Does Couponing Always Make Sense?

The fantasies increase the object’s subjective value and give it a magical quality, and soon the value of the object outstrips and becomes disconnected from any functional utility it may have. Next comes the hunt, frequently the most pleasurable part of collecting. Many collectors shift from a self-focused state to what some have described as a “flow stat,” a mental state in which the person is so absorbed in the activity that he or she is unaware of his or her surroundings- commonly experienced by an athlete at the height of physical exertion or by someone immersed in a game or project.

Watching a passionate collector at a flea market makes it clear that his or her state of consciousness is altered during “the hunt.” The person has little appreciation for anything going on around him or her; only the pursuit matters. When the acquisition occurs, it is accompanied by a wave of euphoria and appreciation of the object’s features, which become part of the”story” of the acquisition. Finally, the excited collector catalogs the object and adds it to the collection, arranging for its display.

I felt a twinge of discomfort reading these words in the book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost & Gail Steketee. 

Replace the word “collector” with “extreme couponer” and you’ve got me in a nutshell.

In working on my book I have been fascinated by the stories from other extreme couponers.  Several have described themselves as ADD, obsessive-compulsive, or with an addictive personality. They spend valuable time clipping coupons, hunting down deals, and shopping, shopping, shopping. When they (we) super shop there is a natural high.  Walking out the door of a store with bags full of free merchandise, there is a sense of being on top of the world, like being the smartest person on Earth. And then, when we get home, we carefully arrange our bounty and take pictures of it.  We regale others with our shopping spree stories and then what do we do with all the free or nearly free merchandise we’ve hauled into our homes by the bag fulls?

Some of us sell our excess stockpiles. Others donate to food banks and Ronald McDonald houses. We fill our own cupboards, lest famine leaves us the proverbial Mother Hubbard.  We give our adult children baskets full of the stuff for Christmas.

Others fill their homes with 3000 rolls of toilet paper:

This was a special report regarding the extreme couponer’s television special I interviewed for a few months ago.  Apparently I wasn’t “extreme” enough. I expect the reality program will not paint either an accurate nor a complimentary portrait of the average couponer.  After all, who needs 1500 sticks of deodorant or 3000 rolls of toilet paper?  And at what point does one cross the line from stockpiler to hoarder? These are questions I am currently delving into in my book, and in doing so, I have to ask the same questions about myself.  What kind of woman goes triple couponing the day after her mother’s funeral?  Why would anyone want to store a half a dozen totes filled with health and beauty items and garbage bags of clothing on her attic steps in anticipation of an April garage sale?

And, why, while her grandson is still in the hospital, would a loving Grandma bother to shop at Walmart with her coupons?

Actually, it was the last thing on my mind; the coupon shopping, but when I headed to Walmart to pick up some drain cleaner, I grabbed my coupon box out of habit. Once I’d located the bottle that just happened to have a 55-cents coupon attached, I decided I may as well check the Christmas clearance aisle.  The first thing I noticed was the Coty perfume sets that had been marked down to half-price.  I had three $5 coupons so three sets went into my cart. After all, only $2 for Sand & Sable sets~ who could resist such a deal on one of their favorite fragrances?  The next thing I spotted was the Gillette Fusion razor sets that included a deodorant, body wash, razor, and a small lotion for only $4.44.  With my $4 coupons, I could pick up some nice Christmas gifts for next year for only 44-cents.  Before I knew it, I was “in the zone,” tossing Clairol Herbal Essence sets and Olay body wash sets into my cart and grabbing coupons to match up with the sale price.

And then I hit the mother-lode: the Glade Winter Collection candles and sprays were marked down to $1.16.  I had $3 off 3 coupons for Glade Winter Collection products. At only 16-cents a piece, I could hardly pass them up! There was no stopping me now.  A dozen sprays went into the cart, followed by a dozen candles.  People were beginning to stare, then wander over to the shelf to see what the attraction was.

“Oh, this is a good price,” a woman said to her daughter. I handed her some coupons and told her 16-cents was an even better price.  Both of them thanked me, smiled broadly and began adding candles to their cart.

It felt good to be doing something so “normal” for me. My husband proudly threw his arm around my shoulder when the clerk lauded me for my savings. When I got home and looked at the sets of shampoo and body wash I had to find room for on the attic steps I remembered what I had read in the hoarder book, and I cringed. 

Perhaps the “magical quality” of my shopping expedition had given these sets an importance over and above their actual functional value. At least one study I’ve looked at found that the perceived savings with coupons can be an illusion, in part because the “coupon queen” enjoys the process so much.  Sure, I got some Christmas gifts stowed away already, and a tote full of candles and air fresheners I’ll price at $1.00, making at least an 80-cent profit per candle. There’s $24 in profit off a $4.80 investment.  I also have a dozen bottles of shampoo and conditioner that we’ll actually use ourselves and body wash and body puffs that cost less than $1 a piece after coupons. We do go through a lot of shampoo and body wash in this house, with two adults, two teens and the younger two. It took me an hour to sort through everything and put it away, time I could have spent doing something else.  Like writing and selling an article or essay that would pay more than my time clipping coupons and shopping bargains.

After my mother died and we were cleaning her closet, my niece pulled a tall thin box out from behind her hanging clothing. I gasped in amazement when I saw what was inside it; the Gloria Vanderbilt umbrella I’d ordered for her over 20 years ago.  I’d sent two empty, flattened perfume boxes for the lovely umbrella.  I’d had one sent to my address and another sent to hers.  She’d never used hers.  The fact that my mother hadn’t used the umbrella in 20 years made me wonder for a moment: Is free always a good deal?  In the 1980’s there were hundreds of refund premiums being offered and I’d send for as many as I could; t-shirts, stuffed animals, personalized pencils, hats, Christmas tree ornaments and even cat toys.  I loved free things! I still do.  But working on this book has certainly opened my eyes to more than just the history of couponing and the foibles and follies of the super couponers among us; it has prompted me to ask these kinds of questions: Is free always a good deal? Does couponing always make sense?

Perhaps by the time I complete my book I’ll have the answers.

2 thoughts on “Does Couponing Always Make Sense?

  1. Christel says:

    So true!! I can totally see myself in this and am starting to “get it.” I guess I am slower than most? Or not… one will never know.

  2. Beth says:

    I saw the segment on GMA and I came to a conclusion that the media sometimes paints a picture in ones mind that all couponers are hoarders. I do believe, however, that there is a fine line in couponing. I recently went back to work part time. I could feel the difference in my couponing. I could also feel the difference in quality time with my family. Should I spend time cutting and sorting coupons or spend time with my hubby and dd? My son is in college now so time with him is spent on the phone. My son is in communications and journalism in college and we have talked about how the media does portray people. So keep your ears tuned when watching this show on TLC tonight at 8:00. They will use terms that want you to think that couponers are all extreme. The lady that sat in the dumpster digging wore gloves, but her little boy did not. Will they pick that apart? I do hear you Mary, I do get into that zone when I shop. I think that all people that have a hobby do that to some degree. We will have to watch the show tonight.

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