Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"Driven to score": Desire, pride and consuming to save through extreme couponing

 A woman and her stockpile, image via TLC

Ah... the gym. Great for getting into shape, relieving the stresses of everyday life, improving one's well-being, and... indulging in the guilty pleasure of reality tv shows.

The latter, at least for me, is just one of the many bonuses of hitting up the elliptical machine a few times a week after a hard day's work or a weekend of lounging around the house. My trips to the gym often happen to occur around the afternoon and evening showing of some of television land's best junk programming (Keeping up with the Kardashians, Say Yes to the Dress, and Jersey Shore are three such shows that come to mind).

One recent dose of reality tv du jour was a rerun of TLC's Extreme Couponing. If you aren't familiar with the show, here's the lowdown (by the way, where have you been? doing constructive things with your life?) An hour-long episode typically follows three or four "extreme" couponers (people who basically take everyday couponing to a whole new and quite obsessive level) on their journeys of couponing success, from the clipping and strategizing to the shopping, purchasing, and storing of goods. The show details the who, what, why, when and how of each person's couponing habits. It tells viewers a little bit about the individual's background and personality, and what life experiences and lifestyle desires have led her or him (usually her) to form a hobby (or self-proclaimed obsession) out of couponing. It showcases the types of products the individual likes to buy, and how and where the products are stored in the home. The individual's couponing and procurement strategy, including the clipping and storing of coupons, the planning of shopping trips, the enlistment of couponing assistants, the mitigation of obstacles, etc., are also discussed in detail.

After the extreme couponer is introduced, the show typically segues into the beginning of some sort of purposeful shopping trip planned by the couponer, during which they will showcase the finest in extreme couponing prowess and strategy. The individual is followed from beginning to end as they prepare for and execute the trip. Of the four individuals featured on the particular episode I watched, each had a specific intent for their trip. There was the pregnant woman referred to by her husband-assistant as "Coupon Mom", whose goal was to save enough money from couponing to pay off an old medical bill. A second woman named Amanda attempted to purchase the food for her sister's baby shower without going over her $60 budget. Kelly, a basketball coach for a young girls' team, needed to provide food for an after-game get-together. And lastly, a boy of around 10 years of age (yep) named Sam was going through his couponing rite de passage (a term used by his family) by going out on his first ever shopping trip, for which he planned the couponing strategy himself (as "elders" of sorts, his father and grandfather were passing on the tradition of their self-proclaimed "couponing dynasty" and were there for support and guidance).

 A binder full of coupons, image via Katy Couponers

Consumable trophies, image via College Couponer

"When I see a coupon, I see currency, I see presidents, I see cash." - extreme couponer Amanda
Admittedly, I've only seen a few episodes of this show ever (for a sample size of about 10-12 couponers), but I've noticed a few commonalities shared by these frugal folks. Here are some of the recurring themes I picked up on:
  • A desire to save lots and lots of money from couponing, more than the average thrifty shopper would ever imagine saving in just one shopping trip, often for a specific purpose or future purchase, or in the name of fulfilling obligations to support the family (the amount saved can sometimes total up to 90% of a bill reaching almost $1,000 at the checkout of the local grocery store)
  • A commitment of tens of hours to the entire couponing/shopping process
  • Thoughtful calculation of fairly accurate predictions of how much money will be saved/spent during the entire process
  • Elaborate systems for clipping, sorting, organizing and storing coupons in binders filled with the kind of plastic sleeves commonly used for keeping baseball or Magic the Gathering cards
  • Similarly organized systems for storing and displaying goods as though they are consumable trophies (one woman even put Sticky Notes on her stash of products to keep track of quantity and remind her when she needed to buy more of a specific item)
  • A refusal to let anything get in the way of achieving their goal of saving a ton of money (be it friends, family members, uncooperative cash registers or coupon codes, and other barriers)
  • Assistants (friends, family members, children) who help most often during the actual shopping trip by locating items for which the couponer has coupons, placing said items into the multiple shopping carts (yes, that's plural) they are pushing around the store, and providing moral support in the event that there aren't enough boxes of brown sugar on the shelves or the coupons aren't entering properly into the cash register computer 
  • Massive stockpiles (which basically amount to hoarding) of thousands of mostly processed and manufactured goods worth anywhere from $4,000 to over $15,000, comprised of goods ranging from toilet paper to spaghetti sauce to toothbrushes, and stored in the attics, basements and other rooms of their homes
  • A desire to prepare for the future by stocking up on goods that will support their families for months (years?) to come
  • A tendency to express a sense of angst or fear when things don't go as planned ("I'm going to have an anxiety attack. I really am.", "I'm a hot mess right now.")
  • The use of language characterizing the couponing and shopping experience as a major obstacle to overcome or to "take on", as in "taking on the cash register" and "take down the super market" (the narrator of the show also often describes their actions in this way)
  • A sense of uncertainty that, even after careful planning for their shopping extravaganza, that the coupons won't work or that they won't end up saving as much money as planned
  • A feeling of elation, ecstasy, success and relief from the thrill of the hunt during the shopping experience and from viewing the final price and total discount on the register after all of the coupons have been scanned ("I'm in heaven! Yay!", "It makes me feel relieved that I saved [over $300]".)
  • A sense of pride, ownership and power in the accomplishment of the feat of planning and executing large, complex purchases of goods ("This is fun and I'm the boss!")
  • Elements of both denial and acceptance of the obsessive nature of their hobby ("It's not like 20 boxes is really an obsessive amount", "I'm addicted to them like I am couponing!")
Success! Image via NYDailyNews.com
Another thing I have noticed, though it's not always the case for every extreme couponer featured, is that many are driven by the perception that saving on purchases through extreme couponing is a form of saving money. Yes, that's typically what coupons are for. However, their habits are often characterized by the mantra of consuming to save (which seems like an oxymoron), or consuming to pay debt (as in the case of Coupon Mom, who needed to pay off a past-due medical bill). But do they actually end up using all of those goods? What happens to the stuff that expires? And, how can one "save" money by spending more, especially on such an excessive amount of supposedly "necessary" goods? What is the point if, in the end, you're just going to use the money you "save" to buy more stuff? And what are you really going to do with 216 bottles of lotion? Dump it all in a bath tub and go for a swim? 

But enough joking and back to the critical analysis. Amanda, the woman purchasing the food for her sister's baby shower, admitting to having a previous addition to shopping. She perceived her newfound hobby of extreme couponing to be a healthy alternative, when the outside observer might consider it to be an replacement addition of equal concern. Sam, the young kid who had been enculturated by his father and grandfather with the values of couponing, said of his father: "[It makes my dad happy because it saves my dad more money so he can buy more stuff."

The other difference I noticed was the variation in reactions and responses of the people in the couponers' support networks. Some friends and family members seem supportive of their hobbies, while others jokingly mock the obsessions of their loved ones. Some of them benefit from the couponers' hard work (Amanda did all the shopping for her sister's baby shower), while others are negatively affected (e.g. their personal belongings are displaced by the expansion of the storage area designated for procured goods). For a more specific example, after she stuffed the last remaining section of her husband's clothing into a garbage bag, hangars and all, Coupon Mom asked rhetorically, and perhaps even seriously, "What would he rather have, clothes or products?" Earlier, when she and her husband were shopping, she reprimanded him for not being a good assistant when he accidentally grabbed a large number of instant noodle packages that happened to be the wrong brand.


That's about the end of my observations and thoughts on the intriguing display of consumption, desire, and lifestyle choices that is Extreme Couponers. Given my fascination with the sociocultural implications of such portrayals of extreme behavior in American society, I may do a similar post again in the future. In fact, I would so enjoy the opportunity to do ethnographic fieldwork with extreme couponers to further understand the why behind their hobbies (along with some analysis of the systemic phenomena associated with such practices), especially since TLC only has about 40 minutes each episode to present what they capture on camera (and the "realism" of such shows is questionable). Who knows how different the picture would look (literally and figuratively) behind the scenes.

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