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Extreme Couponing: Freaky and fraudulent

I've been hearing some talk lately about a show called Extreme Couponing. It's yet another entry in the growing line of what I've termed "reality freak shows." These are different from ordinary "reality shows" in that there is no competition or game-like aspect involved. Instead, "reality freak shows" consist mainly of a pseudo-biographical account of a regular person or family who deviates from the norm, usually willingly. (Please note: Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga, and their ilk don't count toward this definition.)

Anyway, I caught a few episodes of Extreme Couponing late last night after spending most of the day at the Smoke On the Water Chili Cook Off. The shows I saw featured a lady who got all dolled up specifically to go to the store ("so I look like I have lots of money," she said), a guy who bought enough toothpaste to build a "wall" of it in his basement, and some others. The savings truly were extreme: in most of the store trips featured, the couponers saved 90% and up. One of the grocery bills started out over $1900, and after applying all the discounts and coupons, the final total was close to $100... a savings of over 94%.

Pretty impressive... on the surface. But what do you end up with after going on one of these trips? Not money in your pocket, but $1900 worth of groceries. These have to be stored somewhere, and if you don't have the space for them, you have a problem. And for things like meats or anything which could spoil, if you end up throwing stuff away or never using it, what was the point, exactly?

Some of the clips I saw featured Brady Bunch sized families which could feasibly consume large quantities of food, so yeah, buy lots if you genuinely need it. But if you think you need 40 bottles of hand lotion or 100 bottles of mustard or enough toothpaste to literally build a wall of it, maybe you should be on "Hoarders" instead (another reality freak show).

Digging into the case of the $1800 savings a little, it looks like coupon fraud may have been involved... some kind of loophole in the barcodes and how they can sometimes match up to product families instead of products. I'm all for saving a buck or two, but committing fraud isn't the way to do it. If this fraud allegation is true, maybe we need to think about disclaimers on programs like these. Honestly I'd like to see the term "reality" entirely dropped from the phrase "reality shows" but that's never going to happen. Shows like Extreme Couponing are pretty far from reality indeed, and I think it's a shame that The Learning Channel has sunk to this level of sensationalism.

But this is America, and we do love our freaks. Anything to make a buck, I guess.

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