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Extreme Couponing Meets Extreme Production in Reality TV

This post was originally published on December 30, 2010, after TLC’s Extreme Couponing first aired. With the advent of a Thornton, Colorado King Soopers shopper being featured on the show’s second season last night, I thought it might be a good time to repost this article for some perspective on the un-reality of this popular reality show about coupons.

By now you’ve either watched, or heard about the Extreme Couponing special TLC aired on Wednesday night. It’s been all the talk about money-saving blogs like this one, and even made it to a trending topic on Twitter briefly.

The show features four so-called “extreme couponers”, who all seem to have slightly different styles and strategies.

  • Nathan buys over 1,000 boxes of cereal and donates it to his church.
  • Joanie dumpster dives for coupons.
  • Amanda admits to having cancelled plans with family and friends to go coupon shopping.
  • Joyce showed her friends how to save big with coupons.

Many people – both coupon users and non-couponers – were shocked and appalled at some of the things revealed in the show. Storing enough toilet paper to last for 30 years? Carrying insurance on your food stockpile? Using thousands of coupons at the checkout?

People who don’t use coupons are asking Is this how everyone who uses coupons behaves?

And those of us who do coupon shop are saying how on earth is that possible? I could never use that many coupons at the checkout!

So, here’s the actual reality behind the “reality” TV show Extreme Couponing:

You cannot use 1,000 coupons in one transaction.

The scenario of using over 1,000 coupons in a single transaction and taking two hours to check out is simply not realistic. I’m about 99.99% sure this was only done for reality TV.

Almost all stores have a limit of the number of coupons you can use in one transaction, and for good reason. Expecting to use that many coupons in one transaction is simply unrealistic and extremely exaggerated. This was made for TV.

You cannot get four carts of groceries for $2.50 every single day.

Yes, with careful planning and a generous supply of coupons, you can get carts full of groceries for pennies on the dollar. However, it is not possible to do that every single time you go to the grocery store.

It’s fun to showcase those amazing shopping trips, but even extreme couponers don’t get that much stuff for that little every day.

Coupons cost money.

Almost no one mentions that most people pay something get coupons, whether it be a newspaper subscription, or ordering coupons online through a clipping service (which I believe is not ethical due to the terms on most coupons, but that’s neither here nor there).

You can get free coupons by dumpster diving or trading with friends, but most people spend at least a few dollars every week buying extra newspapers to get the coupons or something similar.

No one ever mentions that in order for someone to get $500 worth of groceries for $50, they also spend $20 to obtain coupons before they ever got to the store. That doesn’t make for sensational saving stories.

You can’t eat deodorant and toilet paper.

OK, from my understanding, there actually was a showing about someone eating toilet paper right after the Extreme Couponing segment. But let’s wipe that memory from our mind and remember that you do have to eat something other than deodorant and toilet paper.

One couponer had a huge stockpile of salad dressing. That’s awesome – I love free salad dressing! But, in order for that dressing to actually be useful, you’d need to buy, you know, salad.

I didn’t watch the show (we’re so frugal we don’t have cable, which might be its own reality show: Extreme People Without TV) but I haven’t heard that they showed the extreme couponer getting carts of lettuce for free.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t get lettuce for free. I’ve definitely gotten some free fruits and vegetables before with the smart matching of coupons and sales, but it’s not the norm.

There are many foods you can get for cheap with coupons, but it’s rarely a well-rounded diet. Even extreme couponers need to spend money on meat, dairy, and produce, even if they get the rest for free. Then again, I suppose you could only eat the macaroni and cheese you got for free, but even that would require milk and butter.

Just remember that they didn’t follow these people 24/7 to show what their families were eating. They do make purchases that aren’t 90% off, but that doesn’t make for good TV.

Donating is great, but leave some for the rest of us.

I love getting non-perishable foods and toiletries for free and donating to a food pantry. But when it comes to taking the entire stock that a store has just so you can donate, that’s gone too far. It’s bad for the store, the manufacturer, and the rest of the consumers which might actually be couponing because they can’t afford to pay full price.

To be sure, I’ve bought 10 or 15 or 20 of an item at once time to stock my pantry for a few months. But it’s never a good idea to completely clear the shelf just so you can donate it.

Extreme couponers get banned from stores.

If someone shopped in this extreme couponing manner at just about any store in the United States, they would eventually be banned from the store. Most people never have to worry about this, but if you take 2 hours to check out and crash the computer system, they aren’t going to let you shop there every day.

Yes, I’ve heard of people who have been banned, and I believe they deserved it. They tried to do stuff that was illegal, and if not illegal, simply unethical. They were rude when the store wouldn’t accept a coupon, and made a public scene.

Now, I don’t think the people in the show were not doing anything illegal or unethical. But, aside from wanting to look good on reality TV, a store would never have allowed that kind of shopping.

Couponing can save money without ruining your life.

I’m a huge believer in the power of coupons to save money in all areas of life. After all, I created Grocery University, which is a nearly 2.5 hour course that teaches how to use coupons strategically to save money.

By investing a little bit of time each week (how much you spend is up to you!), you can save big money with coupons. In fact, my goal (which I usually hit, but not always) is to save 50% on my total bill. I often hit a lot more than that, but it doesn’t require spending 70 hours clipping coupons and going to stores.

My husband isn’t mad about the amount of space my stockpile takes up. Cashiers don’t dread seeing me coming because I’m going to make everyone in line mad with how long it takes me to checkout.

My family’s life is better because I use coupons.

Reality TV is not reality.

Again, I haven’t seen the show, though I’m hoping to soon. But I would bet that a good percentage of it was extremely exaggerated just for “reality” TV.

A blog reader said that the dumpster diving lady was told to get in the dumpster instead of just searching through the papers from the side as she normally does. Dumpster diving is a whole lot more exciting when you’re inside the dumpster with your kids, even if that’s not what she actually does.

Hopefully by now you knew that reality TV is not reality.

Couponing can save big bucks. I can teach you how to do it, but it won’t be exciting enough for a TLC segment anytime soon.

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