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Money April 2014

Dollar Sense

Shopping with Coupons is Not Saving Pennies: Some Take it to the Extreme

By Teresa Ambord

Often, these people shop for the sole purpose of donating massive quantities of items to food banks, rescue missions, and other charities. In one episode, a shopper purchased over $900 in goods, for $25 and donated it all to the Ronald McDonald House.

Coupons aren’t new, but as the economy continues to wobble, they are growing in popularity, as a way to stretch the food budget. I still remember my wealthy aunt using coupons back in the 1970s. She didn’t need the discount but saw no reason to pay more than necessary. After all, she didn’t get wealthy by being reckless with money.

Today, some people have actually turned coupon redemption into a full- time job, and an obsession. Fueling that fire is a reality TV show called “Extreme Couponing.”


Extreme Couponing

I was interested in this show when it first came out. The idea of getting hundreds of dollars in groceries for almost nothing was compelling. But soon I realized every episode is basically the same. There’s a formula which varies little, and, as with most reality TV shows, the producers add trumped- up dilemmas, deadlines, and drama.


Here’s the premise of the show:    

Extreme couponer (we’ll call her Sue) explains how she began couponing after she lost her job and needed to trim expenses. Soon she became obsessed as she realized, with enough effort (make that, a lot of effort) she could slash her food/sundries bill to almost nothing, and still have plenty of goods to share. The downside was, her growing stockpile of coupons and purchases took over her garage, her guest room, and her life. Still… she loves it.

At the store, accompanied by helpers, she spends hours loading many baskets full. After the cashier rings up the haul, she says something like, “The total is $760.29. Do you have any coupons today?” Sue hands her stacks and stacks of coupons, which the cashier enters one at a time. We watch as the total ticks down, down, down. But wait! The computer is overwhelmed and the total stops dropping. Sue panics. “I didn’t bring enough money to pay for all this!” she frets. Then the manager is called forth, the glitch is mended, and all is well. In the end, the cashier says, “Your total today is $1.68.”

Not bad, for over $700 in purchases. I no longer watch, because I don’t like the predictability, but I do greatly admire what these women (and a few men) do. Manufacturers issue coupons all the time, but according to the show, 99% of them are never redeemed. For the right person, this can be a great thing.


Where Do They Get the Coupons?

Many people find coupons online, at sites like or But contrary to popular belief, 90% of all coupons still come in newspapers or magazines, according to Extreme Couponing. You can also go to the manufacturer’s website, like Procter & Gamble, to see what’s available, or even ask on the website for coupons. On the show, many extreme couponers have friends, family, neighbors, church and other group members who save coupons for them, and/or swap coupons.


With All that Said…We’re Not All Cut Out for Coupon Craziness

First, it’s clear from the show that to get your groceries for almost nothing, you have to rely heavily on double coupon deals. I live in California where double coupon deals are nearly as common as unicorns. Also…

  • The time it takes is at least equivalent to a full-time job.
  • Your organizational skills have to be well-honed. The participants on the show have giant binders full of coupons, organized to ensure they maximize savings by matching coupons with store sales, and never let a coupon expire. Many use sophisticated spreadsheets to keep track of details.
  • A great deal of storage space is required for a stockpile of goods. Extremists end up with hundreds of rolls of paper towels, containers of deodorant, boxes of feminine products, etc. In other words, forget parking the car in the garage, and several guests might have to share one bedroom.
  • You may have to be willing at times to do nutty things. Like climb in a dumpster to retrieve newspapers loaded with coupons, or hold up a grocery line to argue with a cashier over a penny… literally.



Though I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to be an extreme couponer, I bow to their hard work and organization. Plus, often, these people shop for the sole purpose of donating massive quantities of items to food banks, rescue missions, and other charities. In one episode, a shopper purchased over $900 in goods, for $25 and donated it all to the Ronald McDonald House.

I’m not in their league, but I can dabble in coupon charity. My favorite store has frequent giveaways of new products, usually worth a few dollars each. Even if it’s not a product I use, I take them and donate them to a local food bank. I also clip high value coupons for common items like diapers, and dog food brands I don’t use. Then when I shop, I leave the coupons on the appropriate aisle, in the hope someone else can use them.

We all love deals, and most of us can’t or don’t want to be extreme couponers. But don’t turn your nose up at a coupon for items you normally buy. Doing that truly is throwing money away. As the saying goes, “look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves.”


Insider Savings Secret from Grocery Employees

If you want to scoop up more savings at the grocery store but don’t want to go to join the extremists, check out these tips. Reader’s Digest was kind enough to ask grocery store employees for insider secrets about saving money in their stores.


Bakery and Meat Department

Contributor Teri Gault said: if you see an item in the meat department or bakery and notice the expiration date is tomorrow, ask an employee of the department if he or she will go ahead and mark it down for you. “You’re really doing them a favor, since they have to unload it anyway.” Gault also reports that butchers in most stores mark down meats between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.


Deli Case/ Meat Department

Bradley McHugh told Reader’s Digest he has tasted every item in his store’s deli. “There’s very little difference between what is prepackaged and what we slice fresh. A lot of times, they are the exact same product.” But, he adds, the “sliced fresh” items often cost an extra $1 or $2 per pound.

McHugh provides another helpful tip. “We can cut a chuck roast into stew cubes, a whole  boneless strip loin into New York strip steaks, or a flank steak into stir-fry strips. We’ve had people buy one big roast and have us remove the bone for soup, run half of it through the grinder for hamburger, and cut the rest into a pot roast.” How much can you save buying this way instead of already cut meat? About 30%, says McHugh. Not bad!


When to Shop

According to research, shoppers buy more when the store is crowded. Somehow it makes them feel “part of the group.” Or maybe they take less time to consider their purchases. Either way, Phil Lempert reports that Monday and Tuesday are the best days to shop, and weekends are the worst.

Read more: 020314#ixzz2sHljHXEq


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa