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He's living the glamorous life without cash -- on Groupons

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; 12:01 AM

Josh Stevens is living the dream, if the dream is wanderlust, drifting from city to city, relying on the kindness of strangers. Man cannot live by bread alone, which is good because Stevens has no bread at all, nor does he have eggs or peanut butter or any food to speak of, though he does have a gift certificate for unlimited golf at Cameron Hills Golf Links and another for a facial at Bark 'N Bubbles self-serve dog wash, which presumably must be used on a dog.

Let them eat cake? Nay, let them eat Groupons.

Stevens arrived in Washington last week, the latest stop on his year-long tour as Groupon.com's "Groupawn."

"I'm not allowed to touch money for a year," Stevens, 28, is telling the manager at Finemondo restaurant. He has already used a Finemondo Groupon to pay for his meal; now he produces a sheaf of additional coupons, with which he wants to negotiate a tip. "What do you like to do?" he asks Najib Khaldi, flipping through the stack. "Here's something cool. It's a TopGolf Groupon. There are GPS things in the ball."

And Groupon is . . .?

Groupon offers "daily deals at unbeatable prices," says the site. The 10 million members, who speak religiously of Groupon the way Costco members speak of Costco, get discounted goods like spa services or restaurant coupons. (Businesses make money because they only deliver the deal if enough people sign up.) A recent Washington Groupon offered $40 tickets to the Washington Kastles for $17.

Stevens won Groupon's "Live Off Groupon" publicity stunt in May. He'd just left his job as a waiter in Chicago. He was thinking about applying to business school. He heard about the contest, which promised that if he went a year using no money but unlimited Groupons, he would win $100,000.

He submitted an application video, underwent a psych eval and is now in his seventh week of traveling from city to city, Groupon to Groupon, like a tourist on a never-ending schlep. He's done boat tours. He's restauranted. He's traded his Groupons for essentials like clothing and toiletries, since Groupon insisted he begin with nothing but a paper suit made of Groupons.

After Finemondo, Stevens packs up his Groupons and departs. Next he has a free tour of Madame Tussauds, followed by a free appointment at the Grooming Lounge. To get there, he will use a free Metro card, provided not by Groupon but by Laura Cassil, who heard about Stevens then invited him to stay with her in Washington, where, Stevens says, he would like to take President Obama on a Groupon date.

Something about the Groupawn speaks to people. The 6,000 Groupon groupies who follow him on Facebook want to buy him plane tickets (in exchange for Groupons), pick him up at airports (in exchange for Groupons), meet up with him at restaurants and spend Groupons together.

"Something different comes along, and you want to live vicariously," says Karen Shatin, a contractor for the State Department who has met up with Stevens in two different cities.

"It's the whole idea of him getting rid of his possessions," Cassil says. "He's not paying bills, he doesn't have to worry about looking for a job. It's very romantic."

Just Stevens against the world, him and his Groupons, a glimpse at what society would look like if we suddenly returned to a barter system. Our sustenance would be manicures and sky-diving excursions: We would exchange wine-tasting classes for NASCAR driving experiences or deep tissue massages.

"The spa things are some of my best currency," Stevens says. He's gotten lots of stuff trading those.

At Madame Tussauds, he discovers he is taller than the Rock. At the Grooming Lounge, he discovers he loves pedicures. He tweets these developments to his followers, taking notes for his later blog entries and Facebook updates.

The possibilities are endless for the Groupawn. He may write a book. He might hire a personal assistant, to help him keep track of his Groupons and pay the assistant with Groupons.

After his pedicure, Stevens stands in the lobby of the Grooming Lounge and chats up the other customers.

"Are you here with a Groupon?" Stevens asks a man exiting the spa.

"No," the man says, disappointed. He paid full price, with real money.

Sucker.

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