By now you've probably figured out that using coupons to save money at the grocery store is fairly straightforward: Match the sale items with coupons, then build a stockpile so that you only buy items at their cheapest as much as possible. With helpful websites like SouthernSavers.com and CouponMom.com to do the work of matching sales and coupons each week, even a minimal effort will save you money.
Extreme couponing at drugstores (like CVS, Walgreens, & Rite-Aid), on the other hand, is a whole new ball game. As in life, with greater effort comes greater reward, and although learning to play the coupon game at the drugstores can be a lot more time-consuming, the payout is also much bigger. Imagine getting all of your family's toiletry and personal hygiene needs for practically free!
Ready to try it? Here are 7 steps to get you started on your way to saving mega-bucks at drugstores:
1. Start with one. If you are new to couponing, don't try to tackle the drugstores right away. Start slow. Get used to using coupons at the grocery store for a couple of weeks. Figure out what method of organization works for you. Build up a stash of coupons. Then, once you have your feet wet, pick one drugstore chain to start with, probably whichever one is most convenient for you.
2. Learn the lay of the land. Once you've picked your store, pop in for a quick visit and tour. It may sound silly, but trust me, it helps (a lot!) to know where things are. There is a lot to keep track of on a high-savings shopping trip--your shopping list, your coupons, unplanned for in-store coupons, unadvertised specials & clearance items (not to mention your kids, if you are forced to drag them along!)--and you will save yourself a lot of aggravation and time by knowing where to find things. Make a mental note of the food section, the baby aisle, the supplement, shaving, eye care, oral care, & hair care areas, which are all sections you will probably need to find frequently. Also check if there is a special clearance section somewhere (usually hidden near the back of the store), and determine where the in-store coupon machine is located (CVS). If there are more than one stores of the same chain nearby, do this for all the stores you plan to use, as the layout can vary from store to store.
3. Sign up. Unless you are in one of their two test markets (Kansas City and Portland), Walgreens does not have a rewards card, and no sign-up is required to earn Register Rewards (RRs). CVS, on the other hand, requires you to sign up for their Extra Care card in order to earn Extra Care Bucks (ECBs). There is no Rite-Aid in my area, so I am not the best resource for that store, but I believe there is also a sign up required. (I have heard through the coupon grapevine that they have some fabulous deals, so if there is a Rite-Aid in your area, lucky you!)
4. Learn your store's program. Each chain's system is different, and each has different rules. Start by printing a copy of your chosen chain's coupon policy, then read up on their program on their corporate website. Find a couple of couponing blogs or websites devoted to your chain, then scour them for advice. SimplyCVS and WildforWags are two good ones (for CVS and Walgreens--haven't found one I like yet for Rite-Aid--let me know if you do!) with a lot of information for beginners, and SouthernSavers.com also has a wonderful "Getting Started" guide for each drugstore chain, or you can check out my CVS primer here.
5. Make your list. Now that you've done your homework, you're almost ready to shop! I highly, HIGHLY recommend using SouthernSavers.com to make your list. They usually post the upcoming week's list for all 3 drugstores sometime on Friday (the deals start on Sunday). When you go through the list, automatically check off any deals that are free or better. (What's better than free? Getting paid by the store to shop!) Do this even if it is something you don't want or need. You can always donate it! Be sure to go through the list at least twice to not miss anything. Also check anything else that looks like a good deal, or anything else you need to buy that week. Then print your list.
6. Plan your trip. How is that different, you wonder, than making a list? To maximize your drugstore savings and minimize your out-of-pocket (OOP) expense, you will need to plan your register transactions. Why? Well, say you printed your CVS list of 6 items, and all 6 items were free after ECBs. If you simply just grabbed those items and walked to the register, your OOP would be high. Yes, you would end up with a high number of ECBs to use on your next trip, but ECBs last only a few weeks and there is no guarantee that next week there will be anything worth buying. However, if you split those 6 items into multiple transactions, you could use the ECBs received from the first transaction to pay for the next transaction, and so on. You would end up paying only a few dollars OOP, and probably still have a few ECBs to use next week, thus reducing even further the OOP expense you ever have to pay.
Planning your transactions can be the most confusing part of this whole process, but it does get easier with practice. Simply look at your list and start your first transaction with the very best deal, which will ideally be a money-maker (meaning you will get back more ECBs/RRs than your OOP cost.) Also be aware of the different stores' rules--CVS often limits the number of deals, and Walgreens will not allow more RRs/coupons than the number of items in the transaction, sometimes creating the need for inexpensive "filler items." Your transaction plan should include what items you are purchasing, what coupons to use, what your total before and after coupons/ECBs/RRs should be, and what ECBs/RRs you should receive back at the end.
7. Go shopping. In an ideal world, your drugstore shopping trip would be a sublime and serene experience, just you and your coupons and all the time in the world, happily traipsing through the aisles. And while we all know that's not always feasible, it is easier if you can try to not be in a rush. Armed with your coupons, shopping list, game plan and knowledge of the store layout, you are ready to conquer the drugstore world. Grab a cart and let the fun begin. And it IS fun! Don't get so worked up that you forget to savor the satisfaction of saving more money than you ever thought possible. Before you go to check out, double check your list to make sure you haven't forgotten anything. Divide your items into their transactions, and make sure your corresponding coupons are also divided correctly. Take your time! If a line starts to build behind you after your first transaction, let the other people move ahead so that you can re-group. (But don't be surprised if they stick around to see how much you save!) As you check out, be sure to refer to your transaction plan to make sure that sale items are ringing up correctly, and that you receive the correct amount of ECBs/RRs back at the end.