Within minutes, Knight — a part-time dental hygienist with glossy, nearly waist-length blond hair and enviable white teeth — had discovered a sale on StarKist tuna fish. “Oh, Cathy, the tuna’s a dollar right now!” she said, as she stood before a shelf containing shiny blue plastic pouches of chunk-light tuna. A bulging nylon binder, which she had seated like a toddler in the front of her cart, held six StarKist coupons for 50 cents off; paired with Albertsons coupons, they were worth a dollar each, the same price as the tuna. “So it’s free right now,” she continued. “And we haven’t even blogged about it!”
For “couponers,” as they call themselves, free product is the holy grail. Freebies are obtained by combining various promotions in ways that can seem laborious and arcane to the civilian shopper: waiting for items to go on sale and then using coupons to buy them; “stacking” manufacturers’ coupons with store coupons; shopping during “double coupon” days; or receiving, post-purchase, a “catalina” — a coupon from a company called Catalina Marketing that can be redeemed on a future transaction. These little papers, which are spit out by a mini-printer that sits near the register and look like run-of-the-mill receipts, usually meet an unceremonious end in the graveyards of shoppers’ pockets and purses, but couponers regard them as cash.
I have seen exactly one episode of the TLC show, “Extreme Couponing,” which gave me mixed feelings because it’s amazing that these people can save so much money by studying promotions and getting the right mix of manufacturer and store coupons. There’s a science to it. But a lot of food that manufacturers provide coupons for are also highly processed, and there’s something borderline Hoarders about all that space the products take up in people’s homes.
But the thing I did like about this coupon clipping feature in The New York Times Magazine was that extreme couponing saved this woman and her family from losing their home, and that’s something to be admired.