For more than a century, coupon-clipping has been a way for people to save a little money at the supermarket. While browsing through the Sunday newspaper inserts with scissors in hand fell out of favor for a while around the turn of the millennium, couponing became popular again once the recession hit, and this popularity was compounded by the success of a new reality TV show, Extreme Couponing. Shoppers featured on this show regularly racked up stunning savings, going home with hundreds of dollars in items for just a few dollars or even for free. But while stories like these have drawn many to try hard-core couponing for themselves, reality isn't often quite as spectacular as what we see on TV.
How Did We Get Here?
The first coupon was distributed by Coca-Cola in 1887 for a free glass of Coke. It was the idea of an Atlanta businessman named Asa Candler, and this move helped to position Coca-Cola as a dominant force in the marketplace. During an almost 20-year span, an estimated 1 in 9 people in the United States redeemed a coupon for a free glass of Coke. Following Coke's lead, other promoters and retailers began to offer their own discounts in the form of coupons, including a one-cent-off coupon for Grape Nuts cereal in 1895. Americans struggling during the Great Depression turned to coupons to help put food on their tables, making them even more popular. As time went on, couponing became a hobby for many but an obsession for some.
The dawn of the Internet added new tools to a couponer's arsenal. Some stores and manufacturers offer printable coupons or online coupon codes on their websites or in their apps, and communities have sprung up for couponers to share coupons, news about sales, and tips on how to maximize their savings.
TV vs. Reality
Today, reality television shows feature real people doing extraordinary things, including using coupons to purchase cartloads of products for pennies on the dollar or even for free. But as with any TV show meant to entertain us, what we see on these programs isn't always an accurate portrayal of reality. For instance, shows like "Extreme Couponing" don't always fully delve into the time commitment involved in this level of coupon use. A 30-minute episode can't accurately depict the time it takes to gather, clip, and organize the coupons, research sales, compile shopping lists, and go from store to store to get the best deals.
In addition, some of the things that happen on couponing television shows are concocted just for the show. For example, many of the best deals come from the doubling or tripling of a coupon, but some viewers have tried to pull off their own couponing feats only to find out that the store featured doesn't actually double coupons: The store only allowed it for the TV show. And not every couponer brings home a massive haul on every trip. The types of purchases seen on these shows require a perfect alignment of available coupons and sale offers, which doesn't happen every day.
Be Smart and Be Nice
Another thing to remember is that on TV, extreme couponers only have to worry about making a good TV show, not about following good etiquette or abiding by the store's rules for coupon use. Both of these things are important to adhere to for real people trying their hand at couponing. For instance, on TV, cashiers seem to have no problem with inputting hundreds of coupons, overriding error messages on their registers, or splitting up large orders into numerous transactions. But in reality, stores often have limits on the number of coupons that can be used at one time and how they can be combined with each other or with special promotions. In addition, tying up a checkout line for ages with one person's transactions is generally frowned upon: Keep in mind that other customers are there to shop, too, and they'd like to check out and get home in a timely manner.
It's also important to remember that couponers need to invest a lot of time in this practice, as well as gas and printer ink needed to print out coupons and go from store to store to get the best deals. This investment needs to be worthwhile, and that's not true if you end up building a stockpile of things that you won't use just because you got a good deal on them. Make sure to keep on top of expiration dates, and don't buy something you won't use unless you have a plan to donate it to someone who will.
Learn More, Save More
Thanks to the media attention garnered by extreme couponing, more people are clipping and saving. They are also sharing what they've learned as couponers with the online community. There are some great tips and tricks out there to help couponers get started and to help seasoned savers maximize their haul. Learn more and save more with these couponing resources.