If you try hard and really believe in yourself, the Nutri-Grain bars at this Winn-Dixie are free. OK, not exactly. But following Erica Miller around at the grocery store on a stormy October morning, it feels like she’s performing Matilda-esque magic tricks from aisle to aisle. The 32-year-old—known on the internet as “One Cute Couponer”—parks her shopping cart near the breakfast bar section of this glimmering, fluorescent-lit maze in Fleming Island, Florida. The day’s first deal is a “BOGO”—buy one, get one free—for boxes of fruit-filled Kellogg’s bars.
Miller is dressed to dash in black tights and aquamarine Adidas, but she is also notably camera-ready compared to the rest of the early-bird clientele we are maneuvering around. She wears full makeup, soft curls, sparkly hoops in her ears, a bejeweled Michael Kors watch on her wrist, and a leather Coach bag on her shoulder. Now would be around the time she usually whips out her phone to film her “find” for the #occgang (One Cute Couponer Gang), which includes over 45,000 users on Instagram and 88,000 subscribers on YouTube. (In fact, she is wearing a light-pink shirt she had specially made for them that reads: “COFFEE, CARDIO, COUPONS #occgang.”) But today her audience is considerably smaller: me.
“In Florida, when a product is ‘buy one, get one free,’ the store is offering to pay for one and the manufacturer is offering to pay for the other,” she explains. “But I have a coupon.” She whips out a shiny, purple, lip-shaped case that she bought “for, like, 90 percent off.” (She suspects that the binders she formerly used are one of the reasons Target called security on her in August.) Inside are a bunch of paper envelopes, one of which contains five, neatly clipped coupons. “This store limits five identical coupons per transaction. Publix is eight identical; Walmart is up to the manager. Walmart used to be unlimited. Most stores used to be unlimited. But not since people like me would come in with a hundred of the same.” She holds the coupon for a free box of Nutri-Grain bars up to the $3.99-a-box price tag on the store shelf, showing off her metallic-green manicure like a good vlogger. “I have five of these, so I’m just gonna get 10 [boxes], and they should all be free.”
I repeat the steps in my mind: Use a “buy one, get one free” promotion for Nutri-Grain bars. Combine that with five identical coupons for one free box per transaction. Leave with 10 free boxes.
“I don’t even eat these,” she adds, as she begins transferring them, two by two, into her cart. “I don’t really like them. I mean, I do. But the thing about couponing is I’ll get something and then I’ll eat it until I’m sick of it. I don’t wanna see it anymore.” I nod. She rolls off toward the snacks aisle.
Miller doesn’t have kids, and her husband, who works in finance at Merrill Lynch, prefers gourmet groceries from Hello Fresh. So if the merchandise she scores today doesn’t end up in her own considerably large stockpile, she’ll just throw it into the trunk of her new Mercedes SUV and bring it to a family member, a store employee, the church, or a local battered women’s shelter. Somewhere. Anywhere. That’s not the point. The point is: We must, for reasons dictated by the coupon gods, acquire some chips, Lipton tea, Tide detergent, Old Spice deodorant, and Luna & Larry’s coconut bars. And we’re gonna do it all for less than $20.
The word coupon comes from the French verb couper, which means “to cut.” (To this day, people still debate exactly how to pronounce it.) It was first introduced to Americans in the 1880s, when an Atlanta businessman distributed “get one free” tickets for his partner’s latest invention: a carbonated water tonic called Coca-Cola. A few years later, a tycoon named Asa Griggs Candler bought the company and generated thousands more coupons as as a marketing ploy. By 1913, it had redeemed 8.5 million of them.
Coupons have since evolved from an Americana artifact used in times of war or economic strife to something far more ubiquitous in the minds of power-consumers like Erica Miller. They come in many forms: as those graphic-design nightmare inserts tucked into newspapers, as junk mail, as impossibly long CVS receipts, as tags that hang or stick on products, as printable bar codes, as digital discount codes. But no matter their shape, coupons serve a baseline practical purpose in the marketplace: Shoppers pay less for a product, and manufacturers and retailers move merchandise more quickly. Over the years they’ve paved the way for a vast discount-chasing industry made up of websites like Groupon, rebate apps like Ibotta, and price-protection hawks like Earny. At least one scientific experiment has suggested that the use of coupons can increase oxytocin and reduce stress hormones, heart rates, and respiration—physiological reactions associated with experiencing a positive social interaction. Their comforts are so powerful that they have been mythicized in reality television and on-screen odes to big box retailers. (Bed Bath & Beyond coupons: They never expire!) In a country that is famous for its well-stocked grocery stores, pharmacies, and cavernous chains, these little paper contracts are both reminders of American wealth—a distributor’s ability to literally give goods away—and our desire to consume.
At this particular moment, America’s grim economic outlook is at odds with its innate desire to amass stuff. Millennials—whom the Pew Research Center defines as anyone born between 1981 and 1996—have often been rendered powerless to many of the major post-recession shifts in the economy: stagnant wages and winnowing benefits, the rising cost of housing, and insurmountable student debt. For many, the “side hustle” has become a necessity for survival. Meanwhile, the internet economy has permeated our culture so deeply that there is now a new line of dolls whose entire personalities revolve around unboxing new products.
It follows that the average millennial both celebrates consumerism and struggles to participate in it. Many time-honored traditions may be dying as a result, but couponing is not one of them. “Coupons retain a grandmotherly air, and yet today’s young consumers, often laden with piles of student debt, have become perhaps the most ardent practitioners,” Bloomberg noted in 2016. A 2017 report by Valassis—the company behind a popular coupon circular—found that 94 percent of millennials coupon in some shape or form. An annual shopper survey conducted by couponing clearing house Inmar found that 33 percent of respondents who said they couponed were millennials, compared to the 25 percent who were Gen Xers and the 42 percent who were “baby boomers and beyond.” Plenty of Americans still coupon out of necessity—to feed their families or dig themselves out of debt. But many people I spoke to for this story saw it as a way to fund a small luxury they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford: a vacation, a new pair of shoes, a nice dinner out. Couponing is yet another side hustle that millennials have adopted to reclaim a smidgen of basic economic freedom.
The basic concept of couponing—company offers a deal, customers redeem that deal—remains unchanged. But we now live in a world where a casual tweet from Kylie Jenner can wipe out $1.3 billion worth of a tech corporation’s value in a single afternoon. Over the years, a digital-savvy community of deal-seekers has formed its own highly sensitive boutique industry that harnesses the power of the internet to hunt for the most deals as quickly as possible. And on the front lines of it all are couponing influencers, who are now making a living out of navigating the circuitous rules of manufacturer discounts, retailer discounts, rebates, and rewards. The result is a new widespread access to the eye-popping deals once so unbelievable they were reserved for reality TV. “That coupon-clipping mode, where you sit at your kitchen [table] has become much more asynchronous,” Ali Mirian, a senior vice president of the consumer and influencer group within Inmar, told me. “The way that people are discovering coupons has really changed that experience all the way to that in-store purchasing decision.”
The way people are couponing is changing, and as a result, so has the nature of the coupon. Coupons are no longer a static concept limited to a tangible piece of paper. They’re like shiny Super Mario power coins, hidden everywhere among the digital tools we use to function in the modern world, impossible to resist. And beyond their presence on websites and in inboxes, they are also a form of editorial content packaged and delivered by everyone from New York magazine’s The Strategist to Fabulessly Frugal and integrated into the “storytelling” of many an influencer. Deals are the new clickbait.
Not only does Miller see herself as a representative for that new model of deal discovery, but she has grand designs to transform the perception of discount shopping as we know it. “I want to change the narrative about couponing that ‘Only poor people use coupons, only old ladies use coupons,’” she told me. “I want to change that narrative and make it something that becomes perceived as ‘This is the new cool thing for millennials.’”
Miller was first inspired to learn about couponing 10 years ago. While on a routine shopping errand, she witnessed a woman with a cart full of merchandise ring up at an impressively low total. “I had to be around 19 or 20,” she said. “And I’m thinking: How is she just doing this?” Miller went home and researched savings techniques online. “It kind of just snowballed from there. Once I learned how to do it, it was just like a chain reaction. You get your first deal and you are just amazed like, ‘Did I just pay nothing for all of this stuff?’”
She started small on basic toiletries and groceries and worked her way up to complex moves, the kind where she’d clip hundreds of coupons, place a large “special order” at a store, then—by the awesome power of the fine print—finagle a transaction in which an establishment would owe her money. This was around 2008, when the recession was at its peak and coupon usage had surged among middle-class families who were struggling to keep up with costs. A handful of new, homegrown media outlets like Fabulessly Frugal and The Krazy Coupon Lady cropped up to teach cash-strapped Americans the virtues of Sunday circulars. Jill Cataldo—frequently referred to as the “Coupon Queen”—began writing a weekly column that is now nationally syndicated. “I’m probably the only one that got a new career because of the recession,” she told me.
By 2011, the budding media industry built around teaching struggling households to save reached its logical conclusion: a TLC reality show called Extreme Couponing. It traded all that practical budget-focused advice for close-ups of stockpiles and high-stakes checkout totals. More than anything, it was a reflection of the era’s economic preoccupations, a G-rated Grand Theft Auto for the middle class. Though largely unrealistic, it gave coupon bloggers an opportunity to engage with pop culture and drove people to investigate the world of couponing.
“It was always taking that shock-and-awe bend that really wasn’t about ‘Hey these people do this routinely and this is reasonable,’” Joanie Demer, a cofounder of The Krazy Coupon Lady, told me. Demer and her partner worked with Sharp Entertainment to consult on a handful of couponing reality TV concepts in 2010, one of which became Extreme Couponing. She appears in the show’s pilot, digging through a paper recycling dumpster for inserts with her son and pregnant friend. Many hardcore couponers fact-checked the series. Cataldo called it out for unintentionally featuring coupon fraud. Demer acknowledges the show didn’t serve a practical purpose but says it encouraged people to learn. “Krazy Coupon Lady was positioned, intentionally, very well to respond to the show,” Demer said. “We accumulated a large amount of traffic from people who saw the show, were interested by the shock and awe and wanted to learn how to do it.”
Miller was one of those people. She read the blogs, watched the show, and became a self-taught scholar of the practice. Today she is a coupon fine-print cryptologist. She tracks stocking schedules, price fluctuations, and company stock prices like an astrologist does moon cycles. (She swears she knew Toys “R” Us was going to make a comeback based on the bankrupt company’s temperate liquidation sales.) Her frequent shopping trips to local pharmacies and grocery stores has made her admired by managers, feared by fledgling cashiers, and sometimes despised by the people waiting in her checkout line. Though she’s mostly friendly with her local couponing community, she has amassed her fair share of war stories: tales of sneakily hidden sale items and strangers snatching merchandise out of her cart.
Miller had always used the internet to learn about deals, occasionally consulting a handful of Facebook groups for information. But it wasn’t until 2016 that she discovered a burgeoning couponing community on Instagram. People were posting selfies with their stockpiles, prized receipts, and photos of their shopping carts overflowing with product. They’d also branched out from pure couponing, detailing their hunts for clearance items at retailers both in stores and online. Some volleyed their hobby into money-making opportunities, creating bundles of household cleaning products they’d scored while couponing and reselling them on OfferUp for a profit. Others focused on acquiring and selling coupon inserts en masse—usually by striking up a deal with newspaper distribution companies or hunting for them in waste management facilities.
There were also guides to deciphering the couponing lingo that the community had come up with to explain their deals. “UPC” is short for Universal Product Code, the bar code on the product couponers double check to ensure it matches their coupon. “OOP” refers to the money you’ll end up paying out of pocket. “MQ” stands for manufacturer coupon, and “IP” lets you know a deal is “internet printable”—a whole avenue of couponing that can lead to accidental or intentional fraud. The average consumer might walk into a store and go straight to the products they plan to buy. But dedicated deal-seekers are always scouring their landscape for new coupon sources in the stores themselves: “Tearpads” placed under product display shelves, “blinkies” that print coupons, “peelies” that can be ripped off products, and “hang tags” looped around the necks of wine bottles and salad dressings.
Miller was initially shocked to learn that people were so forthcoming about their money-saving shopping habits online. Though she’d never been ashamed of her couponing hobby, it wasn’t something she thought was worth broadcasting to the public.
“I’m thinking if I’m going on Instagram, I’m going to see what the Kardashians are up to,” she said. “Fashion boutiques, lots of makeup, beauty bloggers. I did not know that people would actually have the guts to post ‘Hey, I’m clipping coupons on a Saturday night.’ I thought that was the lamest thing ever until I got immersed in the culture.”
As it turns out, Instagram is incredibly well designed to serve the needs of intense deal-seekers. Because coupon circulars for grocery and drug stores are frequently regional—Wegmans in the East, Albertsons in the West, and so on—the location of a coupon influencer is especially important to his or her followers. A site like The Krazy Coupon Lady employs about 40 people at its Boise, Idaho, headquarters and has far more manpower than a single person with a smartphone. But if you’re looking for a deal on frozen pizza at your local Publix, chances are a nearby influencer in that area will surface a much more relevant deal in your feed.
The photo-sharing platform is also ideal for the time-sensitive nature of coupons. Instagram is designed to be visual- and mobile-first; it also gives users the ability to receive push notifications from specific accounts. All that helps discount shoppers spot deals and beat people to the checkout line before inventory runs dry. Miller acknowledges that by educating people about couponing on social media, she is also contributing to an environment that makes it harder for her to land exciting deals. During our second stop at Publix, for instance, we rolled up to the adult diapers section for some TENA pads. (They cost $5.19 a pack, and Miller had stacked a few coupons to bring them down to $0.19 each.) There was an empty spot on the shelf where they were supposed to be. Rather than give up, she began rifling through nearby diapers. “People usually hide some,” she said as she pushed around. “One time there were Ensure drinks, and people were putting them all over the store because they were free plus a money-maker.” As she continued explaining, she found one of the correct packs, double-checked the bar codes, and plopped it into her cart.
Aside from its practical applications, Instagram has also modernized the image of the American deal-seeker. During the recession, the stereotypical representative of the couponing community was a Middle American mom with a big family and a tight budget. But the economy that the recession left behind has made couponers out of an entire new generation, many of whom engage in discount shopping so they can afford to live comfortably. And those who are sharing their personal “couponing journeys” online have amassed dedicated fan bases. Daniel Woodsinger, 26, is a full-time pharmacist, but in his free time he runs a feed called @ikillu4coupons. His posts are a mix of deal alerts for Suja Kombucha or Talenti ice cream, life updates, and videos of him gyrating and lip-synching in front of his merchandise stockpiles or voguing in scantily clad outfits at Burning Man. He mostly does it for fun and says 60 percent of his 148,000 followers are between the ages of 25 and 35. @dealhuntingbabe is run by 33-year-old Amanda Curran, who is based in New York and far more interested in digital-only deals on makeup and shoes than she is paper coupons on diapers or Tide. (Besides, she has no room for a stockpile in the city.) Her Instagram page is one of the main traffic streams to her deal-seeking website of the same name. @dealbully is run by Conrad Lewis, a 51-year-old small business owner in Pennsylvania who has cultivated a following appealing to men by posting motivational messages and touting the entrepreneurial benefits of couponing. Lewis resells his coupon hauls at flea markets, a side gig that got him into “drop shifting”—purchasing pallets of slightly damaged products from big retailers then reselling them.
Miller is also a couponing anomaly. She has no children to feed, no major bills to pay, and lives a comfortable life in a sleepy bedroom community just outside Jacksonville. In a former life—“60 pounds ago”—she was a model and gospel hip-hop singer, which helps explain her natural confidence while vlogging for the YouTube channel she launched in June. Her husband makes enough money to support their household, but she says her hobby is a way to feel financially independent. Since she began building her brand, Miller now enjoys the added benefit of online attention whenever she scores a good deal. And that attention has translated into sponsorship opportunities and ad revenue. Cashback companies like Ebates and CoinOut have recently inquired about partnerships. A little over a month ago, she signed up for YouTube’s AdSense program. Over complimentary wraps at her Mercedes dealership—in which she also got a free car wash and chatted with an attendant about local shooting ranges—she pulled up the app on her phone and showed me her latest stats. In the 40 days that she’d been part of the program, traffic from her videos had already earned her $1,900. “If I didn’t coupon at all I’d have to get a job, because I would refuse to put my husband in the position to completely take care of me,” she told me. “I hate having to ask him for money.”
Historically, the couponing community has always discussed their habits in relation to the American Dream: better credit, savings, the ability to buy a car or house. During the presidential campaign, those conversations veered into politics. “The amount of arguments that were breaking out in the coupon community arguing about the Trump administration in relation to coupons was mind blowing to me,” Miller said. She frequently receives heartfelt messages from her followers explaining how her tips saved their families. One woman even thanked her for helping her save up to fight against her husband’s pending deportation. But her tendency to spend too much money on discounted merchandise en masse has caused others to unfollow her. “I don’t want to alienate them, but at the same time, I do want to draw in those other people,” she said. “This is my hobby and it keeps me occupied. I help people and now I’m actually making money off of it.”
The rise of the coupon influencer has not been lost on the manufacturers, clearing houses, and blogs that in 2017 alone offered consumers an estimated $573 billion in coupon savings. Inmar has seen a dip in the redemption of their paper offerings, but that dip is not because consumers simply find digital coupons more convenient. “Shoppers are paying attention to things that they see on social media, especially [because] there’s been a rise of sites where folks will actually talk about coupon-clipping practices,” Susan Jones, Inmar’s senior director of consumer packaged goods solutions, told me. Food companies are offering fewer paper coupons because instructional sites have led to their overuse. “Everybody wants to save on food,” she said. “Truly, those are the coupons that the shoppers respond to most actively. … We’re seeing the impact of really rich deals on our manufacturers budgets.”
Couponing’s thriving content mill has spread its knowledge so far and wide that manufacturers now worry about printing their discounts on anything tangible. If a manufacturer isn’t careful to specify the limits of a promotion in the fine print of a clipping and its deal is highlighted on a major couponing website, it can lose thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Miller recalls when a new ice cream brand called High Road published a coupon for a “free ice cream” in the form of a PDF without any unique numbers or codes to limit the number of coupons per customer. They’d forgotten to include fine print that specified one per customer. “People were just getting tons of ice creams for free, hundreds of ice creams,” she said. Customers in Florida were also able to combine the coupon with “a buy one, get one free” deal and get the $5 value of the coupon returned to them in store credit—what couponers call a “money-maker.” “After a while, I had to appeal to the coupon community—a lot of bloggers did—and say: ‘OK guys, stop it with the ice cream coupons, these people are gonna go bankrupt.’”
The fact that manufacturers are offering fewer major deals—combined with the fact that couponing has become more widespread—has put a damper on the couponing community. “Couponing is not the same that it used to be,” Curran, who switched from covering coupons to digital deals on her savings blog about five months ago, said. “Things go viral so quickly. They started slowly changing all the different policies. Over the last year it’s like: ‘I’m taking this away from you. Now this. Now this.’” Woodsinger, who began couponing when he was in the 10th grade, agrees that overexposure of the practice means there are less savings to go around for everyone. “There used to be way better deals, there used to be higher coupon values, there used to be no limits,” he said. “And then as soon as the Extreme Couponers show hit, and then as soon as the coupon community started to get larger, that’s when the manufacturers would start limiting coupons.”
Those who have been hit the hardest by this shift are budget shoppers like @thecouponchic, a Detroit-based Instagram user who prefers not to use her real name. She began couponing in 2015 after learning about it on Instagram. “I was kinda going through a rough time financially and it was to the point where I couldn’t really afford my daily necessities,” she said. “This blogger that I follow on Instagram would have Monday night Periscopes where she talked about how she got all these paper towels for like really, really cheap.” Three years later, she has found a way to balance her budget, pay off debt, and amass over 46,000 followers. The Detroit-based couponer is happy to share her knowledge, but lately the shortage of merchandise is apparent. “There have been times where I posted a deal at whatever store it may be, and then I’ll come back and the shelves are empty,” she said. “It lets me know that people are watching my page. But I still want to be able to get in on the action too.”
What was once a budgeting aid is now becoming a pay-to-play game, and the more resources a couponer has, the better chance they have at pocketing significant savings. Influencers and bloggers who identify deals for a living have the added benefit of attracting clients. “If we partner with a brand, there’s a high likelihood that the first contact was something like, ‘Hey we had a $150,000 budget for this $1 off coupon, you posted about it on your website, and we got $750,000 redemptions. We just blew our entire budget. We’re very angry,’” Demer said. Because Demer and her employees understand the potential loopholes of a coupon, they can work with the brand to create a promotion that won’t inadvertently lose them money. In other cases, deal-hunters are simply advertising for brands. “A lot of bloggers don’t want to say the truth,” Curran said. “The truth is we have a lot of direct relationships with these companies. They hand-feed us a lot of these deals as well. They know that we’re influencers. Just like with an ad. The Black Friday ads are always leaked, always given out early to us so we can prepare our day accordingly for these deals.”
As the more extreme deals have become less frequent, many couponers have turned to deal-saving techniques that sometimes approach fraud. With the holidays approaching, many will hunker down for “glitch season,” the time of the year when they watch for mistakes in retailers’ online pricing. There’s a separate glitch world that just tracks these things, as Lewis told me. “People actually make programs, or scripts, that will catch pricing errors for whatever store. I honestly believe that sometimes these stores do that on purpose for promotional purposes.”
Coupon clearing houses like Inmar also recognize that the future of their industry depends on social media. While there’s still appeal in following so-called “aspirational” brands like Gucci or Le Labo on social media, everyday products like detergent or packaged foods can’t expect the same type of following. (They tend to be more popular on Twitter, where they’re given attention for making overworked jokes.) That’s part of the reason Inmar acquired the influencer marketing firm Collective Bias in 2016. With it came a platform of 8,000 registered vetted social influencers—since expanded to 11,000—who they use to amplify, promote, and distribute sales. In some cases the company might handpick a few who can offer a compelling narrative for why they use product. The company is currently rolling out a system where influencers can access an internal platform of active deals and discounts and choose those that fit best on their channels. The company has been able to analyze the efficacy of each influencer’s posts down to the day and time they’re posted. For example, Tuesdays are generally speaking the most popular days to engage with offers that are shared by influencers, according to Mirian.
Demer believes the shift toward individual influencers has affected her own company. The Krazy Coupon Lady website has stagnated to about 20 million views per month, while its app is experiencing more rapid growth and currently garners about 30 million views a month. She recognizes that part of their loss of online readership is due to the fact that the site’s communication is less personal. “A shift towards Instagram and the following of people’s personal journeys in tandem with sites like ours is definitely an evolution that’s taking place,” she told me. “I think to a degree we’ve lost the personal connection with our readers, and it’s been to our detriment. When I think about who I follow, there are almost zero brands that I follow that aren’t a person.”
As manufacturers shift away from print coupons, they have looked to influencers and app-based reward systems to fill the void. But digital savings programs often come with a catch: giving up personal data. Companies like Earny and Paribus, for instance, offer services that exploit little-known price protection policies offered by major credit card companies and major retailers like Amazon or Best Buy. These companies run scripts through your email, credit card purchasing history, and Amazon account to identify and monitor purchases. If a price is lowered within the given time period, the program will automatically send an email on your behalf to the retailer, requesting the discounted price. Neither company claims to sell their users’ data, but that’s always subject to change. Elsewhere, an app called Receipt Hog encourages users to upload all their store receipts in exchange for “coins” that very slowly add up until you can exchange them for Amazon, Visa, or Mastercard gift cards. (A $5 Amazon gift card requires 1,000 coins; a $40 one requires 6,500.) To fund the operation, the app sells your receipt data to market researchers. Jon Brelig, CTO of the company that owns Receipt Hog, says that acknowledging an exchange of data for points allows consumers to ultimately feel more in control.
“We’re fairly overt about that,” he told me. “Your data is valuable. We will pay you for that data, right? So our approach is a lot more transactional in nature that this isn’t a free experience where on the backside of it we’re taking your data.”
This new pattern, in which companies offer discounts in exchange for some kind of personal information, creates a dynamic that concerns Susan Grant, the director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. She cites an instance in which AT&T temporarily advertised a discount to broadband users who were willing to share information about their online activities. “A broader issue than just coupons is whether it’s appropriate to ask you to pay to protect your privacy or to offer you a discount if you agree to allow your personal information to be used for whatever a company wants to use it for,” she told me. “First of all, it may not be clear how your information is going to be used, and therefore not be very easy for you to determine if that’s a good deal. And secondly, because it may discriminate against people who want to keep their personal information private but can’t afford to do so.”
Many of the couponers I spoke to for this story, however, were willing to share receipts or personal information with apps that consistently earned them major rebates on large grocery store and retail purchases. Those include Ibotta and Fetch Rewards, which ask shoppers to scan their purchase receipts to earn cash-back rebates on certain brands. Or Target’s Cartwheel app, which will frequently offer $5 gift cards for purchases of a certain sale. Others simply couldn’t be bothered to think about the luxury of privacy when their first concern was balancing their budget each month.
“It’s unfair that rebates apps, and pretty much any app has the possibility of using and selling our info, but unfortunately there’s not much we can do about it,” the Instagrammer @couponchic told me. “It’s a Catch-22: Sometimes you may get personalized deals that are based on previous purchases, but they’re also watching what you’re doing. I’m not too thrilled about that.”
As my day with Miller came to a close, we pulled up to our final destination: Walmart. It had been a fruitful morning. In addition to our first haul, we had acquired six bags of Purina ONE dog food, six jars of Bertolli pasta sauce, eight packs of Hi-Chew candy, one bag of Dixie Crystals sugar, a package of TENA adult bladder-control pads, two bottles of Dr Pepper, six containers of Talenti ice cream, and a few packages of seasoned meat. Miller had easily stayed below her $20 limit for the day. Now she had her eye on a few items she’d spotted earlier on the Walmart app: a skinny vacuum her mother had been eyeing and some mulch for her church.
But first: the clearance aisle. She opened the Walmart app on her phone. As we strolled through she began pointing her phone at the yellow tags on the shelf, scanning bar codes like one of those beachcombers with a metal detector looking for lost jewelry. Then she paused to consider her options. Though intrigued by a discounted motorcycle helmet, she thought it could still go lower in price, ditto for a Black Panther toy her nephew might like. “In rare occasions, you scan something and it’s priced one way and it rings up crazy lower,” she said. But nothing moved her. “If the clearance sucks, I’m not getting anything.”
Next up was a visit to a vacuum cleaner her mom wanted to buy at $12. Miller had told her to wait. Now, it was coming up at $19. “I can’t believe that,” she said, visibly shaken. “It was just cheap yesterday. What happened? I’m gonna be the worst daughter ever! I’m just gonna buy her a vacuum. I’ll just buy her a vacuum, she won’t know.” We moved on to the mulch in the garden center, passing a gaggle of ethereal blow-up Christmas decorations. “I don’t wanna just scan random mulch,” she said. “I don’t have time for that.” She pulled a store clerk into the operation. After a tense back-and-forth, the clerk disappeared to continue the search in the storage room.
Earlier in the day, Miller had described her craving for a “rush,” her continuous need to top a good deal with a better one. Now I was witnessing the comedown. “This is the bad part of me couponing,” she said. “I do have those days when I’m like, ‘I’m not doing all that,’ which sets me apart from other people who do it to survive. I guess they do it even when they don’t feel like doing it. If I get tired of walking in circles in Walmart and I’m not finding anything, I’m going home. It’s no longer fun.”
Her sentiments echoed those of many other couponers I’d spoken to. “You get this adrenaline rush and you’re just very happy,” Woodsinger told me. “You kind of get addicted to it, honestly.” Curran recalled a moment when she was organizing her enormous stockpile and realized she had a problem. “It’s more about the game, as opposed to actually needing it,” she said. “I was a little bit addicted to the game. It was fun. It was exciting. I kind of lost track of how much stuff I had.” Underneath that immediate burst of excitement is a feeling of accomplishment toward a larger goal, the alluring and ever-present virtue of the side hustle. “We’re so far deep into the information age now that I feel like [if] you’re not doing something other than a regular nine-to-five I think you’re pretty much cheating yourself,” Lewis said.
Over the course of reporting the story, I too had felt that hunger to achieve something great via a credit card swipe. I’d signed up for a handful of savings apps for research, but they soon came to occupy prime real estate in my mind. I felt a jolt of satisfaction when I realized that Paribus’s algorithm finagled a $5 gift card from Amazon for a late order and began fantasizing about all the future savings it would reap. I dutifully submitted my grocery store and pharmacy receipts to Receipt Hog and Fetch Rewards, counting my accumulated points after each upload like an old-timey miser. On top of that, I calculated their extra benefit to my credit card points program. I visited Coupons.com to print a set of digital coupons for avocados, Ziploc bags, and a brand of lotion I don’t typically buy. I snipped discounts from my impossibly long CVS receipt, which I then used to purchase discounted dishwashing soap and toilet bowl cleaner in twos, which led me to reorganize the cupboard below my sink for more space, which led me to spend my new $5 Amazon gift card on some cheap shelves to fit those aforementioned cleaning supplies.
Once I began paying attention to discounts on groceries and toiletries, my usual resistance against more impractical retailers crumbled. Would I like for The Strategist to send multiple Chrome alerts a day about new sales? Why yes, I would. Would I sign up for Dermstore emails and get 30 percent off my first order? Why yes, I did. My mouse hovered over my inbox’s “promotions” tab multiple times a day, leading me to scour emails about time-sensitive discounts just in case. Even when I chose not to partake in a sale, I told friends and coworkers about them like an unwitting brand ambassador. Each deal and deed came with its own clean bump of euphoria. Not the same kind you get from drugs, which make you feel good but guilty, or exercise, which makes you feel good but tired. But a near puritanical high from knowing you are working toward some amalgamous financial Xanadu. A barrage of percentages-off and cash-backs had warped my perception of value versus need. I believed I was gaming capitalism, that deals could set me free.
As we waited for the mulch, Miller reminisced about one of her most successful clearance finds: HP laptops ringing up for $25, $40, $45 each. She bought 20 of them and vlogged it. “It was great,” she said as if she was recalling a childhood memory. Before I could ask what she did with them, the store clerk was back. No mulch. She wrinkled her nose, thanked the store clerk, and turned for the exit. For the first time that day, we left a store empty-handed.
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