TLC’s ‘Extreme Couponing’ Distorts Reality

Last week, TLC aired a special on couponing cleverly called, Extreme Couponing. In anticipation of the re-play tonight, I feel as though I should introduce myself by saying, "My name is Adrienne, and I'm a couponer, but I'm not crazy."

Extreme Couponing featured people who dug through dumpsters, bought out all of a product at the grocery store, spent 70+ hours a week looking for coupons or planning, and amassed huge stockpiles of goods that needed insurance policies. Sure they saved thousands of dollars each year, but they did it at the cost of relationships, health and sanity.

To put it simply: TLC either highlighted the freaks and not the normal people who coupon or purposely manipulated the subjects to make them seem as over-the-top and crazy as possible.

As a couponer, I'm dismayed that TLC took the angle of creating a prequel to A&E's Hoarders. Given the success of Sarah Palin's Alaska and Kate Plus Eight, TLC has tremendous power and influence over the culture of America.

In these difficult economic times, the cable channel could have shown practical strategies for shaving dollars off of your bills for groceries, medicine, personal care items and clothes. Instead, they purposely exaggerated these money-saving techniques and instructed each of the four people interviewed to do something "extreme."

When I heard about the show through various money-saving blogs and discussed it with my mom and college roommate who also coupon, I was excited. For nearly a year now, I've tried to coupon and use online sales to save money.

One year ago, my mom and I took a class in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was offered at a local church and taught by Jenny Martin, who runs Southern Savers. The large sanctuary was packed, and the audience, which was overwhelmingly female, squeezed into the pews. Clearly, this strange couponing phenomenon resonated and explained why some of my Facebook friends were posting photos of their grocery purchases.

I had recently lost my job and wanted to save money. Days after taking the coupon class, I totaled my car in an accident on the interstate with a tractor trailer and miraculously escaped with just a minor scratch. The two events proved to be a wake up call for me, and I immediately set out to build better financial habits that would prevent future financial woes.

And I've been successful. In 12 months, I've paid several credit cards, built up my emergency fund, bought a used car and paid it off, and found tremendous deals along the way. Thanks to graduate school, it will be years before I'm debt free, but I'm on strong financial footing for the first time in my life. I still spend too much, and I've gone long stretches without couponing because of my job (couponing and politics are a challenge to balance), but I've saved a lot of money. (Even on organic food!)

Yet, according to TLC I'm some type of freak because I coupon.

The program emphasized how some couponers stockpile goods when they find them at bargain prices, which can lead to hoarding. Amanda Ostrowski, who has been featured on FrugalTV, had a 40-year supply of toilet paper for just her and her husband. Her stash, which had its own insurance policy, took up an extra bedroom in her house, the basement and was threatening her husband's "man cave." She admitted that her couponing came at the expense of relationships and a normal life.

Response from the online couponing community is one of disappointment. Jenny Martin at Southern Savers wrote an entire post in response and emphasized the ethics of couponing:

Tonight The Learning Channel (TLC) aired a show called Extreme Couponing. I have previously been approached to do such a show and have refused for a variety of reasons that to me have only been strengthened by this show. I know a lot behind reality shows is hype and misdirection, but turning people off from easy ways of saving money is something that makes me cringe. In today’s economy we need to be showing people how easy this is, and not overwhelm them or make them think we are insane!!

Joanie Demer, who writes at The Krazy Coupon Lady, and was featured on the show dumpster diving for coupons, said she wanted her legacy to be all the stuff she accumulated through couponing in her lifetime. She seems to be reveling in the attention and even tweeted a link to a Perez Hilton post.

Since the show premiered, she's clarified some of her responses and prominently posted videos donating food to charity. Nathan Engels, Mr. Coupon of WeUseCoupons.com, has also taken to the blogosphere to clear up perceptions the show left.

The Consumer Queen also responded in an effort to clear the perception:

You see, we couponers have had this negative stereotype over our heads with stores, cashiers etc. Most of the time it's because of a few bad apples who do things like using wrong coupons for the wrong items, clearing store shelves, not leaving any for others and of course coupon fraud. I have even stopped linking to certain blogs because they constantly post using coupons the wrong way. Many of us have worked hard for years teaching "Good Practice Methods" at coupon classes, talking to store managers etc.

Jill Cataldo, another prominent couponer who opted to not to do the show, had concerns. She wrote:

It's not worth it to me to compromise my ethics just to appear on television again, especially if it's going to portray me, and couponing in general, in a negative light. I've heard that since the taping, one of the women featured in the TLC Extreme Couponers show was uncomfortable with some of things the show's production team asked her to do on camera to appear "more extreme."

Collin Morgan of Hip 2 Save also agreed:

To me a great show on couponing would be a show that is teaching the average person how to coupon. A person that doesn’t have 70 hours a week to scour ads and clip coupons, a person that doesn’t have access to an entire garage to store all of their “goods”… and really, who needs that many “goods”?!

It’s called reality TV… but in my opinion, it’s definitely not realistic. As a coupon blogger, I hope Hip2Save motivates and inspires all of you. I try to make sure the videos I make ARE realistic and with that I mean, you will be able to go to the store and snatch up the same deals shown in the videos.

Again, I know this show is called Extreme Couponing, but I’m just not getting the point of the show and maybe that’s because I coupon in such a different way.

Yes, some couponers will go to great lengths to get coupons and save money, but the ones who I know adhere to an informal code of ethics, such as:

  • Only take two of each item. This can be two sets of coupons in the store, or two buy-one-get-one-free items. Leave something for other people. There's no reason to need nine shopping carts when couponing.
  • Don't photocopy coupons or steal them.
  • Only invest as much time as you have. Sure, you can get obsessed and spend 70-hours per week on this, but most people scale the time to their needs.

With the economy struggling and unemployment at nearly 10%, couponing is a real alternative for people to save money. We can't control the price of gas, but we can control how much we spend on bread, toothpaste, toilet paper and the hundreds of other items we use each day.

Not everyone who coupons is a hoarder. (I'm single and live in a one-bedroom apartment. There's no room!) I also only clip or print coupons for healthy foods that I'll eat. Yes, you can save a bundle on junk food or unhealthy food, but organic and healthy food goes on sale just as often (i.e. Target has Morning Star Farms products on sale this week). All TLC did was perpetuate myths about couponing and dramatize negative behaviors.

TLC had an opportunity to help thousands -- if not millions -- of Americans by displaying how couponing has improved their lives and helped them save money. How many people tuned in to see how to "extreme coupon" and are now turned off by the crazy hoarders? Will these people ever try to stack coupons or read a money-saving blog? Do they want to risk being associated with crazy people who dig through dumpsters and purchase so many items at the grocery store that they crash the cash register?

This was a wasted moment for TLC.

Adrienne works in the conservative movement and blogs at Cosmopolitan Conservative.

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