Why I Stopped Extreme Couponing

I used to be an extreme couponer. I was good at it. I had envelopes of CVS receipts showing totals of $0.00 for people who didn’t believe me. I stopped in 2014 and I just opened my last package of Venus razors that I got for free. (December of 2012 the good times were really rolling on the Venus razor deals.)

I regularly took home free toiletries, medicine, snacks, cereal, and candy. I would only get toothpaste if it was a moneymaker because I had so much. (That means your coupon is more than you are paying, and you end up getting store credit for purchasing it.).

But after about six years of it, I stopped.

I didn’t have any ethical issues with it, which a lot of people bring up. You are just combining sales, store coupons, and manufacturers coupons. The store gets reimbursed from the manufacturer. People are getting compensated.

I also didn’t have the problem that there are no coupons for real foods. I stuck to drugstores and mostly came home with toiletries, and the occasional packaged snack.

But extreme couponing is very aptly named. It is extreme.

There is no way to get stuff for free by casually couponing. It involves researching, keeping a binder, rolling over deals, and always, always, planning. There is writing to companies asking for coupons, and even buying coupons when you were planning a huge buy of something. Checking ads and websites constantly. I would be up late at night, reading forums. Topics like “when will the March finish dish tabs coupon date be announced?”, and “CVS Trip Report, $18 Moneymaker!”. I posted too. (My favorite sub forum was Kmart. They doubled coupons up to and including one full dollar and ran very good promotions on top of that.)

There is also no way to do it without keeping a stockpile. The way it works, especially with drugstores, is you are rolling over your store credit (“extra bucks” and similarly named things) to get more things that also generate credit. They expire. You have to keep doing it. Even if there is nothing you want that week.

The best deals were cleared out unless you went to the drugstores on Sunday mornings. As it turns out, going to CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens at 7 on a Sunday morning to buy a bunch of junk does not exactly align with my vision for our family.

After the Sunday buying-fest early in the morning, you get to look at store ads and coupons in the Sunday paper for the next week. I remember Maddie, as a baby, being so interested in those shiny little rectangles I had put in piles, and me pushing her away so I could plan my shopping trip. It makes me quite seriously want to cry.

Now I am not opposed to working a bit to save money, but this was weird. I got really obsessed with it. I lived for the reaction of the cashiers, who I’m sure hated me. I talked about it. A lot. I loved showing off my stockpile and my receipts. Also it, was not like cooking or gardening, things that you can do with the kids and teach them about. It was just shopping.

As someone who loves to spend money, it was a way to indulge my consumerism without paying the dollars and cents price. But I was still paying the price. I was obsessed with getting things, arranging my things, talking about my things. I had so much excess I would throw out unfinished body wash bottles because I wanted to move on to a new scent. Hey why not, I would think. It was free. It was like quitting smoking and constantly chewing nicotine gum for the rest of your life.

I did not make a conscious decision to quit, I just stopped little by little. My reasons were practical, not moral. I had my second baby and it was harder to get out of the house. Our Kmart closed. I got pickier about products I wanted to buy, only liking certain brands. We moved to a very small house without rooms to store cubic yards of free shampoo. It is only now, looking back, that I see how silly and sad it was.

I still enjoy a good deal at the store, and will stock up within reason when there is a sale. But thinking about couponing feels gross to me now. An obsession with acquiring a bunch of stuff. Things stored in weird places, like cereal under the bed. The time that my children were babies that I will never get back. The huge binder. The rush of walking out of a store, laden with bags. Like a never ending Black Friday sale. Did I really need all this that badly?

I don’t know what deals are out there any more. I just buy the Kirkland brand of everything at Costco. There is a lot of new body wash I will never smell, and weird, new candy I will never taste, and I’m okay with that.

My husband is running low on shampoo, so while I was at the grocery store I spent $5.99 on a full priced bottle of Head and Shoulders. I would regularly get this for pennies back in the day. I just put it in my cart and moved on with my life.  And that part didn’t seem like such a bad deal.

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The Problem with Fake Pumpkins

(All pictures are of my own fake, cheap fall decor.)

There is something about fall that brings out the country look everywhere. Probably some deep evolutionary response to the harvest season. Or maybe just decades of marketing. It usually starts in August, peaks in late September, and by October, Christmas has taken over.

But during those glorious days of fall advertising-season, it is all scarecrows and hay bales. And of course, pumpkins.

Sometimes it is so fun to go to a local pumpkin patch, pick out a pumpkin from their fields and get a gallon of apple cider. Sometimes it is a pain because it’s still in the 80s every afternoon, yellow jackets are everywhere, and those pumpkins are really heavy. And the farmers market ones are expensive, especially if you want different colored ones.

So one day at Target you see a really cute display. They are fake, of course, but look pretty all together, especially with some fake gourds mixed in. And that little weathered sign that says “welcome fall.”. So you add to the cart. Or maybe you are a little more upscale and you go for the expensive Funkins, which can be carved. I used to save up for one a year, to eventually amass a grouping of them carved in the shape of fall leaves.

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Now you don’t have to worry about them rotting on the porch in the September heat. When Christmas advertising season rolls around, you can just stick them in the basement. What’s not to like?

I’ve written before about James Howard Kunstler, and his theory that the countryside is disappearing in part because Americans love the countryside.  They each want a piece, so they divide it up and swallow it.  This feels a little like that.  We love the idea of the fall harvest look, so we copy it.  But we do it in a way that destroys any actual fall harvesting in our communities.

Every fake pumpkin that is bought is a real pumpkin that didn’t get bought. It is a local farm that wasn’t visited, a farmer’s market stand passed over. It is choosing convenience and cheapness over an easy chance to enrich your local economy. It is a choice to instead enrich a factory far away churning out fake squash. I am now imagining a factory in Cambodia, the workers laughing at us, thinking what is this and why are people paying for it?

And really, it is hilarious. We pave over farms to build suburbs that we decorate to look like farms. But do we at least support the remaining local farms as we decorate? No. We do not.  Our decorations are the most superficial thing possible, because they are the very opposite of what we value. At least there won’t be any crows on the front porch.

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The problem with fake pumpkins is that they are another piece of junk that chips away at a local economy. They are more styrofoam adding to the mountain of trash in our country. They are one more emblem of a world we destroyed and now so poorly try to imitate.

There are a lot of problems with no solution. But this one is easy.

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The Power of Paint Color Names

Since I am searching for a paint color for my dining room, I have entered the strange internet world of choosing a paint color.  There is a lot of obsessing and not a lot of actual information.  Photographs do not accurately portray colors at all, and descriptions are fairly useless. These are facts that everyone knows but no one can accept. I am endlessly searching for real life pictures of colors I am interested in, just to find that they all look totally different from each other and from the paint chip.

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But an odd thing that I’ve noticed myself doing is latching on to a color I have read about and wanting it to work in my room. This, my friends, is an example of good marketing.  A consumer being attracted to something and deciding it is “them”, having it take hold in their mind, and finally making them want to buy it.

And what is so powerful about certain colors that they appeal to me when I haven’t even seen what they look like? The name.

Isn’t that totally absurd? Here are some names that I think express my inner self: Kensington Blue, Homestead Green, Jamestown Blue. I guess I am a colonist, in some type of elegant plantation home, or maybe just the owner of a British estate. There are similar colors called Del Mar Blue and Scenic Drive, but those names don’t work for me.

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Here are some other good ones from Benjamin Moore: Collingwood, Edgecomb Gray, Heritage red, Hale navy. What’s interesting about these names is that they aren’t terribly descriptive.  I read an article about named paint colors, and the namer said that they are always looking for descriptive names, like foods. The example given was strawberry parfait because everyone can picture what that color will be. A lie, or just bad marketing. The best color names don’t describe, they evoke.

When we painted the nursery I had picked out a beautiful soft yellow called Windham Cream. My husband took it to Lowe’s and found that it matched, pretty much exactly, a color Lilting Lily. Now that name is okay. But I had the name Windham Cream in my mind and I have never loved the color since. Lilting lily is just not the same feel. It does not say British country house.

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Sherwin Williams is abysmal at naming colors. Our builder uses Sherwin Williams and we were allowed to pick a grand total of one color for every wall in the house. I wanted a linen/ oatmeal neural that would look good with white or gray, not too cold but not too warm. What fit the bill was Accessible Beige, a grayed down beige. That name though. Terrible. They have a few other colors that are pretty with awful names. Livable green, a beautiful shade I want to paint my girls’ room. Hate the name. I also like the beige/ gray/ green tones of Techno Gray and… get this….Chat Room. No.

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So to cure my discontent over Accessible Beige, I have renamed it in my mind. (This is totally insane.)  It is very close to a Benjamin Moore color called York Gray. Now that works for me. Even better, it’s part of the Williamsburg Collection. Yes.  I like it better now, and that is the sad truth.

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By the way, I starting painting my dining room. It’s Woodlawn Blue, and the color looks beautiful so far. Even the butler agrees.

 


Staging Home or Making Home

Do you like going to model homes even if you aren’t in the market for a house? I do, and if I am ever on an errand alone I slip into one if it’s nearby.  (There is always one nearby in our area.)  I don’t really enjoy the architecture of most of them, but I do like the decor sometimes. What I really find interesting is the staging.

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(A crystal gazing ball is essential to keep the towels from…blowing away?)

I love seeing things like fake fruit in bowls, cookbooks open on the counter, the never-used dining room table set invitingly. Sometimes there are bottles of champagne by the bathtub and Victoria’s Secret bags in the closet. The kids’ rooms generally have a boys room with an airplane theme, but no toys anywhere. The girls room is always princessy, and pink. I just find it all very interesting.

What is the purpose of all this stagecraft? To sell the house, obviously, but why include these silly props when they are not for sale? A lot of people will say it helps the buyer imagine how to use the rooms. I’m pretty sure the buyers are not that stupid. Or to make the buyer comfortable.  But being in an uninhabited house with the occasional sign of life is not comfortable. It is actually pretty creepy.

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No, staging is used to sell the feeling of a brand new life. The home itself sells clean, storage space, new.  The staging sells happy marriage in the bedroom, neat and well dressed children, evenings entertaining at home. Of course, buying the house does not get you any of these things. The evenings drinking champagne in the bath will never happen.  It was all an empty promise.  We know this intellectually, but it is hard to separate the feeling from the product. We want how it makes us feel, so we buy it.

(I do firmly believe that a well designed home feels good, but ironically tract homes are very unlikely to incorporate any of the features that can accomplish this.)

And of course, this purchasing things based on our feelings is the root of advertising and consumerism. Advertising (good advertising at least) does not sell beer, or pillow covers, or houses. It sells a life, a feeling. It tells you “You have always wanted this. You need this to be who you are.”.  We don’t buy fondue pots. We buy the feeling of being a good hostess. Not picture frames, but a well collected family home. Not a porch swing, but idyllic family summer afternoons.  I say this as a person who owns all of these things.

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(Why might a pitcher be above the fireplace?)

There are of course things we need to buy. Many things are useful tools, or truly beautiful and will improve our home. Sometimes it is hard to know if we are looking for a thing for our home, or a feeling. Impulse purchases driven by advertising are almost always based on emotion.

A homemaking book I like,  Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson puts it well: “Decor usually gets too much attention at the expense of other influences…there are ways of living in your home that make it homey as well…you want to provide pretty and good things and do something with them, beyond merely buying…When you talk, read and write, play music or games, or sew, you leave traces of this in the room…Faked signs of life make the room feel desolate and lonely.” (28-29)

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(Like what is the point of this table in my house?  How much more homey would a simple bookshelf be, filled we things we use? This was an impulse purchase no doubt.)

It seems that only way to make a house feel like a home is to have it be a home.  You have to live in it, and occasionally buy things you like and need.  But you can’t buy them for the express purpose of making it homey.  I guess if we need a container for the blocks on the floor, and we want it to be an attractive basket, that’s fine. But if we see an attractive basket and we think “country…charming…the good old days”, well that is just another empty promise.  It might as well be a bowl of rubber pears on the kitchen island.  Buying a feeling will disappoint you every time.

 


The Geography of Nowhere: Country Living

In his 1993 book  “The Geography of Nowhere”, James Howard Kunstler explores how America became so ugly. Not politically and spiritually, just visually….ugly. I have read some of his other books such as “The Long Emergency” where he talks about peak oil and global warming, but this one is more about our public spaces and how they have been ruined by cars and suburban sprawl. He also blames modernist architecture, which is indeed awful. There is a lot about the American emphasis on freedom and individual, which led people to neglect public spaces in favor of their own homes.  Also he blames the ideal of “country living”, which made people flee the cities for the country, which they then ruined by turning it into the suburbs.

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I was feeling quite smug while reading most it, thinking yes, I hate the suburbs, I live in the country, until I got to that last part. How can loving the idea of “the country” ruin the the country? This was something I had truly never thought of.  It reminded me of this thoughtful post about how cultivating our anti-consumerist image just enhances our materialism.

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Kunstler argues “America reinvented (Eden)… called it Suburbia, and put it up for sale” (600).   And that “The people who lived there would not draw their livelihoods from it, either from farming or business. Rather, it was strictly a place of habitation and pleasure”(700). And “It was an artificial way of life in an inorganic community that pretended above all other virtues to be natural” (920).

Hmmm.

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What he hates most of all is our dependence on cars.  Not just because they are polluting our air and draining natural resources, but because they destroy society.  All our “public works” are roads.  We are slaves to our vehicles because we can’t do anything without them and take up an extraordinary amount of our time and money.  Being able to drive all over has caused us to develop rural land that never should have been developed beyond farmland.

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Interestingly, the road I live on was indeed developed in the late 19th century, long before cars. There is a small cattle farm across the street from us that used to own our property. The cottage that existed here when we bought it was built almost a hundred years ago. Less than a mile down the road is an intersection with a little convenience store, a church, and a plumbing business. There is a church another mile down the road built in 1789. So this whole area was built for a car free society, and in just a few generations, getting around by anything other than car has become impossible.

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I have a daughter in public school. I drive her there every morning because her bus ride would be an hour and ten minutes but the drive is only ten minutes. I am not going to put her on the bus for an extra hour to save resources, even though I understand that is wasteful as the bus drives right by out house every morning. I could homeschool, but that is not the cards for me right now (my husband is considerably more “mainstream” than I am), and also we would still be going out during the day.

Now here we are, isolated by our freedom. When you can “just drive somewhere” there suddenly becomes no alternative. The road in front of my house has a 45 mph speed limit and no sidewalks. The corner convenience store has devolved into a creepy place no one wants to go, because any respectable person would drive to the grocery store five miles away or the Walmart a few miles past that.

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Old fashioned, sustainable country living does not mean having a beautiful view from your front porch and also driving twenty minutes to get anywhere. It means making your land your job, and basically never leaving. It means if you can’t walk there or ride your horse there, you don’t go. Luckily you live with extended family to keep you company. The corner stores and churches are all you have. It means you are not relying on trucked in animal feed or fertilizer, but are grazing animals, growing hay, fertilizing with manure. I don’t think many of us are ready for that, or capable of that.

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So yes, I am basically living on a large suburban lot. I take my kids to school, church, soccer, and ballet. I, myself go to the grocery store and library once a week, Costco once a month, rarely the post office or bank. Even though I am home all the time, I drive every day because of my kids. If I didn’t have kids, would probably have (horrors) a job that I drove to. I see now that moving out here is contributing to the problem of a spread out society that is completely fuel dependent.

I’m not sure what I can do about it though. Moving, besides being completely out of the question, would fix nothing because someone else would buy this property and subdivide it, compounding the problem. I would move….where? Into town? The schools are terrible, so I would be driving them to a private school even farther away. There is no walkable grocery store in town either. A seasonal farmers market and a fancy butcher, but no way to get pantry goods. I would still be car dependent.

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I understand and somewhat agree with Kuntzler that cars have basically ruined our way of life. But there is no going back. He sees this as as well, and the book is not a call to action by individuals, but more a critique of society in general.  He proposes land use agreements (where counties buy development rights from land owners…the farm across the street from us has such an arrangement) and smarter urban zoning as potential cures to American ugliness.  But I don’t think much will change until our current way of life become impossible or unaffordable.  One day maybe gas will become insanely expensive and the church on the corner will have its own little school. I will be able to ride my horse and cart into town to go pick up a twenty pound bag of flour and go to the library. But for now, I am just another suburban housewife, driving around.