I recently watched a reality TV show where one of the main characters lets us into her entertaining world of extreme couponing. As I watched the scene unfold, my jaw unhinged. My eyes bulged. I couldn’t speak. When the woman got to the store check out, with her five-inch stack of coupons and overflowing shopping cart, the bill was $12.87. The exhausted cashier, and the annoyed people in line behind her winced as she gloated to the kids, “This was all for damn near free!”
This scene shocked me. Am I just a stack of coupons away from my own reality show? Okay, I don’t hoard bottles of Tide, but I am possessed by the power of a coupon and the lure of a sale. My wallet is crammed with bonus cards from four different grocery stores, twelve-inch-long CVS receipts, folded like an accordion, with discounts for Cortizone and sunless tanners, and coupons for department stores “One Day Only” sales. I keep cards for a free panty and $10 off a Victoria’s Secret bra, a voucher for 20% off a Virgin America flight, and a receipt from the Gap for 10% off my next purchase for completing an on-line survey. Why do I let those small poster board coupons from Bed Bath & Beyond clog the bottom of my purse? Because Krystal, the cashier at the Central Avenue store, once confided in me, “You know we take those expired.”
I have no one to blame but myself for this savings obsession. Well, that’s probably only 50% true. Of course, this disorder must originate from childhood. My frugal mother taught me from an early age to avoid paying full price. At all costs. I don’t think she ever bought a tomato that wasn’t on sale. She won’t buy toothpaste if she runs out on a Wednesday because, “Senior discount day at Walgreens isn’t until Thursday.” Some of my fondest childhood memories with her involve a clearance rack. We spent so much time at the mall because growing up in Buffalo, with lousy weather nine months of the year, there wasn’t much else to do but shop. Or bowl. My bowling average was 128 when I was twelve. If only Transit Lanes had coupons for free bowling, I might have been a pro bowler instead of a champion shopper.
Mom taught me to appreciate shopping as sheer sport. “It’s all about the hunt and the conquest,” she would say. Even today, in her late seventies, she hasn’t lost her skills. When she goes after that perfect sweater she stalks it relentlessly until the third markdown. After she has finally bagged her prize she returns home to give my father a fashion show, modeling her silk, leopard print blouse over the tan wool trousers that she found to match. She struts her prowess as she proudly displays the three red slashes in the limp, dangling tags.
My father has always humored my mother, even though he was never a penny-pincher himself. His generosity was the perfect balance to her frugality. When we were kids he always reminded us, “Don’t ever have short arms and deep pockets.” Or, when we were going to someone’s house for dinner he insisted that we “Never show up with just an appetite.”
I consider myself to be a generous person like my dad. But, I become my mom when it comes to shopping. Now, as a mother of four daughters I’ve done my best to teach them to be high caliber bargain hunters. When they come home from a full day of outlet shopping, which is like being in a combat zone, the blisters on their feet may be painful, but I couldn’t be more proud of my troops. They are excited to brag to their father, “This metallic crop top was originally $68 but I got it for $22!”
My husband, on the other hand, rarely questions the price of anything–especially when it comes to his daughters’ sporting apparel or accessories. One of his princesses jokingly said to me, “Mom, if anything ever happened to you, we’d be living the good life with Dad.” I envisioned her visiting my grave clutching a Hermes crocodile Birkin bag that she’d convinced her father into buying because “It has a perfect compartment for my swim goggles.”
I know it’s not healthy to be so consumed by a bargain, so once in a while I give in to the urge to splurge. Last week, I was shopping with my 23 year-old daughter when I found a gorgeous, merino wool sweater that was much more expensive than what I would normally spend. Even though it was 20% off, I still wasn’t sure if it was worth it. As I carried it around the store debating what to do, she finally said to me, “Mom, just think about your Price Per Wear.” I had never heard of this.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, puzzled, because I was sure that her reality TV style gurus didn’t use that term. “I read it in some magazine. Just divide the price of something by how many times you think you will wear it.” she explained, “I have some blouses that I figure have a P.P.W. today of about two dollars.”
This could change my whole approach to shopping, I thought with glee. I pulled out my coupon and bought the sweater. And, ever since that day, I have been wearing it to death just to get my P.P.W. down to five dollars. Before you know it the sweater will be damn near free.