From my book in progress:
On December 29, 2010, producers of a TLC special program “Extreme Couponing” featured four coupon-obsessed savers who were challenged to get as much merchandise as they could for as little as possible. I’d been interviewed for the program, but after viewing it, I realized why I’d been passed over for inclusion.
I should have known that a reality program would portray any “extremist” in an unflattering light. One of the women in the program, Amanda, was portrayed as a hoarder who had enough toilet paper in her stockpile to last her and her husband 40 years. Nathan Engles, also known as “Mr. Coupon” online and among friends, had 1500 sticks of deodorant stockpiled in his garage. And “The Krazy Coupon Lady,” Joanie Diemer, was shown in a dumpster with her four-year-old son pilfering for coupons.
I’m sure most viewers would have been bored with my minimal stockpiles and modest garage sale profits. Still, the show’s biased premise haunted me for days. Was this the image of extreme couponers that readers of my book would be familiar with; people who stockpiled 3000 rolls of toilet paper and 1500 deodorants, outrageous amounts that they couldn’t possibly use in their own lifetime? What about the huge donations Nathan Engles regularly makes to a local church food bank? Or the fact that Diemer teaches others to coupon? Her helpful book “Pick Another Checkout Lane, Honey” wasn’t even mentioned, nor was her website. Reality shows aren’t reality, but does the average television viewer know that? Was this the “reality” readers would have of extreme couponers?
During the months I conducted research and wrote this book, one of my sisters, briefly unemployed, joined me among the ranks of extreme couponers, giving me a cohort in the hunt for good deals. In November of 2010, a local Pamida store experimented with tripling coupons, allowing me the unexpected and never-before enjoyment of several triple-coupon sprees that filled my attic stairway with free products to sell at the next year’s garage sale. Also in November, my mother died after a courageous battle with cancer. While cleaning out her closet, we came across an unusually long, thin box. I gasped in amazement when my niece opened it up and pulled out a very familiar looking umbrella. It was an umbrella from the Gloria Vanderbilt company, still sealed in a plastic bag. For two empty flattened perfume boxes, they’d offered the lovely umbrella as a refund premium almost 20 years before. I’d had enough empty boxes in my files to have one sent to me and another to my mother. Here was the proof that she’d never even used it. I’ll never know if she’d thought it too beautiful to use in the rain, or had considered it worthless. Somehow it seemed appropriate that I discovered that past company premium while working on a book about coupons and refunding. Finding it abandoned in a closet gave me pause. Is “free” always a good deal?
As I watched the program I found myself alternately lusting after the bounty and the good deals these shoppers were able to get with their coupons, and disgusted by the huge stockpiles. I have seen Nathan Engles on Nightline and read Diemer’s book, so I know that both of them donate generously to charities. But the producers of this program concentrated on the huge amount of food and health and beauty items they had on their basement and garage shelves. Amanda, the woman first featured in the special had two entire rooms dedicated to her stockpiling and it was spilling over into her husband’s “man cave.” In my video clip for consideration for the program I was told to “blow them away” with my stockpiles, so I wasn’t surprised. Still, watching the program I had to ask myself some tough questions: Is “free” always a good deal? Is it always healthy and wise to stock up on something just because I can get it for pennies? In writing my book and asking the who and the why of avid coupon users, I’m also delving into my own psyche. And it isn’t always pretty.
“How can you still be writing?” someone asked me after reading my blog and learning about my grandson’s cancer. How can I not? I wonder. That is what I do. I write.
“How can you even think of planning a super shopping spree with all that your daughter and grandson are going through?” I have asked myself. Then I clip the coupons, organize the coupon box, and wait patiently for the next time the sale ads warrant a trip to Cedar Rapids or Dubuque, a day when I’m not taking care of my other two grandchildren.
This is what I do, what I’ve been doing for 30+ years, and though I have periods when I haven’t done much couponing at all, for the majority of my adult life grabbing the coupon box has been second nature. But watching the “Extreme Couponing” show definitely made me wonder at what point a “super shopper” crosses the line to “hoarder.”