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'Extreme Couponing' - an Austin couponer's take

Dale Roe, On TV

Staff Writer
Austin 360

If you've got Popeye arms from lugging around a binder the weight of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you might be an extreme couponer.

If your kids have to move pallets loaded with cereal boxes, detergent boxes and juice boxes to get on their Xboxes, you might be an extreme couponer.

Here's a phrase I never thought I'd write: "Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy" (hey, swiping the comic's "redneck" shtick worked better than borrowing Yakov Smirnoff's — "In Russia, coupons redeem you").

I don't want to insult any extreme couponers, and that's not just because I think the arm muscles they've developed by lugging around those binders could deliver a prodigious punch. The fact is that couponing, like many things, makes sense in moderation, especially in today's economy. But you'll be hard pressed to find any sense of moderation in "Extreme Couponing," the TLC series that's just been renewed for a second season.

The show follows men and women (mostly women) as they plan financial assaults on grocery stores with military precision. They take their children and pregnant friends on Dumpster-diving excursions, retrieving discarded advertising circulars from recycling bins, then clipping and cross-indexing offers. They take extreme advantage of store rewards and coupon doubling. They subscribe to online coupon services and swap deal information with other couponers. They make information-gathering reconnaissance missions to supermarkets. They argue with their spouses before and during shopping excursions, occasionally melting down after hours in the checkout line at those trips' conclusions.

And they stockpile stuff — lots of stuff — so much stuff that the dozens of boxes of ramen noodles and countless bottles of hand sanitizer begin to creep out of their pantries and into spare rooms, children's rooms, garages and, much to spousal chagrin, man caves.

That's not to say that the collecting of coupons, pre-emptory store visits for planning and meticulous number-crunching can't pay off — it's not unusual to see individuals on the show reduce checkout bills of more than $1,000 to just a couple of dollars or pennies. In some cases, the stores actually end up paying the shoppers to haul cart after cart full of products from their stores.

Austinite Samantha Rose, who co-wrote the book "How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something for Nothing" with Kathy Spencer, (2010, Perseus Books Group) admits to being a converted couponer, but not an "extreme" one.

"I'm not shoving food under people's beds, no," Rose says.

But with four children, including two teenage stepsons who "eat an extraordinary amount of food," Rose has applied the strategies she learned while researching the book to reduce her own weekly grocery bill from more than $200 to around $75.

She admits that she used to buy into the stereotypes many people associate with coupon users. "I'd never used a coupon until I started writing this book, and I definitely had some snobby ideas about who used coupons," she says. Rose didn't want to hold up checkout lines — to be "that woman with the coupons." Now she won't go grocery shopping without them.

And while Rose would never be mistaken for one of the show's subjects, she does admit to a bit of stockpiling. She no longer pays for toiletries and bathroom necessities — toilet paper, cotton swabs, mouthwash and bandages. With coupons, she can easily get those items for free.

"I have enough body wash, deodorant and toothpaste, probably, to get my stepkids through high school," she says.

It's too early to gauge whether "Extreme Couponing," which premiered in April, has had any measurable effect — positive or negative— on the practice of coupon redemption. Regional grocer H-E-B would only say it "has seen an increase in the use of couponing over the past few years" and encourages the practice by providing manufacturers' coupons to customers throughout the store.

Rose, though, thinks that the extreme personalities TLC profiles on the program are having a negative effect — and just when online services such as Groupon and Living Social, she says, were beginning to make saving "sexy."

"They're bringing on larger-than-life characters who have a bit of neurotic personalities," Rose says. "They want people to score multiple carriages of stuff, piled high. It's made couponers look like hoarders."

Commenters in couponing blog forums — couponers themselves — seem to agree. They express disbelief that anybody would need 77 bottles of mustard and predict that the show's subjects will find themselves divorced in 10 years beneath mountains of expired junk. "Dude," one comment read, "the lady bought 45 boxes of cake mix. 45! If that's not hoarding nothing is."

Though Rose's book teaches many of the tactics the show's subjects employ in their quests for savings, she says it's possible to use coupons in a reasonable way.

"You don't have to become some kind of obsessive-compulsive weirdo who has to move out their family because they don't have enough room to store all their boxes of Cap'n Crunch," she says. "You can maintain some level of dignity."

Some of that dignity is displayed on the show by shoppers who exchange coupons for scads of stuff they don't need and, instead of stockpiling, donate items to charity groups or troops serving overseas.

"I think that does bring some integrity back to the whole process," Rose says. "I do have two teenage stepsons who will benefit from smelling nice, but you do get to a point where it's like, well, it's free, so I guess I should take it, but I don't really need it. And I think that's when giving to a local shelter, food pantry, soup kitchens ... there are tons of organizations that would gladly take your donations."

And, despite the high stress created by the couponers' intense focus on math, organization and strategy, saving money can be fun.

"It's a game, in a way. It's kind of like going to Vegas," Rose says. "It's a thrill to realize you can get so much more for less."

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923

'Extreme Couponing'

8 p.m. Wednesday

TLC