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Return to vendor: A brief look at ‘extreme couponing’

Today’s blog began from a tweet by one of my regular readers Mark Holah who suggested that I might like to take a look at ‘extreme couponing’. I have to admit that I didn’t really know what the tweet was referring to but it did pique my interest. Before I look at some of the writings about extreme couponing in both the popular media and academic writing, I thought I would begin with a few extracts about or from self-confessed extreme couponers:

  • Extract 1: “Cole is just 17 years old, but he’s got an addiction so intense that it’s like a drug – couponing! [The] teen boy stepped up to the plate when both his parents lost their jobs and now he helps out financially by using coupons to find the best deals. ‘At first my friends teased me. Now everyone wants to learn how’. Cole said that he’s obsessed with saving money. ‘Couponing is almost like a drug to me. It’s so addicting and intense. If I have a coupon for something, I buy it’. He said he just bought everything for his younger brother’s birthday with coupons and his parents are thrilled with his thriftiness. ‘Most girls are a little offended if you use a coupon on a date.  If I ever find a girl who likes to coupon and likes that I do it I know that I will have found my perfect match’”.
  • Extract 2: Extreme couponer Faatima Exans says “Asking a couponer why they are addicted to couponing is like asking a porn star why they have sex for money – it’s all about the orgasm!
  • Extract 3: “Joyce Hansell, the compulsive couponer set to appear on Monday night’s episode of Extreme Couponing, admits she has a ‘very, very addictive personality’. [She] compares the high of couponing to smoking a crack pipe.

But the real surprise isn’t about her addiction to coupons. Hansell, who previously likened couponing to smoking crack, actually used to be a food addict. After a lifelong battle with her weight, Hansell decided to put down the junk food and pick up the clipping scissors. And she’s dropped 100 pounds in the process”.
  • Extract 4: “It was only ‘extreme couponing’ in that I got a couple of items free or nearly free. That was the only extreme thing about it. But I got such a rush from knowing it was FREE that I can see how going to extremes to get free items could be very addictive…I’m not going to start going to extremes to get free or nearly-free items, but it was a fun feeling to get a product FREE for once”.

According to the Wikipedia entry on extreme couponing, the activity “combines shopping skills with couponing in an attempt to save as much money as possible while accumulating the most groceries”. The Wikipedia entry also claims that the concept of ‘extreme couponers’ began in a March 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal in the article entitled ‘Hard Times Turn Coupon Clipping Into the Newest Extreme Sport’. There is now even a US television show (on TLC [The Learning Channel] and simply called Extreme Couponing) that follows shoppers that spend all their time accumulating coupons in any way possible to acquire masses of grocery products for next-to-nothing. From what I have read, extreme couponers spend hours and hours scouring rubbish tips or supermarket car parks looking for coupons with money back offers. Alternatively, others spend hours on the internet everyday looking for online coupons and vouchers to print and save money on various consumables. Many British newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have had in-depth stories on the phenomenon. The Telegraph featured the story of 39-year old Judith Wenban from Gravesend in Kent:

“You don’t want to be stuck in the queue behind Judith Wenban when she’s doing her big weekly shop. ‘I’ve got a special little wallet in my handbag with all my vouchers in. I drive supermarkets batty’…Judith thinks nothing of handing a cashier coupons printed from the online money-saving forums that she trawls daily for cut-price deals on non-perishables to feed to her brood. ‘Quite often I will hand over ten coupons at a time, and don’t have any qualms about that. I used to feel a bit nervous. But internet coupons have taken off in the last few years, and the assistants can now just scan them in at the checkout, which has taken away the stigma. If a voucher’s rejected, that’s fine – I won’t take the product if I can’t take it on offer’”.

Wenban exploits all of the supermarkets’ deals. For instance, Asda have an ongoing promotion that if a shooper can buy a product cheaper at another supermarket, they will pay back the customer the price difference plus 10%. Wenban spends hours walking around Asda car parks looking for till receipts that other shoppers have thrown away or left discarded in trolleys and shopping baskets. Codes on the receipts can be inputted into the computer for ‘cashback’ and ‘price matching’ deals. She describes this practice of scouring the car park for receipts as “wombling” (after television characters The Wombles who made their living from making use of every day objects that folks leave behind). She told the story of how she found a receipt with £6.50 off the next spend in store. She said:

“I don’t think it’s illegal…It was left in a shopping basket. If you saw £6.50 on the floor, you wouldn’t leave it there, would you? As I’m tidying up other people’s rubbish, I have no shame in that.”

Wenban also spends hours online every day looking for coupons.

“In the forums, it’s quick, quick, quick. You often have to download the coupons and use them that day…The forums are a step ahead. It does mean I spend a fair bit of time every day online – but I’m not a big television person anyway”.

According to a Time magazine article on extreme couponing, the best coupons have two primary features: (i) discounts on products that people buy anyway, and (ii) discounts that are significant enough to justify the time in hunting them down. However, extreme couponing has impacted on companies giving out coupons with these two key features. The article went on to say:

Extreme couponers [seem to willing] to do almost anything to cut down on their grocery bills. People who do the extreme coupons are generally the most vicious people you will ever meet. They’ll cut off the dates of expired coupons, try to use several coupons per item and will argue when you shut them down”.

An article in the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail claimed the world of extreme couponing was a “no-holds-barred pursuit of savings” and comprises “countless obsessive Internet followers who strive to maximize their savings at the checkout by spotting the best sales and by hoarding coupons”. Another behaviour that extreme couponers are known to engage in is searching supermarkets for incorrectly priced items (even if it is not an item they would normally buy), paying for them, and then contacting customer service departments where they get their money back plus more money and vouchers to spend in store. The Daily Mail featured the story of extreme couponer El Jones. For Jones, extreme couponing gives her a ‘buzz’ particularly when she manages to save lots of money:

“It’s the challenge, the rush and, above all, the buzz that feeds her compulsion. It eats up ten hours every week but her husband Ed doesn’t mind. For there are no side effects, no support groups needed and no casualties…and she’s fiercely proud of it, too”.

The Mail story does at least highlight the differences between extreme couponing in America (that typically involves cutting out loads of coupons from magazines and newspapers) and the UK (that typically involves printing out vouchers online). The difference is claimed to be cultural (that the US just likes paper vouchers as opposed to coupons redeemable by mobile phone or computer). The Mail also made lots of reference to the voucher giveaway website Wowcher (that the Mail part owns!). The report also notes that the one key difference between a casual bargain-hunter and an extreme couponer is the “copious planning the latter is willing to put in”.

The amount of academic work on extreme couponing has been modest (to say the least), but Dr. Joseph Chancellor and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky have written a number of interesting chapters and papers on the psychology of thrift. One of their upcoming book chapters on the hedonic benefits of thrift mentioned extreme couponing:

“The practice of thrift can be pleasurable and profitable. Although wanton spending surely has its own short-term pleasures, frugality involves feeling the rush of both spending and saving. The name of a popular extreme couponing website, The Grocery Store Game, aptly captures the thrill of frugal shopping. Bargain hunting can be as engrossing and enjoyable as a board game, but the advantage of thrift is that when the game is finished, one can keep the winnings”.

A recent 2012 (unpublished) Master’s thesis by Danish Business Studies student Ketil Schjorterich Skotte examined the use of online discounting but also examined coupon use including extreme couponing (and how such behaviour was bad for marketers). The thesis noted that:

“Coupon use is still widespread in the US and recently a new segment of coupon users has come to the attention of the public eye: extreme couponers who make couponing a way of living. The recent television show ‘Extreme Couponing’ is a good example of this. In the show, different (female) couponers show how they cut up to 95 percent of their grocery bill by using coupons. This segment has been described as the marketers’ worst nightmare because they do not use coupons as a way to try out new products, but instead only buys products they have a coupon for”.

Another 2013 academic paper in the Cinema Journal by Diane Negra examined (among other things) the television programme Extreme Couponing. The aim of the paper was to investigate some of the ways that recession-era representational culture (in the specific form of two reality-television series – one being Extreme Couponing) activate particular vocabularies of gender while suppressing others. Negra argued that the economic recession weighed heavily on the aspirationalism that customarily prevails in US representations, and then analyzed the staging of gendered modes of adaptation and enterprise in the first seasons of Extreme Couponing. She goes on to argue that:

“[Extreme Couponing retains] femininity as fundamentally domestic and recuperate[s] masculinity as a state of territorial expansion while promulgating ideologically ‘safe’ modes of entrepreneurialism that conform to hegemonic gender codes. Ambivalently responsive to the resource gluttony of US consumer culture, [the programs] stage the promise and the frustration of a feminized thrift and a masculinized risk taking. Extreme Couponing’s female focus is hinted at in its tag as a ‘recessionista series’…Another element shared by these [television] series is their sense of localism and regionalism, which plays out against a backdrop of social isolation…In Extreme Couponing we see that recessionary popular culture has latched onto the commodification of domestic femininities in ways continuous with but also distinct from previous eras. Female thrift ‘works’ for an era of adjusted economic realities, it seems, with female consumer resourcefulness becoming a new theme on many fronts. A number of the series’ profile subjects are women who have lost a male breadwinner’s salary (either through unemployment or divorce); they are invariably such assiduous and adept coupon clippers that they can get large amounts of groceries for free. These women are seen as stepping into the income breach without deviating from their domestic roles, and the series sustains a mixed discourse of praise and pathologization around figures inscribed on the one hand as bravura postfeminist housekeepers and on the other hand as intense overconsumers who speak with a worrying casualness about ‘stockpiling’”.

A not-so-academic (but arguably as thought provoking) article in the online Salon magazine made an interesting observation that unlike the mentally ill individuals depicted on television shows like Hoarders, or drug-addicts on programmes like Intervention, the heroines depicted on Extreme Couponing “aren’t ashamed of the obsessive compulsion that has taken control of their lives”.

I was unable to find much psychological thinking about extreme couponing. However, I did find an article on the Psychology Today website by Dr. Goal Auzeen Saedi examining the exhilaration of watching the people on Extreme Couponing (such as the ‘Double Saving Divas’, twin sisters from Chicago) that had stockpiled nappies – even though neither of them have babies. Dr. Saedi claimed she was instantly “hooked” on the show. She then went on to write:

“While a fascinating show indeed, I worry that perhaps the whole story is not being told. Is there something compulsive about this behavior, or at least marginally unhealthy? Why is a man buying up dozens of women’s deodorant? Just because it’s free, does it mean we must have it?…One of the double divas said she saw her stockpile as being analogous to having money in the bank. One of the gentlemen rationalized his couponing by saying he was worried about losing his job. But some of these extreme couponers talked about spending 15-20 hours on this task…I wonder though if I’m the only one who sees possible touches of addiction, obsession, compulsion, and perhaps even hoarding tendencies to some of this behavior. At the very least, I am comfortable to say it seems unhealthy. Hence, I ask this: Is extreme couponing really something that should be celebrated?”

I have to admit that I have only seen clips of the show on YouTube but based on the bits I have seen, I’d be hard-pressed not to at least partly agree with Dr. Saedi’s views. I can’t say that any of the anecdotal accounts I have read display genuine addictive, compulsive and/or obsessive behaviour but that doesn’t mean it’s not theoretically possible.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chancellor, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Money for happiness: The hedonic benefits of thrift. In: M. Tatzel (Ed.), Consumer’s dilemma: The search for well-being in the material world (pp.13-47). New York: Springer.

Negra, D. (2013). Gender bifurcation in the recession economy: Extreme couponing and Gold Rush Alaska. Cinema Journal, 53(1), 123-129

Powell, L. (2011). Extreme couponing: It’s highly addictive and takes ruthless dedication (but it can halve the cost of your weekly shop). Daily Mail, November 30. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2066705/Extreme-couponing-Its-highly-addictive-takes-ruthless-dedication-clutters-home.html

Saedi, G.A. (2011). The Exhilaration of “Extreme Couponing?” Is being an “extreme couponer” really such a good thing? Psychology Today, May 10. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/millennial-media/201105/the-exhilaration-extreme-couponing

Tuttle, B. (2013). How ‘extreme couponing’ is ruining coupons. Time, May 23. Located at: http://business.time.com/2013/05/23/how-extreme-couponing-is-ruining-coupons/

Webley, K. (2011). Extreme couponing. Time, 178, (14), 36-37.

“I can’t believe it’s not clutter”: An overview of compulsive hoarding

Like many people, I save and collect various items (in my case, records and CDs). Collecting is a natural human activity and some evolutionary psychologists have argued that it may have had an evolutionary advantage in our past history (e.g., there may have been periods of severe deprivation where hoarding was adaptive and enhanced the probability of reproductive success and human survival). However, for a small minority, collecting and hoarding can become excessive and pathological as demonstrated a few months ago (December 2011), when Channel 4 broadcast a television programme on compulsive hoarders as part of the Cutting Edge series of documentaries

Compulsive hoarding – also known as pathological collecting in some scientific circles – is a behaviour typically characterized by the excessive acquisition and keeping of seemingly worthless objects that have little or no material value. According to a recent review led by Dr Albert Pertusa (Institute of Psychiatry, London), a widely accepted definition of compulsive hoarding is “the excessive collection and failure to discard objects of apparently little value, leading to clutter, distress, and disability” (p.371). The difficulty in discarding or letting go of the accumulated possessions is the critical criterion of pathological hoarding. It is also worth noting that some leading figures in the hoarding field don’t like the term ‘compulsive hoarding’ for many of the same reasons that those in the gambling studies field don’t like the term ‘compulsive gambling’.

There has been a substantial increase in research into the disorder in recent years. Interestingly, it appears to be inversely related to income (as it is far more common among the economically deprived). Based on empirical research, the prevalence of compulsive hoarding is thought to be around 2-5% among adult populations although there are certain socio-demographic groups where the prevalence is known to be higher (e.g., there is a higher prevalence among men and the elderly).

As with most behaviours that involve a compulsive element, there are associated physical health risks with compulsive hoarding. There are also reports that the behaviour can lead to detriments in other areas of the affected person’s life including impaired psychological functioning, financial difficulties, and the compromising of relationships with family and friends.

Given that excessive hoarding impacts on the physical living space of the individual and can take over in every room in an affected person’s home (such as people who never throw away a single newspaper or magazine), it can lead to a negatively detrimental effect on life’s essential activities such as personal hygiene and house sanitation – both of which may lead to increased health risks. Other activities such as sleeping and cooking food can also be seriously affected. Mobility in the person’s day-to-day living space may be affected and some hoarded items (such as newspapers and household waste) may lead to increased fire risks. It has also been noted that at a societal level, compulsive hoarding is a burden on public health in terms of poor physical health, occupational impairment, and the utilization of social services.

Although the collecting behaviour may be pathological, there is still a lot of scientific debate as to whether it is a stand alone disorder or symptomatic of other conditions, most notably obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] – particularly as approximately 20%-40% of people with OCD patients are known to have various hoarding compulsions and obsessions. Some researchers also suggest that other psychological traits such as perfectionism and indecisiveness may underpin some hoarding behaviour. Other co-morbidities are known to exist including alcoholism, in addition to paranoid, avoidant, and schizotypal traits. Compulsive hoarding also appears to be similar to impulse control disorders, particularly that of compulsive buying as many hoarders’ homes are full of bought items that are often unopened and still in their original packaging. Approximately three-quarters of hoarders also engage in excessive buying, and over half also accumulate items and possessions for free. Research has indicated that the condition of hoarders’ homes have been described as “merely cluttered” to “squalid”.

In fact, Dr Pertusa and his colleagues claim that the majority of hoarding studies are actually based on the assumption that the behaviour is a form of OCD. However, there is accumulating evidence that hoarding may be a separate entity to OCD. As is also pointed out by Pertusa and colleagues, there is no reference to hoarding behaviour in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) criteria for OCD. Furthermore, in relation to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, hoarding is mentioned in only one of the eight diagnostic criteria.

A recent meta-analytic study led by Dr Michael Bloch (Yale School of Medicine, USA) examined 21 worldwide studies with over 5000 OCD individuals and concluded that hoarding is an independent factor in both in children and adults. The study also reported that unlike typical OCD sufferers, compulsive hoarders don’t experience intrusive thoughts about possessions urging them to perform ritualized behaviour. It has also been observed that around a third of compulsive hoarders don’t show any other OCD symptoms. Dr Bloch and colleagues conclude that compulsive hoarding is a more passive behaviour where intense distress is only triggered when the hoarders face the prospect of having to get rid of their accumulated possessions.

Although there are many published studies where compulsive hoarders are treated pharmacologically with serotonin reuptake inhibitors (that show very mixed results in relation to their effectiveness), the most effective treatment appears to be cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This typically involves hoarders learning (through cognitive restructuring and response prevention) how to deal with situations that cause intense anxiety. Research also suggests that some types of CBT are better than others. CBT approaches that focus on the hoarder’s motivation, acquisition of new items, and removal of items from the hoarder’s home appear to show the best outcome. Treatment studies also suggest that pathological hoarding may be best classified as a discrete disorder with its own diagnostic criteria rather than as a form of OCD.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Abramowitz, J. S., Wheaton, M. G., & Storch, E. A. (2008). The status of hoarding as a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1026-1033.

Bloch, M.H., Landeros-Weisenberger, A., Rosario, M.C., Pittenger, C., & Leckman, J.F. (2008). Meta-analysis of the symptom structure of obsessive–compulsive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 1532-1542.

Frost, R. & Gross, R. (1993). The hoarding of possessions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 367-382.

Frost, R.O., Tolin, D.F., Steketee, G., Fitch, K.E., & Selbo-Bruns, A. (2009). Excessive acquisition in hoarding. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 632-639.

Mataix-Cols, D., Nakatani, E., Micali, N. & Heyman, I. (2008). Structure of obsessive– compulsive symptoms in pediatric OCD. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47, 773-778.

Muroff, J., Steketee, G., Rasmussen, J., Gibson, A., Bratiotis, C. & Sorrentino, C. (2009). Group cognitive and behavioral treatment for compulsive hoarding: A preliminary trial. Depression and Anxiety, 26, 634-640.

Pertusa, A., Frost, R.O., Fullana, M.A., Samuels, J., Steketee, G., Tolin, D., Saxena, S., Leckman, J.F., Mataix-Cols, D. (2010). Refining the diagnostic boundaries of compulsive hoarding: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 371-386.

Pertusa, A., Fullana, M. A., Singh, S., Alonso, P., Menchon, J. M., & Mataix-Cols, D. (2008). Compulsive hoarding: OCD symptom, distinct clinical syndrome, or both. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 1289-1298.

Saxena, S. (2008). Neurobiology and treatment of compulsive hoarding. CNS Spectrums, 13 (Suppl 14), 29-36.

Tolin, D.F., Frost, R.O. & Steketee, G. (2007). An open trial of cognitive-behavioral therapy for compulsive hoarding. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1461-1470.

Tolin, D.F., Frost, R.O., Steketee, G., & Fitch, K.E. (2008). Family burden of compulsive hoarding: Results of an internet survey. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 334-344.

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