Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lessons from Extreme Couponing

Last night, I watched Extreme Couponing for the third or fourth time. You may have, too.

The premise of the show is that there are people (so far I've only seen women) who spend 20-40 hours a week clipping and collecting coupons. They develop elaborate filing systems which culminate in shopping trips where the the grocery in the hundreds of dollars. By the time the store deducts all their coupons for the products they've bought, their "purchases" are either free or negligible in cost. Last night, one example had a $1,200 total but the woman paid less than $50 and almost crashed the checkout computer.

These same women also have pantries the size of an average bedroom with shelves to the ceiling around the parameter of the room and in rows in the center. One of last night's ladies bragged of 60 boxes of cake mix...enough to bake birthday cakes for her six immediate family members for years...long past the expiration dates on the packages.

The first time I watched the show, I felt almost lazy that I, too, was not couponing to this degree. After all, frugality is a virtue but is it frugality to buy 40 bottles of hot sauce because the coupon is $1.00 off plus the store doubling that amount? The next couple of times, I felt a vague unease. Last night, I realized why and these are the lessons I took away from this experience.

FIRST, this is a form of hoarding. Maybe, at the level these ladies are collecting all these products, it is not yet to the level of illness but it definitely shares some characteristics. Their couponing has changed their lifestyle to accommodate the "rush" they admit to experiencing. Some reported feeling "uncomfortable" if they are unable to use a coupon they have collected in their file. Another described a warm secure feeling she got knowing she could provide for her family and friends from her "stash".

SECOND lesson: their buying patterns are dictated, directly or indirectly, by advertising. I noticed they use several different brands of toothpaste, cleaning products, etc. They have bought into the notion that everyone in the household needs a different brand of grooming products and every cleaning task requires a different cleaning product. We see the same influence when someone says, "Oh, you have to see this movie!" or "You can't miss this t.v. show!" or "I only wear X brand of shoes!" They have allowed someone whom they've never seen face to face dictate their choices.

THIRD: the food products they are buying are usually processed foods: mixes, carbonated drinks, etc. The food products are seldom milk, meat, or fresh fruits and vegetables. I have not seen one yet who showed you a filled freezer. I have yet, in fact, seen a single one stop in the produce department of the store or the butchered meat department. The next biggest group they are buying are cleaning products, one for each task. One lady admitted to buying a certain cleaning product she gives away because the coupon when doubled pays for something she really wants. And, I haven't even discussed the snacks and candies, what we in our family call "junk food."

FOURTH: the rush they feel is always about how they got "something for nothing". That's very different from reducing the price of a purchase you would have made from need by using a coupon or even waiting for double coupon day. Yes, they have spent many hours collecting and collating their coupons and planning their shopping and that's work. But, the end goal was how to get something for nothing. One lady was very proud of having bought so many sports drinks (400 for a family of six) that she had to call the store ahead to be sure they had them on hand. The store had double coupon day. The drinks were $1.49; her coupon was for a $1.00 so for every drink she bought, the store was "paying" her $.51.

LASTLY: I was reminded of a sermon preached by Jim Speed in the early 1980s. He was preaching on the topic of the first Commandment. "The Lord God is one God and thou shall have no other gods before Him." He defined worship of other gods as allowing anything or anyone else to have first priority in our lives. He told the story of the man who bought a very expensive piece of art to celebrate his success. Because the art work was worth tens of thousands of dollars, he then had to insure it. The insurance company required he install a house safe and an alarm system and rent a safe deposit box for when he was going out of town. Then, he found himself being very uncomfortable when people beyond the family members were in the house.

Finally, when he found himself being uncomfortable when the meter reader or the pool cleaner were on the grounds; he sold the art piece. It had become his god. Jim's point was that anything which requires a massive lifestyle change to sustain that article or activity, we are verging on idol worship. I'm not accusing these ladies of idol worship but their behaviors reminded me of a sermon I heard thirty years ago.

My final conclusion was that I am one of those persons for whom extreme couponing could easily become a serious personality problem if not a sin.

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