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Making Saves

A brief look at ‘extreme couponing’

Today’s blog on ‘extreme couponing’ was actually suggested to me by one of my readers. I have to admit that I didn’t really know what he was referring to but it did pique my interest. Before I look at some of the writings about extreme couponing in both the popular media and academic writing, I thought I would begin with a few extracts about or from self-confessed extreme couponers:

* Extract 1: “Cole is just 17 years old, but he’s got an addiction so intense that it’s like a drug—couponing! [The] teen boy stepped up to the plate when both his parents lost their jobs and now he helps out financially by using coupons to find the best deals. ‘At first my friends teased me. Now everyone wants to learn how’. Cole said that he’s obsessed with saving money. ‘Couponing is almost like a drug to me. It’s so addicting and intense. If I have a coupon for something, I buy it’. He said he just bought everything for his younger brother’s birthday with coupons and his parents are thrilled with his thriftiness. ‘Most girls are a little offended if you use a coupon on a date. If I ever find a girl who likes to coupon and likes that I do it I know that I will have found my perfect match’”.
* Extract 2: Extreme couponer Faatima Exans says “Asking a couponer why they are addicted to couponing is like asking a porn star why they have sex for money—it's all about the orgasm!"
* Extract 3: “Joyce Hansell, the compulsive couponer set to appear on Monday night's episode of Extreme Couponing, admits she has a ‘very, very addictive personality’. [She] compares the high of couponing to smoking a crack pipe.

 But the real surprise isn't about her addiction to coupons. Hansell, who previously likened couponing to smoking crack, actually used to be a food addict. After a lifelong battle with her weight, Hansell decided to put down the junk food and pick up the clipping scissors. And she's dropped 100 pounds in the process”.
* Extract 4: “It was only ‘extreme couponing’ in that I got a couple of items free or nearly free. That was the only extreme thing about it. But I got such a rush from knowing it was FREE that I can see how going to extremes to get free items could be very addictive…I'm not going to start going to extremes to get free or nearly-free items, but it was a fun feeling to get a product FREE for once”.

According to the Wikipedia entry on extreme couponing, the activity “combines shopping skills with couponing in an attempt to save as much money as possible while accumulating the most groceries”. The Wikipedia entry also claims that the concept of ‘extreme couponers’ began in a March 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal in the article entitled ‘Hard Times Turn Coupon Clipping Into the Newest Extreme Sport’. There is now even a US television show (on TLC [The Learning Channel], simply called Extreme Couponing) that follows shoppers that spend all their time accumulating coupons in any way possible to acquire masses of grocery products for next-to-nothing. From what I have read, extreme couponers spend hours and hours scouring rubbish tips or supermarket car parks looking for coupons with money back offers. Alternatively, others spend hours on the internet everyday looking for online coupons and vouchers to print and save money on various consumables.

Many British newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have had in-depth stories on the phenomenon. The Telegraph featured the story of 39-year old Judith Wenban from Gravesend in Kent:

“You don’t want to be stuck in the queue behind Judith Wenban when she’s doing her big weekly shop. ‘I’ve got a special little wallet in my handbag with all my vouchers in. I drive supermarkets batty’…Judith thinks nothing of handing a cashier coupons printed from the online money-saving forums that she trawls daily for cut-price deals on non-perishables to feed to her brood. ‘Quite often I will hand over ten coupons at a time, and don’t have any qualms about that. I used to feel a bit nervous. But internet coupons have taken off in the last few years, and the assistants can now just scan them in at the checkout, which has taken away the stigma. If a voucher’s rejected, that’s fine—I won’t take the product if I can’t take it on offer’”.

Wenban exploits all of the supermarkets’ deals. For instance, Asda have an ongoing promotion that if a shooper can buy a product cheaper at another supermarket, they will pay back the customer the price difference plus 10%. Wenban spends hours walking around Asda car parks looking for till receipts that other shoppers have thrown away or left discarded in trolleys and shopping baskets. Codes on the receipts can be inputted into the computer for ‘cashback’ and ‘price matching’ deals. She describes this practice of scouring the car park for receipts as “wombling” (after television characters The Wombles who made their living from making use of every day objects that folks leave behind). She told the story of how she found a receipt with £6.50 off the next spend in store. She said:

“I don’t think it’s illegal…It was left in a shopping basket. If you saw £6.50 on the floor, you wouldn’t leave it there, would you? As I’m tidying up other people’s rubbish, I have no shame in that.”

Wenban also spends hours online every day looking for coupons.

“In the forums, it’s quick, quick, quick. You often have to download the coupons and use them that day…The forums are a step ahead. It does mean I spend a fair bit of time every day online – but I’m not a big television person anyway”.

According to a Time magazine article on extreme couponing, the best coupons have two primary features: (i) discounts on products that people buy anyway, and (ii) discounts that are significant enough to justify the time in hunting them down. However, extreme couponing has impacted on companies giving out coupons with these two key features. The article went on to say:

Extreme couponers [seem to willing] to do almost anything to cut down on their grocery bills. People who do the extreme coupons are generally the most vicious people you will ever meet. They’ll cut off the dates of expired coupons, try to use several coupons per item and will argue when you shut them down”.

An article in the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail claimed the world of extreme couponing was a “no-holds-barred pursuit of savings” and comprises “countless obsessive Internet followers who strive to maximize their savings at the checkout by spotting the best sales and by hoarding coupons”. Another behaviour that extreme couponers are known to engage in is searching supermarkets for incorrectly priced items (even if it is not an item they would normally buy), paying for them, and then contacting customer service departments where they get their money back plus more money and vouchers to spend in store.

The UK's Daily Mail featured the story of extreme couponer El Jones. For Jones, extreme couponing gives her a ‘buzz’ particularly when she manages to save lots of money:

“It’s the challenge, the rush and, above all, the buzz that feeds her compulsion. It eats up ten hours every week but her husband Ed doesn’t mind. For there are no side effects, no support groups needed and no casualties…and she’s fiercely proud of it, too”.

The Mail story does at least highlight the differences between extreme couponing in America (that typically involves cutting out loads of coupons from magazines and newspapers) and the UK (that typically involves printing out vouchers online). The difference is claimed to be cultural (that the US just likes paper vouchers as opposed to coupons redeemable by mobile phone or computer). The Mail also made lots of reference to the voucher giveaway website Wowcher (that the Mail part owns!). The report also notes that the one key difference between a casual bargain-hunter and an extreme couponer is the “copious planning the latter is willing to put in”.

The amount of academic work on extreme couponing has been modest (to say the least), but Dr. Joseph Chancellor and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky have written a number of interesting chapters and papers on the psychology of thrift. One of their upcoming book chapters on the hedonic benefits of thrift mentioned extreme couponing:

“The practice of thrift can be pleasurable and profitable. Although wanton spending surely has its own short-term pleasures, frugality involves feeling the rush of both spending and saving. The name of a popular extreme couponing website, The Grocery Store Game, aptly captures the thrill of frugal shopping. Bargain hunting can be as engrossing and enjoyable as a board game, but the advantage of thrift is that when the game is finished, one can keep the winnings”.

A recent 2012 (unpublished) Master’s thesis by Danish Business Studies student Ketil Schjorterich Skotte examined the use of online discounting but also examined coupon use including extreme couponing (and how such behaviour was bad for marketers). The thesis noted that:

“Coupon use is still widespread in the US and recently a new segment of coupon users has come to the attention of the public eye: extreme couponers who make couponing a way of living. The recent television show ‘Extreme Couponing’ is a good example of this. In the show, different (female) couponers show how they cut up to 95 percent of their grocery bill by using coupons. This segment has been described as the marketers’ worst nightmare because they do not use coupons as a way to try out new products, but instead only buys products they have a coupon for”.

Another 2013 academic paper in the Cinema Journal by Diane Negra examined (among other things) the television programme Extreme Couponing. The aim of the paper was to investigate some of the ways that recession-era representational culture (in the specific form of two reality-television series—one being Extreme Couponing) activate particular vocabularies of gender while suppressing others. Negra argued that the economic recession weighed heavily on the aspirationalism that customarily prevails in US representations, and then analyzed the staging of gendered modes of adaptation and enterprise in the first seasons of Extreme Couponing. She goes on to argue that:

“[Extreme Couponing retains] femininity as fundamentally domestic and recuperate[s] masculinity as a state of territorial expansion while promulgating ideologically ‘safe’ modes of entrepreneurialism that conform to hegemonic gender codes. Ambivalently responsive to the resource gluttony of US consumer culture, [the programs] stage the promise and the frustration of a feminized thrift and a masculinized risk taking. Extreme Couponing’s female focus is hinted at in its tag as a ‘recessionista series’…Another element shared by these [television] series is their sense of localism and regionalism, which plays out against a backdrop of social isolation… In Extreme Couponing we see that recessionary popular culture has latched onto the commodification of domestic femininities in ways continuous with but also distinct from previous eras. Female thrift ‘works’ for an era of adjusted economic realities, it seems, with female consumer resourcefulness becoming a new theme on many fronts. A number of the series’ profile subjects are women who have lost a male breadwinner’s salary (either through unemployment or divorce); they are invariably such assiduous and adept coupon clippers that they can get large amounts of groceries for free. These women are seen as stepping into the income breach without deviating from their domestic roles, and the series sustains a mixed discourse of praise and pathologization around figures inscribed on the one hand as bravura postfeminist housekeepers and on the other hand as intense overconsumers who speak with a worrying casualness about ‘stockpiling’”.

A not-so-academic (but arguably as thought provoking) article in the online Salon magazine made an interesting observation that unlike the mentally ill individuals depicted on television shows like Hoarders, or drug-addicts on programmes like Intervention, the heroines depicted on Extreme Couponing “aren’t ashamed of the obsessive compulsion that has taken control of their lives”.

I was unable to find much psychological thinking about extreme couponing. However, I did find an article on the Psychology Today website by Dr. Goal Auzeen Saedi examining the exhilaration of watching the people on Extreme Couponing (such as the ‘Double Saving Divas’, twin sisters from Chicago) that had stockpiled nappies—even though neither of them have babies. Dr. Saedi claimed she was instantly “hooked” on the show. She then went on to write:

“While a fascinating show indeed, I worry that perhaps the whole story is not being told. Is there something compulsive about this behavior, or at least marginally unhealthy? Why is a man buying up dozens of women's deodorant? Just because it's free, does it mean we must have it?... One of the double divas said she saw her stockpile as being analogous to having money in the bank. One of the gentlemen rationalized his couponing by saying he was worried about losing his job. But some of these extreme couponers talked about spending 15-20 hours on this task… I wonder though if I'm the only one who sees possible touches of addiction, obsession, compulsion, and perhaps even hoarding tendencies to some of this behavior. At the very least, I am comfortable to say it seems unhealthy. Hence, I ask this: Is extreme couponing really something that should be celebrated?”

I have to admit that I have only seen clips of the show on YouTube but based on the bits I have seen, I’d be hard-pressed not to at least partly agree with Dr. Saedi’s views. I can’t say that any of the anecdotal accounts I have read display genuine addictive, compulsive and/or obsessive behaviour but that doesn’t mean it’s not theoretically possible.

References and further reading

Chancellor, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Money for happiness: The hedonic benefits of thrift. In: M. Tatzel (Ed.), Consumer’s dilemma: The search for well-being in the material world (13-47). New York: Springer.

Negra, D. (2013). Gender bifurcation in the recession economy: Extreme couponing and Gold Rush Alaska. Cinema Journal, 53(1), 123-129

Powell, L. (2011). Extreme couponing: It's highly addictive and takes ruthless dedication (but it can halve the cost of your weekly shop). Daily Mail, November 30. Located at:…

Saedi, G.A. (2011). The Exhilaration of "Extreme Couponing?" Is being an "extreme couponer" really such a good thing? Psychology Today, May 10. Located at:…

Tuttle, B. (2013). How ‘extreme couponing’ is ruining coupons. Time, May 23. Located at:…

Webley, K. (2011). Extreme couponing. Time, 178, (14), 36-37.

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