i love couponing!Coupons. Piles and piles of coupons. I was clipping them, sorting them, and matching them up with grocery store circulars. I was tired, but I knew I had to continue. What if I found a fantastic deal? Or even a freebie? Clip, sort, match. Clip, sort, match.

Last night, I spent my four hours of scattered, non-consecutive sleep dreaming of coupons.

I suppose my coupon dreams are a symptom of the tetris effect, which occurs after you play the game Tetris for too long. Tetris lovers will surely understand, even after putting down the controller, the impulse to fit real-life objects together in a Tetris-like fashion. From Wikipedia:

People who play Tetris for a prolonged amount of time may then find themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf or the buildings on a street.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of habit. They might also dream about falling Tetris shapes when drifting off to sleep or see images of falling Tetris shapes at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eyes.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hallucination or hypnagogic imagery.

The Tetris effect can occur with other video games,[2] with any prolonged visual task (such as classifying cells on microscope slides, weeding, picking or sorting fruit, flipping burgers, driving long distances, or playing board games such as chess or go), and in other sensory modalities.

I was a huge fan of Snood in high school. Sometimes, I’d play it for hours on end. And without fail, whenever I moved on to the next activity, I’d find myself searching for three like objects in close proximity.  Upon spotting several instances of the letter “E” within close proximity on the page of a book, for example, I’d instinctively want to aim a Snood at it to make it disappear.


Ever since I started clipping coupons two months ago, I’ve been dreaming of clipping, sorting, and matching up coupons every couple of nights or so. $1.00 off Barilla pasta. Stack this with the Rite-Aid $1.00 off 2 coupon. Buy two Airwick candles, get one free. Use this at Giant where they’re already on sale. Fifty cents off St. Ives lotion. I should take that one to the grocery store because they’ll double it. Each dream is a seemingly endless series of clipping and matching and planning.

Using coupons isn’t exactly the same as playing Tetris or Snood — but it is a game. The object of the game is to save money. The rules of the game are hidden in the fine print on the coupons and in the grocery store’s coupon policy.

So, why did I start playing this game? And why do I willingly continue, despite the exhausting dreams that occasionally leave me feeling worn out when my alarm clock goes off?

It’s not really about the money I’m saving — it’s about the excitement about the money I’m saving…and its effect on my anxiety level.

Put simply, clipping coupons gives me a reason to get excited about going to the grocery store again. After months of panic attacks and agoraphobia, I nearly swore off grocery stores forever.  I hated the thought of picking up even a small order of produce or walking to the back of the store to grab some milk from the freezer.  My stomach would somersault as I grabbed the cart handle.  The bright lights would make me dizzy. The long aisles gave me vertigo.

I knew that avoiding the grocery store was bad for my mental health. I knew that avoiding it would reinforce my perception of it as a threat.  I didn’t want to avoid grocery stores forever, but I also didn’t want to cruelly subject myself to a guaranteed panic attack at the helm of a shopping cart every week.

I needed to re-frame the grocery shopping experience. I needed to transform it from “Hellish Punishment that Makes Me Feel Incapable” into “Fun Game that Feels Rewarding”. I needed a paradigm shift. I needed something to motivate me.

Enter coupons.


I started with a very small order of about 10 items. I’d brought a few coupons from Sunday’s paper for the stuff I needed. Cart in hand, I went on a search-and-destroy (okay, not destroy) mission for those products. Bonus points (i.e., extra money saved) if those items were on sale already. A sale plus a coupon equals even bigger savings, after all!

After my first trip, I was hooked. I’d saved about 50% on a small order of pantry items. My head buzzed not with anxiety, but with excitement.  Since then, I’ve actually begun looking forward to grocery store trips (on most days, at least).

Under the new “Fun Game” paradigm, grocery shopping feels less like a task and more like play. The object is no longer merely to trudge through a shopping trip without panicking — now, the object is to find the items that match my coupons and “win” the game by saving money. Sounds a little less pessimistic now, doesn’t it? I’m surprised that a simple change in semantics — from punishment to play — has had such a positive impact on my ability to stroll through the aisles without panicking. 

So, for now, I accept these annoying coupon dreams. I’ll happily take them in exchange for my newfound ability to buy groceries again.

Creative Commons License photo credit: samantha celera