thank you, TLC, for making me feel better about myself

Since becoming a wife and mother, and taking over a lot of financial planning for my family, I have been using more coupons and shopping more at Costco. This occasionally means I end up with small stockpiles of cereal, or toilet paper, or dishwasher tabs. This has also prompted some mockery from my husband, and some self-mockery on my own part. I look at the stacks of four bottles of Goth Woolite, or the Costco sized cube of toilet paper, or the extra two-packs of Organic Pumpkin Flax granola, and think, “omg, I’m becoming a hoarder!”

Thankfully, Extreme Couponing makes me feel like I’m a carefree, spontaneous shopper. I may have filled up the space on the top of my fridge with a few extra boxes of items bought on Amazon Subscribe-and-Save, and I may have a half-dozen extra boxes of chicken broth on hand, but they have entire mini marts in their houses. One woman even had a custom rack for cans so that her stock would rotate. There is no way I could even come close to that level of food hoarding. My extra dozen rolls of paper towels are nothing compared to the woman who filled up a shower stall with hundreds of rolls of paper towels.

I do use coupons on a regular basis, but I only put about a half hour, weekly, into the habit. I tried putting more time and effort into couponing, but realized that I was only earning an average of $15 an hour at it. I charge four times that when I freelance, so why should I settle for $15 an hour? Why shouldn’t I try to funnel that time and energy into making more money, like by trying to be better at my actual job? I have a career where I get out what I put into it, so if I spend my time and energy doing research for work, or studying Excel, or writing posts for my professional blog, I’m more likely to earn more money in the long run.

The women who extreme coupon, however, are likely not in my white-collar career category. They’re a little more limited in what their upward mobility options would be. Or they’re just stay at home moms. Which is totally fine, and in their case, the time and bandwidth investment they are making, is worth more to them than it would be to me. Besides, my 30 minutes usually saves me $20 or so on a Whole Foods shopping trip, or saves me $30 on a Costco shopping trip, and anything beyond that ends up at a rate of diminishing returns. I simply can’t save the hundreds of dollars that coupon devotees make because I refuse to buy the products that they’re saving the most money on. I see the items going into the carts on the show: cereals made with HFCS, meats laced with antibiotics and dyes, yogurts filled with additives, hot dogs made from pigs raised in inhumane conditions. The items I buy the most of are fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and ethically sourced meats and animal products. Those just aren’t items that go on sale, or that coupons are applied to. There’s a definite cap on my couponing as a result, because the range of products is so much smaller. And, finally, I can’t buy in the kind of volume that the coupon devotees will buy in, because the foods I buy aren’t shelf stable, or they’re just not laced with the same amount of preservatives. I want my groceries to be locally sourced and preferably lower in GMO, pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, and other potentially cancerous/low-level poisonous additives, and that means food that isn’t going to be artificially fresh for quite as long.

I also suspect that, even if they are saving tens of thousands of dollars in groceries now, those extreme couponers will pay that much – and more – in healthcare costs in twenty years. I saw an overweight couponer filling her cart with full fat cream cheese, and an obese couponer with a stash of sixty bags of chips. A slender self-proclaimed “supermom” had a son that was definitely bordering obese. I realize that these are women who are feeding their families based on needs more than wants, and who are tailoring their families diets based on what they can afford from their coupon habits. I realize that they are using their coupon skills to gain the volume of food they need, and are trying to cover protein, starches and vegetables as well as cereals, cookies and sodas. But it still seems to be a short-term trade against a long-term cost, in which they, and their children, will end up less healthy, and with a lower quality of life. How much of that money saved, was saved against a lower nutritional swap? The slender supermom was buying powdered mashed potatoes for her children, giving them pure empty calories and preservatives and salt, instead of even the basic nutrition provided in a real potato. She explained that she had a ridiculously low food budget, which I get…but she also lived in Idaho. How expensive can real potatoes be if she sourced them from a farmer instead of her grocery store? (And, for that matter, are the savings real when they’re based on artificially increased grocery store chain prices?)

I sometimes look at our grocery bills, which are ridiculous, and I ask how we can be spending this much on food. It isn’t as if Ben eats that much. And as for Paul and I, I cook a lot from scratch, and we pack lunches almost every day. And I see shows like Extreme Couponing and think, I am spending too much on food. And I mentioned this to my husband, because we are partners in our finances, as we are in everything. But his response was simply, “this is what it costs to buy real food.” And he’s right. For us to buy quality food that meets my health goals, and our ethical standards, we have to spend much more…and I can’t participate in the extreme coupon craze. And I wonder if these extreme couponers have thought about the high cost of their low prices, or the fact that they may be simultaneously saving for their children’s college educations, and condemning them to a higher risk of cancer at the same time. With Paul’s family history of cancer, I’d rather spend the money on food that I do, than even take a minuscule risk of losing my husband to cancer or diabetes or heart failure because I chose to save money instead of focusing on quality nutrition.

Obviously, this is why TLC is so popular with their shows: they know how to pick the shows that make us all feel better about our compulsions and obsessions, and make our own peccadilloes seem positively trivial and even humourous when compared to that kind of extreme behavior. My cost-cutting and coupon-clipping, for the items I do buy, and my habit of buying extras of things that won’t go bad, seems, again, thrifty and smart instead of bordering on hoarding. By featuring the “extreme” side of the habit, TLC has raised the bar on what really qualifies as “stockpiling”. Thank you, TLC, for making me feel better…and for giving me something I can show my husband the next time he mocks me for buying extra packages of something because it’s gone on sale.

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