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.
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