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“Didn't you already watch this?”
My husband, Chris, is trying to understand why I stopped flipping channels, yet again, in order to stare slack-jawed at a woman filling a shopping cart with mustard. She is an Extreme Couponer, and that mustard is going to be free, and therefore she is going to buy all of it. She clears the shelves, and I see red.
“NO ONE NEEDS THAT MUCH MUSTARD! HER HUSBAND DOESN'T EVEN EAT MUSTARD!” I squawk, with a rage I usually reserve for people who are wrong on the Internet and those parked in multiple spaces even though their car isn't even that nice anyway and who do you think you ARE, exactly?
“There is something absolutely wrong with this woman.”
My reaction to TLC's "Extreme Couponing" show was, I think, rational and relatable. Opinions of people I talk to about couponing, and much of the reaction I've seen online, have been similar to mine: These people are crazy. The amount of time and effort you need to spend on this weird obsession is not worth the 50 bottles of laundry detergent you have now built a bomb shelter to store in.
My time is worth money, and I'd rather spend more money on groceries and less time on cutting up newspapers. If you look at my Facebook feed from around the time my husband and I had the above interaction, I probably made five separate posts about couponing being an excuse to hoard. I'm pretty sure I made a joke about a “Hoarders/Extreme Couponers” cross-over episode hosted by the specialists from A&E's "Intervention". Those jokes taunt me now, as I organize my coupon binder for my bi-weekly grocery shop.
I fell into couponing the way I started smoking at 15: Someone handed me JUST ONE and I was done for. Also, it was peer pressure that eventually did it. My best friend and her mother coupon. They go to the grocery store together, and kind of bond over the competition of it. They plan out what they're buying and like to look over their receipts to see how well they did. She would mention it to me, I would tell her I was too busy for that shit, and we would talk about other things.
Then in early October of last year, she mentioned her mom had been able to get things like Aleve and Tylenol this way. We go through a lot of Advil in my house, and Chris uses Arnica gel almost daily. It's expensive, and there just so happened to be a high-value coupon for it in the paper that week. She gave me the coupons she had clipped for it, I bought two newspapers, and somehow the next day I had 6 tubes of $11 Arnicare gel that cost me about $1.25 each.
I felt like I had been duped, for years, into overpaying for things that I could've easily gotten cheap or free if I just spent the brain power on planning. I pretended I had never made fun of “those people” and embraced a life of printing, clipping, and never again having the privilege of using a 12-item-or-less line. I had learned to stop worrying and love the coupon.
This epiphany changed the way I shop for almost everything in our household. While I used to be an impulse grocery shopper, stopping almost daily for whatever we would be eating that night and spending up to $30 a trip, I now go to the grocery store about twice a month and average $60-$80 a purchase.
According to Mint, the app I use to track my finances and make budgets I then ignore, I've cut my grocery and restaurant expenditures by more than 60 percent versus this time last year. I plan out what I'm buying based on the coupons I have and the sales that are running, which means I have to plan meals ahead. I cook more often, because I don't want things to spoil and it feels wasteful to buy lunch when I have full cabinets.
People often talk about couponing only working if you eat a lot of processed garbage. I am personally a fan of processed garbage, and take umbrage at this. However, on a good week, I can get bag salads for half-off plus a coupon, proteins for 40 percent off plus a coupon, and fresh fruit like tangerines, avocados, and pomegranate seeds with coupons and cash back offers. I've actually lost weight since I started couponing, because I'm less likely to have an empty refrigerator and order a pizza.
My biggest judgment on “crazy coupon ladies” had to have been what I saw as the Gollum–esque hoarding tendency of buying 197 soups at at time, or 75 deodorants because FREE. It struck me as wasteful, driven by mindless consumerism, selfish, and maybe just slightly pathological.
The biggest thing I've learned as I taught myself cheaper shopping strategies is that you can coupon to your level of need. The way couponing works you do need to sometimes buy multiples to get the cheapest price, but as a family of two, we need four or eight of something much more than we need 40 or 80 of something. This means that I not only don't buy massive amounts of nonsense, but that my time investment is pretty minimal.
I cut coupons from maybe three newspapers max, while I binge-watch BBC shows on Netflix (Two words: "Black Mirror"). I print coupons from websites and listen to podcasts at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee. I would have been doing these things anyway when not at my full-time job. I'm not sacrificing leisure time or time with my family the way I did when I worked two jobs, but I'm still reaping financial benefits. I have not turned into a crone, hunched over her repurposed recipe box, cackling about expiration dates. Win/win/win.
In addition to being a hobby wherein I compete with myself for better and better deals, couponing has taken financial pressure off of my household in ways I didn't anticipate.
Over the summer, I bought a 2012 Hyundai when my 2002 Saturn began to show its age in ways that made me anxious. I have never had a car payment in my life, and struggled to adjust my finances around it. Spending less on groceries and personal care products has made it possible for me to overpay on my car each month, so it can be paid off early. I've also started auto-transferring money into a savings account so that when life's inevitable bullshit comes at me, I have a safety net. In the last four months alone, we've needed extensive plumbing work, a new roof, and expensive vet treatment for our bulldog, and every time we've been able to make it work without going into credit debt or living off of rice.
And couponing makes me feel less guilty when I want or need something that seems exorbitant, or is difficult to get a bargain on. I don't beat myself up for buying my favorite Urban Decay mascara, or a tub of Lush Oceansalt, because I haven't spent money on body wash or toothpaste in three months and probably won't need to for six more. Less money on groceries = more money for the fun stuff. Seriously, buying front row tickets to see Jack White brought me a lot more joy than buying full-price granola bars ever did.
I wish I had figured out years ago that coupons were not just for my grandmother and people feeding Duggar–like families of kids. I'm still new to the game, so the possibility exists that I will one day die in a cereal and canned soup collapse of my own making. But for now, my habit is under control. If you see me on TLC, the situation has escalated: please send help.