now THAT was a case of not hoarding). In his case, his family gives away at least 80% of what they get through couponing so his story IS actually one of charity, so it rightfully is front and center of his segment. Not every extreme couponer is a modern day Robin Hood though.

  22. When I quit working to raise my grandson, we lost over 1/3 of our total income and gained quite a few more expenses. Our family made a conscious decision to make whatever sacrifices necessary to make this possible. Couponing is one way that I stretch our family dollars so that I am able to stay at home with him.

    I shop every two weeks with a budget of $250 to include groceries, toiletries, cleaning supplies, diapers/pull ups, pet supplies …basically every household and personal need for our family. With gas prices going insane, I am trying to squeeze every penny for all it’s worth.

    By combining sales and coupons, I was able to save over $95 off of my grocery shopping this week. I got $243 worth of groceries for just $147; about a 40% savings. A lot of those savings will roll over to our gas budget; allowing my husband to keep going to work every day. I try to buy enough of an item to stock me up until its next sale cycle. This time, I was able to get some extra items at little or no cost each that I will be sharing with a young family I know going through a rough time.

    Even if I could get 1,000 tubes of toothpast free I never would! I’d be embarassed for one thing. Other people want to buy that toothpaste or use a few coupons to get some free, it’s just RUDE to clear shelves and leave nothing for other shoppers.

    Money is tight for everyone these days, we have to take care of ourselves the best we can and take care of each other as much as we can.

  23. Ro in San Diego

    I consider myself an avid couponer, but not as extreme as those featured on the show(s). Sure, it was edited. I run an informal coupon club at work and try to help coupon novices stretch their dollars. I don’t like hearing “what are you one of those?” either but coupons are not uniformly welcomed by all. I quit shopping at my local Target because they have given me so much grief over valid coupons that they wouldn’t honor. Instead, I happily spend my money at the Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreen’s and Kohl’s who all happily allow me to coupon away.

    It’s great to be able to share my savings with others but it really makes me happy to hear that even the most casual attendee of my coupon club at work mentions that even though she doesn’t always use coupons she’s noticing that she’s getting items for free without much effort and that money’s not so tight anymore.

    We have to keep our eye on what it’s really all about – saving money on things we don’t enjoy buying ( no, I don’t enjoy spending money on that item) and spending it on what makes our lives more enjoyable – spa days, vacations, and buying yourself a nicety now and then – and helping others if they’re struggling

  24. Ro in San Diego

    Toilet paper was the item in the last post that I don’t enjoy buying. I’m sure we all have items that fit in that category…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Extreme Couponing and Charitable Giving | 50 Percent Off - [...] out in a recent post, the TLC show only portraysone side of the story and doesn’t show how many …
  2. Extreme Couponing Reality Check | Master the Art of Saving - [...] can get overlooked. For some other interesting posts related to extreme couponing, check out: Weighing in on “Extreme Couponing.” …

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