Clip ArtistsWomen, Work, and Extreme Couponing

Illustration by Gabi de León

This article was published in Food Issue #61 | Winter 2014
Coupon Goddess. Money-Saving Mom. The Krazy Coupon Lady. The Coupon Divas. Super Coupon Woman. The past decade has witnessed the development of an entire couponing subculture, spawning websites, books, clubs, conventions, and blogs about the strategic use of coupons to obtain domestic goods. While many credit couponing as a fad largely attributed to the recent economic crisis and the runaway success of TLC reality show Extreme Couponing, couponing is more than a passing fashion: It is an expression of consumer muscle, revealing the power of the feminine economy and the American housewife.
 
And it is one way that consumers, often with limited resources but great resourcefulness, can work against businesses that have set wages too low and cost of living too high for the vanishing middle class. If you compare the federal minimum wage of $7.25 with the thousands “earned” by extreme couponers, it is no wonder that many women work with coupons rather than for corporations. Extreme couponers often consider themselves experts—after all, saving huge sums of money by redeeming thousands of coupons is a demanding job that takes talent, skill, and resolve. Many extreme couponers compare their 30-plus-hour weeks spent collecting, combining, organizing, and redeeming their coupons to a full-time job with equivalent pay. When grocery and drugstore bills are cut from $350 to $4.82 weekly, the earnings quickly add up to thousands of dollars annually.
 
According to Charlie Brown, vice president of a coupon-redemption firm, couponers together saved an estimated $3.7 billion redeeming CPG (consumer packaged goods) coupons in 2010 alone. Their shopping strategies are woven into an intricate system of online resources, print media, and social networks. In their complex but tight-knit subculture, couponers save—or in their terms “earn”—thousands of dollars each month by combining manufacturers’ coupons, in-store promotions, and store-loyalty cards. Most couponers agree that these tax-free “earnings” have improved their family lives by allowing them to stay at home rather than work for wages. They also represent a thriving, powerful—and gendered—alternate economy.

Consumerism at Great Cost

Consumerism, domesticity, and thrift have long been imbricated with gender. In 1937, economist Wesley Mitchell acknowledged that the difficult “art of spending money” fell heavily on the shoulders of housewives, who, lacking the proper training, often practiced “slipshod shopping.” Mitchell, at least, believed that making money and spending it were both important economic activities; most of his contemporaries laughed at the silly women prancing around shiny department stores. In her study of Victorian-era shoplifting, When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store (1992), Elaine Abelson argues that even a woman who “made many of the major decisions and purchases quite independently of her husband never achieved commensurate status” since shopping, under the larger category of housewifery, was considered leisure. Abelson suggests that shopping was trivialized precisely because it was threatening: The emergence of consumer capitalism and the “new woman of the 1890s” nearly coincided, perhaps leading to the moral condemnation and mockery of the woman shopper.

American popular culture has also long portrayed shopping as a feminine frivolity. In film, shopping is a sweet poison addling women like Cher in Clueless or Rebecca in Confessions of a Shopaholic amid the moral and financial debt racking their inconsequential lives. In the end, both protagonists are rescued by men immune to the seductions of consumerism. Indeed, as historian Kathy Peiss writes, “Consumption is coded as a female pursuit, frivolous and even wasteful, a form of leisure rather than productive work,” and couponing, like shopping, is the terrain of women. In his Bangor Daily News article “Couponing: 50 Percent Off…Your Manhood,” reporter Mark LaFlamme considers couponing one of “very few things [that] present a threat to one’s manhood.” LaFlamme notes that in a coupon class of 40, only one man was present—and he was forced to attend by his wife.

To couponers, however, shopping is not a trifling endeavor but one that vests them with economic muscle and familial power. In this reclassification of shopping as labor, extreme couponers achieve a long-standing feminist goal: to establish housewifery as labor equivalent to market work. In No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2003), Estelle Freedman restates a common feminist argument: Although women may be unpaid or underpaid, their labor contribution is hugely valuable. Even given all that a housewife contributes to her family (which would put her salary over $50,000 if she were compensated for her services, according to Freedman’s estimates), women are more economically vulnerable than men and constitute a disproportionate number of America’s poor. Additionally, women across the world still perform twice as much unpaid work as their husbands.

Extreme couponers amplify the common feminist argument about the economic value of unpaid housework. Jonni McCoy, a.k.a. Miserly Mom, formulates the economic benefit gained from her “thrifty work” by comparing the cost of working against her couponing savings, concluding that thrifty work earns her the equivalent of about $8.50 per hour. Accounting for the increased costs of child care, commuting, and grocery bills, among other expenses, McCoy estimates that she saves $18,120 annually by not working. As work, couponing could be evaluated in the same terms as wage labor: saved money as “earned,” and real economic benefit put toward a family’s expenses.

It takes McCoy seven hours of thrifty work per week to make up for what she earned at her last job. “[It’s] saving money as a means to an end,” she says. “It is a job I perform in order to afford my staying at home.” In other words, our economy makes it less expensive for an ambitious young woman like McCoy to stay at home making homemade Windex and clipping coupons for cereal than to join the workforce.

Extreme Couponing aired on TLC from 2010 to 2012 (Photo credit: TLC)

Honest Work Just Reward

Still, couponing should be considered more cash than savings. As Stephanie Nelson, owner of Coupon Mom, puts it, couponing is “intellectually challenging [work] that actually results in a profit.” In a personal interview, Heather Brickell of the blog My Sweet Savings outlined her general weekly couponing responsibilities: scouring, printing, and clipping from newspaper inserts, home mailers, internet printables, tear pads, “blinkies” (in-grocery coupon machines), and general online coupon clearinghouses. These coupons (which, for an experienced couponer, usually number in the thousands) then need to be organized and systematized with one of a host of coupon cataloging methods.

The common three-ring binder method uses baseball card holders for individual coupons, and section dividers to segregate coupons by category, then layers subsections by expiration or store. The “whole insert method” is premised on a similar logic but keeps the coupons intact in their original newspaper insert, saving the actual clipping for shopping-trip preparation. Other hybrid methods use day planners, specially designed “coupon clutches,” or tabbed dividers to organize coupons by the individual couponer’s exclaimed. For example, if a couponer has a $1 manufacturer’s coupon for a $3 box of Cheerios, the discount (given a lenient store policy) can be doubled and combined with a store coupon to generate a total discount of $3.25. That quarter, then, is overage and can be used as credit toward other products. With 100 coupons, that single quarter quickly becomes 100 free boxes of Cheerios and a credit of $25.

The TLC reality show Extreme Couponing profiled a Washington MBA named Tammilee Tillison. On the show she said, “I was able to take my MBA and apply it to couponing…with organization, with notes, with knowing what I have in my stockpile.” By using an Excel spreadsheet and a “detailed, specified binder,” Tillison knows exactly how much money she saves. In an email interview, Tillison made this connection even more explicit. She wrote that by calculating her “ROI [return on investment] for the time and energy I put into couponing,” she can judge whether or not her coupon work is worthwhile.

The gender wage gap has reduced dramatically since more women entered the workforce, but even today women make roughly 75¢ for every dollar earned by a man. Viviana Zelizer, in The Social Meaning of Money (1994), argues that the separate earmarking for men’s and women’s money demonstrates that, overall, women’s money was considered less serious no matter the sums, with women’s wages thought of as pin money, “a more frivolous, less serious earning than the husband’s.” Yet even for that disparity, many couponers equate their husband’s salary to their own wages earned by couponing. In our interview, Brickell remembers that when her husband lost his job in 2010, her family lived for nearly six months off her “stockpile” of goods obtained for free or nearly free with coupons.

Couponing is more than a passing fashion: It is an expression of consumer muscle, revealing the power of the feminine economy and the American housewife.

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Brickell likened her stock to a “life insurance policy” that rescued her family from the “scary” period during which her husband could no longer provide. “Joanie,” of the blog Extreme Couponing Secrets, remembers that she started couponing when her “husband lost his job and things really got tight,” adding that although couponing “started out as a hobby, [it] became something that helps us pay the rent!” Tina Klein of Super Coupon Woman is a single mother of three teenage girls and supplements her wages from waiting tables with couponing. Her daughters got expensive, she said, so she turned to coupons to keep them afloat. Their lives have borne out the basic equality between coupon work and a man’s wages.

Without a partner or a working male breadwinner, couponers like McCoy, Tillison, and Klein have supported large families and even contributed thousands of dollars’ worth of food to food pantries. Called “compassionate couponers,” many couponing Robin Hoods have worked hand in hand with store managers to maximize manufacturers’ coupons—literally taking from the rich and giving to the poor. For example, Klein’s “100,000-coupon challenge” has created a coalition of couponers from Missouri, Texas, Kansas, and other states to raise over $100,000 in donations. With only $20 and a binder full of coupons, Klein has stocked Wylie, Texas, food banks with pallets of deodorant and crates of pineapple chunks. These couponers suggest that the every-day consumption of the American housewife deserves recognition—as labor, as charitable work, and as a real expression of economic power.

Coupon Virgins and the Thrill of the Deal

For women, real power has long lurked behind the purchase. Nothing suggests this power—tinged with sex and transgression—better than Kate Chopin’s 1894 short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” In the story, “little Mrs. Sommers” neglects her practical family purchases for the sensual luxury of stockings—“soft, sheeny luxurious things” that “glide, serpent-like through her fingers.” To some extreme couponers, their carefully scissored coupons are much like little Mrs. Sommers’s raw-silk stockings. Coupons offer power in the public sphere—slightly illicit, in-and-out like a robbery, challenging the bounds of prim respectability. Called “coupon virgins,” new coupon-ers sometimes need reassurance that “coupon use is not stealing, not immoral or wrong,” suggesting, ever so faintly, that it might be just that.

And couponers are sometimes suspected of much more. Even Stephanie Nelson, a.k.a. Coupon Mom, is represented as, perhaps, something other than the proper, coiffed Georgia housewife she appears to be. A local Marietta, Georgia, television segment opens with Nelson calmly walking her dog in a tree-lined neighborhood. The voice-over cautions, “Stephanie Nelson only looks like the picture of suburban innocence, but she is one calculating customer.” The camera cuts to Nelson pushing a cart through the automatic doors of a big-box grocery store, and, in a husky voice, enthusing, “I love grocery shopping.”

In this segment, she cuts her $117 grocery bill to $23 for a total discount of 81 percent. Nelson upends the image of “suburban innocence” to reveal a “calculating” woman who acts with power and grace in the public sphere. After the shopping trip, she admits that couponing is “kind of a thrill.” Leaning in toward the camera, she adds in a hushed tone, “Is that pathetic? Having a thrill at the grocery store?” Though contemporary couponers and their Victorian-era counter-parts seem worlds apart, their shared thrills gesture toward the borders of respectable consumerism.

Shoplifting, Abelson argues, was closely tied to the perceived sexual weaknesses of women faced with irresistible consumer goods. The woman shopper was characterized as physically frail and morally weak, easily seduced by the glitter of department stores and the sweet talk of slick clerks. Abelson summarizes a 1942 medical argument that kleptomania was the “re-creation of the sex act,” quoting one woman who felt a “wild triumph, a lust” when shoplifting. In our interview, Brickell reflected that couponing “makes [her] feel invigorated,” while the Krazy Coupon Lady warns that couponing “addiction” can cause a “coupon ‘high,’ that rush when you save big.”

One expert couponer, who offered only her first name of Melissa, reports that coupon virgins often “feel guilty or that they are stealing from the stores.” She reassures new couponers that it is “NOT stealing; you are not a thief, you are an educated consumer.” One commenter replied that “the first time I got an item for free for stacking coupons, I just knew they were gonna call the cops and have my kids taken from me.” Others acknowledge the morally suspect nature of couponing. Time magazine reporter Brad Tuttle characterized couponers as insiders with special knowledge, who are “getting away with something that sounds absurd and borderline illegal.” Though contemporary moral-ists no longer condemn women shoppers for fraternizing with male clerks or sharing subway cars with commuting businessmen, the anxiety attendant to the image of powerful women acting on the fringes of respectable consumerism has long persisted in American culture.

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A Return to the American Family Romance

For all the thrills that couponing supplies, every couponer I interviewed framed their work as a means to stay securely ensconced within domestic life. In a personal interview, Sarah Barrand credits couponing with fulfilling her “heart’s desire” to be her children’s stay-at-home mother. She says that “couponing, for me, was a means to be a stay-at-home mom,” and through couponing, she “provide[d] for her family in a different way” than she would have through wage labor. Aside from the Oprah appearances, Nelson’s stay-at-home story is consistent with that of many couponers. She left her job at Procter & Gamble for her new career as a “stay-at-home mom and CEO of our family budget.”

Many advice sources, such as Cheryl Gochnauer’s book So You Want to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom or Aimee Guess’s blog, Save at Home Mommy, include sections on couponing as one strategy to remain at home.  But the emphasis many couponers place on motherhood doesn’t necessarily suggest a cowardly retreat from the public sphere; rather, it implies a levelheaded calculation of  women’s still-limited opportunities outside the home. McCoy, for instance, estimated that expensive office clothes cost her about $75 monthly, while Brickell conducted our phone interview in her pajamas. Assessing this situation with a brutal clarity, women like Brickell and McCoy have simply decided their prospects are too meager to justify the expense of office clothes, choosing instead to remain at home in their slippers.

This image speaks to both the ability of American women and the tragedy of the limits they still face. From this one image, we see the ingenuity and skill of women alone in quiet kitchens, supporting their families by clipping hundreds of coupons for toothpaste and cereal. But this is less a tragedy than it is a drama; the coupons for toothpaste and cereal stand in for so much more than savings on consumer products. They reveal an entire world of power that, while limited, is still a real alternative to the male-dominated economy. And it is an economy that supports women who, with few resources but a wealth of ingenuity, can glean great value from thousands of coupons that may be worth pennies individually but when used together can fill food banks and feed entire families.

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by Adrienne Rose Bitar
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Adrienne Rose Bitar (neé Johnson) is a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University. She specializes in the history and culture of American food and health.