“Extreme Couponing,” a fascinating yet deeply disturbing show returning to TLC on Wednesday night, is about a species of American consumer whose initial thrill at saving some money at the grocery store has triggered a new kind of crazy. The penny pinchers seen here have the same glint in their eyes you’ll recognize from shows about gambling addicts, hoarders and obsessive-compulsives. These are just a layman’s diagnoses, mind you.
But TLC cleverly allows the women (and the occasional man) featured in “Extreme Couponing” to boastfully present themselves as newfangled heroes of the Great Recession, rather than as the piggy stockpilers they come off as, who voraciously amass paper towels, pancake syrup, spaghetti, deodorant, ketchup and more.
Repulsion may or may not be the show’s ultimate intent, but it stirs up unsettling and complex thoughts, not only about the sins of gluttony and pride, but also about the production and consumption of cheap, processed food. There’s also something to snack on for those of us fretting over an ever-widening wealth gap amid dwindling resources. “Extreme Couponing” — which has become a series after a successful special aired late last year — is a modern Cassandra’s sociological fever dream, a harbinger of how closely we teeter on the edge of economic anarchy.
Or it’s just another weird reality show about the freak next door!
“My 11th commandment is thou shalt not pay retail,” says J’aime Kirlew, a Bethesda paralegal featured in the first of two episodes airing Wednesday, who turned to extreme couponing when her husband was out of work.
“I don’t even eat mustard,” her husband says while Kirlew has him shovel 62 bottles of French’s into one of her four crammed shopping carts, leaving just one bottle on the shelf. By the time she tap-dances in her high-heeled boots to the checkout line, her total comes to $1,902.63 — including 100 cups of yogurt, 35 cans of soup, 40 boxes of cereal and 90 packages of cold cuts.
Out come the coupons — beep, beep, beep, beep — while onlookers gather to get a glimpse of the inane math involved. Kirlew’s new total? $103.72, an astounding savings of 94 percent. Everyone’s impressed, even the store employees.
Though the fine print on most coupons would seem to discourage — if not prohibit — such drastically discounted hauls, it apparently doesn’t. “Extreme Couponing” barely attempts to detail these methods in a way that makes sense. Coupon nuts do their shopping on double- and triple-coupon days and match their coupon archives to the store’s advertised sales; they always make use of frequent-shopper club cards; they also have no problem enduring the hassles of rain checks and mail-in rebates. Their shopping trips can last up to four hours.
Four hours? So much for the principle of opportunity cost. Time is not money to the extreme couponers, and reality is a fluid concept, in which they don’t-spend their not-money eating box after box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. (Which means they’ll never need the several hundred rolls of stockpiled toilet paper.)
None of this would be possible, I hasten to note, without a Sunday newspaper. The Sunday coupons are like gold to the extreme couponers — they are seen brow-beating their neighbors for unwanted inserts and rifling through recycling bins to lay hands on more coupons. Meanwhile, the couponers’ clipping and sorting process reaches for the Rain Man lobe: Some prefer color-coding and binders, some use Excel spreadsheets.
Each segment of “Extreme Couponing” culminates in a dazzling and literal money shot. Voila! A mother of seven in Spring, Tex., uses her coupons to reduce a bill of $555 to $6. An Idaho woman and her husband engineer 18 separate transactions at the same register, eventually realizing a total coupon discount of 99 percent.
Sometimes, through rebates and bizarre transactions in which an item is marked down more than the amount of the coupon being redeemed, the grocery store winds up owing these customers a dollar or two.
It’s strange how a show meant to generate excitement and promote thriftiness can leave one with a sense of remorse and shame. If the manufacturers and retailers can merrily absorb, and even encourage, the loss they’re taking when an extreme couponer cleans up on Aisle 5, then our society truly is an embarrassment of riches.
But my real beef, which I’m selling for half-off today, is that the subjects of “Extreme Couponing” are never seen stopping at a food bank on the way home to share some of their largess — except once, in the original “Extreme Couponing” special.
Everyone else on the show selfishly stores it away in hyper-organized garages, basements and spare closets — where all the labels must face a certain way, ordered by expiration date, before Mommy can sit down, relax, and clip and file still more coupons. “In a zombie apocalypse, we’d be fine for two years,” chuckles the overweight boyfriend of an extreme couponer in St. Louis, after he counts up 50 bags of snack chips.
When asked about this, a TLC publicist said future episodes might try to leaven the show with charitable impulses. The Texas mother of seven, the publicist noted, recently organized a shipment of care packages to Japan’s earthquake disaster victims.
Care packages of what? (Febreze? Apple Jacks?) The last thing “Extreme Couponing” exhibits is a sense of caring — to say nothing of sharing.
(two episodes, one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TLC.