Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Couponer's Bubble

Do you remember the old saying of “there are no free lunches in this world?” It holds some truth, but in the consumer world, it’s becoming easier to obtain items for free or ridiculously low costs. It’s no surprise now that some people will go to any length to try and outsmart the system.

Part 2 of my couponing series will take you into the world of coupon addiction. It is a dark place that can rob you of your life, just like any other compulsive behaviour such as smoking, drinking, drugs, and more. The clinical definition of addiction by the DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) can be debated though and is often rejected by those who are suffering. Whether you meet one criteria or all of them, sometimes your conscience may be able to withstand the fraudulent behaviours because you truly believe that you’re saving money for yourself and your family. However, there is a very fine line between saving and scheming.

Every day, people scour the stores for the best deals and of course, those red-hot coupons. You’ll join up on sites that allow you to print out money-saving coupons on favourite products or even ones you’ve never tried before. Other times, you’ll be able to have certain websites mail you out coupons to your home address. Social media has also become another great avenue for obtaining coupons, discounts and freebies.  However, when does hunting for a bargain turn toxic?

About a week ago, I had a surprising letter from a woman who did not want to disclose her real name to me but was very adamant about sharing her story. So for the purpose of this blog, I will refer to her as “Natasha.”

This is a year for Natasha to mark on her calendar. She had the biggest birthday bash, as she celebrated her 37th recently with close friends and family. She was overjoyed with a simple dinner at one of her favourite restaurants in the city of Windsor, and for the fact that she had finally left her home for a calculated time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, after a number of years in isolation.

Natasha’s story began like many others. Being a stay-at-home mom of 3 had its rewards but Natasha often felt really bored with her life and began searching for new ways to break out of the mommy role. Her husband worked long hours and so any quality time would be sparse, except for the occasional weekends, when he would make it a habit to go out with his buddies and leave her alone with 3 attention-seeking children. Sometimes he’d come home, blitzed out of his mind, smelling like stale perfume and other times, he never came home at all. Frustrated, Natasha recalls one night where she put the children to bed and went to the living room and cried for what seemed like hours.

Trying to make sense of her situation, her eyes glazed over the computer screen that was in the corner of the room. Before she knew it, her tears had turned to laughter, as she entered the virtual world known as the Internet.  Being an amateur with computers, she successfully navigated her way and carefully typed in the search box of Google “bored mommies.” Thousands of search results came up and Natasha was overwhelmed, yet relieved that there were other people like her who were constantly stuck at home and unappreciated by their significant others. Clicking on each page, Natasha felt a sense of belonging and began to sign up to different forums.

Natasha recalls a renewed zest for life, an exhilaration that she hadn't felt in years. So every night, after the kids went to bed, Natasha would log onto the computer and seek out more groups to join. She would stay up practically all night long, chatting with others and eventually finding an extreme coupon group that would soon consume her life. Scrolling through a few sites that had products she liked, Natasha decided to sign up and see whether anything would actually arrive at her home. The excitement of receiving a confirmation e-mail was beginning to feel more fulfilling than sex.

Only a few months into joining and Natasha was hooked. Couponing was her escape from the mundane existence that she lived, day in and day out. Her doorbell would not stop ringing as delivery drivers would stop by and drop off, yet another parcel. She was amazed at how good she felt. She got tips and tricks on how to get more than one sent to her home and started to create multiple e-mail accounts. Eventually, she had 25 different accounts that she could log into.  Trips to the grocery store were unbelievable, as she would pay virtually nothing for her groceries. Any chance at saving money, she’d grab the whole wall of tear pads and stuff them into her purse so no one else could get the deals she was getting. She even started buying up items she wouldn’t even use, just because it was on sale at a good price. She did hand out some coupons to customers on occasion, but this was only to ease her mind of what she was doing. Natasha felt no shame in doing this, but looking back, she knew this was worse than stealing.

Unfortunately, it only got worse. Natasha started to neglect household duties and there were many times that her husband had to come home from work because she forgot to pick up their kids from school or extra-curricular activities.  The distance in Natasha’s marriage worsened and she began getting calls from the school about absenteeism. Not fazed by any of it, Natasha continued to be on the computer even more. Sitting and waiting for the next freebie, ignoring her baby’s cries and visiting the grocery store almost daily to stock up on items that she knew she had plenty of.  Some evenings, she would go and do something called “dumpster diving” to find coupons and other papers that she couldn’t get her hands on. After a while, she would cautiously wait until a neighbour put out the red or blue boxes, take them home, and rummage through. Sometimes Natasha would forget to give them back. She started to collect them and realized she could make some money selling the used recycled boxes.

To give you an idea of her stockpile, it consisted of: 300 packages of toilet paper, 150 cases of canned goods, 76 shampoos, 45 boxes of  pasta, 200 deodorants, 200 loafs of bread, 400 bottles of various over-the-counter prescription medications, 200 boxes of Kleenex, 120 boxes of cereal, and much more.  The family could have lived extremely well for the next few years without having to buy very much, but the rush was too thrilling to stop and so someone had to slam on the brakes.

The most embarrassing and pivotal moment for Natasha was when she stepped into the grocery store and was immediately escorted to the manager’s office.  To her surprise, the store had been watching her for months now. Her devious rearrangements of items so others could not get them, the loads of products she would place into her cart and pay nothing for because she had many free product coupons for, the excessive amount of tear pads she’d collect without leaving any for other consumers…all the evidence was there and Natasha was finally caught.  Thankfully the store manager was sympathetic and did not press charges. However, she was banned from the store.

She drove home from the horrible incident and in a sudden rage, she destroyed her stockpile. As canned goods smashed to the ground and shampoo bottles dripped out onto the marble-tiled floor, Natasha unplugged her computer and threw the monitor against the wall.

Couponing was Natasha’s saviour, or so she thought. What she didn’t bargain for was the devastating aftermath.  Her husband left and took their 3 kids. Natasha told me that the moment her husband demanded full custody, she couldn’t even muster the strength to fight for her children. She knew that she was an unfit mother and needed help.

Up until very recently, Natasha lived a life of total isolation. The outside world did not exist. She refers to herself at times as the “Couponer in a Bubble,” which makes total sense. With the help of on-going therapy and some extremely supportive friends and family, Natasha is slowly rebuilding her life. The guilt still consumes her but she was naïve thinking that she could get away with everything.  What she thought was a fun hobby turned into a nightmare she will never forget.

Natasha has deactivated all of her accounts now. Shopping for her is still a huge source of anxiety and so she only shops with a trusted family member or friend. Although she has setbacks, Natasha is proud to say that she no longer is part of any coupon group.

My closing thoughts: Addiction of any sort can be debilitating and so admitting you have a problem is really the first step in getting better. It’s not an easy road but in the end it is worth every penny. Couponing can be very harmless and a wonderful way to save money. It’s also great to try out new products and help others who may be struggling. However, people go way too far.

So the next time you go shopping and see a stash of coupons just waiting for you to grab, take a moment and realize what you’re doing because you never know what price you actually pay, until it’s too late.