Extreme Couponing: Are the Savings Worth It? Part 1 of 2, How They Do It

In December 2010, television network TLC aired an hour-long special called Extreme Couponing. The show profiled four individuals who make extensive use of coupons to get massive quantities of grocery store items for little to no money.

If you've ever wanted to know how those people who claim to get groceries for 90%-100% off do it, Extreme Couponing will show you how. But in case you missed it, here's a recap. The four couponers profiled on the show are as follows (all information provided here comes from TLC's Extreme Couponing special):

1. Amanda Ostrowski says she spends 70 hours a week couponing in addition to her full time job. She reads about deals online and buys her coupons from online coupon clipping services. On Mondays she spends 6 hours walking around stores grocery stores to check sales and plan her weekly shopping trip.

Ostrowski has an entire room of her house dedicated to stockpiling the items she acquires with coupons and has $35,000 of insurance on the loot, which is starting to spill into a second room. Her stash includes 3,000 rolls of toilet paper that took her 3.5 years to accumulate.

The show follows her through a trip to Kroger where she puts together nine shopping carts full of 150 candy bars, 218 boxes of pasta, numerous sports drinks and piles of prepackaged meals, among other items. The total cost for the 3.5 hour shopping trip comes to $1,175 before coupons and $51.67 after coupons.

Ostrowski says she is a shopaholic and her couponing adventures are fun. But in addition to the hours of shopping, it takes her hours to check out. On the show, the cash register crashes from exceeding its 1,000-scan limit. Her entire order then has to be split up and re-rung across three registers, and it takes two vehicles to get everything home.

2. Self-proclaimed Krazy Coupon Lady Joanie Demer is 27 and lives in northern California. She collects 500 coupons a week and is willing to dumpster dive to get them. She is a stay-at-home mom who spends many hours a day couponing and says that it's like a full-time job. Her husband says it's an addiction that has taken over her life.

Demer's grocery stockpile contains a year's worth of food. When she moved across the country, she moved 1,000 pounds of stockpiled food with her. She shops at Safeway three times a week and keeps her stockpile and her coupons hyper-organized.

The show follows her on a trip to the store where she purchases four cartfuls of food for $2.64, saving a total of $638.64. She tries to stock up on three months' worth of an item whenever it goes on sale because that's how long it will usually be until the item is on sale again (by this, she means the best possible sale--the same items go on sale repeatedly, but the sale price fluctuates).

Early on in her couponing days, Demer's family fell on hard times. Her husband lost his job, they had to sell their house and her daughter had to go to the hospital. Her family had no extra money, but they were able to live off of her stockpile of food.

3. Joyce House, "Ms. Coupon Diva," asks her neighbors for coupons. She combines coupon collecting with exercise--every day, starting at 6 am, she begins a 2-hour, 7-mile walk through her neighborhood to collect coupons out of people’s recycle bins, from businesses, and from other people who save their unwanted coupons for her. She says she gets $200 in coupons a day this way.

House was once a young, single mother and learned how to use coupons at 15 out of necessity. Now, decades later, she is a retired nurse who credits her couponing skills with helping her to be debt-free. House also teaches other people how to use coupons and even re-shops for people in the grocery store when she sees them wasting money.

Unlike some extreme couponers who will buy anything just because it's a steal, Joyce only buys what she truly needs. On the show, she purchases $230.38 worth of groceries for $6.32, most of which is the cost of a whole chicken.

4. Finally, the show introduces viewers to a couponing man, Nathan Engels, who is known as "Mr. Coupon" and lives in Kentucky. He says he looks at shopping as a chess game where the opponent is the store. His two-car garage actually looks like a grocery store: it contains 10,000 items, including 40 pounds of chicken, 50 pounds of cheese, three years' worth of toilet paper, and numerous other items. He estimates that he paid about $1,000 to acquire the all the stuff, which he values at $50,000-$75,000. Engels acquires his coupons by purchasing ten newspapers a week and buying coupons from coupon clipping services. It's not uncommon for him to spend four or five hours on a single shopping trip, and the store employees know him.

The show follows him through a purchase that includes 60 handsoaps purchased for 30 cents each and 1,000 boxes of Total cereal that he called the store to special order and purchases with coupons he got online. All in all, he purchases 2,000 items, including 1,100 boxes of cereal, 300 toothbrushes, 200 containers of dental floss, and dozens of deodorants and bottles of flavored water, all of which requires three separate purchase transactions. The grand total comes to $5,743 before coupons. He pays $241 and has to attach a trailer to the back of his vehicle to get everything home. He then waits for a local food bank to come to his house to pick up the cereal, and he says he also donates free food items to his church's food bank. Engels says he enjoys the process and credits couponing with helping him get out of $17,000 in credit card and auto loan debt.

Presumably, these four individuals represent some of the most extreme coupon users out there--someone who saves 33% or 50% using coupons isn't going to be interesting enough for a television special. Stay tuned for part two of my two-post series on extreme couponing, where I analyze whether extreme couponing tactics are really worth the time and effort for the average person.

Photo by sdc2027

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