If you’ve seen the TLC show Extreme Couponing, you probably watched it with some combination of fascination and disgust. The numbers the show pulls in and the buzz around it suggests there’s plenty of fascination. And if you do a Twitter search for #extremecouponing you’ll find lots of disgust.
I understand both reactions.
I do find the show interesting and I love the way the shoppers are thinking outside the box. But I hate the way the producers focus on the excess. The huge stockpiles (49 bags of chips? 60 jars of mustard?) and obsessive approach to couponing can be more than a little bit unsettling.
One thing that especially bothered me on last night’s episodes was the way the shoppers would sometimes cross the line from working the system to taking advantage of it. Here are the kinds of things I’m talking about:
- Calling people to come stand with you in line to get around the one discount per shopper rule.
- Using 18 separate transactions in one shopping trip because of double coupon limitations.
- Clearing store shelves of sale items.
These kinds of things are irritating to other shoppers and, in the case of clearing shelves, interfere with their ability to do their own shopping. They’re also the kinds of things that will cause stores to make their policies more and more restrictive, which will hurt everyone.
But here’s the bottom line: Doing these things is not necessary to cut your grocery budget significantly and provide some extra for charity if you choose. It’s just not.
As someone who has recently embraced coupons as a way to free up hundreds of dollars each month in our family’s grocery budget, here’s what I would want you to know about couponing:
- You don’t need to buy metal shelves to house your deodorant collection, nor do you need to store bbq sauce under your daughter’s bed. Most kitchens and perhaps a hall closet will provide plenty of storage.
- You don’t need to live on a diet of pop tarts and frozen pizzas. There are plenty of coupons for yogurt, milk, eggs, whole grain bread, healthy cereals, pasta sauce, frozen vegetables, and whole wheat pasta. Plus the savings on things like laundry and dishwashing detergent, toilet paper, toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper, etc. can be huge.
- You don’t need to dig through dumpsters looking for extra coupon inserts. A single Sunday paper subscription goes a long way and many coupons are available online.
- Couponing can totally be worth your time. In the past six months, I’ve been able to save over $3000 on our grocery bill by using coupons and changing the way I shop. And now that the learning curve is over, I only invest a few hours a week. That means my time spent is worth in the neighborhood of $50/hour and I don’t pay taxes on my ‘earnings’.
Still, this way of shopping is not for everyone. It does take some time and a certain set of skills. And some people would rather use their time other ways. I get that.
But if you have a few hours a week to spare, are organized and somewhat analytical, and enjoy (or at least don’t hate) shopping, saving money in this way just might be for you.
How to Save Big Money with Not So Extreme Couponing
As I’ve mentioned, there’s a learning curve with couponing. In the end, however, it really boils down to a few simple steps. Here is my four step process to getting started, based on what I’ve learned in my own experiences:
- Start a price book so you’ll recognize good deals when you see them.
- Become familiar with where to get coupons.
- Follow a coupon blogger who matches store sales in your area with available coupons. (This is where the big savings are and there are many blogs that will do this work for you.)
- Divide your shopping list into two parts: things you need now and things you will need later and you can get at a good savings now. (This shift in your thinking is huge.) As time goes by, more and more of your list will be devoted to things at big discounts and you’ll be pulling the things you need now from your stockpile. (Highly perishable things will be the exceptions.)
So did you see the Extreme Couponing show? Are you saving big money at the grocery store with coupons or other smart shopping methods? Share your thoughts in the comments.