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Extremely Couponed

With the end of the Jersey Shore season, it was only a matter of time before my reality TV fixation dropped anchor on the shores of TLC’s Extreme Couponing. My first response was that couponing women – couponing seems to be an almost exclusively female obsession – are not a new phenomenon.

Years ago, it seemed that every time I picked up Good Housekeeping or Woman’s Day I would fall afoul of some scissor-wielding couponista who fed a family of 12 on $2.09 a week. I assumed they fed them a steady diet of ketchup sandwiches and Kool-Aid. Even in the heyday of double coupons, I couldn’t feed two people on the budgets these shining examples of domestic thrift claimed.

I’d been coupon-free for 15 years, when Extreme Couponing seduced me back into the dark netherworld of competitive couponing. Hawaiian vacations paid for with shampoo coupons! New cars financed with savings from a five-year soup supply! Mortgage-free living from discounts garnered from a freezer full of fish sticks!

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It was just a matter of time before lightening struck chez Schuk when CVS offered $1 off on Revlon nail polish PLUS $3 in “ExtraCare Bucks” (a species of currency negotiable only in CVS stores). I bought four bottles of nail polish – and garnered $12 in ExtraCare Bucks (ECBs).

The following week I clipped all the Sunday coupons and carefully perused the Santa Clara CVS circular instead of the New York Times Book Review. Pantene hair products were on sale that week – plus $2 in ECBs – and I had four $1-off coupons. Little did I know it was beginner’s luck, but the proverbial horse was out of the barn.

Two $3-off coupons for Garnier Nutris face cream – on sale for $5 with a $5 ECB bonus. Two $1-off coupons for Colgate toothpaste, on sale for $2.79. A $3-off L’Oreal eye makeup – buy-one-get-one-half-off plus $2 in ECBs. Coke for $0.79 for a 2-liter bottle. Deodorant for $0.99. With all I was saving, I figured that my $25 in prescriptions would come out free.

I figured wrong. This savings orgy cost me $80. And the ExtraCare Bucks added up to a measly…$12. It turns out there’s lots of small print on those shelf tags, like “Limit one reward per customer.”

I was crestfallen. I wasn’t even a contender in the couponing decathlon. Sure I had saved $44 – $56 if you count those ECBs. But I didn’t come anywhere near that under-$10-shopping-trip gold.

So it was timely to find Farnoosh Torabi’s article, “Extreme Coupons: TV Show Draws Extreme Backlash,” at financiallyfit.yahoo.com. Torabi notes that consumers aren’t the only ones tuning in to Extreme Couponing. So are retailers.

And, as a result they’re tightening up on maneuvers such as “stacking” manufacturer and store buy-one-get-one coupons to effectively get two items free. Like gambling, in the end the odds are inevitably stacked in favor of the house.

SupermarketGuru.com blogger Phil Lempert goes so far as to question whether Extreme Couponing is eroding viewers’ self-esteem. “No longer feeling good about saving $10, or 10% to 20%,” writes Lempert, “shoppers are…becoming depressed that they are not able to buy $1,000 or more groceries for 25 cents.”

SuddenlyFrugal.com’s Leah Ingram compares it to judging yourself by magazine cover girls who are airbrushed to unrealistic perfection.

A realistic couponing target is saving 10 to 30 percent, according to Lempert. And you can get most of that saving with less than an hour of coupon-clipping. If you’re spending more time, you’d be better off getting a part-time job.

As for me, I’m not sure about my future participation in the couponing sweepstakes. I’ll let you know when I use up all that shampoo in 2015.

When she’s not watching new episodes of Celebrity Rehab and Hoarders, Carolyn Schuk can be reached at cschuk@earthlink.net.

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