When I told the woman at the hotel check-in desk what I’d come for, I almost whispered it out of shame.
“I’m sorry?” the woman behind the check-in desk replied.
“I’M HERE FOR THE EXTREME COUPONING WORKSHOP,” I repeated, loud enough to feel my shame double.
The premise of extreme couponing—a concept first explained in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article and labeled “the newest extreme sport”—entails inundating teenage grocery store clerks with deluges of discounts in order get enormous amounts of food while reducing one’s food bill to, hopefully, little to nothing. Being able to acquire hundreds of dollars of oft-superfluous items (bottles upon bottles of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise—condiments, mostly condiments) at little personal cost (except, of course, hours upon hours of time) is the goal.
A litany of things bother me about extreme couponing, but one of the foremost may be one of the practice’s implications: that poverty is merely a byproduct of not knowing the right lifehacks. If all it takes to eat for free is a pair of scissors and a Sunday paper, why does hunger exist at all?
Extreme couponing is a product of the recession. At the beginning, at least, it was an activity driven by a sense of need, undertaken by those who were not truly needy. From the WSJ:
The number of coupons redeemed rose 27%, to 3.3 billion from 2.6 billion in 2008, says Inmar Inc., a coupon-processing agent. The year-over-year percentage increase was the largest since Inmar started tracking the statistic more than 20 years ago.
Fueling the increase isn’t the general populace but heavy coupon users, people who redeem 104 or more coupons over six months, according to an August report by The Nielsen Co. These users tend to be females under the age of 54 with college degrees and household incomes above $70,000, Nielsen says.
Though surely any household can put any extra money in the budget to good use, extreme couponers—the ones that proclaimed that identity—did so as a hobby first. Some donated their spoils, but in general the premise of the activity came much closer to an extravagant form of hoarding: people filled their garages with condiments that would expire before anyone could eat them and deodorants that would never get used. It was an American activity through and through—the Super Bowl of home ec.
But now, a full three years after the cancellation of the TLC show about Heinz-hoarding hausfraus that bore the activity’s name, who is still extreme couponing? I was at the workshop to find out.
The workshop was held in an Oxnard, California hotel, which shares a parking lot with an outpost of DeVry University. Oxnard is one of those cities best looked at through a rearview mirror, and often is, with the 101 jutting right through it, beckoning you to exit. The area is one of the wealthiest in America, but Oxnard’s economic base is contracting; its large middle class is rapidly choking. It is, in sum, the perfect locale for an extreme couponing workshop.
I secured my (free, naturally) ticket to the workshop online; this, I noted upon entering the hotel ballroom, was apparently unnecessary. There was no one there, save an excitable blonde woman eating a salad out of a reusable plastic container, a middle aged bald man with a walrus-esque mustache and a woman who seemed much too young to be cavorting with the other two. The tableau gripped me with anxiety, until realized I’d just come early.
“Don’t go anywhere!” Walrus Mustache teased as I walked to the hotel bar for a much-needed beer, which I chugged, as the only thing more depressing than showing up to an extreme couponing workshop is showing up early.
My fellow attendees eventually began trickling in, many of the women wearing faux leather fall boots, tights as pants, and slouchy sweaters with Native American prints on them. Two women sitting in front of me, who I dubbed the “Horse Ladies” on account of their ass-length manes, chatted while Sara Bareilles’ 2013 hit “Brave” blared overhead.
We were given a series of handouts, which proclaimed that our “family can easily get by on hundreds less and consume all the same products and brands” by purchasing “multiple Sunday newspapers.” The event, I quickly learned while perusing the handouts, existed solely to peddle subscriptions to the Ventura County Star, a publication I had never heard of but promised to be packed with the “screaming deals!” my family needed to “act as the ultimate grocery budget buffer.”
Our instructor was Veronica, a self-described “extreme savings mom” who aesthetically resembled a combination of Nikki Glazer and Amy Schumer. There were only about 40 people in the room, but nonetheless she wore a “Truth or Dare”-era Madonna headset mic; every third word she uttered was “mmmkay.” Veronica promised that we could, under her tutelage, learn how to do all our extreme couponing in less than 15 minutes a week. “I hear a couple of gasps,” she said after dropping this truth bomb.
“I haven’t always been a couponer,” she confided, taking us on a journey back to 2008, the year she lost her job. At the time, she was spending over $800 a month on food and household goods for her four-person family. Money was tight—real tight. They, in turn, had to make a lot of budget cuts, up to and including being unable to buy her new shoes: a mother’s greatest sacrifice, as her tone suggested.
And so, six years ago, Veronica was just like us; sitting in the audience of an extreme couponing presentation, flushing her money down the goddamned drain and watching her marriage—razors, she tells us, and the expensive price thereof, nearly “ruined it”—spiral around said drain. Once she saw the light and began couponing, however, life took a turn for the better. Remember that $800 a month grocery budget? She slashed it down to $250. And all by purchasing four weekly subscriptions to the Ventura County Star.
Her husband initially didn’t want her to; he worried what the neighbors would think when four papers arrived on their doorstep every Sunday. What a coward, I thought to myself. Did he learn nothing from Apple’s “Think Different” campaign?
After spending 45 minutes playing clips (of her “friends,” naturally) from TLC’s Extreme Couponing, giving us further backstory and telling us an uncomfortable amount of facts about her husband (their relationship appeared, from an outsider’s perspective, tense at best), Veronica finally delivered the goods, divulging the two golden rules of extreme couponing:
1. Only use a coupon when there’s a store sale or promotion.
2. Always buy in multiples.
The easiest way to fuck up, she told us, was shopping out of necessity. Oh, I’m sorry—do you need spaghetti sauce for the pasta you just bought on sale? No. You don’t. Because you know they always jack up the price of sauce when pasta’s on sale. C’mon, what is this—amateur hour? Shop when, and only when, shit’s on sale, dumbass. Every three to four months, certain products drop to ROCK BOTTOM prices. Combine those prices with coupons and you’ll save even MORE FUCKING MONEY. Don’t give in and buy that sauce. WAIT TWO FUCKING MONTHS UNTIL IT’S ON SALE, NUMB NUTS. And then buy four.
I am paraphrasing, but her tone was only a little less confrontational.
“A lot of you are thinking,” she said, “but, Veronica—it’s just me. Do I really need to buy four? YES.” According to her, true couponers need to build a “stockpile” of their favorite products—the first three to four months of couponing is considered your stockpiling period, followed by the “restocking phase,” wherein you replace what you use.
In order to get there, you need to buy four newspapers a week, too, because remember, you need to stockpile—buying anything less than four of anything at this juncture is a fool’s errand. And besides, the more you buy, the more you hear those “beautiful beeps” of coupons being scanned, putting “money back in your pocket.” Because paying full price is death. The real f-word in her family, she tells us, is “full price.” That’s two words.
And, you “don’t need to have a huge basement” in order to cobble together a respectable stockpile. “Could you imagine if we had basements?” Veronica asked, going off on one of many tangents. “We’d all lock our kids down there in a padded room and have a clean house!” What an odd thing to say, I thought to myself. But if she locked her kids in the basement, she wouldn’t be able to get her 7-year-old to buy items in separate transactions in order to use more coupons, which was another recommended technique.
The two women sitting behind me started getting antsy as Veronica began on another tangent about toothpaste. “Why would you pay for the stuff that you’re gonna spit out?” she asked. “I always feels so bad whenever I see anyone paying for toothpaste.” Then she finally got real and started talking to us about how she didn’t much like paying for anything. “Whenever I buy juice,” she said “it’s typically when it’s free.”
“We’re couponers,” she said to the the crowd. ”Do we pay full price for anything?”
“No!” the crowd apathetically groaned back.
“That includes,” Veronica added, “where we get our coupons.”
Then, the time for the hard sale, the purpose of the workshop, came. It was time for Veronica to sell some Sunday papers. It’s the damndest thing—the deal on Ventura County Star subscriptions was valid tonight and tonight only, so we had to act now. With up to $590 in weekly discounts at a cost of $15.64 a month, “it [was] like they [were] almost paying you to take the Sunday paper!”
A good 20 or so people took the bait, lining up in front of a now-perturbed looking Walrus Mustache, ready to place their orders. A pop song about “the best day of my life” played, loudly, from Vanessa’s tablet.
What was overwhelmingly clear was that, in 2015, extreme couponers (or wannabe extreme couponers) were no longer there for sport or for bragging rights. They were not the middle-class, bubbly women who had popularized the practice, nor the middle-class, bubbly woman who was there trying to sell it to them. The competitive glee that had defined extreme couponing in 2010 was totally gone. Everyone at the workshop, it seemed, was there to try and provide for their families in a world in which the richer keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The line for subscriptions for the coupon newspaper was like a line for lottery tickets, the activity a combination of whim and last resort. The scene was, in a word, depressing. In two words, fucking depressing. Financial need was being exploited by people selling superfluous newspaper subscriptions.
Before the workshop, I’d viewed extreme couponing as what I’d seen on television—a shamelessly intense, middle-class pastime centered around hoarding foodstuffs. I was embarrassed to associate myself with it. But I was wrong. My fellow attendees were not there for the purposes I assumed they were. They lined up quietly, embarrassed to be there too.
Megan Koester is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter at @bornferal.
Gifs via YouTube