Why your shopping trips aren't quite like the ones on "Extreme Couponing..."
Though "Extreme Couponing" is currently in hiatus, each time TLC airs a marathon of the shows, my email inbox fills up again with questions from new coupon shoppers. In the time since the show's first season aired, plenty of shoppers have picked up the scissors with dreams of saving big. But judging from the mail I'm receiving, many people are frustrated that they're not enjoying the same, dramatic levels of savings depicted on the show, or they are writing to question some of the things they've seen.
Remember, all "reality" television typically involves both storytelling and staging, and "Extreme Couponing" is no exception. Here are some questions and insights from my email:
I heard that stores that don't usually double coupons or allow coupon overage were doing so just for the show. Is this true?
Yes. When the May 25th episode aired featuring a shopping trip at Fry's Supermarket (Kroger,) viewers around the country noticed that every coupon used on the show doubled in value, but Fry's policy is only to double the first three coupons a shopper uses in a single transaction. Angry viewers flooded Fry's Facebook page. Fry's responded that they doubled all coupons just for the show's taping, adding, "We do want to make it clear that the show was done for promotional purposes and that our coupon policy posted here on Facebook remains the same and is for all Fry’s stores." Other shoppers watching the show would have the impression that they, too, could enjoy doubling every coupon at Fry's, but Frys made it clear that they lifted their coupon policy as a "one-time" exception while this episode of Extreme Couponing was being filmed. (link)
In the May 18th, episode, shopper Chrystie Corns received coupon overage during her TLC-filmed shopping trip at Shaw's. (Overage occurs when a coupon's value exceeds the cost of the item being purchased. Some stores will allow you to apply that overage to other groceries in your shopping trip, while others will ring the coupon only up to the sale price of the item.) Shaw's policy is not to allow coupon overage, but the store allowed it for the filming of this episode, resulting in a lower total at the register than a normal shopper would enjoy. (EDIT: Chrystie replied to this article in the comments below to clarify that the overage on the tomato coupons she used was a mistake that wasn't noticed until after filming had ended.) Shaw's policy is also to double only the first four like coupons for four identical items per transaction. To get around this policy, Chrystie was allowed to break her large shopping trip into three transactions, splitting her purchases up so that the coupons would all ring at double the value.
Again, viewers took to Shaw's Facebook page. Shaw's responded that "there were inconsistencies in the episode that did not accurately reflect our coupon policy." (link)
I saw some of the shoppers using multiple coupons that say "Limit 1 coupon per transaction." Why did the store allow this?
One shopper, Angelique Campbell, answered on her blog that she called the manufacturer to get permission to use 140 identical "Limit 1 per transaction" $5 Similac baby formula coupons in the same shopping trip, explaining that she was filming the purchases for TLC. (link)
She also used numerous Crest toothpaste coupons in the same transaction that state "Limit 4 like coupons per transaction" but did not address this misuse.
Shopper Desirae appeared in the April 27th episode using a large number of Marcal Smart Steps free single-roll toilet paper coupons that state "Limit 1 coupon per customer." The store did allow her to use them all in the same shopping trip.
However, most shoppers indeed would be limited to using only the specified quantity of these coupons per transaction, not multiples.
Is it true that shoppers were allowed to use coupons for items they didn't even buy just to get their totals lower at the register?
Yes. There have been instances of coupons for one product being used to "buy" another throughout Extreme Couponing:
- Shopper Missy Eby used $3 coupons for Purex with Zout on regular Purex detergent. After the episode aired and coupon boards began discussing it, she apologized for the misuse on her blog. (link)
- In the June 8th episode, a shopper used numerous .50 coupons for Pepsi Max to buy Mountain Dew. The coupons doubled, making it free. It is not known why she purchased Mountain Dew instead of Pepsi Max. In the same episode, she bought numerous single-serve cups of Yo Crunch yogurt but appeared to use .35 coupons for Breyer's Greek yogurt. (link)
- Shopper Antoinette Peterson used Starkist Tuna Selects coupons to buy regular (plain) cans of tuna, which are less expensive. The coupons beeped at the register to indicate that they were being used on the wrong product. Antoinette argued with the cashier at Jewel-Osco, believing that the coupon's statement that it was good on "any Starkist Selects" meant that she should be able to use it on any Starkist product. The cashier overrode the coupons and allowed them.
The most flagrant misuses of coupons came from Jaime Kirlew in the season premiere. Nearly every coupon used did not match up to what she was shown buying on the show at Safeway (link). The cashier manually overrode the coupons and accepted them.
On April 23rd, a Safeway spokesman told the Baltimore Sun that "part of her [Kirlew's] strategy was to use coupons on products for which they are not intended." (link) On May 11th, Kirlew admitted to the Wall Street Journal that she did use coupons in a fraudulent manner on the show. (link)
Is "Extreme Couponing" encouraging people to steal newspapers and inserts? They glorified a woman on the show driving around stealing newspapers from her neighbors' driveways.
Indeed, the show's April 27th episode did depict a shopper, Stephanie, driving around her neighborhood picking up "unclaimed" newspapers to acquire more inserts. Since the series, numerous instances of people stealing newspaper coupon inserts from vending machines (link,) (link,) (link), stealing the vending machines themselves (link), and even breaking into a newspaper print facility to steal coupons (link) have been reported in the news, with one newspaper reporting losses to theft in excess of 1,000 newspapers per week. (link). Yahoo's most recent article on this phenomena begins "Extreme couponing is becoming extreme stealing." (link)
I heard a lot of the shoppers on the show buy their coupons online. Ethics aside, why doesn't the show figure the cost of their coupons into what they're buying? Are they getting hundreds of coupons just for the show?
Likely because it would take away from the "wow" factor of dropping one's bill. Crazily, coupons can sell for more than their face value on Ebay. Check out these auctions for $1 Capri-Sun coupons: 10 $1 coupons sold for $21.50 | 10 $1 coupons sold for $17.50.
As to the origin of the inserts, one shopper stated during a radio interview that the shot of a pile of coupon inserts being delivered to her doorstep was staged for the show, stating "That stack of newspapers that was shown on the show was actually given to me for the show... following the show I have not received stacks of papers like that ever again." (link)
Why don't the people on the show ever buy any healthy foods? Very few of them buy meat or produce.
Meat and produce are more difficult to get coupon deals on. To ensure the most dramatic high-grocery-bill to low-grocery-bill transformation at the register, many shoppers didn't buy anything that they did not have a coupon for. In the instances where the store allowed coupon overage, some shoppers did use their overages to buy meats and produce, which is a smart way to get deals on those harder-to-coupon items. Other shoppers used Catalina coupons from past purchases to buy their meat and produce during their Extreme Couponing trips, which is another good way to bring the cost of those items down.
When I watch the show I noticed they never scan the shopper's savings card until after they get a high total on the screen. Then they scanned the girl's card and it goes from $399 to $199 something before any coupons are even scanned. Do you think that's misleading?
Most stores will want to scan your loyalty card first. In holding the card until the end, the total at the register will appear higher -- again, more dramatic for television. You'll notice that the show says "Retail value" when they show the before-coupon total too, as they're working from the non-sale prices of the items. Again, it's got a lot more "wow" factor to see a $399 bill drop to $50 versus a total that starts at $199.
Most coupon shoppers do not count their loyalty savings into the amount saved (we would never pay the non-sale prices in the first place!) When keeping track of savings, coupon shoppers typically count only the post-coupon total.
Did you see the woman who bought 93 bags of Texas Toast croutons? With 93 coupons doubling to $1 they were all free. But all she bought was croutons! How's that extreme?
That's the easiest kind of "extreme" couponing trip to do. In buying only what was free with coupons, she took a $93 grocery bill to $0.
(But as you said... it was an entire cartload of croutons.)
Why do so many of the shoppers on the show buy tons of ramen noodles? Every time I watch, it's almost like playing a drinking game... "Spot the ramen noodles!"
The Yakisoba noodle trays often go on sale for $1. In market areas that double coupons, .50 coupons for Yakisoba double to $1, making them free. It's an easy way to add more items to the total dollar amount at the register. If someone buys 30 Yakisoba at $1 each, their pre-coupon total goes up by $30, then back down by $30 when those coupons are scanned.
Why do the people on the show claim to spend 30 hours a week couponing? Do I have to carry a 10-pound binder and devote half my week to learning to do this?
No, you don't. I hadn't seen anyone carrying a coupon binder to the store in years until Extreme Couponing began airing, and new coupon shoppers started hitting the stores, binders in hand, seemingly thinking this was the thing to do. If you have several hundred coupons for one item, a binder is likely the only way you can physically carry all of them around. But, if you're shopping for your own household and not going "extreme," you can easily become a coupon shopper and not devote excessive amounts of time to it. Many of us prefer the "clipless" method, where you only cut what you need. This method only takes about an hour a week versus cutting, sorting and organizing hundreds of coupons. You can learn more about this method at this link.
We started couponing after seeing the show this spring (I know, I know) and never have had a trip yet like they show on TV. Our store does not double coupons and they only let you buy 4 of the same item at a time. How much should we try to be saving with coupons? We are discouraged right now but on good weeks we have seen 40% savings and one week we saved 66%.
You're doing fine! Don't get discouraged. Realistically, if you're doing shopping trips that involve fresh produce, milk, and meats each week, a good target range of savings to aim for each week is the 50-70% mark. Most of my weekly shopping trips fall into this range, and through following sales cycles and stocking up moderately during good sales, anyone can easily cut their grocery bill in half or better with coupons.
TLC's Extreme Couponing logo used under Creative Commons License.