Is Extreme Couponing Worth It? 3 Reasons to Stop Clipping


Game the coupon system right, and you can rack up hundreds of dollars in products at the grocery store, only to pay pennies per item.

It’s called extreme couponing. It’s a strategy that moms are using to save their families thousands of dollars per year. But is it really worth it? Here are three reasons why you may want to put the shears down and pay for your food.

Extreme couponing goes big time

If you’re like me, you’ve caught a few episodes of the reality tv series Extreme Couponing on TLC, and experienced a kind of “can’t look away but I want to look away” feeling. That’s the power of reality TV.

Recommended Reading: The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means

For those that don’t know, this show follows several different people (almost always moms) as they search out, collect, and cut coupons in preparation for food shopping. Using in-store grocery offers, store reward cards, and brand coupons, these mavens of merchandise literally walk out of the store with grocery carts full of food and other items, often only paying a few dollars.

Okay, before we get into the three reasons I think this is a terrible idea, let’s offer some praise.

A word of praise for food coupons, even if done to the extreme

First, I’ve seen some incredibly driven women on this show who are motivated by the desire to feed their families, keep them happy, and keep the family budget in check. That seems like a pretty responsible thing to do. They’re good moms.

Second, I’ve even seen some episodes where this food is shared with neighbors, other families, and and even homeless shelters. So, the motivation isn’t just to save a buck. It’s to help others as well. That’s a good thing to do.

Third, we have to admit that extreme couponing on TLC isn’t the extreme couponing that happens in real life, where moms spend 60 hours just preparing for one trip to the grocery store. Most normal moms coupon a couple of hours a week to save their families hundreds of dollars in a month, not thousands.

So, what’s the problem with extreme couponing?

Reason one: You’re not choosing what goes in your family’s mouth. Some public relations manager for Con Agra or Kraft is doing that for you.

While other world cultures seem to love and appreciate cooking and food as an event, America is different. We eat to shut-down our hunger in preparation for something else that’s more important to us. Like watching television. Eating is functional. Which is why so many of us do it alone.

Extreme couponing exploits this tendency we have to look at food like a bunch of utilitarians. Instead of shopping for ingredients with which to cook a meal based on our desires, tastes, and culture, we purchase an item because a corporation wants to kick off a new line of food products. It’s grocery shopping’s equivalent of ordering off the dollar menu.

A coupon here or there is great. But taking it to extremes means that almost every edible product that enters your family’s mouth was determined by its dollar value. Not any other criteria.

We wouldn’t shop for clothes, a car, or a house like that. Why should it be okay with food?

Reason two: If you’re reading coupons, it’s hard to  read labels.

Picking up on that theme of dollar value, there is another problem with extreme couponing. It’s hard for the human mind to do two things at once. Like evaluating the nutritional content of 10 packages of frozen pizza rolls at $0.25 a piece after coupon. The deal is too good to pass up, even if one package of pizza rolls is enough, and two is pushing it.

Even if you think it’s cool to eat ingredients in food that are more difficult to pronounce than the back of a Russian hockey jersey, you have to admit that eating 9 more than normal probably isn’t the best thing. If you want to have food actually feed your body, eating more than a few grocery items that have more than five ingredients isn’t desirable. And eating food with ingredients with eight syllables is a no-no as well.

Reason three: You’re not really buying food. You’re buying food products.

Which brings us to the third, and most important reason why extreme couponing is a terrible idea: almost no one is giving discounts on food—real, honest to God food, because that stuff costs money. They are discounting food products, which are a few steps away from real food. And if couponing brings more packaged, frozen, and processed foods into your diet, then it’s time to throw the coupons out.

A food product, or processed food, is any food that your grandmother or great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. I’m quoting from in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, which is required reading here at Raising Wellness. So, to give a few examples: a whole chicken (hopefully not raised on an industrial farm) is food. Fresh green beans out of the local farm are food. Fresh mushrooms are food. Soy sauce mixed with with fresh ginger and fresh garlic is food. The frozen chicken teriyaki dinner platter with 24 grams of sugar, and 500 grams of sodium per serving is more of a food product.

You’ll find all kinds of coupons for the frozen teriyaki. You’ll find very few for real, fresh produce.

As a majority of chronic disease, including many cancers, are the result of what we put in our mouths, and how we treat our bodies, this is a problem.

As the saying goes, you either pay the farmer, or you pay Big Pharma. And until I start seeing Extreme Couponing: Triple Bypass Edition, I know the better bet is to pay dollars for real food, instead of pennies for food products.


Recommended Reading: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Written by Dr. Ward

Father. Foodie. And dedicated upper cervical chiropractor. Find me practicing gentle upper cervical care in Oakland County, Michigan. Have a question or comment? I'm at your service. Reach me at my Auburn Hills chiropractic practice: (248) 598-4002. Or on Google +, Facebook, or Twitter.

8 Responses to Is Extreme Couponing Worth It? 3 Reasons to Stop Clipping
  1. […] could probably go extreme couponing and get a couple hundred for free, if you wanted […]

  2. Tracy
    May 25, 2011 | 8:05 am

    Too much generalizations and fallacy in this article. First, Let me state for the record, those people on TLC are the exception, not the rule. I have been couponing for a while, and for every one TLC star there are 1000’s of regular people just trying to save some money on their grocery bill. Second, the assumption is that you can only get processed food with coupons. Wrong! Last week alone, I was able to get coupons for Driscoles berries, and Fresh express salad, as well as coupons for free eggs when you bought a dozen. (Those eggs I bought were Egglands best cage free btw) This week I have coupons for any product that says “Real California Cheese.”. Two weeks ago, I was able to purchase several of Ronzoni pasta for free. Most of which were vegetable pasta and whole grain pasta. I also bought Fage Greeks Yogurts for .25 a piece, and Almond Breeze Almond milk for .66. Silk non dairy milk for .50. I have couponed ground turkey deals, skinless chicken, and fresh herbs. Many of these products are sold in the natural section of the grocery store or in places like whole foods or wild oats.

    Please do not be quick to make assumptions about something of which you know nothing. I have been able to cut my grocery bill by 50-80% and I am not consuming anymore processed foods that before. Is it extreme? No, but I do spend a considerable amount of time planning my shopping and acquiring coupons to make it more affordable on this horrendous economy. The assumption that I am not bright enough to read a coupon and a nutritional content is absurd at best insulting at worst. Even worse is the comment about Conagra planning deciding what goes in my mouth. No sir, they do noting of the sort.

    Also, couponing extends to non grocery items. I have been able to save incredible amounts of money on cleaning products (yes some natural ones too, .50 for seventh generation toilet bowl cleaner to be exact.) and health and beauty items that I would normally buy.

    Please keep an open mind everything in life is not in black and white. It is possible to get great deals without sacrificing quality. Don’t discourage people just because you want to paint everyone with the same brush.

    • Megan
      June 19, 2012 | 2:38 am

      I’m sorry have you ever watched TLC’s show? I’ve never seen a single person buy anything remotely healthy. Now, maybe that’s just my personal viewing but in the last few episodes I’ve seen cake mix, pizza treats and processed food were all the women bought.

    • MiMi
      August 13, 2012 | 5:08 am

      You just proved his point re: buying food products. Natural does not necessarily mean unprocessed, and definitely does not mean organic or free of hormones. If your area has farmers markets, you can get great deals there. Go towards the end for the best deals.

  3. DrZWard
    May 25, 2011 | 2:06 pm

    Hi Tracy-
    Thanks for your response. You make some excellent points in your comments. In fact, my wife loves to coupon, and especially likes to save us money on non-grocery items, as you’ve mentioned above.

    That’s why I have a whole section which praises coupons above my few criticisms, and I acknowledge that extreme-couponing is not the kind of couponing that most moms do.

    I also know that you can get more whole-food/non-processed items via coupons as well. We do that in my family too.

    That’s why the article is about “extreme couponing” and not coupons in general. As it’s portrayed on TLC, extreme couponing features a lot of families purchasing industrial sized quantities of industrial foods. Which really isn’t all that healthy.

    I’m happy that you care what goes into your body. If you’re making it work for your family, keep it up.

  4. Natalie
    August 15, 2011 | 7:17 pm

    I totally agree with everything you said and had the same reaction when they were actually showing what these (mostly) ladies were purchasing. Plus the fact that their consumables were mostly frozen food and they generally took more than an hour or two to check out…that food must have partially or wholly defrosted in the store…then add the car trip home…is it safe to then refreeze and keep for months??? I’ve had food poisoning from pork that was partially defrosted then refrozen then defrosted and used for a meal so I am extra paranoid about that sort of stuff. I would never want to expose my loved ones to that misery!

    I recently watched a marathon of this (it IS hard to look away) and some part of me began to think that these (again mostly) women were sort of like obsessive gamblers who had found a ‘safe’ outlet that scratched that gambling itch. Watching them in the checkout line was a little scary.

  5. Michelle
    November 9, 2011 | 2:27 am

    I agree. I have been trying the extreme coupon thing, only to become frustrated that the things I normally buy are never featured in coupons-like produce, dairy and meat. I have saved a few bucks here and there on food, but the real savings is on drug-store items IF you have the time to figure it out. You still have to watch though–even with two to three coupons on one item, many times I find the store brand is still less expensive than the couponed brand. It is good for the odd free/cheap toothpaste, otc drug, and cosmetic every now and then.

  6. Susan
    January 5, 2013 | 5:54 pm

    A few years ago, I was doing a version of “extreme couponing.” I didn’t do a lot with food, but I had GREAT savings on shampoo, deoderant, toothpaste, laundry detergent, paper towels, diapers, etc. The best thing – even after tax, I wasn’t paying a penny on most items, except for the newspapers each week. You CAN really save money if you shop wisely, but you have to pay attention to sales, shop at multiple stores, etc. I got a 1 year supply of diapers for about $5 – babyfood for about 75% off, and more. And, even though you don’t approve of consuming processed or frozen food, whether I have coupons or not, about half of the food I eat is frozen. So, what is the harm in using coupons on things I already buy?