I’m not an aficionado of the show Extreme Couponing, but I have seen it a couple times, and have been amazed at the industriousness of the people on the show. It shouldn’t be surprising, perhaps, that in the midst of economic downturn more generally the practice of clipping coupons has become more widespread as well as more extreme.
It makes sense that when times are tight and you are looking to scrimp and save every penny in your budget that increased use of coupons can be a way to make each dollar stretch a bit farther. Companies originally offered coupons as incentives to try new products, and so it is appropriate to see coupons as a form of advertising. The first company to offer coupons was Coca-Cola, and here we can see the similarities between coupons and the free samples, which is part of what makes Costco so popular, as product promotion.
But it never really occurred to me until I read this short profile of an extreme couponer that coupons should also really be seen as a kind of private welfare, reaching a high of roughly $4 billion in total savings in the US in 2011.
Joni Meyer-Crothers says she “was on the show’s first season, and I still receive e-mails every day.” Among these e-mails, says Meyer-Crothers, are from “people on food assistance who used to go to the food bank to feed their families but now use coupons to get what they need.”
With the advent of digital coupons, we’ve really entered a golden age of coupons, an age where in some cases coupons can be a substantial source of household wealth. It takes some real budgetary and arithmetical acumen to be a successful extreme couponer, as well as some significant drive and dedication. You also need to have some Internet savvy.
There are also dangers; the extreme couponing phenomenon illustrates a hoarding mentality in many cases, where people stock up on things that they would never have any personal use for without any corresponding impulse to barter, trade, or share. Some of the people who star on Extreme Couponing could also be featured on shows like Hoarders (now there’s some crossover programming that would make for some compelling cable TV!). Couponing can thus manifest or even exacerbate a particularly troubling kind of materialism. Many of the coupons that are available are on name-brand products that are generally more expensive, and often for non-necessary or luxury items. So successful couponing takes some practical wisdom as well.
But despite the dangers of materialism, hoarding, and bad stewardship, there are also many examples of people like Meyer-Crothers, who use their extreme couponing skills to provide materials to students, veterans, or other people in need, as well as to provide for their own families.
So what should we think about reliance on coupons as an alternative to or at least a potential reduction of reliance on other forms of assistance, whether private (like most food banks) or public (like food stamps)? Could public libraries, which provide Internet access and even printing services, be a way to effectively reduce the need for public assistance via food stamps, even if only for a relatively small percentage of the population in need?
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that one of the reasons we are to “work faithfully,” creating a surplus of income and a store of household wealth, is so that we “may share with those in need.” Given the realities of couponing today, maybe we should view extreme couponing as a kind of workfare that also allows some people to share with those in need.