This weekend I saw TLC’s Extreme Couponing for the first time. It may be the worst show on TV. By that I mean, the worst for humanity. It is simultaneously the saddest and most infuriating thing I’ve ever seen. If you told me Werner Herzog directed this thing, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
I concede that other people may not feel the same vitriol when viewing Extreme Couponing that I do. Because when I heard the phrase “extreme couponing,” I thought of my mother and grandmother.
In my childhood, both of them obsessively clipped coupons and shared them on a daily basis. My mom did it because my dad drank himself into unemployment and money was scarce; if we did not have a coupon for something or it was not on sale, we did not buy it. My grandmother couponed because she had the prototypical Survivor of The Depression/World War II’s view of saving money, combined with the need to stretch every cent in retirement. She had two pantries in her house filled with non-perishables, each item bearing ballpoint notation of the retail cost, with careful subtraction of how much she saved. Mom and grandmom* both had little coupon boxes they would take to Shop-Rite, organized with alphabetic tabs, so an appropriate coupon could be located at a moment’s notice.
* We actually called her Nanny, but I thought that would appear precious when written down and would also cause the reader to confuse her with the faceless caretaker from Muppet Babies.
But it turns out my mom and grandmother were rank amateurs. They are put to shame by the people on Extreme Couponing. Actually, I think the Extreme Couponers put themselves to shame.
Here are the five worst things about this show, other than everything:
- There is virtually no such thing as a coupon for decent food. There are no coupons for “bananas” or “organic chicken” or “fresh vegatables”. These extreme couponers are stocking up almost exclusively on packaged or frozen food, loaded with preservatives, salt, hormones, and a billion other horrible things. It’s all Franken-food, the absolute worst shit imaginable. Not a lot of salad in these people’s shopping carts, but a whole lot of things stuffed with cheese and/or skewered on sticks.
- The goal for most of these people appears to be not feeding/supplying their families, but accumulating the most stuff for as little money as possible, then shoving those things into every corner of their house, then building more corners in their house into which things can be stuffed. The line between “extreme couponer” and “hoarder” is extremely thin–if such a line exists.
- Many of the people featured on the show credit God with giving them this extreme couponing “blessing” or “talent.” If you’re in a situation where extreme couponing is an economic necessity, thanking God for giving you this “gift” seems like thanking God for not burning down your house.
- The use of “rockin” incidental music that stands in sharp contrast the banality and sadness of the deeds actually performed. There are few things sadder than watching someone dump 60 jars of mayonnaise into a shopping cart, except when it is accompanied by some sweet guitar riffs.
- A disturbing number of people on this show pronounce coupon as “cyupon,” which goes through me like a knife.
The very first person you see in the very first episode Extreme Couponing is named J’aime Kerwin, who tells us, “I’m known as the diva for coupons.” So right off the bat, we’ve got two huge red flags waving in our face. The name with an unnecessary apostrophe is a clear signal we’re in for a treat, as is the self applied title of “diva”. No one who chooses to call themselves a diva has ever been any good, ever. J’aime is such an extreme couponer that her house is overflowing with all the deals she’s gotten. Like a shower full of paper towels, which is a much better use of that space than as a dumb old shower.
This mother of three “has to keep about a thousand coupon inserts valued at over 40K on hand at all times.” She was thrust into this life when her husband lost his job, which is a rough situation that would inspire anyone to save as much money as he or she could. Completely understandable. However, the thing that most pressed on J’aime’s mind when hearing about her husband losing his job was, “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to shop the way that I was used to shopping, that I wouldn’t be able to go out with my girlfriends again.”
Really? Not mortgage payments or keeping your kids in clothes? You’re bummed about missing out on shopping trips and cosmotinis with the girls? That’s a great reason to acquire coupon-based OCD. I realize that this is a reality show and maybe the editors just cut her comments in such a fashion. But the fact that the words came out of her mouth at all suggests grossly misplaced priorities. As does her behavior in the rest of the episode.
For this trip, J’aime has a grocery list with 1200 items on it, the retail cost of which adds up to close to $2000. Thanks to her extreme couponing, she expects to spend no more than $100. I’m sorry, but there is no god damn way anyone not catering a wedding needs two grand worth of food. And we’re told this is one of four such trips she’s taking this week, all of which require six hours of preparation. I don’t know how, exactly, but I think such behavior should result in a prison sentence.
You know how people point to some symbol of American idiocy and/or excess and say, This is why the terrorists hate us? Well, first of all, terrorists would probably hate us no matter what. They have a lot of hate in them; it’s part of the job description. But second of all, this is really why the terrorists hate us.
Extreme Couponers lingers on J’aime as she does her makeup and hoists herself into thigh-high stiletto boots, because her image is very important to her, she tells us. She goes to great pains to let us know she’s not trying to look “rich,” but she’s totally okay if that’s the impression given by her highly evolved sense of fashion, which I think is called “purple”. In truth, she looks less “rich” than insane, because only insane people load up four grocery carts full of mustard and think they can appear wealthy.
“I’ve invited my husband to come along today to help,” she says, and this poor man looks like it’s taking every ounce of his mental and physical strength just to be alive. His ability to “help” is limited to getting a rain check when the store has “only” 17 cups of a particular brand of yogurt. (J’aime wants 27.) Todd Solondz wishes he could cram as much sadness and desperation into his films as is contained in the sight of this husband standing at the customer service counter asking for a rain check for yogurt.
J’aime decides that since her couponing will make each bottle of mustard cost pennies, she must buy three lifetime’s worth of it. As she and her husband empty the shelves of all the mustard in the world, we get a glimpse of their relationship.
Husband: (sounding completely defeated by life, trying desperately to enter a sliver of sanity into his living nightmare) How about we stop at 40?
J’aime: I think we should clear the shelf!
Husband: (loading bottle after bottle of mustard into the cart) I don’t even eat mustard.
J’aime: I forget that all the time!
Ladies and gentlemen, the saddest dialogue in the history of Western drama.
When J’aime brings her gargantuan haul to the register and begins to ring up her purchases, at $1200, the register jams. She has to start submitting coupons to reduce the total and continue shopping. Here’s a tip for any endeavor in life: If the way you’re doing it breaks an essential piece of equipment required for doing it, you’re doing it wrong.
The total checkout process take two hours, though we are spared every gripping minute. When the grueling checkout procedure is finally over, J’aime’s purchases total around $100, just as she planned. Bystanders clap, and I can’t help feeling they should be in prison too for enabling her madness. Especially when she does a little weird dance in her stilleto boots that looks far too premeditated to be an organic expression of joy. Like this is her finishing move.
Jaime’s haul includes, among many, many other things, 90 packages of cold cuts, 40 boxes of cereal, and 100 cups of yogurt. In other words, a significant amount of food that will surely spoil before J’aime and her family can eat it. So her trips are not really about saving money; they’re about her obsessive need for attention and the compulsion to control and dominate her environment. And to save enough dough to go out with the girls! Whee!
The second segment in episode one features a family whose need for couponing is much more obvious. Tiffany Ivanovsky is a mother of seven whose house is rapidly being taken over by her purchases, with her children’s beds perched atop paper towels and shelving going up in every spare bit of space. She has a space age-y can organizer that automatically shuffles the older cans toward the front so they get used first.
“One of my worst days ever,” Tiffany confesses, “is when I had to put a huge shelving system in my bedroom….You have to keep everything everywhere. Sometimes I feel like the walls are closing in on me.” Maybe buy less stuff, then? I’m sure if you actually suggested this to her, you’d get a response of IRRECOVERABLE DATA ERROR.
Then again, maybe Tiffany’s feeling of the walls pressing in on her has to do with living in a household of nine. She even refers to her kids as her “litter,” and the little giggle in her voice doesn’t make the use of that word in reference to her children any less disturbing.
Look: I know firsthand that having one kid is insanely expensive, let alone seven. That’s one thing nobody tells you before you become a parent. Not only do you acquire a whole set of new, continued expenses, but you are guaranteed an endless series of unexpected major expenses as well. So you do what you gotta do, save where you can, and make sacrifices. I also know firsthand that life has a way of throwing you curveballs. You can so easily find yourself going from no kids to a couple in a few years, or having to take care of a relative, or any number of life changes. Stuff happens.
But here’s the other thing: Barring some calamity where someone wills your their children or a Brady Bunch scenario, you can not just wind up with seven kids. That is not an accident. And there’s simply no good reason to have seven kids in America in the 21st century. We don’t live on farms and we don’t expect kids to have a 50 percent chance of succumbing to polio or influenza before adulthood. And if you had seven kids because your religion prevents non-procreative sex, your religion is dumb. Sorry, but you should tell your religion to mind its own business.
Of course, because Tiffany has seven kids, they can help her go through all the circulars and hunt down coupons and bargains. Which is something she wouldn’t have to do if she didn’t have seven kids. This is either called “catch-22” or “moronic.”
I realize by saying this, I’m essentially saying some of these kids shouldn’t exist, a statement has serious philosophical implications. I’m not saying that they should give these kids away or something horrible like that. But really, I think couples out there should just think if it’s wise to create a softball team the hard way. Unless they have a burning desire to turn their house into a Collyer Brothers mansion full of detergent and Hot Pockets.
Tiffany’s stated reason for extreme couponing is that she doesn’t want her kids to have to take out student loans to go to college. She reports that she’s saved $40K in two years. At that rate, considering the exponentially rising cost of higher education, she should be able to send 1.5 of them to college loan-free. Although by that point, student loans will probably be eliminated in favor of a federal college Groupon or something.
Before leaving for her shopping trip, Tiffany calls the grocery store to check on their coupon policy. To her chagrin, she finds out they only honor first of each double coupon. This throws a monkey wrench in her plans, as she had planned on getting multiple double coupons. It’s at this point that I start to sympathize with the grocery store. I normally don’t side with big bidness against the little guy, but I also think a business has a right to prevent people from getting a grand’s worth of food for 12 cents. I also envision some poor shlub in charge of this branch who has to explain to his district manager why he’s letting enormous families take unfair advantage of their liberal couponing policies. His lack of an explanation will probably cause him to lose his job, which will in turn cause him to resort to extreme couponing. THE CIRCLE OF LIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!
Tiffany’s trip is not quite as epic and J’aime’s, but it does feature an obligatory “go girl!” from a random black woman, and the purchase of 14 lbs of steak and 40 lbs of cheese, which even in a house with seven kids will surely go bad before consumption. (Or be frozen past the point of being edible; trust me, I ate a lot of frozen meat in my day.)
Ultimately, I think the reason I hate this show so much is I still associate couponing with being a kid, and being dirt poor. I associate it with shame, in other words. Not something to celebrated.
Now sociopaths who want to be TV and dangerously large families are placed on the same level as people with actual need, like my family once was. And to the tune of wheedly-whee guitar music like it’s the X-Games, as if Want itself is a god damn sport. When we’re in the midst of the worst economic doldrums since the Dust Bowl days, celebrating people like this seems condescending at best, Let Them Eat Cake-ish at worst.
In summary, I’d like to offer TLC a coupon for 50% off to go fuck itself.