I used to despise the "Extreme Couponing" reality show. I used to make fun of my girlfriend who calls herself a member of the "Krazy Coupon Lady" posse. And I used to cringe whenever I got stuck behind those little old ladies and gentlemen who hold up the supermarket checkout line forever by rummaging around in their purses or wallets for crumpled up coupons they just can't find.
Despite this natural aversion to the bargainista lifestyle, I recently succumbed to the inevitable. In an attempt to cut back on expenses in this volatile economy, I jumped on the frugality bandwagon. CVS came first. It was the Extra Bucks that did it. One day, the clerk handed me a voucher for $5 after ringing up my purchases. Instead of tucking it into the depths of my purse where it would never be seen again, I decided to walk back into the store and buy something with that money. A toy car caught my eye because my little girl loves racing them across the kitchen floor. I felt a little thrill at the thought of getting something for nothing, even such a tiny thing.
Seduced by my newfound booty, I started perusing the ads in the Sunday paper. I bought in bulk from Costco even when that meant lugging home enough toilet paper for a year. I began hoarding those 20 percent off Bed Bath & Beyond coupons (Did you know you can use one per item? Score!) in the glove compartment of my car because you never know when you might have an urgent need for a new bathmat, right? I even signed up for the Safeway Just for U app.
Truth be told, I had some doubts about my new hobby at that point. I am not a big fan of having numerous corporate entities tracking my every purchase. It seems like an invasion of privacy. I once got a targeted Facebook ad that referenced my favorite brand of bra and it kind of freaked me out. Just how does Facebook know about my unmentionables? Did the social media giant somehow peek in my underwear drawer? I would certainly never post that kind of information.
But eventually I got over my squeamishness. Friends encouraged me to put savings before discretion. A pal explained that with Just for U, a customer in the program can pay half what the regular consumer pays on everything from bananas to bacon. The upside is that it's not just the fancy stuff but the kind of food you buy for your family every day of the year. You also get higher discounts on the items you regularly purchase so my family saves on organic milk and non-GMO soy products while somebody else makes out like a bandit on porkchops. The downside is that it's a personalized program that's based on your shopping history. Orwell goes shopping, as it were. One woman I know has her toddler check the boxes on the Safeway app. Still another working mom in my circle claims that she has actually gotten cash back from a store on her purchases. She stacks coupons on top of sales on top of customer loyalty programs so that the stores are practically paying her to shop.
No stranger to multitasking, I assumed I could steal a few moments here and there to play the coupon game without eating into what little downtime I have left. I was wrong.
My epiphany came one weekend at Safeway. I had already spent a half-hour at home on the computer checking off little boxes on the seemingly endless list of things that were discounted for those in the know. Then I found myself rolling the overstuffed cart up and down the aisles while scrutinizing my never-ending list as if it were the GRE. Suddenly the somewhat pleasurable activity of going grocery shopping had turned into yet another bit of electronic drudgery like checking your Klout score or managing your connections on Twitter. I was not having fun. All that savvy consumer strategizing was really stressing me out.
I realized I would rather be playing silly games with my 2-year-old as she races up and down the aisles or daydreaming about beach vacations or brainstorming about Middle Eastern oil politics or really ANYTHING other than wasting precious minutes out of my life just to save a few dollars. For the record, on that fateful Safeway trip my compulsive couponing led to an extra $6 in savings. It's not nothing. But it still wasn't worth it.
Not only did my penny-pinching mania cost me time, it was also costing me in terms of mental bandwidth. There is only so much brainpower to go around when you're a working mom, and it has to be parsed out with great care. Looking back on my misguided adventures in couponing, I have come to the conclusion that my sanity is priceless. Peace of mind may be the ultimate luxury good.