Conspicuous Consumption

The All-Consuming Pleasures of 'Extreme Couponing'


The All-Consuming Pleasures of 'Extreme Couponing'

Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Alamy (3)

The women (and very few men) featured on TLC’s Extreme Couponing, a reality show about bargain-obsessed shoppers, have their own vocabulary. The groceries they purchase en masse at steep discount are “hauls”; once those hauls are stacked neatly in the basement, they become “stockpiles”; the word coupon is always pronounced “kew-pon”; the children being fed from the stockpiles built with these kew-pons are “litters.” For these people, couponing is not a hobby, it’s a 60-hour-a-week commitment, even a way of life.

The show, which just finished its fifth season, is on a continuous loop on TLC. Or you can watch the first season on Netflix (NFLX) in one long, pathetic binge. Each episode follows two different couponers through one grocery store shopping trip during which they try to get as many products for as little money as possible. A 24-year-old “coupon diva” named Rebecca, who has enough potato chips in her stockpile to feed 800 people, says she goes to sleep and wakes up thinking about coupons. She used to be in deep credit-card debt, and her sympathetic boyfriend wonders if couponing “gives her an outlet to shop ’til she drops.” Another couponer, Jessica, says, “Everyone’s reaction to my stockpile is, ‘Oh my god, you’re a hoarder,’ ” but she adds, “When I see all the pretty labels [in my stockpile] facing forward … it makes me happy.” Like other TLC reality shows—Say Yes to the Dress or What Not to Wear—the appeal of Extreme Couponing lies partly in its satisfying predictability: Bride needs a dress, she finds one; woman dresses terribly, she gets a makeover; couponer goes shopping, she pays barely anything.

There’s also the gawking-at-the-loony-bin factor. Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, says many of the behaviors displayed on the show could be considered variants of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although he’s never seen an episode of Extreme Couponing, Black says, “The fact that they feel compelled to do it, and feel incomplete if they are unable to, plus the acquisition of unneeded objects, is indeed concerning.”

There’s no end to the unneeded objects that need acquiring. One woman buys more than 60 jars of mustard. As she dumps them into her shopping cart, her husband mutters, “I don’t even eat mustard.” The deep, endless urge to feed their stockpiles seems to be a uniquely American compulsion. (Couponing began in the U.S.—it was invented in 1887 by Asa Candler, a co-owner of Coca-Cola (KO)—and still hasn’t caught on around the world.) Only in the U.S. are houses big enough to store so much excess, and only here are we so obsessed with end times; more than one couponer semi-jokes that if the rapture were to come, she’d be prepared with her eight-year supply of toilet paper.

Although Extreme Couponing may be clinical, it’s also empowering. Many of the women on the show are feeding their litters by exploiting the waste of giant corporations. They take pride in their work (and it’s a lot of work), and several donate their largesse to charity. According to Zac Bissonnette, the author of How to Be Richer, Smarter and Better Looking Than Your Parents, Extreme Couponing can be sensible from a personal finance perspective. It’s possible to see a much better return on your investment by purchasing discounted, nonperishable goods like, say, toilet paper than by putting that money into a shaky market, he says.

After the 11th episode of Extreme Couponing, you’ll start to feel like a chump for paying retail for a single vial of hand soap at your local bodega. You’ll begin searching for cubbyholes in your apartment to stash extra liters of soda and boxes of pasta. And then you’ll hear a woman say, “Who has the most diapers? I do. Who doesn’t have children? I don’t!” and carefully put down the remote.

Grose is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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