Laura Ingalls Wilder often wrote about stockpiling food in her childhood homes. From the big woods of Minnesota to the barren plains of North Dakota, making it on the frontier meant having enough food to last the winter. For the extreme couponers of TLC’s reality show, stockpiling runs year round. Revealing walls of paper towels in the garage, racks of soup cans in the kid’s closet, and tubs of toothpaste under the bed, featured couponers revel in their readiness not for a single winter, but for years to come. These underground bunkers of abundance bring out the armchair psychologist in all of us. Where couponers see thrift and prudence, the audience sees OCD and hoarding. To this, one woman on the show replied that hoarders’ piles have dust on them. And that makes all the difference.
It’s odd how much a frontier mentality pervades Extreme Couponing. In reality (the real reality), the very idea of couponing is about as far removed as possible from the hardship of breaking the plains. Exploiting coupons and in-store policies like doubling designed to lure customers in is only possible given the depth and breadth of the American consumer market. If everybody tried to use coupons extremely, they’d quickly be phased out. The system only works because most people, most of the time pay full price. It doesn’t feel like that between the shoppers’ rewards cards and daily specials but we all know that these are just loss leaders. Those who manage to really game the system do so by virtue of heroic effort. They forage for coupons in dumpsters, burn the midnight oil strategizing over their spreadsheets, and wrangle herds of carts through parking lots and grocery aisles.
The extreme couponers present themselves as individualists making it on their own on the harsh plains of post-recession America. One of the plot points on every segment of the show is the moment when each woman—and the occasional man—explains why they turned to couponing. A job loss, unexpected pregnancy, or other family emergency often lurks in the background. Once the system failed them, they were forced to set out on their own and figure out how to feed a family on next to nothing. A few even supplement their couponing habit with deer hunting and gardening. Most, though, live nowhere wilder than suburbia where all the housing looks depressingly the same and the appeal of turning the basement into a personal mini-mart seems sadly universal.
Although one mother on the show tells her children that “free always tastes better,” one wonders. As the narrator helpfully points out in another segment, coupons are never for fresh produce and rarely for meat or dairy. Just as the Great Plains were much less fertile than land speculators claimed they were, coupons are generally for foods much less healthful than their makers would have us believe. The free land that tempted Charles Ingalls ever westward rarely paid off for him. Homesteading frequently reduced the family to near desperation and even starvation. Yet the enduring appeal of the stories always allows us to overlook the failures and focus on the sincerity, ingenuity and pluck of the characters. The tale of how the west was really won is much grimmer, involving more than a few corrupt deals between banks, railroads, and politicians and a series of violent conflicts that reduced the original inhabitants of the Plains to miserable poverty and subjugation. The Great Recession of the past few years echoes some of these themes. Regardless of the causes, it also led to many families finding themselves on a new frontier where fending for themselves was the only option. This very American response rests on our belief that success is just around the corner, or perhaps over the next horizon. Until then, it’s best to stockpile food in the basement. As the Ingalls learned the hard way, the winter is somtimes longer than we expect.