This is Part III in Frugalistic Mom’s first series, “How to Save Money Frugalistically.” Also see Part I, “How to Save Money on Groceries,” and Part II, “How to Use Coupons.” You can find all the parts to this series when you click the green “Get Started! Save Money Frugalistically” badge at the top of the blog.
Playing the drugstore game is admittedly the nerdiest form of bargain shopping, and it can be time consuming. But the payoff is bigger than other bargain shopping strategies.
I live very close to a CVS, and yet for the first 6 months we lived here I scarcely bought anything there, because I thought of CVS as an expensive convenience store. I’d drive to Target twice a month and spend $300 on paper towels, diapers, toothpaste, and a lot of impulse buys. Now, I go to Target maybe every 3 months, and when I do I don’t usually buy toiletries or toilet paper. I get all of that at CVS and Walgreens, and I only spend a few dollars a week there – mostly in tax.
How is this possible? First, I learned about CVS’s ExtraCare program. I’ll explain CVS first, then move on to Walgreens similar Register Rewards program.
You might notice in CVS’s weekly ad in the store that certain items say, “buy this for $3.99 and get $2 ExtraBucks” or sometimes even “free after ExtraBucks.” When I shop at CVS, I buy almost exclusively items that pay ExtraBucks. By combining these rewards with coupons, I’m able to fill most of our household needs for very little money.
These ExtraBucks, also known as ECBs, are almost like cash. Once you accumulate some, you can spend them on other items that pay ExtraBucks, acquiring more and more items without adding more money to your system. If you do enough deals and accumulate enough ECBs, you’ll find yourself only having to pay the tax for your CVS transactions.
In fact, you can even earn more ECBs than you spend! Deals where you spend $4 and get $6 ECBs back, for example, are called “moneymakers.”
What makes moneymakers possible? Coupons. You can use a manufacturer’s or store coupon to lower the price you pay, and this does not reduce the amount of ECBs you get back.
For example, look at this item from a recent CVS ad:
As the ad shows, the sale price of any of these items is $3.99, but they will pay you $2 ECBs if you buy it.
Now, imagine the Sunday newspaper contains a coupon for $3 off any Listerine product. High-value coupons do come around! If you buy the Listerine using the $3 coupon, your cost will be only 99 cents (plus tax). But you’ll still get $1.99 Extra Bucks back. CVS paid you $1 to buy the product. That is what we call a moneymaker.
Often, CVS itself issues coupons that will sweeten the deal even further. For example, they may email some customers a coupon for $2 off a $10 purchase, $3 off any $15 purchase, or $4 off a $20 purchase. These are sometimes called “basket coupons” because they give you a discount on your whole basket of items.
Imagine you have a $2 off $10 CVS coupon in addition to two $3 Listerine coupons. (You bought an extra copy of the paper because you want to stock up on Listerine.) Notice that the ad says “limit 2 per household.” You can grab two bottles of Listerine, but your pre-coupon total is now only $7.98.
In order to use the $2 off $10 coupon, you’ll have to throw in a “filler” worth $2 or more. Technically you should spend $2.02 more, but CVS is not fussy about the pennies here and there.
I like to throw in a gallon of milk if it’s reasonably priced that week, say at $2.99. Now you’re ringing up:
2 Listerine @ $3.99 each $ 7.98
1 gallon milk $ 2.99
$10.97 (plus tax)
Now, you pull out your coupons. First, you’ll want to use the $2 off a $10 purchase coupon. After the cashier takes that one off, your total is down to $8.97 + tax.
Then, hand over your two $3 Listerine coupons from the newspaper. Now your total is down to $2.97 + tax:
2 Listerine @ $3.99 each $7.98
1 gallon milk $2.99
$10.97 (plus tax)
– 2.00 CVS coupon
– 6.00 Listerine coupons
YOUR TOTAL $2.97 + tax
After you pay that $2.97, your receipt will print out. At the bottom of your receipt it says $3.98 ExtraBucks. Don’t throw that away!
So even though you also got milk in this transaction, because of your great coupons you made a profit. You paid $2.97 and got back $3.98. If you don’t count the $2.99 you paid for the milk — which you were going to buy anyway — it’s really like you paid nothing but tax, and profited the whole $3.98!
This happens to me all the time. Not every single week, but definitely many times a year.
In order to build up your ExtraBucks at first, you may have to buy stuff that you’re not at all interested in. Recently I bought some weird nasal spray because it was free after ExtraBucks, and I had printed a $2 coupon from the Internet.
You might be able to get started without spending much or any cash if you watch the Web sites for a few weeks for a really good deal before you jump in. (Frugalistic Mom, I Heart CVS, Money Saving Mom, Slickdeals.net).
Multi-Item CVS Deals
The deal I posted above is a simple one, but some Extra Bucks deals are more complicated. This deal from a recent ad requires you to spend $15 on any of the products shown, in order to earn $5 ECBs.
The same rules apply as above — you can use any coupons you find on any of these items to bring your real total below $15. One thing to keep in mind with a multi-item deal is that CVS uses your ExtraCare card number to keep track of your purchases. So you can buy these items in separate transactions, and as long as you have purchased $15 worth by the end of Saturday on the sale week, you should get the $5 ECBs.
This all may seem complicated, but once you get a month or so practice in, it becomes second nature. If you make mistakes at first, don’t feel bad. You have to get the EXACT ITEM listed and pictured in the flyer in order to get the ExtraBucks. The stores are supposed to label them but many stores don’t always have all the labels out. And don’t worry — if you buy the wrong item, you can just return it and try again.
Walgreens Register Rewards
Walgreens RR are the same as CVS ExtraBucks in most ways: You earn them by buying certain items, you can spend them on just about anything, they have expiration dates, etc. But there are a few ways the Wags program is different:
- Unlike CVS, Walgreens does not have rewards cards. CVS will use your ExtraCare account number to keep track of how many items you bought for the promotion. There is always a limit of how many times you can get rewarded for buying the item. At Walgreens, the limit is always one promotion per transaction, but because you have no card there is nothing to stop you from doing the same transaction over and over. Just don’t hog all the stuff — if you buy every single item that’s a good deal, that’s called “shelf clearing,” and other couponers will not invite you to their brunches.
- Because of the no-card thing, Walgreens will not keep track of your purchases throughout the week. This means you have to purchase all items in a multi-item deal in one transaction.
- Register Rewards do not “roll.” This means that if you earn a RR for doing a specific deal, you should not go back and use that RR to do the same deal again. If you try it, a new RR will not print out. In fact, in general RRs will not print out if you pay with an RR from the same manufacturer, even if you have purchased two separate offers. For example, say I got $2 RR from buying Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. If I want to do the deal again and get another $2 RR, I should pay with cash or with RR I earned from a different manufacturer. Or, if I want to come back the next week and earn RR buying Tom’s of Maine deodorant in a new deal, I should still pay with cash or use RR from a different manufacturer. I should not use the RR I earned from buying a Tom’s of Maine product to do any other Tom’s of Maine RR offer, or the new RR will not print out. Lucky for us, Register Rewards have the manufacturer’s name printed on them, to help us remember what we got them for.
- Walgreens Register Rewards are manufacturer’s coupons, while CVS ExtraBucks are more like store coupons. Who cares if the piece of paper says “manufacturer’s coupon” at the top? Well, here’s the thing: You can’t use more than one manufacturer’s coupon for every item you buy at Walgreens, and every RR you use counts as one. So if you want to use two RRs, one for $2 and one for $4, you have to have at least two items in your transaction. You can’t just combine the two RRs to pay for one $6 item. The way around this is another “filler.” Add something tiny into your transaction — pencils are popular, or the 35-cent caramels that a lot of Walgreens keep at the counter. Even though the filler costs less than the value of the Register Reward you’re using, the register will accept it.
Drugstore Rewards Are Almost Like Cash, but NOT QUITE
Drugstores will tell you that their rewards can be spent just like cash, and that’s almost true. But they differ from cash in a few important ways:
- Rewards expire. Walgreens RRs expire even more quickly than CVS ECBs. Watch it — most stores will not give you any leeway on the expiration date.
- There are some things you can’t buy with rewards. You can’t pay prescription copays with ECBs or RRs, and you can’t buy cigarettes, for example. In some states, you are not allowed to use them on milk.
- You can’t get change back from rewards. Say you want to buy milk for $2.99 at CVS, and you have a $5 ECB. If you pay with the $5 ECB, you will not get any change back. The cashier will adjust the value down to $2.99, or ask you if you want to add anything to your purchase to get your full $5 worth.
- At CVS, you can only use your rewards with your own CVS card. You can’t give them to someone else to spend with their account. If you find some on the ground, they’re no good to you because you (presumably) don’t have the card of the person who dropped them.