I’ll admit. I’ve been sucked in by the show Extreme Couponing.
I already consider myself a fairly accomplished couponer. My top tips and strategies have netted me a nice little stockpile over the years. We rarely ever run out of toothpaste and I’ve not had to pay for shampoo or razors in a long, long time.
But I want more.
I want a basement of shelves lined with enough TP to build forts and enough tiny shower gels you can swim in them Scrooge-McDuck-style… I want rice packets and power drinks to outlast a zombie apocalypse… I want to walk away from a grocery store with $1,000 worth of merch and have them owe me $2.27 for taking it off their hands.
But, the people on this show are called “extreme” for a reason. They climb into dumpsters to pull out coupon inserts (and bring their kids along with them). They not only clear store shelves, but call ahead to have full pallets of shrink wrapped items waiting for them. They go on marathon 10-hour shopping runs. There’s no way the average person can accomplish that.
Ridiculous odds, however, have never stopped me before. I was so enamored with the idea of a stockpile that could enable me to help quit my job, that I decided to embark on a quest to see just how feasible extreme couponing could be for the average person.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off the feats they do on the show (you can find links to some of the many issues with “Extreme Couponing” at the end of this post). But damn me if I couldn’t get awfully close! I’m organized. I’m stubborn. I’m unrealistically ambitious. And I have no problem whatsoever embarrassing myself in public to get a good deal. If anyone is equipped to be an extreme couponer, I thought, I was that girl.
Step 1: Get the Gear, Get Organized (eventually)
Meet: Big Bertha (pictured to your left).
Big Bertha is basically a glorified Trapper-Keeper (old skool, represent!) filled with sheets upon sheets of my husband’s old baseball card inserts for neatly organizing coupons by category.
She comes equipped with folders for weekly store circulars, a cute little scissors-holding pocket, and a mini paper cutter for more extreme clipping situations. And she took me (I kid you not) two full months to set up. (Fail #1: J. Money was supposed to have this guest post by mid-summer.)
I quickly learned that the first hurdle to being an extreme couponer is having a life. I am not a stay at home mom who can devote 40 hours a week to clipping, comparing ads, and writing meticulous shopping spreadsheets. I also have lots of non-coupony interests I enjoy doing in my off-work hours, such as blogging, seeing my friends, and occasionally getting some sleep. I refused to neglect these things because, well, they’re kind of part of my life. That was my first mistake.
Every time I almost got caught up organizing my coupons, another freakin’ week of inserts arrived. This may not seem like much, but since I was dealing with several sets of inserts (see next section), things got out of hand fast. Every surface in my living room became covered with stacks of coupons (neatly grouped by category, of course) that just kept multiplying like Gremlins in a rainstorm. I began to loathe the sight of them. I still haven’t quite gotten over it.
END RESULT: Success, eventually, but a huge time-suck. Plus now a lingering sense of resentment towards Bertha and her contents. Not a good place to be in for a couponer.
Step 2: Clip Coupons (and More Coupons, and More Coupons)
While this was all going on, I also went to work setting up a regular coupon clipping routine. (Perhaps getting Bertha organized first would have helped prevent the chaos, but I was trying to be extreme, baby.) Already being a couponer, it wasn’t a matter of creating a system so much as pimping out my current system to the max.
Instead of just clipping coups on Sunday, I clipped four sets of coups—my own, my generous mother’s and mother-in-law’s, and my unknowing employer’s, who had inadvertently purchased a full week’s paper subscription although no one comes in the office on the weekends (not quite as B.A. as dumpster-diving, but still pretty sneaky, I thought).
I also ventured into the world of online coupons (through sites like Coupons.com and Smart Source) and took the extremists’ advice in checking the sites several times a week in case new coups came out. (I did not buy two extra printers to get around the “prints per coupon” limits, however. I’m sneaky, but I have principles. Plus I just can’t afford 2 extra printers.)
Finally, I checked out my go-to site, Refund Cents, for its weekly store promo/coupon matchups and running list of available rebates. Matching store sales + coupons + rebates can ultimately result in products for free or at profit. But, it takes a hella (let me repeat, hella) lot of time and some basic math skills, neither of which I have in abundance.
But with all these bases covered, there was no way I couldn’t make out like a bandit the next time I went to the store. Right?
END RESULT: What normally took me 10 minutes every Sunday became an ongoing project that took an extra 3-5 hours each week what with trolling the internet, printing and clipping coups, adding coups into Big Bertha, and reassessing potential promo/coup combinations. Return on investment for all this time? Read on…
Step 3: Reap Massive Savings (Right?…Right…?)
What I am about to share next is not something I am proud of, but journalistic integrity demands full disclosure.
The first week I finally had all my coups in order and all my information gathered, I sat down Christmas-morning-excited to figure out what incredible deals I would be netting for the week. And do you know what I found?
Pretty much the same deals I was netting before the whole experiment. Plus one extra. Additional savings? About $3. No worries, I told myself, you’re just starting out. You haven’t fully built up your coupon arsenal yet.
Week 2, I sat down telling myself the first week had been an unlucky fluke, and now sh** was gonna start getting real.
It didn’t. A handful of deals, just like I’d always found, except this time I got to get a few extra sets of items thanks to my duplicate inserts. Additional savings? Around $7.
By the time weeks 3-5 rolled around, I’d pretty much thrown in the towel. The stacks of coupons to be filed were getting unnervingly high again, causing me to avert my eyes and mumble crazily every time I walked into the living room. I’d failed to make several of my tri-weekly online coupon checks and was starting to not feel bad about it. And the more episodes of Extreme Couponing I watched for “motivation,” the more I realized what I still needed to do:
I should be scoping the store out ahead of time, noting sales that aren’t advertised and drawing maps of all the aisles. I should be ordering extra sets of coupons from ebay. I should have kids so I can conscript them into helping me clip. I should find a camera crew to come with me so the cashiers can be pressured into letting me divide my order up across 7 aisles.
I had lost all control. I’d been working my little frugal tail off, as much as I possibly thought I could, but no matter what I did, I was getting nowhere. Mainly because life kept happening and getting in the way of things.
END RESULT: A big, epic, hashtag FAIL. I really thought I could do it. Maybe if I’d just put in a little more time, been a little more dedicated? Maybe I just didn’t want it badly enough?
Final Analysis: Let’s Be Real, People
The truth is, you can score some pretty fantastic savings by being entirely devoted to couponing. Not quite as much as on TV (see what’s wrong, if not downright fraudulent, about the show here and here). But I’ve read plenty of success stories in magazines and online that testify to the fact that if you’re willing to put in enough time and energy, you really can game the system (legally).
That being said, you can also be a normal, reasonable couponer and still game the system a decent amount. Plus then you get to have a life.
It’s with regret that I’m going back to my old couponing ways. I still, in the back of my mind, secretly wonder if I could have done it if only I didn’t have a job (or hobbies, or a social life). But you know what? I do have those things, and I kinda wanna keep them. So my dreams of extremes will have to be let go. And the show probably will, as well. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.
At least I still have Big Bertha. I have to say it’s quite nice having everything so neatly organized when I go shopping. Plus, when you walk into a store with a five-pound binder perched precariously on the child seat of your shopping cart, you and everyone else around you knows that you mean serious biz-nass. Aisles clear before you, and cashiers look on you with terror (Or at least I like to think they do). It’s quite empowering.
Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
(Photo by Tammra McCauley – NOT Cordelia, I’m afraid ;))