Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is Extreme Couponing Moral?

My sons and I have recently been watching “Extreme Couponing” on TLC. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it showcases people who have turned using coupons into a career. They save their families thousands of dollars each year via the use of coupons. Most of the episodes we have watched feature grocery totals of hundreds of dollars costing under fifty dollars (some were under ten)! The extreme couponers featured have stuffed their houses full of the items they have purchased in large numbers because there was a good deal.

I know money is tight right now. The economy has been struggling for quite a while and some of the families featured were in truly dire situations. They have made couponing into a full-time job and saved the equivalent of a good salary while being able to feed their families. I can only admire their resourcefulness.

But, what about the person who can afford the groceries but chooses to take up extreme couponing anyway? Is there a point when saving money becomes less about good sense and more about being unethical?

What is involved in extreme couponing? One must take advantage of multiple good deals. One must not only purchase only what is on sale but also must have a coupon for it. Double coupons and combining manufacturers coupons with store coupons are also used. Some extreme couponers actually make money on the products they buy!

Extreme couponers do nothing illegal. They do their research and make the best use of the offers and policies that are in place. They get around limits on the number of coupons or items purchased by making multiple transactions. My moral quandary comes in with the scale of the purchases and the fact that they are leaving one store with close to a thousand dollars worth of goods that they have paid less than ten percent of the purchase price for.

I have worked in retail. I know that there is a considerable mark-up on the goods sold. Yet, that mark-up is what pays for the workers’ salaries and the utilities and general upkeep of the store – all money that goes back into the economy and helps provide jobs for people. Obviously, one extreme couponer will not break a store’s bottom line, but one must realize that someone does need to pay for the goods that person is taking out of the store.

Yes, the store will be reimbursed for manufacturer coupons, but double coupons and store coupons are offers the store makes in order to get more people into the store so that they will spend money on other products while they are there. In the case of extreme couponing, the store is the one taking the hit, and by extension, the people who work for it. Stores may also need to change their coupon policies as a result, thereby hurting all those who used them the way they were intended.

I also question the appropriateness of the stockpiles of goods some of these extreme couponers amass. While some do donate their excess to charitable organizations, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Many of the products will expire before they ever have the chance to be used. One couponer bought 100 bottles of medicine because she was making money on each bottle. Is it morally appropriate to hoard products in this fashion?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but I think they are important to think about, especially if extreme couponing becomes more and more popular.


Leticia said...

Good question, Patrice! I am a fan of the show, because I have several immigrant in-laws who are staying in my home and we need to make every dollar count. I have saved $970 in my first month, and am building up stockpiles of durable goods for when more arrive without work.
IF you do this because of your family's need, or in the case of the show, there a pastor in training in PA who donates it to a food bank, you are performing a corporal act of mercy, "Feeing the hungry" but if you do it, as many participants do, out of gluttony and pride (recently an extreme couponer said it as an addiction of competition like a video game, then it is a sin, materialism run amok.

Childrens Writer said...

Good post! My wife and I have been discussing some of these questions, as well. It's hard to pin down the ethical issues here, but I would say, at the very least, the action seems to promote a pervasive materialism. The stockpiles are a particularly good example of this. There is also a sense in which it's very self-centered. That is, these shoppers will routinely clean out a store's stock on a products they can't hope to use. What about the family that actually needs one of those products? It's a real selfishness. As a guy who worked retail as well as retail loss prevention years ago, I think the end result will be changes in store policies and manufacterer coupons. We're already seeing some of those changes in our area.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur said...

Thank you for your comments. Leticia, I appreciate your perspective. I agree, it does seem to be a question of need and intent.

Eric Baker said...

This is a good question, Patrice. I honestly have to say that there is no moral quandary here. The retailers know and understand that this is happening. They have known about it for a very long time. They have chosen not to change their policies because their promotions are still profitable. Some retailers have amended their policies because it is in their economic best interest to do so. If they feel that it is in their best interest to tell a customer, 'no I will not sell that to you' then they are within that that right. As long as the consumers are acting in accordance with the law then what they do is acceptable. One thing to consider here is that sometimes when items go on promotion retailers are doing so to reduce stock of an item. They actually don't care what it sells for they just want some return and have it in the hands of their patrons rather than destroyed. I have worked enough retail in my life to know this fact. There are many behind the scenes decisions that go into these promotional activities. As for the morality of hoarding and "materialism" it is a free-market. People are entitled to buy and sell. This economic policy has far better social positives than other economic models. There is a moral though and I would have to say that if the person actually uses what he buys then it is fine. If it is a wasteful act then no, it is not OK.

McAssist said...

If you can put in the time and effort and do it legally, what does it matter what you can afford? Many wealthy people practice frugality and shrewdness. Nothing wrong with that. And who judges who can afford it?

I stockpile and I am proud of it - I rely on no one, and am able to share. It does not waste.

Its up to me to decide if I will donate, consume, share. I earned it, I bought it, I paid for it - and it is no one elses business how much money I have or how I paid.

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