Dumpster Divers or Culture Jammers?: TLC’s Extreme Couponers

May 5, 2011
By | 3 Comments

Extreme Couponing fits squarely within TLC’s lineup of programs, all of which put peoples’ oddities on display for viewers to judge. Like Hoarding: Buried Alive, Quints by Surprise, My Strange Addiction, and Toddlers & Tiaras, Extreme Couponing evokes surprise, and even disgust for the lengths to which people go to accumulate coupons, acquire products, and display their stockpiles. It fails, however, to thoroughly explore people’s motivations for their actions.

Each episode typically tells the stories of two extreme couponers: how they began couponing, what methods they use, and how they store what they have accumulated. With this established, most episodes focus on a major shopping trip in which couponers strategize to bring home “the biggest haul” of their lives. Planning and executing this shopping trip consumes the couponers, who after hours in the checkout line watching every move of the cashier, have to transport the enormous volume of products to their homes. For example, Amanda spends 3 hours in her grocery store to fill 9 carts. The store’s computer crashes during the 2-hour checkout, requiring the cashier to begin again and drawing crowds of gawking shoppers and staff. Throughout the process she worries about whether she planned properly and if she will have a larger bill than she can afford. In the end, she needs two vehicles to transport her haul, but feels victorious: using 1000 coupons, she paid only $51.67 for products with a retail value of $1175.33. She already had 10,000 food, cleaning, and health care items at home, including a 40-year supply of toilet paper.

While the show focuses on these shocking spectacles of consumption, I am more drawn to the brief moments when the couponers offer justifications for their actions. For instance, Jaime describes how couponing was a hobby until her husband lost his job and her daughter was hospitalized. She shares that couponing empowered her to support her family for very little money. Joyce reveals that she has been “on her own” since she was 12 and that she began couponing when she realized that coupons could help her stretch her budget. Thirty years later, she is debt free and teaches couponing in her community. Nathan has been couponing for 4 years, prompted by the realization that he and his wife were “drowning in debt.” He boasts that they are now debt free and believes that the stash of products in his 2-car garage is “every man’s dream.”

These human stories are incredibly compelling, demonstrating a clever way that some Americans make ends meet during a major economic recession. With the 2010 unemployment rate at 9.6%, the 2009 poverty rate at 14.3%, and the 2009 median household income at $49,777, extreme couponing is a clever and fairly subversive way of using manufacturers’ and retailers’ marketing techniques against them. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “tactics,” extreme couponers combine coupons with store policies to maximize their savings potential, taking home piles of goods for little or no money. Certainly the couponers’ ostentatious collections of methodically organized canned goods, toilet paper, and hand soap do reveal some compulsive tendencies, but the earnestness with which couponers work the system to acquire their stashes provides a peek at the warped economic system that has grown so big that it simultaneously threatens the financial security of working class citizens, provides them with the tools to exploit the big businesses at its core, and displays it on cable television!

In 2010, consumers redeemed more coupons for consumer packaged goods than ever before, saving $3.7 billion. Despite this, they redeemed only 3.1% of the 332 billion coupons available. It is easier for TLC to portray extreme couponers as unstable dumpster divers than as culture jammers—and this certainly fits squarely within the channel’s identity. But certainly viewers frustrated with layoffs, bailouts, and corporate greed can read between the lines to think about how they could get more for less. I, for one, will never experience the grocery store in the same way again.


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3 Responses to “ Dumpster Divers or Culture Jammers?: TLC’s Extreme Couponers ”

  1. Rebecca on May 5, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    As a part of the personal finance blog community, I can tell you that this show has caused quite a stir. Many couponers are upset at the methods displayed – going so far as to call them fraud. Some are concerned that the show will lead to increased regulations and limited benefits that will harm their own couponing practices. I’ve definitely seen an attitude of “I can’t believe you didn’t keep it in the family!” and “You’re making my side look bad!”.

  2. Emily Chivers Yochim on May 5, 2011 at 8:45 PM


    Thanks for this thoughtful post. What I find particularly compelling about this show is the sheer amount of labor required to employ these tactics. The consumers “working the system” are, quite literally, working. Arguably, the portrayal of all those hours spent on saving is another reason that TLC can portray this type of culture jamming – few are willing/able to dedicate the time. Certainly, retailers depend on the low usage numbers for coupons that you offered in your piece.

    I’m also intrigued by the justifications offered on the show; I haven’t watched it regularly, but one extreme couponer made care packages for troops and regarded his own stash as a kind of safeguard against the possibility of future economic woes. In that episode, at least, the work of couponing became almost patriotic.

  3. Melissa Click on May 9, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    Rebecca: thanks for your comments. I agree that the way TLC frames couponers’ strategies makes it seem a bit sketchy. Fan communities often respond similarly (to the couponers you reference) when they receive publicity. I wondered, too, if the visibility the practice receives through the show might impact manufacturer and store policies!

    Emily: I also saw the episode where “Mr. Coupon” shops for the troops (he has also donated to a food bank). I agree that it made couponing seem patriotic, but I also saw it as a way to justify the practice and the accumulation of products that folks could never use on their own (his stash of deodorant and body wash is unbelievable)! He’s the only couponer in the series that I’ve seen donating–most folks (like you said) keep a stash for themselves just in case–I’m pretty sure TLC covers this on their show on hoarding! 😉