Coupon Crazy: An Insider Explains It All

"I started using coupons to save money. I kept using them because it turned out to be a fun and rewarding way to shop."

If you ever wondered what motivates the extreme couponer, Mary Potter Kenyon's new book, Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession, might be a place to start. Kenyon is a semi-retired extreme couponer who was deep into couponing before the Internet and mass media popularized that world. Part necessity and part fun, she neatly cut $300 grocery bills down to a sixth of that without breaking a sweat. She now conducts couponing workshops and is quick to point out that the heyday of extreme couponing may have passed; its ascent, she explains, has been accompanied by increasing restrictions, such as near-term expiration dates and per trip limits.

Kenyon's book delves into the psychology and the sociology of extreme couponing, examining why coupons appeal to consumers and who uses them. Comments attributed to couponers reveal that the pride and sense of cunning associated with scoring huge discounts and free goods often outweighs the desire for the item itself. Although there's nothing new about the thrill of the hunt, studies cited in the book by consultants Booz & Company and Deloitte note, respectively, that frugality is now trendy and snagging a great deal earns a virtual "badge of honor." Kenyon highlights several families with annual incomes exceeding $200,000 who tell of eagerly tracking down bargains and delighting at the chance to pluck up free items. And the products themselves? Often donated to charity.

The book also draws on data indicating that middle- and upper-middle-class shoppers are more likely to engage in couponing than lower-income consumers. For example, the Nielsen Company found that in 2009 households with annual incomes of at least $100,000 were the driving force behind the coupon surge. Kenyon writes that one reason this demographic is more coupon-prone is that manufacturers target print and mailed coupons to wealthier areas. Additionally, the local Sunday newspaper, still the primary source for redeemed coupons, is more commonly bought and read in affluent neighborhoods. There is a racial element to coupon redemption, as well. Kenyon cites a study published in the Journal of Retailing which concludes that minorities (across all income groups) often feel negatively judged by clerks and fellow shoppers when using coupons.

As part of Kenyon's exploration of the overall couponing craze, she delves into her personal story. The question of why she, among all her siblings, was bitten by the extreme couponing bug inspired her to research and write the book. She never quite figures that out but tells of going out on missions with her children to collect discarded detergent or diaper boxes and storing them in a room devoted to her couponing obsession; each box could be used for several different offers that together yielded free products and toys for friends and family. And, as she later described to us in an interview, occasional trips with just her husband to stores outside of town to cash in on deals let them spend couple-time together, "like dates."

Kenyon gave up couponing after gradually realizing that, for her, the heavily discounted items she was buying weren't worth even the small amount she spent on them; she was picking up products she didn't need and would not have bought but for the deal. These days she still finds comfort in scoring eye-popping bargains but her world isn't as consumed with clipping as it once was. And as the couponing craze has moved online, Kenyon has felt a loss of community with other consumers committed to the physical process of clipping, organizing, and redeeming at brick-and-mortar stores.

Although she no longer spends hours every week managing a trove of paper coupons, Kenyon is a frugal online shopper. "I always go through Ebates," she told us, "and I never check out without first searching for the store's name plus 'promo code.'" But she keeps it old school when asked for tips by consumers just wading into the couponing world. "Start looking," she advises, "the Sunday paper is still a good source." And then adds: "Don't have too much pride. Would you step over a dollar on the ground?"

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