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The height of frugality? To legally obtain merchandise for free – something for nothing. This is what drives extreme couponers, who have mastered the art of combining discounts on household products to eliminate some or even all of their cost. And it gets some of them on TV reality shows like TLC’s Extreme Couponing.
But as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, major retailers are now cracking down on this practice. So maybe this is a good time to ask: Was it ever really worth it?
Even when you get a product for free, it still has other costs. Here are six reasons why most people maybe shouldn’t aspire to be extreme coupon collectors (or TLC reality stars)…
1. Value your time
It’s not easy to search for coupons, organize them, and present them at your local retailer in just the right configurations. While there are plenty of stories about people who walked out of the grocery store with $80 of food for $5, they rarely mention the hours it took to plot their purchases.
Tip: Many people can make money with other activities in their spare time. Keep track of how much time you spend on this hobby and decide if it’s actually more worthwhile than other opportunities.
2. Be particular about what you consume
I wouldn’t take home most items sold in the supermarket even if they were given to me. Many are unhealthy or simply not to my family’s taste. But extreme couponers take home cartloads of random goods – I saw one episode of TLC’s show where a woman bought a dozen squeeze bottles of yellow mustard – so I wonder: Do they really want, need, or use this stuff?
Tip: “Free” is just another price point, and price should never be the only factor in your shopping habits.
3. Go for bigger discounts
We have a saying in my family: “Pinch twenties, not pennies.” Are grocery store coupons really the most valuable discounts you can find?
Tip: If you are going to spend your time searching for great deals, set your sights a little higher than 10 cents off a packet of tuna fish. Far more lucrative deals are out there, from “travel hacks” to a myriad of savings on the Money Talks News Deals & Coupon page.
4. Look for non-coupon savings
Grocery store purchases make up a huge portion of a family’s budget, but there are ways to save money without going coupon-crazy. Sometimes, coupons can cost you more – especially when generic products cost less even with the brand-name coupon factored in.
Tip: Focus on the unit cost of each item. For example, each week I find that a different-sized container of the same brand of orange juice has a lower price per ounce. And check out 7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic.
5. Don’t ruin everyone’s day
It must be terrible to find out that the person checking out in front of you has a folder full of coupons and that they intend to present them to the cashier for the next 10 minutes. And it doesn’t seem like fun to always be bickering with store personnel over the maximum discount allowed by the terms of each offer.
Tip: Be aware of anyone in line in front of you who has a huge binder with them. And if you do engage in extreme couponing, be polite and forewarn your fellow shoppers in line.
6. Have fun
Some people like to flip through every page of the Sunday paper and clip coupons – it’s relaxing as well as money-saving. But unless you are one of them, do you really want to spend your time off pursuing this hobby?
Tip: Frugality is important, but unless you’ve taken a vow of poverty, it’s not an end unto itself. Never forget that saving money should be a means to a better life, not just free stuff.
While I admire the ingenuity and dedication of extreme couponers, I question the value of their pursuit. I have yet to be convinced that extreme couponing is how my family should be spending its leisure time.