J'amie Kirlew shops during her appearance on TLC's… (Courtesy of TLC )
Theresa Jenkins has coupons down to a science. She knows which stores double and triple them, which let her "stack" manufacturers' and store vouchers on the same item. She holds onto coupons until the goods are on sale, then buys in bulk — from the sort of checkout clerk least likely to hassle her about her great savings.
"I tend to pick the youngest boy, a teenage boy," said Jenkins, an Abingdon mother of four. "It's a thing about couponing moms: A teenage boy doesn't care what you do. … He just wants to scan the coupon and get you out of there."
That sort of savvy shopping has helped Jenkins, 32, keep her weekly grocery bill to about $100, quite a feat given that she is feeding her family of six a "semi-organic" diet, and serving lunch and two snacks every weekday to six children in her home-based day care.
But she's a coupon dilettante compared with the stars of "Extreme Couponing," the new reality TV show on TLC. Participants, including J'aime Kirlew of Bethesda, are shown cramming multiple grocery carts full of stuff and whittling four-figure grocery tabs down to just a few bucks. They spend hours each week clipping and devote entire rooms to storing enough mustard, paper towels and toothpaste to last multiple lifetimes.
"It's an interesting subculture," said Dustin Smith, vice president of communications for TLC, part of Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications. "It's fascinating to see somebody so committed to something that the average person would consider a chore, which is clipping coupons. By seeing people develop really awesome strategies and devoting a lifetime to something that on the surface does not seem that exciting, we, as viewers, see it become thrilling. Your heart races as the register [total] climbs and drops. You see how good a haul they're going to make."
Not everyone has watched with such enthusiasm.
Some in the "couponing community" have vigorously criticized Kirlew's shopping strategies, contending that she misused coupons on the show. Kirlew, who gives coupon seminars, has blamed the controversy on a rival couponing guru. Smith said TLC is investigating. And a nonprofit devoted to combating coupon misuse and fraud has called the program both a missed opportunity for consumer education and an exploitative window on compulsive hoarding.
"There's no reason for anyone to have 1,000 tubes of toothpaste," said Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation in Alexandria, Va. "These are obviously not normal couponers. Unfortunately, they're really turning it into a freak show."
Miller said he was particularly dismayed to see one shopper on the program exploit an in-store promotion. After spending a certain amount, shoppers were entitled to $10 off their next transaction. The store allowed a woman on the show to break up her purchases into 18 separate transactions, so she would get $180 off.
Another woman on the show phoned friends and relatives and asked them to make purchases on her behalf so they would count as separate customers. The store held the checkout lane open for her as she waited for them to arrive.
"I just don't see that happening under any normal circumstance," Miller said. "It's just really inviting abuse for that particular store's promotion. … I thought it was disturbing to see some obvious violations of the rules and literally seeing the managers of the store clapping. I'm uncomfortable that it might raise unreasonable expectations, and I'm very disappointed that this isn't more educational as opposed to essentially an exploit show.
"Doesn't TLC stand for 'The Learning Channel'?" he added, referring to the channel by its old name. "This is not learning. This is just showing huge amounts of greed in most cases."
Smith said the show aims to entertain with compelling — and, yes, extreme — human stories. It's not meant to be a simple how-to.
"There's a lot of takeaway, a lot you can learn, but the show is more about the people who coupon than to learn how to coupon," he said. "We can all learn certain tips so we can, ourselves, save more money, but what I think is amazing about the show is, you meet somebody who is incredibly compelling. These people could be your neighbors."
In that sense, the program fits neatly into a TLC lineup that includes "19 Kids and Counting," "Hoarding: Buried Alive," "My Strange Addiction" and "Freaky Eaters."
"The network does have other programming that shows compulsive or extreme behaviors," he said. "With 'Extreme Couponing,' the end result of their compulsion ends up being a very positive result. They're saving money. They have groceries for family and friends. They're making donations to food banks. These people are very focused on couponing and saving money and developing a strategy for getting more for less."