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COUPON QUEEN: Extreme Couponing: When too much isn’t enough

Special Photo: Jill Cataldo saves hundreds on groceries by making the most of the common coupon. You can, too.

Special Photo: Jill Cataldo saves hundreds on groceries by making the most of the common coupon. You can, too.

I’ve received thousands of e-mails from readers since the TLC TV series, “Extreme Couponing,” began airing, many like the following: “You should write a column about how to do extreme couponing. I want as much free groceries as possible.”

And this: “My store limits shoppers to ten like coupons per transaction. How do these people get away with buying 150 bottles of pain-relief pills? My store doesn’t even have room for more than 20 or so on the shelf!”

And this: “I shop at a major supermarket that was shown in one of the episodes. I know they have a rule that they will only double the first two coupons that are for the same items. The rest of the coupons ring up at the dollar amount on them. But on the show, the cashier made it so every coupon doubled. That doesn’t seem fair.”

One of the easiest ways to get a product free with coupons is to match a $1 coupon to a $1 sale, making the product free. If you have one $1 coupon, you’ll take one home free. If you have 100, in theory, you’d take 100 home free.

That’s the premise behind much of the “Extreme Couponing” show: if one coupon is good, more is better. However, the reality isn’t necessarily what’s on TV. Any time you see someone purchasing 150 of the same item, the grocer has likely special-ordered the item just to accommodate that shopping trip. Other shoppers have written saying they shop in some of the same chains shown on the show, but the stores’ policies and rules seemed to take a backseat to the show’s filming. The average shopper would not be allowed to use as many coupons as the TV shoppers did. Here’s another disparity between “Reality TV” and reality:

As seen on TV: It’s because of double coupons that people get so much free.

Reality: The store may have relaxed its coupon policy for the show’s filming, allowing people to take home dramatic amounts for free.

When stores double coupons, a 50-cent coupon rings up as a $1 discount at the register. As someone who lives in an area where most stores do not double coupons, it is always amazing to see how much more I could save if my stores doubled. But, as some readers have pointed out, stores that double coupons typically have rules in place for the doubling.

If I drive out of my area to stores that double coupons, I’m limited to two chains, both of which have fairly strict rules for doubling. The first has the same policy the reader noted above: the store will double two like coupons per transaction, but the rest of the coupons ring up at face value. The second will double five coupons per transaction with a $25 minimum purchase. Neither would be good candidates for an “Extreme Couponing” shopping trip. The trips shown on the TV show are designed to wow and impress. Regular shoppers must abide by store rules, so they cannot easily duplicate “Extreme Couponing” savings drama.

Another issue that “Extreme Couponing” shoppers rarely have to contend with is finding empty shelves or products out-of-stock. Coupon shoppers know the frustration of chasing a popular deal, only to find it sold out for most of the week at our favorite store. This doesn’t happen on TV. Many of the shoppers featured on the show later acknowledged that they special-ordered products at the stores well before their trips, in order to ensure a camera-ready moment.

They needed large quantities of certain products on hand –– like 150 bottles of pain relievers –– in order to create a dramatic moment at the register. Again, it may make for interesting television, but it’s not a normal shopping trip.

Next week, I’ll discuss a darker side to extreme couponing. It’s something you definitely shouldn’t attempt to duplicate.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.jillcataldo.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.