Lately, the Hartford Courant (which owns this publication) has been advertising itself on TV as purely a vehicle of coupons, promising hundreds of dollars in savings for the low-low-low-bargain cost of a less-than-$1-per-day subscription. Nowhere in this commercial is there a mention of the paper’s reporting, its columnists, or its local events coverage. It seems to be saying: pay your cents per day, get your coupons, and toss the newspaper away. And I’ve been wondering if that’s proved an effective advertising strategy. Why would anyone subscribe to a newspaper for the coupons?
And then I saw an upcoming episode of TLC’s latest freak-spotlight reality program, “Extreme Couponing.” Next week’s installment (airing May 18, 8 p.m.) features an extreme couponer from Maine and an extreme couponer from right here in Connecticut, over in Groton. They are the people who subscribe to newspapers for the coupons.
While the coupon-clippers on “Extreme Couponing” certainly seem a little bit crazy, gently dusting their basement-crowding “stockpiles” and literally breaking into sweats at the register, the show’s spirit is, sort of, inspirational. With enough hard work and perseverance(!), these obsessive couponers reduce high three-digit grocery totals to, literally, nothing. Sometimes less than nothing. (When the aptronymly named Treasure, who says she is “known as the stockpiler of Connecticut,” beats her final cost of $144 down to negative 75 cents, she uses what is now store credit to buy a couple of candy bars, which readjusts her total to 1 single cent.)
These terrific displays of victory in the checkout aisles are accompanied by cheering, dancing, and, as Maine couponer Chyrstie admits, professions of feeling a little guilt at having beat the system so thoroughly. And those celebrations are well earned: extreme couponing requires meticulous calculating, inventory taking and coupon cataloging. While I was drooling a bit over Treasure’s $1,100 stash of laundry detergent — for which she paid nothing — I was also only vaguely repelled by that stash’s ultimate uselessness and imposing bulkiness. (How is she ever going to get through all of that detergent?)
The stockpiles exhibited in “Extreme Couponing” are presented lustily, with closeups on orderly shelves and stacked palettes. That $1,100 in laundry detergent might not ever get used, but Treasure acquired it anyway, for free, because she worked hard for it. And when Treasure compares her inventory to that of a grocery store’s (“We never run out of anything,” her husband says), she’s proud, and I think we’re meant to feel envy.
In a writeup of the show in the New York Times’ Opinionator, Virginia Heffernan draws apt parallels between this show and TLC’s other show, “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
“Where a hoard is disgusting and proof of pathology,” writes Heffernan, “a stockpile is as orderly as a grocery store, and proof of sound home economics.”
She also touches on America’s obesity problem, and hoarding could be the grand metaphor for the perception that people don’t know when to stop, or how. If hoarding like the hoarders in “Hoarding” might be the metaphor for overeaters, hoarding like the stockpilers in “Extreme Couponing” might be the metaphor for extreme health nuts, dieters and exercisers. Hoarders are gloomy, gross, sad, lonely and disturbed. Extreme couponers are aggressively Type-A people, control freaks, strategists. But their stashes look good, their finances pristine. They might be a little crazy, but, hey, Treasure doesn’t even pay for her toilet paper. It’s because she’s a control freak that she’s seemingly so in control.
But all of this entails obsessive hours of clipping, searching and strategizing. It’s amazing these couponers are able to pull it off. Both women in this episode have children and a household to attend to. (Chrystie is a single mom!) They enlist the kids, Treasure puts her husband to work, Chrystie’s ex-husband pitches in. They scribble numbers on paper and go online for tips on what’s on sale, where. They’re experts in coupon policy (coupon limits per transaction, transaction limits per household). Chrystie subscribes to four Sunday newspapers.
If “Extreme Couponing” becomes the inspiration it seems to aspire toward, maybe the Hartford Courant’s appeal to bargain shoppers is genius. (In fact, you can learn how to coupon like Treasure does at her website, couponshoppingwithtreasure.com; other couponers on the show teach couponing classes. Treasure’s trademarked slogan: “Buy what you need when you don’t need it!”)
But just the other day there was a Groupon for 86 percent off a subscription to the Hartford Courant. Now I’m worried we’re burning candles at two ends.
The Grotesquely Inspiring Control-Freakiness of 'Extreme Couponing'
Chrystie, celebrating at the register.