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The Compulsion to Coupon

May 9, 2009 | by Melanie Chartoff

There was no one more frugal than my dad. And we loved him for it

Ah. Hectic Sunday mornings here in Los Angeles lately bring back a wash of childhood memories and a longing for their comforting rituals: an enormous breakfast, usually fried matzah, soaked in egg, fried in butter and onions; Mom retiring to the den to listen to, and sing along with, some Metropolitan Opera matinee; Dad crankin' up the sports event du jour on the console, burrowing into his barcolounger and grabbing the big, fat, multi-sectioned Sunday paper. But it was in his reach for the handy scissors from his side table where the family peace would be disrupted.

My kid sister and I had probably already appropriated the scissors. We'd be sitting at his feet with our paper doll books, (a primitive precursor to video games) trimming their two dimensional bodies, and cutting the latest looks with their all important white tabs that hooked those chic clothes onto those fair-haired and fragile girls, from their book. To us, this was important work. And the duel would begin.

My father, our resident hunter/gatherer with no new lands to conquer or tribes to vanquish, was a coupon compulsive, taking fervent pleasure in the careful extrication along the dotted lines of those precious discount-giving rectangles. He would pile them like dollar bills, rifle through them like his Monopoly money, count them, total and savor the possible pennies to be saved, newsprint smeared all over his fingertips (coupons were all black and white in those days), coaxing, bullying, guilt-tripping, teasing to talk us out of, then reluctantly relinquishing the scissors. He refused to buy another set til they had coupons for them.

My father would pile his coupons up like dollar bills, count them and savor the possible pennies to be saved.

My father prided himself on his thrift, often driving five miles out of his way to buy toilet paper for five cents off. Gas erupted from a bottomless cheap pit in those days; toilet paper, in limited supply for the masses during the Depression, did not. He was such a wheeler dealer. He'd try to sell my sister and me his home baked sugar cookies "one for a dime, two for a quarter" and chortle at our resisting the treat to figure it out with paper and pencil (early form of calculator). He was too mischievously twinkly to trust. He said he still awaited the rebate that was supposed to accompany his purchase of me, but I wasn't holding my breath. He told my sister he'd gotten her for two books of green stamps, but she never really believed him.

What he especially loved later in his life, when prices escalated and deals evolved, was doing the arithmetic to deduce that the four pack of batteries in a new fangled blister pack for a quarter saved was a better deal than a single battery purchased at the hardware store. He sometimes bragged that the purchases he made ended up paying him.

"I made fifty cents on this deal and got the film for free!" That was a good day for my post retirement Dad. Coupons became his raison d'etre of deal making.

Later in life, one of his favorite things about his visits to me in Los Angeles was the supermarket chain with the double coupons: "Can you believe the savings!"

He'd ponder my future while we were visiting Hollywood's Wax Museum for half off, figuring out why I needed things he'd never have bought if he were home--things he would not have purchased were it not for the double coupons and ‘if you can find it lower elsewhere' making them a quarter of their value. He'd proudly lay them at my feet, like a cat with a recently dismember rat, and await praise.

"But, Dad, dear? I'll never use white strips on my teeth or the economy size drum of bleach on the laundry." The discounted giant hand lotion would mold before I used it up. New chemical compounds would form on the supersize carton of milk in my dairy free diet. My patient friend James, an exemplar of gentility, would also suffer an onslaught of free MacDonald's fries, free, large popcorns at the movies and would ask me beseechingly to call my coupon crazy father off.

Toward the end of Dad's life, his personal crusade was restoring the coupon culture in the internet age. "Coca Cola issued the first coupons in 1894 and in 1994 they are trying to kill them. It's a tradition. It's a disgrace! You have lost my business!" he would write to their complaint department and get a free case of Classic Coke for his trouble. Hence began his new hobby -- harassing the complaint departments at Proctor and Gamble, then crowing with the triumph of the pay offs he received, the spoils which he'd give away as treats at Halloween to baffled children. When Internet coupons became prevalent in this Modern Age, he felt it a personal triumph, even though he personally, printer-less, could not cash in.

So now, on Sunday mornings, missing my late father, I shove aside the pithy, but coupon-free, New York Times in favor of the colorful, coupon-laden local newspaper. I delay the front page's end-of world alerts, the oh-so urgent movie listings ("See This Movie or Die!"), the far out fashion quarterly, in search of the coupon supplement. I become Melanie the Ripper -- a "tearerist" rather than a "cutter"-- honoring the perforations, protecting the expiration dates. I'll save a few bucks this week on a couple household cleaning items, probably enough to cover the cost of that local paper I'll never read, but mainly, my coupon compulsion will be a cozy communion with my frugal father.


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