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Extreme Couponing: Showcase for Frugal Geniuses or Crazed Hoarders?

When first exposed to TLC's reality show Extreme Couponing (which airs tonight at 9:30 p.m.), the average person goes through four stages. (1) Contempt. "A show about people who collect coupons? That must mean that every possible interesting idea in the world must finally have been exhausted." (2) Curiosity. "Wait, these people get thousands of dollars worth of groceries for under a hundred bucks because of their obsessive clipping?" (3) Amazement and addiction. "That guy just got $882.36 worth of groceries for $27.04! And another lady has an entire basement filled with products she's gotten virtually free as a result of her insanely organized clipping! Get me a season pass!" (4) The bitter aftertaste. "Hey, that guy bought 45 cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli, 40 bottles of Vitamin Water, and 20 tubes of toothpaste … that he will never use. Isn't this just a more organized version of Hoarders, where none of the food has gone bad?" To help us work through these stages, we called Matt Sharp, the executive producer of Extreme Couponing.

Every week, when one of your coupon extremists pulls out his accordion folder of coupons at the cashier, and the price drops from $986 to four dollars, it's as rewarding as when the people lose weight on The Biggest Loser. Some of this is being frugal from necessity and some of it is just being freakishly cheap.
There is a little of both! When we started meeting people in this culture, this all started from a place of need. The economy went south and the family is out of work and they’re trying to avoid foreclosure. The moms said, "This is something that I can do." They have a type A personality and have the type of incredible attention to detail it takes. There is also a sport here. One of our couponers said, “You do one transaction where you get $400 worth of groceries for $20 and you’re hooked.” It becomes an obsession for these people. They spend hours online looking for deals. Our couponers scout grocery stores for five hours on a Tuesday and don’t buy a thing and then go back on Thursday for a shopping trip.

Aren't these people not that different from hoarders, they're just not as filthy?
I wouldn’t compare it to hoarding. When people talk about the show they say, "Oh my God, I'm looking at the inside of a basement and it looks like a Costco." One of our couponers was giving one of our producers crap, "Oh my God, you paid retail?" It is like everyone else is crazy because they aren’t getting the potential deals.

Well, isn't that the definition of crazy, when you are the one sole sane person in a universe of craziness? They all have massive stockpiles.
There is something very primal about having a stockpile. It’s comforting having enough deodorant or pasta sauce to last years. We all have that inside of us. Everyone at home has the closet filled with supplies. Our couponers are on a different level. Most of their stockpiles are organized by expiration date. To be a reputable couponer, you need one storage freezer in your basement. Usually these people will have two or three, big industrial freezers you would see in stores, that freeze stuff for years. You can’t do this kind of couponing without the stockpiles.

The last episodes I watched, a woman bought cat food and she doesn’t have a cat. And another had stacks and stacks of diapers but no children.
Well, the woman with the diapers said she was planning on having kids at some point. The large majority of the hauls they are planning on using. But a lot of it is sport. I don’t know what the woman was planning on doing with the cat food.

She can feed raccoons.
But extreme couponers didn’t start because they wanted to go to the store and get things they don’t need. It came from a place of, How do we make this month’s bills? And they figured out how to do that.

These stockpiles are really reminiscent of bomb shelters. Are they preparing for Armageddon or nuclear holocaust?
I don’t think these people see what they’re doing as prepping. We have found some people that are preppers. We might use them!

Is anyone too unstable to be on the show?
There isn’t any character types where that is an absolute no on that type.

On your show, when we see them show up at a grocery store, everyone is bemused to see them in action. But when they go in without cameras, is it a different story? I'd imagine the cashiers would be angry; it seems like these people would be a nightmare to check out.
The cashiers are actually kind of amazed by them, and they are local celebrities and heroes. And the people there are amazed. You wouldn’t want to be standing behind one in line, but they know these places so well and develop a relationship with the workers. In terms of people standing by, we weren’t planning that to have a scene with people watching. That is just spontaneous. People can just not take their eyes off of it and crowds gather.

There are a few people who think that God guides them in finding their coupons. Are the couponers mostly Republican?
I have no idea. Most of them are women, though. But in an upcoming episode we have a guy who works at Z-100 in New York and has a great stockpile. We have a woman coming up who gets over $1,000 dollars' worth of groceries and with coupons, the store pays her! She leaves with cash in her hand! You have to be super smart to do this.

Photo: TLC