Mythbusters: Extreme Couponing

(Article by Kelly Gurnett – an awesome blogger friend of mine who is all kinds of creative!  I’m out in Milwaukee for the last Love Drop right now so treat her well! :))

I’ll admit.  I’ve been sucked in by the show Extreme Couponing.

I already consider myself a fairly accomplished couponer.  My top tips and strategies have netted me a nice little stockpile over the years.  We rarely ever run out of toothpaste and I’ve not had to pay for shampoo or razors in a long, long time.

But I want more.

I want a basement of shelves lined with enough TP to build forts and enough tiny shower gels you can swim in them Scrooge-McDuck-style… I want rice packets and power drinks to outlast a zombie apocalypse… I want to walk away from a grocery store with $1,000 worth of merch and have them owe me $2.27 for taking it off their hands.

But, the people on this show are called “extreme” for a reason.  They climb into dumpsters to pull out coupon inserts (and bring their kids along with them).  They not only clear store shelves, but call ahead to have full pallets of shrink wrapped items waiting for them.  They go on marathon 10-hour shopping runs.  There’s no way the average person can accomplish that.

Ridiculous odds, however, have never stopped me before.  I was so enamored with the idea of a stockpile that could enable me to help quit my job, that I decided to embark on a quest to see just how feasible extreme couponing could be for the average person.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off the feats they do on the show (you can find links to some of the many issues with “Extreme Couponing” at the end of this post).  But damn me if I couldn’t get awfully close!  I’m organized.  I’m stubborn.  I’m unrealistically ambitious.  And I have no problem whatsoever embarrassing myself in public to get a good deal.  If anyone is equipped to be an extreme couponer, I thought, I was that girl.

The Experiment

Step 1:  Get the Gear, Get Organized (eventually)

big bertha coupon binderThe first thing any extreme couponer needs is one big-ass coupon binder.

Meet: Big Bertha (pictured to your left).

Big Bertha is basically a glorified Trapper-Keeper (old skool, represent!) filled with sheets upon sheets of my husband’s old baseball card inserts for neatly organizing coupons by category.

She comes equipped with folders for weekly store circulars, a cute little scissors-holding pocket, and a mini paper cutter for more extreme clipping situations.  And she took me (I kid you not) two full months to set up.  (Fail #1:  J. Money was supposed to have this guest post by mid-summer.)

I quickly learned that the first hurdle to being an extreme couponer is having a life.  I am not a stay at home mom who can devote 40 hours a week to clipping, comparing ads, and writing meticulous shopping spreadsheets.  I also have lots of non-coupony interests I enjoy doing in my off-work hours, such as blogging, seeing my friends, and occasionally getting some sleep.  I refused to neglect these things because, well, they’re kind of part of my life.  That was my first mistake.

Every time I almost got caught up organizing my coupons, another freakin’ week of inserts arrived.  This may not seem like much, but since I was dealing with several sets of inserts (see next section), things got out of hand fast.  Every surface in my living room became covered with stacks of coupons (neatly grouped by category, of course) that just kept multiplying like Gremlins in a rainstorm.  I began to loathe the sight of them.  I still haven’t quite gotten over it.

END RESULT:  Success, eventually, but a huge time-suck.  Plus now a lingering sense of resentment towards Bertha and her contents.  Not a good place to be in for a couponer.

Step 2:  Clip Coupons (and More Coupons, and More Coupons)

While this was all going on, I also went to work setting up a regular coupon clipping routine.  (Perhaps getting Bertha organized first would have helped prevent the chaos, but I was trying to be extreme, baby.)  Already being a couponer, it wasn’t a matter of creating a system so much as pimping out my current system to the max.

Instead of just clipping coups on Sunday, I clipped four sets of coups—my own, my generous mother’s and mother-in-law’s, and my unknowing employer’s, who had inadvertently purchased a full week’s paper subscription although no one comes in the office on the weekends (not quite as B.A. as dumpster-diving, but still pretty sneaky, I thought).

I also ventured into the world of online coupons (through sites like and Smart Source) and took the extremists’ advice in checking the sites several times a week in case new coups came out.  (I did not buy two extra printers to get around the “prints per coupon” limits, however.  I’m sneaky, but I have principles.  Plus I just can’t afford 2 extra printers.)

Finally, I checked out my go-to site, Refund Cents, for its weekly store promo/coupon matchups and running list of available rebates.  Matching store sales + coupons + rebates can ultimately result in products for free or at profit.  But, it takes a hella (let me repeat, hella) lot of time and some basic math skills, neither of which I have in abundance.

But with all these bases covered, there was no way I couldn’t make out like a bandit the next time I went to the store.  Right?

END RESULT:  What normally took me 10 minutes every Sunday became an ongoing project that took an extra 3-5 hours each week what with trolling the internet, printing and clipping coups, adding coups into Big Bertha, and reassessing potential promo/coup combinations.  Return on investment for all this time?  Read on…

Step 3:  Reap Massive Savings (Right?…Right…?)

What I am about to share next is not something I am proud of, but journalistic integrity demands full disclosure.

The first week I finally had all my coups in order and all my information gathered, I sat down Christmas-morning-excited to figure out what incredible deals I would be netting for the week.  And do you know what I found?

Pretty much the same deals I was netting before the whole experiment.  Plus one extra.  Additional savings?  About $3.  No worries, I told myself, you’re just starting out.  You haven’t fully built up your coupon arsenal yet.

Week 2, I sat down telling myself the first week had been an unlucky fluke, and now sh** was gonna start getting real.

It didn’t.  A handful of deals, just like I’d always found, except this time I got to get a few extra sets of items thanks to my duplicate inserts.  Additional savings?  Around $7.

By the time weeks 3-5 rolled around, I’d pretty much thrown in the towel.  The stacks of coupons to be filed were getting unnervingly high again, causing me to avert my eyes and mumble crazily every time I walked into the living room.  I’d failed to make several of my tri-weekly online coupon checks and was starting to not feel bad about it.  And the more episodes of Extreme Couponing I watched for “motivation,” the more I realized what I still needed to do:

I should be scoping the store out ahead of time, noting sales that aren’t advertised and drawing maps of all the aisles.  I should be ordering extra sets of coupons from ebay.  I should have kids so I can conscript them into helping me clip.  I should find a camera crew to come with me so the cashiers can be pressured into letting me divide my order up across 7 aisles.

I had lost all control.  I’d been working my little frugal tail off, as much as I possibly thought I could, but no matter what I did, I was getting nowhere.  Mainly because life kept happening and getting in the way of things.

END RESULT:  A big, epic, hashtag FAIL.  I really thought I could do it.  Maybe if I’d just put in a little more time, been a little more dedicated?  Maybe I just didn’t want it badly enough?

Final Analysis:  Let’s Be Real, People

The truth is, you can score some pretty fantastic savings by being entirely devoted to couponing.  Not quite as much as on TV (see what’s wrong, if not downright fraudulent, about the show here and here).  But I’ve read plenty of success stories in magazines and online that testify to the fact that if you’re willing to put in enough time and energy, you really can game the system (legally).

That being said, you can also be a normal, reasonable couponer and still game the system a decent amount.  Plus then you get to have a life.

It’s with regret that I’m going back to my old couponing ways.  I still, in the back of my mind, secretly wonder if I could  have done it if only I didn’t have a job (or hobbies, or a social life).  But you know what?  I do have those things, and I kinda wanna keep them.  So my dreams of extremes will have to be let go.  And the show probably will, as well.  It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.

At least I still have Big Bertha.  I have to say it’s quite nice having everything so neatly organized when I go shopping.  Plus, when you walk into a store with a five-pound binder perched precariously on the child seat of your shopping cart, you and everyone else around you knows that you mean serious biz-nass.  Aisles clear before you, and cashiers look on you with terror (Or at least I like to think they do).  It’s quite empowering.

Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(Photo by Tammra McCauley – NOT Cordelia, I’m afraid ;))

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  1. Cordelia December 21, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    Enjoy the Drop, J.! Thanks for the opportunity. Oh, and loving the intro pic…perfect choice! That is what I envisioned for myself when I started in on this madness (well, minus the small child, that is.) :)

  2. Diane December 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Looking at that photo I don’t see one thing I’d actually eat (I don’t drink milk, but that does look good, if you do). The detergent seems good but really – chex mix? canned vegetables? pre-made waffles? All stuff that if you gave it to me free I’d “regift.”

    I can do better just managing my budget and looking for sales on things I actually DO eat.

  3. Jen December 21, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    Most excellent post, Cordelia. You sure made this mama feel less guilty about my puny (compared to extreme couponers) couponing efforts. Your post really speaks the truth….I save some money routinely couponing and I tend to know where I can get the cheapest stuff. Combine the two and I think I’m doing pretty good til I see the extreme coupon show and feel like I’m doing my family an injustice by not saving us more. Why do I feel so guilty? But I’m a mommy of three, I work a very stressful full-time job to support our family, my husband stays home with our kids to save money, we have zero debt (except one car payment), and I enjoy every minute of my time with my kids, and THAT’S what makes this family happy. ;)

  4. DB December 21, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    I think it is good that you point out that you only saved a few dollars extra. Definitely not effective use of time. It must be kind of like hoarding mentality “I cant ever get rid of this what if I need it someday” vs “If I just spend a little more time I can save more money” Reality is the space requirements and time requirements of both mindsets are not worth the benefits.

    And I will agree with some of the other comments, the majority of coupons are for luxury items and brand name stuff that arent necessary anyway or can be bought for much cheaper by using alternative brands or methods (such as cooking your own food)

  5. Christine Hansen December 21, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Kelly – fabulous post, especially because it pretty much agrees with what I’ve learned about couponing!

    We DO clip and use coupons, but only on stuff we would purchase anyway. It’s not worth cutting the coupons if you don’t use the product or feel good about feeding it to your kids.

    I too, looked at that top pic, and saw mostly processed foods, which my family cannot eat due to wheat & corn allergies, and which I wouldn’t feed my kids anyway…so for my family, we do better by figuring out which stores in town have the best regular prices on products we purchase.

    Too, we cook almost everything from scratch, and we grow as much of our own food as we are able.

    Instead of cutting coupons, spend a couple of hours a week on growing cooking herbs and greens for your salads, or even starting sprouts on your kitchen counter (anyone can do sprouts!). This nets you a better financial payback – you’ll save money on fresh produce, even if it’s just enough for a salad or a stirfry AND you’ll be eating healthier food (esp. if you go organic). Plus that, it’s just plain fun to skip out to the garden to clip a handful of herbs for the meal you’re making.

  6. Alice @ EarningMyTwoCents December 21, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    Thanks for your guest post Cordelia! I relate to your frustrations with the time and energy it takes to plan grocery shops and organize your coupons, but I would like to point out that I work 40 hours a week, go to grad school part time, have a husband and a life, and still am able to coupon a lot and save around 45% on my groceries every time. I also usually get tons of free stuff or 90% discounted drugstore items (like toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, tampons, soap). I have built up a small but manageable stockpile of food and items my husband and I use and eat regularly, and we have saved about 1/3 to 1/2 of our grocery budget. Before I started couponing our grocery budget wouldn’t even last us the entire month and we would be left with no money and a bare pantry. Now we have money left over (which we are using to pay off debt/put toward savings) and have plenty of food in the house. So it’s definetely possible to make couponing worth it. I usually spend around 2-3 hours a week clipping and organizing my coupons and figuring out what deals are best at the store using online matchups on websites and blogs. I usually do it while watching TV in the evening and its really not a noticeable time suck at all. I enjoy it and my husband and I enjoy the saved money and food in our pantry. So it can work!

  7. Brian December 21, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    Thanks for this guest post I thoroughly enjoyed it. Glad to see that I’m not so crazy for not being an extreme couponer. Thanks for saving hours of my life I can never get back!

  8. Linsey @ Credit Sesame December 21, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    Great write-up! I have often wondered about this practice of “extreme” couponing, only because I live in the land of no double coupons. Also, the whole online coupon thing seems counter to saving money. If I printed out every good coupon that came out online, I’m spending a TON on ink. Then I end up only using about 20% of these coupons, because the items never seem to go on sale before they expire. What’s frugal about that?

  9. Bryan at Pinch that Penny! December 21, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    Yeah, I’m ashamed to admit that I lost most of a Saturday a couple weeks back to an Extreme Couponing marathon, and I also wondered if I had what it takes to figure out how to pay pennies on the dollar for groceries. After some quick Google research, I realized that California (where I live) does not offer double-coupons like many of the states where the shoppers on the show are located. Knowing that, I gave up pretty quickly.

    Still, great article. It was interesting to have a “normal” person’s perspective on trying to figure out how to extreme coupon (as opposed to the looney toons on TLC’s show).

  10. the frugallery December 21, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    The links to the articles about Extreme Coupon Fraud were very interesting to read. I knew there had to be a trick they were using. I do use coupons, but consider a shopping trip a success if I save 50% or more. And I only buy things I regularly use. If something is free, I will use it or donate it.

  11. Kevin December 21, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    I like everyone else love to save money and would love to walk into a store and have them pay me to take 1000.oo bucks of stuff off their hands. But at the same time I do enjoy my health and if I have to watch my budget to be able to eat healthy than I’m ok with that. I’d much rather eat fresh over frozen and none of that caned/trans fat stuff… But I will clip a few coupons here and there for toothpaste, soap, and other odds and ends. I just don’t see the need to waste space on useless junk that I don’t need or would have never bought if I didn’t have a coupon for it.

  12. Christa December 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    Great info! I always wondered what it was like for a normal person to try extreme couponing. I knew I never wanted to, but I always wondered what kind of killer deals I was letting slip through my fingers. Thanks for the real life insight!

  13. Robin December 21, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Nice post! I coupon too but not too extreme. I use the “blog-cheat” method. I cut coupons for what I normally would buy then look at a few blogs I read to find other deals I may be interested in or specifically search the item I want to buy. If they have a better plan, I do that. If not, I go with my coupon plan. It helps! Thanks to skimming coupon blogs, I got 6 big bottles of bicardi rum for a whopping $2.90! The husband is grateful for that one. I also did all my Christmas shopping for my daughter for about $32 but total worth of about $150. Not bad! I keep my life and still coupon. Good balance for me!

  14. Savvy Working Gal December 21, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    I participated in Walgreen’s Rebate Program for over ten years purchasing all of the free items each month for myself and my mom. I used coupons in addition to the rebates so I would actually make money. They discontinued the rebate program about two years ago and my cabinets are still crammed with stuff. Around the time Walgreens stopped their rebate program I read a book called Stuff about hoarding. It really freaked me out. Now I buy only what I need and using one or two coupons from the paper a week. Plus, we eat more fresh foods which means fewer coupons.

  15. Beth Anne @ The Catholic Couponer Blog December 22, 2011 at 2:19 AM

    I love this post! The thing about the show is watch what the people buy…it’s not realistic. 9/10 the people are buying juice, gatorade, drinks, canned foods, rice, cereals. You hardly ever see them buy meat or vegetables. When I go to the store I use coupons and I save as much or more than I save. I buy a combination of meats and side items.

    I am lucky enough to live in a city that has a fresh produce stand with reasonable prices. I like couponing you can def. save money you just don’t have to kill yourself doing it.

  16. Michael Trout December 22, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    This is a great post! We tried the extreme couponing route a while back. We actually did end up saving an extra $150 or so a week, but it was taking us an extra 15-20 hours a week and the majority of the best deals were for junk food and other stuff we wouldn’t usually buy anyway. We eventually gave up and I now have a second job for the extra 15-20 hours a week and we just go without the junk. This has netted us WAY more than we ever saved couponing for the same hours and effort :)

  17. Cordelia December 22, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Thanks so much for the great comments, everyone! If J.’s site were set up to let me respond to each of your comments individually, I would have. But since I can’t, let me just say:

    For those of you who’ve wondered about extreme couponing but never had the guts (/insanity) to try it yourself: I’m glad my fiasco helped you learn what you (fortunately) have been missing out on. :)

    For those of you who manage to coupon in a reasonable, successful manner: What are your tips and tricks? I know some of you have mentioned searching certain blogs, etc….What advice do you have for people (myself included) looking to score big in a less ridiculous manner?


  18. Emily Guy Birken December 23, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    I’ve been a little leery of the Extreme Couponing phenomenon because it seems to bring out the worst in OCD/hoarding types, although the OCD/hoarding part of my brain keeps poking me with a pair of coupon-clipping scissors and telling me I’m missing out on great deals. Thanks for attempting this for all of us and making it clear to my brain that this is not something I want to try. Even though one half of my brain is still trying to rearrange furniture so that there’s room for the TP fort.

  19. Micki @addhousewife December 23, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    I’m an extreme couponer. As-seen-on-my-local TV and all. The biggest mistake I’ve seen you make is the number of inserts you are tackling. Big time savings means shopping in mass quantities. What they show on TV, when they buy 100 of an item, the item is under $1 or free after coupon. You won’t see big savings until you start getting those pallets. Like you said, that’s not realistic. What you also don’t see on TV is them buying the “normal” items. When shopping for TV, you only buy the sale items…unless you have mega overage.

    to get the coupons you need (and save sanity) you need to use a clipping service. you buy the coupons you want in the quantity you want. And they arrive to your home already cut and ready to go in the binder.

    We are also cook from scratchers, so there are certain items I hoard. Like yeast. The last trip I did for our local TV station, I purchased 70+ packets of yeast…and I made 69 cents on each one! That sort of deal doesn’t happen often. I used it to cover the cost of other non-coupon items.

  20. Michael Trout December 24, 2011 at 6:10 AM

    I just want to mention for anyone considering using a clipping service, that is coupon fraud and is a felony. That means you could get more than one year in prison, lose your right to vote, obtain a visa, possess firearms, participate in the welfare program, and possibly make it hard to find a job. If all that is worth saving the time to get the coupons legally, go for it

  21. Sharon December 27, 2011 at 8:05 AM I could have written the exact same thing! Thanks for making me feel normal again!!!

    I have a “bertha” too, and I just stare at it. Most of the coupons have probably expired at this point. A HUGE time drainer for sure.

  22. J. Money December 27, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    Thanks again for sharing your experiment with us, Cordelia! It was a nice peak into something that I’ve never had the balls to try myself at this point ;) I’m still kinda curious to try it out if I can set aside a few blocks of time like that, but knowing me I’ll never do it, haha…. so for now, I’m taking your work for it that it doesn’t make much sense to go “all in!”

    Hope you had a blessed holiday my friend, let’s keep in touch – huge fan of yours, as you better know by now :)

  23. Valencia December 27, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Thank you so much for this article!

  24. Micki @addhousewife December 29, 2011 at 7:45 PM

    @michael: yes, but then coupon clubs are also committing fraud, and so are coupon fairies who leave coupons behind for other people to use. They are transferring the coupons from one person to another, And all those expired coupons we send overseas, also being transferred making that “illegal”, too. If they really want to stop people buying coupons online, then they need to make the same coupons available in all markets! Just because I live in a market that is considered the lowest tier, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to have access to a coupon! I have no way to get coupons. There isn’t a paper near me large enough to get any “good” coupons.

  25. J. Money December 30, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Haha… “coupon fairies” – I like that ;) This whole thing is super interesting to me! Though I’m all for creative ways to using coupons to your advantage. I don’t know the legal ramifications behind it, but it’s hard to imagine you’d really get in much trouble if there are set “understandings” among couponers and the stores… guess you just do what works in the best way you know how, eh?