The Perils of Extreme Couponing

Family takes couponing to the extreme, searching in a dumpster for discarded couponsI've often wondered if these people were urban myths: The people who never buy anything without a coupon. People who save so much money they brag that stores are paying them to shop. People who have a lifetime supply of toilet paper or will never need to pay for toothpaste again.

Now, we can all watch "Extreme Couponing" on Discovery's TLC. It's informative -- lot's of good hints on how save bundles -- and terrifying, a cautionary tale of obsession. The show profiles four coupon-obsessed shoppers and Walletpop spoke to two of them prior to the show's premiere tonight.

Joanie Demer began clipping coupons a few short years ago with a college roommate, thanks to advice of a family member. The two got $700 worth of groceries for just $100 that first week and there was no turning back. Now she's known as the Krazy Coupon Lady. "We thought we'd died and gone to heaven," recalls Demer. She's since written a book and runs a Web site.

Nathan Engels began clipping coupons shortly after being married and realizing they had a combined credit card debt of $15,000. They now spend in a month what they used to in one week at the grocery store. Both Engels and Demer debunk the notion that you can't eat healthy foods using coupons. Engels even follows a weight loss program and will buy produce at full price, since coupons are rare. "It's expensive to eat healthy, but it's possible," he says.

Demer contends that her family eats better food now that she uses coupons. Instead of buying store brands or generics, she's more likely to get national brands since those issue coupons. "I've actually traded up," she says. "When you're using coupons, you're not buying generic. It's all name brands."

ABC News labeled these shoppers obsessive and questioned whether it was unhealthy. In truth, the show bears some resemblance to Hoarders, A&E's mesmerizing depiction of people who suffer from this obsessive compulsive disorder, and those profiled in Extreme Couponing participate in some hoarding of their wares.

Demer has the garage and basement filled with coupon-gotten goods and Engels has built shelves to hold his stuff, even though he donates much of his bounty to charity. But as with any obsession, even one that saves money, there's a dark side.

Amanda Ostrowski has enough toilet paper stockpiled to last her and her husband for 40 years. Having that much brings her joy, she says on the show. She spends up to 70 hours a week on her coupon habit, sacrificing time with her husband and even forcing him to forfeit his own space to store more goods.

All these people began using coupons for good reasons -- to reduce expenses following a layoff, to support a family as a single mother and to pay down debt. But when you hear Ostrowski's husband's plaintive protests when the stockpile threatens to displace him, or watch an hours-long check out process to score $1,175.33 worth of groceries for $51.67, after coupons, it's hard not to see the downside of being extreme, even about saving money.

There's something to be learned here, about the value of time and relationships. And a few simple lessons about how to use coupons to save money without devoting every minute of the day or taking your kids Dumpster diving, as these extreme couponers do looking for coupons that have been thrown away.

Jennifer Carlson Welch has been called extreme in her use of coupons, but compared to those on the show, she just may represent a more prudent form of deal seeker. She clips them each week from the newspaper and visits three different stores depending on that week's sales. All three are on the same street, the only inconvenience is making three stops, she says.

Welch doesn't limit herself to coupon-only purchases, but will stock up on items. "If something is on sale, and I have a coupon, and it won't go bad, and I know it's something I'll need in the not-too-distant future, I'll buy it. At any given time, I could have 50-100 rolls of toilet paper in my basement."

Compare that to Ostrowski's stash of 3,000 rolls.

On Extreme Couponing, Engels buy $5,743 worth of items -- including 1,100 boxes of cereal, 300 toothbrushes and 60 bottles of hand soap -- for just $241.00, a 95% savings. Welch estimates she saves 30% to 50% each time she shops. "I usually don't do any better than 50%," she says. "But I do the happy dance when I do."

Multiply this by 1,000, and that's probably close to the high extreme couponers feel when they score great deals.

Extreme Couponing premieres on TLC tonight, Dec. 29, 2010, at 8 p.m. EST

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