Is It Possible to Be an Extreme Couponer?

by Emily Guy Birken · 23 comments

The new TLC show about savvy coupon shoppers is certainly shocking to watch. These dedicated coupon-clippers spend hours each week planning their grocery trips, finishing with huge hauls worth hundreds to thousands of dollars—and they walk away with only a few dollars leaving their wallets. I’ll admit that some of the details of the shoppers’ lives turned me off. I couldn’t imagine having so much food and toiletries stockpiled that I would need to store things in bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, basements, attics and so on. But watching the checkout price go from nearly $600 to less than $10 is certainly tempting. So, how do these extreme couponers do what they do? Here are the secrets behind paying almost nothing at the grocery store:

1. Get extra copies of coupon inserts. Couponers find multiple ways of doing this—from subscribing to multiple copies of the Sunday newspaper, to asking the newspaper to deliver the extra inserts that would otherwise be chucked, to dumpster-diving for coupons, to using online coupon services. Having multiple coupons for products allows you to stockpile items at the rock-bottom price, which is how many of the extreme couponers end up with a grocery store replicated in their homes. In addition to coupon inserts, you can also find printable coupons online. These are free, but you can only print one coupon per product.

2. Shop the grocery circulars before you shop the store. Once you have your coupons, you will need to match them to deals, promotions and store coupons. If you just go straight to the store with your coupons, you may find that the generic brand is cheaper than the name brand, even with the coupon. However, by matching your coupon deal with other deals, including double or triple couponing, you will be able to get products for a great deal cheaper.

3. Organize! Matching all of these coupons requires incredible levels of organization. One method for keeping coupons orderly and right where you need them is to use a binder for displaying baseball cards and using tabs to keep track of what type of product is where in the binder. From there, you will need a system for creating a list of items, the price, the coupon, etc. Systems will differ from shopper to shopper—and I’ll admit that this is the area that will keep me personally from ever becoming an extreme couponer. I have neither the temperament nor organizational skills to take the time week after week to play with coupons, lists, circulars and calculators.

4. Plan ahead for your trip to the store. Some coupons specify that only one coupon can be used per item per transaction, so you will want to separate your lists and keep “transactions” separate in your cart. You will also want to make sure you have your coupons organized into easily accessible groups so that you can quickly find those you need. Checking out as an extreme couponer can be stressful for the cashier and other patrons, so plan your trip for a low-traffic time, like early morning or late evening, and be sure to let your cashier and shoppers behind you in line know that this will probably be a long order.

5. Remember that it’s just a show. Though it is possible to be an extreme couponer and save hundreds (or thousands) at the grocery store, it’s also possible to let this method of shopping take over your life—as several of the individuals showcased have made clear. A quick look at couponing websites shows that most coupon bloggers feel that the show exhibits unrealistic looks at how to save money and how real couponers live. Most real couponers will only stockpile through the next sale cycle, rather than for the next decade. And since coupons are almost always for non-perishables, remember that it’s impossible to always be an extreme couponer—without fresh produce, dairy and meats, you’d get scurvy and rickets.

If you’re willing to dedicate the time and energy to the task, it is more than possible to significantly reduce your grocery bill through coupons. Just remember that your time isn’t free, no matter how many free toothbrushes you can get by spending your time with extreme couponing.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • AJ says:

    I rarely use coupons because I rarely buy brand or prepared foods. The generics are often less than brand even with coupons. Also many of the generics are made by the brand companies. In the cases of OTC drugs and healthcare items such as special toothpaste for sensitive teeth have the exact same active ingredients. Saw this when comparing Sensidine (sp?) and the CVS version. Been checking everything since. Do I still like certain brand items over generics? Yes, but very limited.

    The bulk of my savings is from making items from scratch. Biscuik and pancake mixes are 4 times the cost of putting together the ingredients myself and in most cases, I have these ingredients on hand already.

  • Dallas says:

    Ok the price of eating organic foods, non procesed foods is extremely high, if you can do this great, you probably don’t need to coupon. If your ok with shelling out a 1000 dollars a month and are able to spend that much then good for you. Many POOR people would rather eat something than to starve, I know BUT YOUR YOUNG MUSCLE MAN DOES NOT EAT FOOD LIKE THAT but WHO cares what you or him eat or don’t eat. If you want to use coupons, use coupons. If you want to talk smack, brag about your dietary habbits, prove your superior in some way to OTHERS who uses coupons, shut your yap. My wife and I use coupons and have for amost a year. We make well over 100k a year and have a great little stock pile. BTW the dates on many products are SELL BY DATES not a date that products mysteriously go sour over night, EXPLODE at the stroke of midnight on the sell date or will poison masses of people if not eaten by. Many products sell by dates have nothing to do with how long they are good for on the shelves of your home, unopened and tempered conditions. It is however great seeing that so many PERFECT people found the time to knock something that is helping SO many while 47% of the country is getting some kind of government assistance, food stamps increased under Oworthless by 85% but the genuses of the country found thier way HERE to say thier peace about the evil couponers. LOL Sleep good perfect people, tomorrow may be the day that you have SHUT UP AND COUPON or starve!

  • Kim says:

    Couponing is a great way to get some items you use for free. Yes, there are a lot of coupons for junk. It’s okay to eat junk SOMETIMES there is nothing wrong with a treat. A lot of coupons buy the candy that is on sale for let’s say 70 cents. They have a dollar off so they get 30 cents back. If you buy 50 of those candy bars you earn $15. That $15 is what is used for items that don’t have a coupon. Those candy bars can then be sold by your kids to raise money for other things the family needs at $1 each earning another $15 (cost minus sale price) or given away to food banks. If you get the whole family involved it’s not so overwhelming but it will be hard at first.

  • Coupon Codes says:

    Coupons are the thing of the future and many shoppers will not buy unless they have a coupon or coupon code. That is the norm now a days. And for a word of advice when shopping on line use coupon codes almost all stores except them so don’t waist your money.

  • starcouponer says:

    I really am offended by how negative people talk about couponing yes some people become obsessed but only cause they started with financial struggle and now continue to do so even though their family is doing well I started extreme couponing 6 weeks ago because I lost my job and my husband is the only provider and we have saved 50 to 80 percent on our groceries and Florida is one of the states that doesn’t let you double coupon we have produce and fruit coupons and we eat healthy the candy coupons usually can give you overage to buy other stuff so we do it because there is no other option at first

  • Catherine says:

    Although extreme couponing is VERY impressive 1) let’s face it one has to live in an area that allows more then doubling up to 50 cents. 2) The other thing is,as other posters have noted, the majority of coupons are for processed foods. There is NO WAY my teenage son who is into body building and health would touch those foods with a 10 foot pole. I don’t blame him as I too stay away from all those chemical laden foods. My goodness on one run one person got 90 candy bars if I had that in my house along with all those stock piles of soda they get as well I would certainly be a diabetic.

    • Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide says:

      So, you don’t eat flour, baking powder, baking soda, pineapples, salad, salad dressing, soy sauce, chicken stock, sandwich meats, bacon, hot dogs or sausage, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, spices, vanilla, ketchup, barbecue sauce, pasta, canned tomatoes….?

  • Senior nutritionist says:

    So many it the foods they obtain with coupons are very high in calories. I admire their focus, but this is really an obsession. Note the bodies of these people. They are almost all grossly obese. They most likely…especially the women…have some deep psychological problems.

    • Stacie says:

      I could not disagree with this more, and am borderline offended by this. The blog I follow is run by two very skinny ladies. Also, I’m a couponer (I’m 5’10, 140 lbs definitely not even close to obese or even overweight) and I really try not to buy the junkfood that (granted) a big percentage of the coupons are for. But I am constantly gettting Total (and other healthy kinds) cereal for under $1.00, free toothpaste, free deodorant, cheap lunchmeat, fat free salad dressing and Campbell’s cooking soap for pennies. I coupon to stretch my families borderline welfare salary. So please, don’t knock it until you try it, or at least are informed about it.

    • Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide says:

      I’m 5’6″ and 130lbs (when not pregnant), and I use coupons. I don’t buy preprocessed dinners. You have to realize that when people do this for the show, they’re just getting the best deals of the week, regardless of whether it’s food they’d normally eat. They also buy extra coupons so the show looks impressive. A great deal of it is fake, done to look impressive, and isn’t reflective of how couponers, extreme or not, usually shop.

  • LookBeforeSpending says:

    Extreme Couponing like those on the TV show is something that no one should strive to do. The TV show is making it tougher for normal coupon users to save money. It is easy to match up sales with coupons and only get what you need for rock bottom prices. It takes me about an hour a week clipping, planning and organizing, but I have not paid for toothpaste, floss, shampoo, deodorant, body wash, medicine, cereal, eye drops, contact solution and much more for the past year. The savings are worth the 45 min-1 hour a week to me. I also combine that with frugal living and have reduced my credit card debt from 25,000 to 15,000 in about 9 months!
    For a little guidance on how to easily and ethically use coupons, check out LookBeforeSpending.

  • JT says:

    I think it’s definitely possible. Whether or not it is practical is a completely different story. I tried to get into it for awhile, but there is quite the learning curve involved–the cost to benefit just didn’t really make all that much sense.

  • Emily Guy Birken says:

    @Marie, you’re absolutely right. While I’ve never followed a vegan diet, I am a former vegetarian, and I know that it’s certainly a nutritious diet. Forgive the “shorthand” I used in my critique of extreme couponing.

  • Marie Curie says:

    Good article on what it actually takes to save extreme amounts of money with couponing. Just one little point of contention. While I agree that one cannot survive on only products that can be purchased with coupons, it is not correct to say that one will suffer from diseases of malnutrition without meat and dairy. Millions of people live long, healthy, productive lives without consuming animal products.

  • Justin says:

    It doesn’t matter how many times I see a coupon and think “hey, I’d actually use that coupon” and leave it on the kitchen counter for the next shopping trip, I always leave it at home by accident. I’ve probably thrown away 20 dollars worth of 40 cent Lipton’s Iced Tea coupons 🙂

    • Banjo Steve says:

      Hey, Justin. I always write my shopping list needs on the front of an envelope (usually gathered from junk mail) and put inside any coupons that I plan to use (as soon as I know that I’ll use them). And on the list, if I have a coupon for that item, I put an * beside the item to remind me. Easy.

    • Allison says:

      Hi Justin- it occurred to me just yesterday to keep my coupons in an envelope in my car.

  • Brandy says:

    I don’t think it’s all that real. I have tried it and am only allowed at the 10 different stores in 4 states to have 2 coupons per item. Plus I see on the show they have coupons for fruit and meat, I have never seen coupons for those ever. they have to much. The food probably expires before they ever get to it.

    • Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide says:

      1) Prepared/branded meats do have coupons. If you eat pepperoni, lunch meat, preprepared frozen meats in the meat section (like Lloyd’s barbecue), hot dogs, bacon, etc., will all frequently have coupons. Brands like Tyson’s occasionally have coupons for raw packaged meats, but not often. The best place for savings for raw, unbranded meat is A) clearance bin, and B) loss leaders. Buy ahead and save 40-50% and freeze. Meat freezes very well.

      2) Branded produce also has coupons sometimes. Dole pineapples have coupons all the time every summer. Bagged salads and similar have coupons all the time, as well. Sometimes stores like Safeway offer discounts for everything bought in the produce dept. I’ve gotten $3 off $15 for anything in produce as well as 20% all produce purchases through Safeway’s Just For U program. But your biggest savings in produce comes from shopping the best in-season specials. I typically save 35-50% in the produce dept.

      3) You don’t use “2 coupons per item.” You combine the best sales with a single coupon per item, especially doubled coupons, to get brand name goods for far less than the best sales on generics. I’ve gotten any number of things for free this way, and even more for less than $.50. You might think, “Oh, I don’t buy preprocessed foods!” But most of us buy things like cereal, soy sauce, salad dressing, canned soups, canned tomatoes, dried pasta, baking soda, baking powder, etc., etc. There are even coupons for flour and Kosher salt.

      I’m writing a book about how to save on groceries. 🙂 This is part of it.

  • Banjo Steve says:

    Ditto to what KM says. Even better than being a slave to coupons is being a master of frugality. Eat less, eat healthy, live smart.

  • KM says:

    I am all for coupons, but my problems with them are that 1. they all say you can’t use any other coupons in conjunction with that one, so saving 2% on something is usually not worth my time to organize, 2. they are for items I don’t buy. I just save the few that I think I would use and if I happen to buy that product, I definitely use the coupon, but I don’t make it a lifestyle.

    • Stacie says:

      replying to 1. – I think you’re referring to the fine print that says “limit one per purchase”. All that means is that you can only use 1 coupon per item that you purchase. So if you have a coupon for $1.00 a tube of toothpaste, you can’t use 2 of those coupons on the 1 tube of toothpaste. But you can use LOTS of coupons in your entire transaction. You can use that toothpaste coupon AND a cereal coupon AND a lunch meat coupon, etc. Just to clarify 🙂 (if you can’t tell, I’m a couponer! I’m only 23 and I saved over $600 in the last four months so it’s definitely do-able)

      • dawn parish says:

        I have 6 kids and we live paycheck to paycheck, I’m trying to figure out how to do this extreme couponing. I watch the shows all the time but I don’t live in a big city so how do I get a stockpile going and finding coupons?

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