Is 'extreme couponing' gluttony or good stewardship?

Jerod Clark

It’s either great stewardship or outright gluttony.

Those are the two opposite ends of what I see happening with shoppers who label themselves as extreme couponers. The idea is savvy shoppers combine in-store sales with manufacturers' coupons, loyalty card rebates and other incentives to get groceries for pennies on the dollar if not completely free. It can be a great way to stretch the dollars you have, but it can also lead to terrible personal traits and sinful behavior.

There’s no better example of this than on TLC's "Extreme Couponing," which airs today. The reality show follows people who dedicate large amounts of their time to the type of coupon clipping that would make the jaws of grandmothers around the country drop. Many of the people on this show take getting a good deal to hording proportions. Garages are now warehouses full of supplies – hundreds of boxes of cereal and a thousand tubes of toothpaste. It’s all stuff that I look at and think could never be consumed by the expiration date and some, like the toothpaste, never used in a lifetime. It’s gluttony at its worst.

For one of the women I recently saw on the show, the act of extreme couponing was explained as a religious experience. The stacks of Sunday newspaper coupons were like “100 holy bibles.” She said she dedicated her “time and talent” to couponing. And her 11th commandment? “Thou shall not pay retail.” It’s not only blasphemous but dangerously addictive behavior.

I’ve also been amazed to see how some extreme couponers treat the employees at the grocery stores where they shop. They fill multiple carts full of stuff, complain when the store doesn’t have enough of a single product for them to buy and tell workers to go get them a pallet of food. Then it comes to the check-out. It can take hours. The amount of things being bought is too much for the checkout computers to handle in one order. Folks get mad if some of their hundreds of coupons don’t work or if they’re not saving as much as they thought. The treatment of a fellow human can be sad. The pride of working the system to get a deal trumps human compassion.

Not everyone on the show is out of control. Some are just making the most of their weekly budget. They buy a reasonable amount of groceries, but only stuff they can get for cheap. (For the record, I have real-life, non-reality show friends who regularly do extreme couponing this way.) And there are some, a very small number, on the show who take some of their grocery booty and give it to charity. There are people who are using their couponing to do good and there’s obviously no problem with that.

I don’t look at extreme couponing as abusing the system. As long as retailers keep accepting the coupons, it’s within the rules of doing business. But I do get concerned about the addictiveness. Some extreme couponers are clearly altering their lifestyles to do this. They’re storing supplies under their kids' beds, turning rooms of the house into storage lockers and getting obsessed with getting a deal. They’d rather buy it and never use it than let it go by. In those extremes, it’s sinful behavior.

(Photos courtesy of TLC.)

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