As a general rule, I don’t watch reality television. I am (perhaps overly) fond of saying my life has enough reality for me; I don’t need to see someone else’s. But judging by the number of reality shows that continue to grow and fill prime time television, I may be in the minority. Millions of people love reality television, and if nothing else, it’s a great yardstick for what our culture values and finds entertaining. Right now there is nothing that networks, and by extension we, love more than extreme behavior.

We love to watch families with an extreme amount of children or people who eat an extreme amount of food or horde an extreme amount of stuff. We are in awe of extreme makeovers and weight loss and overspending. Perhaps we love extreme reality shows because they make us feel better about our own seemingly more minor sins when we see someone else deal with issues far greater than our own. So it was only a matter of time before our recent economic downturn found this extreme reality television streak and produced a show focusing on extreme saving. Something exactly like TLC’s Extreme Couponing.

In this new show, coupon gurus spend hours upon hours pillaging recycling containers, ordering coupons through professional coupon services, and even having their children search grocery inserts for the best deals. They scope out stores ahead of time for deals and shop on days where coupons are doubled or tripled. There are even ways to use multiple coupons on the same item, sometimes resulting in the store owing the shopper money. They purchase items in high multiples and stockpile them for future use.

The results are shocking. They may walk away from the checkout line having saved 80% to 90% on their groceries. For example, one extreme couponer was featured getting $1100 worth of groceries at Kroger for just $40. They also acquire rooms full of items they have purchased but not used. One boyfriend of an extreme couponer was quoted saying, “In a zombie apocalypse, we’d be fine for two years.”

The show has been met with some intense reactions. In an economy where almost everyone has less money, some people see extreme couponers as modern day heroes who are able to work the system and walk away with months’ worth of groceries for almost nothing. Others see it as obsessive selfishness to purchase thousands of unnecessary items to be stocked away and never used simply because they were on sale. For example, one extreme couponer was taped purchasing more than 70 containers of mustard, even as her husband told the camera crew he doesn’t like mustard. There have even been questions as to the legality of some of these discounts. Because some items have a similar UPC code, some extreme couponers may be getting a discount for items not intended to be discounted and so committing fraud.

In watching clips of the show, it was clear that many of these extreme couponers are in it less to save money and more for the thrill. There is a huge adrenaline rush in ringing up an over $1200 bill you know you cannot pay, only to see it diminish to below your budgeted amount for food. This kind of thrill, like any other, demands bigger and bigger discounts over time, sometimes pushing people to commit fraud in order to get the bigger discount.

I realize none of my youth are eagerly cutting coupons at home, and I’m guessing neither are yours. Yet this show reminds us that our teens are growing up in an economic time where families are struggling financially. Whether or not parents chose to talk to their teens about this financial pressure, they are aware enough to understand that money is tight. Parents are looking to save money and stay in their budget, a very commendable task. We should all seek to be good stewards of the blessings we have received. But at what point does the search to save every last penny begin to cover up the sins of gluttony and pride?

We have to be careful to walk the fine line between using our resources the best way we can and becoming selfish stockpilers who are looking for the biggest deal regardless of the consequences to other people. There has to be a right attitude about saving money and being thrifty. There seems to be little benefit to gathering up storerooms of items simply because you can. In fact, Jesus warns against that in the Parable of the Rich Fool. This show seems to glorify this kind of self-centered behavior and not once did the idea of donating excess to charity come up in any of the clips I saw.

As teens begin to learn how to use money in a wise, Christ-centered way, we have to encourage them to look out not just for themselves, but for the well being of others. Using coupons isn’t inherently bad, but using them in a dishonest way affects stores, businesses, and workers as well. It’s a fine line to walk and it seems to be all about the attitude.

I read a fantastic blog by Lutheran school teacher Kristen Whirrett called Kristen intersperses great coupon deals with reminders of the great blessings she feels God has given her. Her approach is well balanced and focused on how everything we have is a blessing from God. When we find ourselves using our resources wisely, we may find we have more than we need, and this is a key opportunity to share what we have with others. Perhaps it’s a lesson of which we could all stand to be reminded.