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Friday, September 5, 2008

CVS: Saving More or Spending More?

As a response to my post Name Brand or Generic, I received an excellent comment from an anonymous reader:

"That has been our philosophy too--name brands are cheaper. I'm trying to get into the CVS & Walgreens game, but I'm spending way more than you guys do. Please tell me if the following statements are true: 1) You need to split your purchases into more than one transaction, or you need to make multiple trips to use your ECBs for paying. 2) You need to buy mostly ECB-earning items, then donate them if you can't use them yourself. 3) You need to have a coupon stash of all kinds of coupons & constantly check the papers for sales. Help!"
Losing-Money in MI.

What great insight and questions! Let's break this down.

First, you can spend TONS of money at CVS if you just go in and buy the items that are on sale and/or marked with ECBs. You may be saving a few dollars on them, but your final bill is still too large. Remember, our goal is to walk out spending as little as possible out-of-pocket. So how do you do that? Let's address Losing-Money in MI's statements one at a time.

Statement 1: You need to split your purchases into more than one transaction, or you need to make multiple trips to use your ECBs for paying.

I have found multiple transactions to be the best route for me. This week I've even done multiple trips. However, except for one, those trips were made on the way to something else we were doing. My exception this week was going to get cold medicine for my daughter. Situations like that warrant an extra trip. For everyday shopping, I don't like to waste time or gas making special CVS runs. That cuts into the savings.

The reason for multiple transactions is gaining ECBs and using them immediately. You pay out of pocket for the first ECB-earning item, but then you should try to roll those ECBs into a new purchase that will earn you the same or more ECBs. I tend to get stuck on that one, but I'm getting better. Sometimes I get fewer ECBs, but I try to grow them back. For example, this week I bought Suave body washes, Pringles, and Arnicare gel. I used $9.99 in ECBs, paid $2.53 OOP, and earned $10 ECBs. I rolled those 10 into my next transaction, paid $3.87 OOP, and earned $8. My ECB total came down a little bit, but they helped me pay for my daughter's cold meds.

Before I shop, I spend some time planning. That is the biggest tip I can offer.... PLAN, PLAN, PLAN. I read blogs, and I have a spreasheet (even though I'm not usually quite that tech-savvy) where I plan out the best savings. (I'd be happy to share it with you if you send me an email. It's not perfect, but it helps keep the math accurate!) I've found that I can find some excellent scenarios on blogs. I may change them slightly, but those people have also done their planning. Why reinvent the wheel? I use what I find to plan my trips. I find now that I'm doing three to four transactions each week. This week was a little unusual because I found a great deal yesterday, causing three transactions in that trip! But that's not the norm for me.

The one frustration I've had with planning is when I try to plan too much for one trip. If I plan to stop at two stores for two transactions each in the same day, something always goes wrong. One of the stores is out of something, or something is a different price. It throws my whole plan out the window, and I end up spending way more than I anticipated. I've been trying to just do one store with a maximum of two transactions each time I shop. This seems like more work, but it's saved me enough that it's worthwhile.

Statement 2: You need to buy mostly ECB-earning items, then donate them if you can't use them yourself.

While I like to buy ECB-earning items, there are also items that we're running low on. I focus on what we need or what I know we'll use first. I like to flip through the ad and make a list of the items that seem to be really great deals that week. Those items may simply be on sale, or they may be ECB items. On the list, I write the item, the cost, any matching coupons I have, and the ECBs earned (if any).

Next, I try to put them in groups that are worth either $20 or $10. The reason for this is that CVS offers coupons for $2 off any $10 purchase or $4 off any $20 purchase. You can print the $2 one here. If you want the $4 one, simply go to and register your Extra Care card with them. They will email you a $4 off coupon (if the promo is still going), and then you will receive $4 off coupons at the bottom of your register receipts after that.

By grouping my items into $10 or $20 transactions, I can use my own coupons and the CVS coupons to create overage. For example, this week Cover Girl Outlast lipsticks were on sale buy 1 - get 1 free. I had a buy 1 - get 1 free coupon too, so CVS gives you both for free. Well, the lipstick was $9.99. I added a Dawn dishsoap to that order, making the total $10.98. That meant that I could use my $2 off a $10 purchase coupon. If I did that, my transaction would look something like this:

2 Cover Girl lipsticks $9.99 each (1 free due to the CVS promo)
1 Dawn dishsoap $0.99
Total: $10.98
-$0.25 Dawn coupon
-$2 off any $10 purchase coupon
-$9.99 Cover Girl buy 1 - get 1 coupon
Total: -$1.26 (Yes, that's a negative!)

Yikes! Cashiers won't give you money back, so that negative total gave me room to buy other items for free. I ended up getting a couple of other items I had coupons for and paying very little out of pocket.

I'm going to use the Cover Girl lipsticks as Christmas gifts. However, you're absolutely right that many of the ECB-earning items aren't ones that we would use. Many times CVS will offer things like toothbrushes, feminine products, and toothpaste as ECB promos. My philosophy is that you can only stash and use so many of those items. So sometimes I pass up the ECB deal, and other times I buy and donate them. But I keep 90% of what I buy.

You also have to be willing to pass up ECB deals if they don't work. Sometimes they end up costing you more than you get back. Last week, if you bought $15 worth of Nexxus products, you got $5 ECBs back. This may have been a great deal if you had Nexxus coupons. But I didn't. I tried to make it work, but in every scenario I created I ended up spending the full $15. That's no bargain!

I also try to work the ECB deals into multiple transactions. By this, I mean that you don't have to buy all 3 times required for ECBs in one transaction. This week, I used the $2 Suave body washes when I was in the negative. The got me back on the plus side (making my cashier happy!) and I got $2 ECBs back for every 3 body washes that I bought.

Statement 3: You need to have a coupon stash of all kinds of coupons & constantly check the papers for sales.

This is SO true! I was incredibly discouraged when I first started CVSing. I had just bought a Sunday paper and clipped the coupons. But the blogs I read talked about having two or three of a certain coupon, and they even knew which newspaper inserts they came from. Oh my! I only had one copy, and my little stash didn't go back far enough to include the insert dates they were discussing.

So I got serious about gathering coupons. I started buying two Sunday newspapers, and they aren't my local ones. I live in a small town, and our paper has one insert in it. If I buy a Columbus paper, they usually have two inserts. It's a little more expensive (I spend $4 a week on papers), but I always save more than I spend on the papers. I also give one newspaper (minus inserts) to my dad who likes to read a bigger-city paper.

I also print coupons online. My CVS stores accept them, and I think that's a nationwide policy. Check with your store before you start printing. My favorite site for printable coupons is Hot Coupon World. Register with them for free, and then click the link for their Coupon Database. I like to enter a brand name and choose Printable as the type of coupon. Then they search the database for printable coupons for that brand. I click, go to the website, and print. (Hint: If you find a good printable, try clicking your Back button after printing. Usually you can print two copies of online coupons.)

I also organized my coupons. I'm still working on finding a system that works. My systems have either been functional or portable, but not both at the same time. But your coupons need to be in some order so that you can find them. And I can't stress this enough -- ALWAYS TAKE ALL OF YOUR COUPONS WITH YOU. I can't tell you how many free deals I've missed because I left my coupons home. This also helps if CVS happens to be out of something that's on your list. You may be able to substitute something else and use a coupon to bring the price down.

The other thing I started to do was to clip almost every coupon. Even if it's a coupon for something we would never use, I clip it. That paid off this week as I got three glucose monitors free. They were worth enough for me to use some CVS coupons and get other items free too. I'll never use them, but I can either sell them on eBay or give them to someone who needs them.

You also mentioned the CVS ad. You absolutely have to read the ads every week. That's how you create your plan. Use the ad to create your list of the best deals. If you don't have a CVS ad in your paper, you can view them at iheartcvs. In fact, they have copies of the ads for the current week and several weeks to come.

The biggest tip I can share (besides planning well) is to take it slow. You're not going to stock your cupboards on your first week of CVSing. Start with trying to gain a few ECBs. Then build momentum as you grow your coupon stash. This isn't an overnight process, and you'll still have some grocery/Wal-Mart trips that are more than you wanted to spend. But eventually you'll find yourself in those other stores less and less. And you'll be saving more and more!