Question: “I am a longtime coupon shopper and am dismayed by some of the things I’ve seen on the “Extreme Couponing” TV show. I have seen shoppers use coupons in ways they shouldn’t. One had $3 coupons for a certain type of laundry detergent but the shopper used it on a different kind and took home 54 bottles. Another episode showed a woman using a bunch of coupons for free toilet paper. I have those coupons, too, and they are ‘limit one per customer!’”
And another: “Jill, I follow your coupon blog and saw the story you wrote on one of the shoppers apparently misusing coupons. I saw photos from the show where a shopper appeared to use a $1 coupon good for one pound of lunchmeat to purchase lunchmeat singles in order to get them free. The register beeped like crazy, but the cashier pushed them through.”
Answer: Even before I became a coupon workshop instructor and columnist, the ethics of coupon shopping were important to me. I view my coupon usage almost with awe. Shopping strategically with coupons has allowed me to cut my weekly grocery bill 50 to 70 percent every week. It’s an incredible privilege that has helped my family save money during tough financial times.
Using coupons is simple. Read the text on the coupon and use the coupon for the product and quantity specified. Beyond that, as coupons state in their terms, “Any other use constitutes fraud.”
Unfortunately, some “Extreme Couponing” shoppers appear to have misused coupons on the show. After the 2011 season premiere, many coupon shoppers from around the country began posting observations and screenshots from the show on my blog at www.jillcataldo.com (see, “Was coupon fraud shown on TLC’s ‘Extreme Couponing’?” under Popular Articles).
And, indeed, coupons did appear to be misused on the show. Coupons good for 50 cents off four-packs of yogurt were shown, but the shopper purchased single-serving cups that cost less than 50 cents. Higher-value coupons made the yogurt free –– but they weren’t the proper coupons for the item. In another episode, a shopper used $3 laundry detergent coupons good for a special stain-releasing variety to purchase the standard version of the product.
This kind of coupon misuse isn’t smart shopping –– it’s unethical. It’s also considered coupon fraud. Since the show aired, the detergent shopper released a statement that she mistakenly used the coupon for stain-releasing detergent on the wrong variety. Mistakes happen, and she was quick to address the issue.
But a shopper in the premiere episode appeared to misuse nearly every coupon, purchasing products that were not the ones that appeared on the coupons. There was an outcry from the online couponing community. The shopper later admitted in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that she used higher-dollar-value coupons intended for large sizes of products on the smaller varieties of those products, in order to get them for free.
Setting aside the questions of why the show and the store allowed shoppers to complete dubious transactions, I worry more about the example that it sets. As my e-mail inbox indicates, the show is inspiring thousands of people to pick up the scissors and start clipping.
But seeing coupons appear to be misused on television also validates it as a legitimate action in the eyes of many people. If audiences see a shopper on TV purposefully using coupons on the wrong products, they may wonder why they aren’t allowed to do the same thing when they enter the checkout lane.
Keep in mind that what you see on the TV show is not easy to duplicate in real life, whether it’s due to large quantities of items special-ordered in for the show, stores’ coupon policies relaxed or lifted to create a dramatic TV moment, or shoppers using coupons incorrectly.
But don’t be discouraged. You can save big with coupons on a scale that fits your time and budget. Next week, I’ll share some tips to help you get started.
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 email@example.com.