Sep 29, 2008

The Drugstore Game: A Primer

Updated 1/3/2010

I wrote my original introduction to The Drugstore Game six months ago, when I first started playing. I even wrote a rather controversial guest post about the game at Get Rich Slowly. But I've learned so much since then that I thought it was time for a new introductory post.

As background, let me say that I shop at the three biggest drugstore chains: CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid. I save about $200-300 per month over what I would have paid at Target's best price (i.e., with sales and coupons). My personal policy now is to not pay for shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, body wash, and dishwashing soap, unless my favorite version is on steep sale or I need a very specific version. I also save on necessities like paper goods, baby items, over the counter medication, and food. If you want to do the same, here's how you can get started:

First, you need to understand how store coupons and manufacturer coupons work together. Coupons that come with the Sunday newspaper are most commonly manufacturer coupons that can be used at any store that takes coupons. Manufacturer coupons can usually be combined with a store coupon, which is a coupon that is put out by the store. For example, if you have a $1 off Pantene manufacturer coupon and a $1 off Pantene CVS coupon, you can use both coupons at CVS to get $2 off a bottle of shampoo.

The next thing you need to understand is how the various store rewards and rebate programs work. Each major drugstore has its own program and each is a little different. For example, CVS has the ExtraCare program - Extra Bucks (also known as ExtraCare Bucks, or ECBs) are coupons that print at the end of your receipt after qualifying purchases. ECBs can be used like cash on future purchases, and expire a month after printing.

Walgreens has a program that's somewhat similar to the ExtraCare program called Register Rewards, which are coupons that print out after you make a qualifying purchase. Register Rewards (RRs) usually expire two weeks after printing, although that occasionally varies if there's a special promotion.

Rite Aid has the Single Check Rebate program. Each month, Rite Aid puts out a rebate booklet that lists that month's offers. Make your qualifying purchases, enter your information online, and request your monthly check.

The key to success and big savings in The Drugstore Game is understanding how coupons and rewards programs work together. This can be tricky, but it is absolutely worth mastering. For example, last week, CVS offered a Sunday-and-Monday only deal of free-after-ECB L'Oreal Revitalift Anti-Wrinkle Serum. If you paid $11.99, you got $11.99 back in ECBs. But wait! If you used a $2 off $10 purchase coupon that was available online last month, and a $3 off L'Oreal Revitalift Anti-Wrinkle product coupon from a previous Sunday newspaper, you'd only pay $6.99 and still get $11.99 back in ECBs. In other words, you'd "make" $5 to spend at CVS on things you'd be buying anyway, like food or diapers or toilet paper.

In order to play The Drugstore Game at a high level, you need a game plan before you head out the door. The key to a good game plan is good sources of information. You could sit at home poring over the weekly and monthly drugstore circulars, or you could simply visit the sites that do all the math for you.

I rely on some fabulous blogs and forums that put together lists of the weekly deals, lists of items that are free after coupon and/or sale, and scenarios to help get the most bang for your buck. These sites were especially helpful to me when I first started playing The Drugstore Game and didn't quite understand all of the in's and out's of the game. The following list is hardly exclusive, but will be tremendously helpful if you're just getting started:
You'll see lots of abbreviations and acronyms - check out Common Sense with Money's FAQ for definitions of the common ones. Finally, let me offer a few suggestions to help you get started:

Pick a week and start on Sunday. Better yet, buy an early edition of the Sunday paper and start on Saturday. (I can always find weekend editions of the Los Angeles Times with all of the circulars and coupon inserts on Saturday at supermarkets and select drugstores.)

Get organized. At the beginning, you may find it easiest to clip every coupon and file them in a multi-pocket folder, shoebox or plastic container, although some people really like to use a binder and still others use hanging folders. I'm still working on my own coupon organization system, so I'm not the best person to give advice in this area. Eventually, you'll figure out what works for you.

Check out the sites listed above and decide what you would like to buy. Create your scenarios and write them down, including the coupons you plan to use. Create some alternative scenarios as well, in case some of the items are out of stock. This does take some time at the beginning, but trust me, it'll take a lot less time once you get the hang of it.

Before you leave the house, make sure you have your coupons and scenarios. I like to bring all of my coupons since I never know when I might spot an unadvertised or clearance deal that I can't pass up. I also recommend bringing a calculator in case you have to re-work some of your deals (I use the calculator function of my cell phone all the time), and the weekly and monthly circulars. (If you forget the circulars or don't have them yet, you should be able to pick them up at the front of the store.) The circulars are handy because stores don't always mark the shelves properly, and sometimes the only way to tell which item qualifies for a deal is to check the printed circular.

One final word of advice: Sometimes using a lot of coupons can create problems with the registers, which are programmed in a certain way. And sometimes cashiers and managers have attitude problems with customers using coupons. Even if there's no excuse for the treatment you're getting when you're checking out, please try to always remain polite and courteous. It's good for all Drugstore Game players if the stores think of us as their best customers!

You can read all of my posts on The Drugstore Game here and here. For a simple example of how The Drugstore Game can work, check out this post at I heart Wags, and then read the explanation.


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to see the sense in this. How much time do you spend figuring all this out, and how much do you actually save?

Another approach is to not buy all the silly drug store crap in the first place.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Anon - I always think a person should do what works best for them. This is just what works for me, and many others whom I like and respect very much. I personally use on a daily basis things like toilet paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and many other things that I now buy at drugstores for a fraction of what I used to spend at Target.

What we don't use ourselves, I donate to places like Salvation Army or the food bank, or give to family and friends. I've also started sending packages via - I pay for shipping, but the contents have been free or almost free, meaning I can send many more packages than I would be able to if I had to buy the contents also.

The other advantage of stocking up is that I can go weeks without shopping, which I have done at times.

Shawanda said...

I'm always a bit nervous about using coupons. I used a bunch of coupons at Walgreens recently, and I think every single one of them beeped. There were probably at least 10 voided transactions on my receipt. I had to go through it and conduct a mini audit to make sure I wasn't being overcharged. Turns out, I was. I then had to request a $2 refund from the cashier.

I won't let that experience deter me from using coupons. Eventually, I'll figure it out. There are savings to be had.

Thanks for posting the helpful tips!

Unknown said...

I would love it if someone would post the deals and scenarios for the 8 page ad that is distributed in Utah, I have to go over everyones suggestions with a fine tooth comb to figure out if that deal can be done here. Also it would be helpful if when these deals are posted it include if it came from the 8 page or 16 page ad.

Chief Family Officer said...

@TruckerMom - I assume you're referring to the Walgreens short ad. Your best bet is to check the forums at A Full Cup or Hot Coupon World. I sympathize with your situation, but for those of us who get the full ad, it's unfortunately not the best use of our time to figure out the short ad for you. But I would think you could find a forum poster who does that for the short ad because it's what's relevant to them. Good luck!

Bonita12 said...

Thanks so much! I'm learning a lot and saving even more :)

SophieMae said...

One question, please. I know you can't use, say, a Dove RR on another Dove purchase at Walgreens. Is this true at CVS, as well? Example... if I buy one Dove Men+Care (limit 2), can I use the resulting ECB to pay for the second Dove Men+Care?

Thanks ever so for all your help.
And may God bless! 8-]

Chief Family Officer said...

@Bonita - Thanks, I appreciate you sharing that!

@SophieMae - You can totally do that at CVS. Have fun!

Elizabeth@TheThriftyDivas said...

I love this information - thanks for sharing it in such an easy to understand way! I was about to write a blog article about this very topic but you did it so well that I am going to link to your articles so my readers can enjoy your expertise!

Elizabeth @TheThriftyDivas