If you haven’t seen TLC’s “Extreme Couponing,” well, there’s not much to see — just families using multiple coupons and paying next-to-nothing for giant piles of groceries they will never use. Still, the show is doing quite well.
Yet, some TV commentators have noted the similarity between these couponers and “hoarders” (subject of their own terrible TLC reality show), who compulsively store items they don’t even need. The similarities are there: most couponers and hoarders begin their compulsive behaviors after some trauma (lost job in couponers’ case; death of loved one in hoarders’); couponers have giant neatly stacked piles of diapers for kids they don’t have, while hoarders have their useless crap in giant piles around their houses.
But more troubling to me is the idea that this show and others of its ilk are “shows for this economic time.” After all, the shows seem to emphasize frugality and thrift, and the featured families tend to be middle-class families caught in hard times. How much, though, are these families really “saving”? “Saving” used to mean actually taking money you have and not spending it. Somehow, American consumer culture has translated “savings” to mean “spending marginally less on a (usually discretionary) purchase.” The success of Groupon, Living Social, and similar online couponing companies have capitalized on this mentality. But if you weren’t going to buy 100 packs of diapers (or dinner at said restaurant on a Groupon) already, are you saving anything? “Saving” is just a synonym for “spending.”
With all the time that these couponers spend planning their attacks and poring through newspaper clippings (similar to Black Friday shoppers), they could be doing something else. Anything else. And all the other things they could be doing might bring them more marginal utility than 1000 toothpaste tubes for ten cents.