There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but it's not too hard to find free lunchmeat these days. One way, of course, is to apply for food stamps, which 44 million Americans now receive. But if you go that route, the amount of food you can stockpile will be limited. The average monthly benefit for food stamps recipients is $133. At, say, $1.79 per 16-oz. package of bologna, that's enough to purchase only 74 lbs. of mechanically separated animal tissue each month.
Learn the finer points of extreme couponing via websites like How to Shop for Free, and you can amass much greater quantities of cold cuts. Indeed, once you master the art of deploying multiple coupons per item and split your overall purchase into dozens of transactions so you can apply what you save on one item to the cost of the next, your local supermarket will bequeath you an entire farm's worth of conveniently packaged cows, pigs and chickens, for pennies on the dollar. And it will throw in unlimited quantities of detergent, paper towels, macaroni and cheese, toothpaste, canned oranges, body spray — whatever you need.
We are at an odd moment in American life. Extreme couponing has grown so popular it has spawned a hit TV show on TLC. Groupon, the online couponing giant that offers discounts of up to 90 percent on one deal each day, has experienced such phenomenal growth in its short life that it has its sites set on a $30 billion IPO. Amazon, eBay and Nordstrom are all frantic to establish websites modeled after Gilt, the pioneer flash-sale site that is now racking up $500 million a year in sales selling designer clothing at Groupon-style discounts. Discount retailers like Dollar General and Family Dollar are opening new outlets at a breakneck pace.
But at the same time our appetite for free or nearly free goods and services seems insatiable in the realm of commerce, calls for fiscal responsibility and an end to government handouts animate the political realm. At campaign appearances, GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann decries the "mindset of dependency" that is fostered by unemployment benefits and other entitlement programs. Her fellow GOP aspirant Mitt Romney wants to get America's fiscal house in order by reforming Medicaid and Social Security. In a recently published study, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol reports that members of the Tea Party are frustrated with "freeloaders" who receive goods and services from the government they haven't earned.
While extreme couponing takes ingenuity, patience and even some back-breaking labor — those 100 rolls of toilet paper you got for a dime and a fistful of coupons aren't going to march into your pantry themselves — it's ultimately a form of freeloading too. Extreme couponers can only exist if retailers are willing to ring up their large, complicated, time-consuming purchases even though such purchases result in little or no revenue. They decrease the potential productivity of everyone who gets stuck in line behind them. They depend on other consumers who are willing to pay full retail price, or at least something thatbears the same resemblance to full retail that Riverton Valley salad dressing bears to Hidden Valley salad dressing– otherwise, the manufacturers and retailers who offer the deals that extreme couponers take advantage of would not be able to stay in business.
To put a stop to extreme couponing, Target, Rite Aid and Procter and Gamble are imposing new restrictions that limit the ways that coupons can be used. But are such efforts too little too late? There was a time when we didn't expect small business owners to subsidize 90 percent of our annual grooming budgets. There was a time when designer goods never went on sale. Now, thanks to sites like Groupon and Gilt, 50 percent off is the manufacturer's new suggested retail price. If it costs more than that, we're not interested.
And thus our bloated, broke and increasingly profligate government is not the only institution helping to foster a mindset of dependency and entitlement. Unrealistically altruistic corporate benefactors are doing the same. As Jay Goltz, a Chicago entrepreneur who blogs about small business for the New York Times suggests in a post about Groupon, "When you decide to do a daily deal, you are training your existing customers to wait for the next coupon." And when 90 percent discounts become the norm, the pressure to conform to this norm intensifies too. Why pay full price for something as discretionary as a will when you routinely get deep discounts on more crucial services like teeth-whitening and laser hair removal? Why haggle with car dealers to knock a couple hundred bucks off the sticker price — cars should be 90 percent off at all times. Gas too! If President Obama ever thinks to issue buy-one-get-one-free chemotherapy coupons or offer dialysis through Groupon, universal healthcare may achieve such broad support. Even Sarah Palin might endorse it.
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