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Extreme Couponing Fuzzy Math

I’m a big fan of saving money on necessary spending. Grocery shopping is expensive, and food and household staples present an excellent opportunity to find coupons and save money with every visit. The savings can be substantial if you’re willing to put in the time to find the right coupons, dumpster-dive to collect other people’s circulars, and annoy anyone in line behind you at the cashier as you buy in excessive bulk and wait for all the coupons to be processed.

A recent article on CNN Money describes a coupon addict who, inspired by a television reality show, saved $300 this month on groceries through diligent or obsessive coupon-collecting. She’s a student, and apparently has the free time to scour print and the internet to come up with methods of overbuying that will result in saving money. The grocery bill dropped from $400 to $100, and that’s a great feeling. Getting a 75% discount is a major score for anyone who has to spend money.

Saying she saved $300 is bad math, though, because in order to save $300, she had to spend much more than she would have if she bought only products she needed. The test is whether all the products she purchased — and they are enough to fill up a spare bedroom in the house — are consumed by the family or thrown away because they are not needed until they spoil. Additionally, to buy products on sale, most likely, she compromised on products they would normally buy. The food she purchased might not have been as healthy or as fresh as the food on which she couldn’t have saved as much.

Welcome to America’s new coupon craze. It began nearly three years ago as a sensible response to an economic catastrophe but has since morphed into something more complex — a national fixation with refusing to pay retail that has turned otherwise normal families into coupon-clipping, Dumpster-diving (for circulars), cashier-pestering stockpilers who march through grocery stores with bulging binders of coupons and fill shopping carts with more free jars of mustard and cat food than they could ever use in a lifetime.

There’s no baby in the house, but Lauren couldn’t resist buying 30 containers of infant formula on sale for $3.78 each. Because she had collected piles of $5-off coupons, she earned a $1.22 store credit on each sale — the holy grail to serious couponers. (She used her credit to buy ribs for a Memorial Day feast and donated the formula to tornado victims in nearby Joplin.) As couponing became an obsession, her mom started to worry. “Your eyes light up like a slot machine whenever you see a deal,” Joyce told her. “Admit it, you’re an addict!”

Even if $300 per month is the actual, repeatable savings after taking spoilage and over-purchasing into account, I have to wonder how many hours she spends finding coupons. While some websites make this an easier chore, the act of extreme couponing can consume one’s life. While $300 per month on groceries is a good savings, if she takes the time she spends couponing and gets a job, even after taxes, she could earn more than $300 a month.

If she ceases couponing, the family would have a spare bedroom free because it wouldn’t be full of groceries for storage. If they so desired, they could earn $300 per month or more by renting the room to a tenant.

While extreme couponers are not hoarders, they often share are trait in common. Both hoarders and some extreme couponers acquire and don’t discard possessions that have limited value. If there’s a possibility of a product being used some time in the future, a couponer would not want to let that purchase go to waste. Spending less money per item to get more is a core couponing concept, but it results in over-purchasing and spoilage. Throwing unneeded food or products out would be a waste of money.

The article shouldn’t have claimed that this family’s extreme couponing results in a $300 savings each month. This math compares the over-purchasing price pre-coupon against post-coupon. If the student were not couponing, the family would be purchasing much less. If all this work results in just a $300 benefit to the checking account, if she wanted to contribute financially to her family sporting a six-figure income, she could be better off with a part-time job. The “hunt” and the “score” are so psychologically appealing, though, that the brain can easily rationalize extreme couponing despite better uses of money, time, and space.

I can’t wait for this craze to be over.

Photo: Walmart Stores
CNN Money

Updated July 24, 2011 and originally published July 18, 2011.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I’m with you, and it is nice to finally see some stories providing a reality check on what people actually save. Now if we could just get some attention on the “tragedy of the commons” effects of this behavior in terms of product shortages, increased waits in checkout lines, etc. These “savings” come with many costs which are not factored in.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I’ve felt this way since the very beginning. I’ve always hated the couponing craze. I only use coupons as they were intended; it can encourage me to make a purchase I was already considering but holding off until I could get the right price.

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avatar 3 qixx

With many different coupon blogs out there i don’t see the need for extreme couponing (other than some that extreme coupon for shelters/food banks/ etc). One can spend 10 minutes looking at the coupon matchups (before or after planning meals) and get great savings without devoting their life to couponing. Those that do it for shelters and food banks often limit themselves to what they can do in 1-2hrs a week and are likely not extreme enough for most papers/tv shows on the subject.

I too look for couponing to die down some. Many companies don’t give as high a value coupons as they did before extreme couponing took over.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I’ve noticed that there are fewer higher value coupons too. And I’ve noticed shelves being cleared. That frustrates me to no end since I generally just want one or two of any product. :(

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avatar 5 tbork84

I believe that manufacturers will be including limits on the number of coupons per customer to prevent this from happening. The last thing they want is you buying a competitors brand and maybe even finding that you prefer it.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

Oh yes, I’ve already seen that happen too. When it says one per transaction they’ve caught on. :) Target already did.

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avatar 7 lynn

P and G states on their coupons that 4 items is the limit.

avatar 8 Anonymous

I agree, but I don’t. I saved over $100 this weekend on things that my family WILL use and need in the future. I got laundry detergent for $1.99. I know some people make their own but that’s not me. It didn’t take me THAT long to get the coupons together. I checked the Sunday flyer for Fred Meyer, noted their coupon sale price on the detergent, and searched for a printable coupon to make it better. I also got five boxes of Kashi cereal for $8. It’s normally $3-$4 a box. My husband goes through cereal like water so 5 boxes for $8 is a huge score for us. And I got free Scotch tape, Sharpie markers, and three packs of pens. I got my allergy medicine, which would cost $100 through the doctor’s office (six month supply), for $23 at Target for their generic brand which was on sale, plus I had a coupon, and got a $10 gift card back. I used the $10 card on a second order to help cover that cost (Target limits one of their coupons per transaction so I split my order in two in order to use more than one).

All in all, I spent around $100 on $200+ worth of product. There were a few impulse buys (summer items were on clearance 75% off) for my son but for the most part we will use every item. I won’t need to get laundry soap for a year at least.

For the gal who bought baby food because she got overage…that’s just SMART shopping. She used that overage to get other things and donated the food. What’s wrong with that? I wish I’d had that deal. :)

I am one of those people who has a big binder as I go through the store. I am not as obsessive about it as I was a few years ago and I strive to only purchase things we need or want.

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avatar 9 shellye

Great post – but I have to ask, where did you find such good Kashi coupons???? :-)

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avatar 10 Anonymous

They were on sale at Target $2.99 and buy four get one free. I had a $2/4 Kashi products coupon that was a Target coupon and I added to that two $1/1 box of cereal coupons that I printed from the Kashi website. So I got four boxes for $11.96 – $2 for four boxes = $9.96 – another $2 Kashi Coupons = $7.96. I was stoked!

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avatar 11 Ceecee

Coupons are great if you only use them for things you would normally buy and it would be cheaper than the generic. Or, you could shop at Aldi’s, with few or no coupons, and cook your meals at home. This saves our family a fortune.

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avatar 12 lynn

CeeCee, Does Aldi’s take coupons?

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avatar 13 Bobka

Unless it is for a product that I use regularly, I pass on all coupons that show up in the weekly circulars.. For things on my shopping list, I often comparison shop online first before leaving home using If a product is on sale nearby and is on my list, I then look for a printable coupon. Distance to the sale price is also a factor. Why spend in gas an amount greater than your savings either in sale pricing or by using coupons?

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avatar 14 lynn

BOBKA: Thank you for the name of the website to compare local stores. This information should save me some time. Following up looking for an online coupon is a great way to save time and money.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

I’ve never understood this. Money is a renewable resource. You can always make more of it, and $300 per month isn’t a HUGE savings. Perhaps it is to some families, and those families may have no other choice. But for people who don’t HAVE to do this to get by, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Money is renewable, but time is not.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

What, that makes no sense to me at all. As the saying goes, time is money, If I want $300 I just can’t sit around and wait for it to regrow from my money tree, I need to go out and work for it. Whether that’s taking on overtime, or a second job, getting that money will end up costing time.

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avatar 17 Donna Freedman

“Money is a renewable resource. You can always make more of it.”
Um, no, you can’t ALWAYS make more of it. If you’re unemployed in a job desert, if you’re sick, if you’re elderly, if you’re disabled — you can’t make one thin dime more. You can only adjust your spending to use the money you do have.
I get things cheaply or free with coupons because it helps me stretch my food/toiletries budget, and also because it lets me donate more items to food banks and emergency pantries. I don’t obsess over it, though.

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avatar 18 shellye

I am a bit of an extreme couponer, but will probably never save close to what those people on TV save because I’m also a neat freak who doesn’t like clutter and doesn’t hoard much of anything. I only spend an hour or two max per week cutting coupons (while I watch TV) or looking on the internet for deals (only on blogs that I subscribe to, that have the deals spelled out already). I work 40+ hours a week and do the extreme couponing thing more because it’s become somewhat of a mental game to see how little I can spend when I go into a store. It also works because I have a Target, Walgreen’s, CVS, WalMart and my grocery store all within a mile of each other and of me.

I do a lot of comparison shopping online before leaving home to save time and gas, but I don’t think we should quantify someone else’s time according to our own standards. If some person would rather save $300 per week using coupons instead of getting a part-time job, that’s their choice (although I hope that I’m not supporting their lifestyle habits through welfare or some such program). If I needed to cut back on expenses, I would lean toward extreme couponing before I’d rent a room out in my house. Extreme couponing is only a pain in the you-know-what to those people who don’t participate; not for those who do, IMHO.

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avatar 19 lynn

Well said SHELLYE. Like (most) everything else in life, it’s a choice.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

I admit I have taken up couponing again since watching the extreme couponing shows. My frustration is that in our rural area, we just don’t have as many hugely discounted sales from our grocery stores as they portray on tv. Only 1 store in our area doubles coupons and then only if they are under $1.00.

Matching sales and coupons, I can rarely save more than 25% on my bill. And, I do spend between 2-3 hrs on Sunday morning going through the circulars and printing online coupons, comparing them to the grocery ads to see where the best deals are.

If I really could save 80-90% on my bill like they show on tv, I would try harder. But, my time is valuable, too. I can’t spend 40-60 hrs a week couponing. I have a real job, lol. Also, many of the products they buy, I would never use and there are almost never coupons for healthy food – like chicken, fish, fruits & vegetables.

If you buy 200 pkgs of toothpaste, pay nothing for them, and donate to charity, good for you. If you just hoard them in your house, yes you got a great deal. but, do you really need 200? Less is more, people – lol.

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avatar 21 wylerassociate

I thought there was a similar article written a few months ago but extreme couponing is something I don’t get. I usually buy groceries at sam’s club or my local safeways or albertsons. I just don’t have the time or interest to do extreme couponing. I wonder how long this trend will continue.

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avatar 22 Anonymous

I’m glad that the negative sides of these extreme couponing are being exposed. The harsh reality is that in Canada, a lot of the time, the coupon’s are never allowed to be stacked in multiples, or sometimes cannot even be shared with the rest of the bill. The dreaded “Not valid with any other offer” is a common word gracing all coupons up here. So are we not allowed to use the coupons on a product that already has a sale, we cannot combine the coupon with another for the same product. There is no extreme couponing going on up here, how frustrating!!

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avatar 23 Cejay

I use coupons and it is for things my family will use and allows us to get the occasional treat. For example I always buy my pasta, spaghetti sauce, youghurt and beauty products on sale. I work a full time plus job, over 40 hours, but spend a little bit of time on Wed. and Saturday night getting those coupons together and away I go. Now I do shop several different store, CVS, Rite Aid, Publix, Kroger and Staples. But my couponing has allowed us to be able to do some things we would nto be able to afford if we spent $125.00 a week on groceries. It has also allowed us to help members of my family as they have fallen on bad luck. But I do not dumpster dive, clear shelves and always try to be courteous to the cashiers and others behind me.

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avatar 24 Anonymous

When I watch those shows, it makes me continually question why they buy so much – it is almost like hoarding! You don’t need 100 shampoos, so why buy 100, save a dollar on each, and say you “saved” $100. I would have been just as happy saving $1.

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avatar 25 Anonymous

I like deals, and use coupons, but not to this extreme.
Toothpaste lasts a long time, and six tubes in the closet takes little space. Same with bar soap, shampoo and toilet paper. We have closet space that would otherwise be empty.
My (12yr old) daughter made fun of the dozen jars of sauce I have in the pantry. Well, when I bought them, we were eating a lot of pasta. This was a few month’s worth of sauce, and with a late 2012 expiration, I was ok. Till we all cut down on carbs a bit….
It’s all about balance and sanity.

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avatar 26 Anonymous

As someone who regularly uses printable coupons or “Printapon” I think that the show Extreme couponing was not a true reading of how the regular shopper uses coupons. It appears to have been frightening to someone who does not use coupons at all

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avatar 27 Anonymous

I call myself a hardcore couponer vs. extreme. I buy only what I KNOW I/my family can/will use in canned, jarred, packaged, bottled stuff. For example, this week it is real Pine sol. It is on sale at a natl drug chain for $2. I have $1 coupons making it the SAME price as the dollar store and I so NOT like the dollar store version even though I do lik a couple other generic versions. Two bottles will last me a year/more. It will NOT go bad or expire.

Another store has a deal on canned tomatoes=0.39 each (better than Aldi’s0.59). This is a SUPER cheap price but I will NOT buy because:
It requires a purchase of 10 cans
I already have about 6 cans
It will be past the best by date before I can reasonably use it all.

I don’t even clip coupons for junk, snack, sugary (cookies, ice cream), overprocessed (Hamburger Helper anyone) foods until/unless I plan it in as a 1-2x/month treat.

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avatar 28 Anonymous

My husband has started watching “Extreme Couponing” and is agog at the insane savings these people “manufacture.” We’ve had many discussions about how these folks must have no free time if they’re spending 40-80 hours a week couponing, and we wonder just how legal their tactics are (especially when it comes to getting all those multiple coupons).

We also know that we’ll never be able to achieve the same level of savings, mainly because we don’t WANT or NEED the items we could get for free. I’m happy when I get toothpaste for $0.25 or laundry detergent for $0.50, but I don’t need to buy 20 of each in one shopping trip.

However, I do applaud those who truly have the time to coupon (i.e., not take away from quality family time) AND donate some of their booty to those less fortunate.

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avatar 29 Anonymous

If you’re ticked about the extreme couponers that you probably rarely, if ever, encounter, go to a different store. Find a store with a more stringent coupon policy. After all, it’s the grocery store that puts things on sale while the coupons are still valid. It’s the grocery store that gets paid to accept coupons. It’s the grocery store that determines their coupon policy. The ones with looser policies are populated with people who use coupons who may or may not be “extreme.” People who use coupons are just taking advantage of a business model they did not craft.

I hate to be the one to deliver the obvious here, but stores like it when they run out of product. They get in a new truckload of the stuff, and then that sells out quickly. They sell more, but at a lower margin. Lower prices equals higher demand.

Also, time spent couponing adds up to maybe 4 hours a week (if you aren’t out dumpster diving, which is nuts), which is a conservative estimate that assumes you are couponing for multiple stores. Making lists and doing the errands takes the most time. Clipping and organizing happen in small increments. The return on your time is good enough for most people, especially since this is after tax money.

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avatar 30 Anonymous

Hmm as a not so extreme couponer, I’d like to make some counter points. I feel I’ve actually picked up better habits even if I don’t have as much time to coupon lately.

1) I’ve learned to plan meals around the sale, rather than pick up things on a whim. So without even using a single coupon I’m already doing better because I’m buying more of what’s on sale. Plus with produce, what is on sale is usually what’s in season, meaning I’m getting fresher and more local options. Also I’ve been learned to expand my cooking a bit more. Rather than just get my favorite cuts of meat over and over, I’ve picked up new ones that were on sale, and learned new recipes and even found some new favorites.

2) Keeping a stockpile. This is mostly non perishable staples like soup stock, rice, pastas, beans, etc. This is a lot of what I find coupon deals for, whereas stuff like produce has less deals. Which tends to mean that any spoilage I do have usually comes from the non coupon stuff I would’ve bought anyways. Having a stockpile around is great because some days I just get back late from work. But instead of going out to eat, I can often whip something up quickly with what I already have on hand. Plus I don’t have to keep bargin hunting every trip, having a good stockpile means I can just buy what I need for the week, and wait for a good sale to come along later.

3) I’ve actually learned about the membership program to my drugstore. I’d always dismissed it as a marketing gimmick to try to hook you in, but now that I know how to play the game, I can use it to get many things that I need. For instance I’m fairly certain I’ll never need to pay for toothpaste again, it seems every month there’s another free* deal for some brand or another. True the free* part is getting the money back as essentially store credit, but as long as I was going to get something or fill a prescription anyways, it’s as good as cash.

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avatar 31 lynn

Excellent stratagy. You have discovered the balance of saving and being healthy in all aspects.

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avatar 32 Donna Freedman

Another point: The math gets even fuzzier when people buy coupons. (It’s illegal to buy them but the sellers say you’re paying for their time, not for the coupons.) If someone gets a dozen dollar-off coupons and they’re doubled to make a $2 item “free,” they’re not taking into consideration the time it took to look for the coupons and the money they spent to buy the coupons.
The prices are still pretty good. I’m just challenging the “free” assertion. And I agree that getting 30 jars of mustard free does NOT equal “saving” money on the mustard. How many jars of mustard do you need? Full disclosure: I have three bottles of the stuff in my cupboard, all free with coupons. I use mustard fairly often, but I’m not going to get more than I need just because I *can* get it.

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avatar 33 Anonymous

If it is for a product I know, ok, but I pass on most coupons that show up in the mailbox.
Coupon products are sometimes not cheaper than they normally are. It can be a marketing trick.
Every once in a while it’s really worth it though

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avatar 34 Anonymous

What I’d like for people to think about is impact on the environment that this extreme couponing creates. If you buy dozens, hundreds, or whatever the amount is of a product you don’t need that much of – you are negatively impacting the environment. It takes many resources to create these things – for example – think of the water used to process mustard, the plastics involved in the mustard bottle, the oil consumed to run the trucks to deliver the product. When you purchase more of anything than you need, you create false inventory demand, thus putting a drain on the environment. If you have children, think about this. And for those who say “hey, it means jobs.” Perhaps, but perhaps not. There comes a time when we must decide what is more important – keeping the Earth as healthy as we can, or saving $100 a month at the grocery store. I chose a healthy Earth.

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avatar 35 lynn

Each of the comments have a valid point or two. This has been an interesting article, as well.

This is what I know. 1. We need to be good stewarts of all of our resources. 2. I also know moderation in all things is key to a healthy life. Create from these two foundations, and you have a sucessful formula.

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avatar 36 Anonymous

Between deal sites, coupons, cash back sites/cards, and discount gift cards, we saved about $2K total on a new media center with TV, speakers, receiver, and bluray player, on a new king size storage bed with two night stands, and on a new dining room table with chairs. We went for quality and classic style and expect this to last us at least the next 10 years. Incidentally, we replaced the old stuff (e.g. tv, stereo, bed) much of which we’ve had for between 8-15 years, and sold it all on craigslist.

It is not something we spend money on frequently, but If you know the ins and outs, you can be frugal. It was incredible what you can save if you have some flexibility and do some online research.

However, regarding extreme couponing, I think there are diminishing returns on low value purchases for the amount of effort spent, especially as many coupons have limits. I thought that since the above worked for us we could translate that to everyday needs, but that was hit and miss. Also, most coupons were for things we wouldn’t normally buy. Instead, I think you would be better off strategically targeting key items that you frequently buy, purchase them in large volumes when on sale, and store them until used.

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