Aa-choo! Gesundheit — this cold and flu season just keeps on giving. If you’re like me, you’ve spent more time in pharmacies lately than you’d like to admit. My dad, brother and nieces have all been passing around one bug or another for the last few weeks. So trips to the drug store have become a weekly ordeal (at the very least).
Sound familiar? Don’t worry; there’s good news. Equipped with a few helpful hints, you can turn these tedious trips into money-saving opportunities — or if you run this errand for others, even a way to make money.
The Big Three Pharmacies
The three most common retail pharmacies are Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid, according to Drug Store News. These companies compete want you to fill your prescriptions at their pharmacy counters, but they have more to offer than just cough medicine and Kleenex.
These drug stores also try to cash in on their convenience. The major advantages they advertise are easy parking and shorter lines than your local superstore — a major plus if you just need to pick up a few quick items. However, it’s those quick in-and-out trips that can often affect your budget in a big way. The prices of non-pharmacy items at these drug stores are rarely budget-friendly — at least, if you pay the sticker price.
However, the secret to shopping at the pharmacy is tapping into each store’s “savings scheme.” At Walgreens, it’s Balance Rewards; at CVS, it’s Extra Care Bucks; at Rite-Aid, it’s wellness+. Here’s how to make the most of these programs to save money at all three stores.
How to Save Money at Walgreens
First, sign up for a free Balance Rewards card at the checkout counter. The process is fairly quick, and this simple loyalty card will help you start saving immediately.
If you look at the price stickers and circulars, you’ll notice that many great deals and special prices include the note “with card”. You’ll also earn points based on your purchases, which add up to in-store credit (5,000 points = $5 in Register Rewards).
Next, sign up for an online Walgreens account and connect your favorite fitness tracker, whether it’s a Fitbit or an app like RunKeeper. With just a few clicks of the mouse, I earned 250 points for connecting my Fitbit to my Walgreens account. Now, my daily steps also help save me money: Members earn 20 points per mile (and 20 points per daily log), which makes earning 5,000 points a walk in the park.
Make sure to pick up Walgreens’ monthly coupon book. This little gem has hundreds of dollars worth of coupons each month — February’s booklet includes more than $370 in coupons. The best part is you don’t have to buy the Sunday paper or clip coupons — just pick up a booklet at the front of the store.
On a recent visit to my local store, I saved $10 on a $40 item by reading the “in-store coupon” information on the tag and asking about the discount at the front of the store (since they had run out of coupon books). The cashier simply looked up the coupon in the copy of the booklet she kept at the register, scanned the barcode, and that was it — I saved $10 without clipping a single coupon!
Lastly, Walgreens also offers paperless coupons you can “clip to your card” instead of worrying about carrying around a little stack of paper coupons with you (or worse, forgetting your coupons at home). Simply choose the deals that match your shopping list and click “Clip to card,” and you’ll have instant access to even more savings without getting out a pair of scissors.
How to Save Money at CVS
After years of couponing and being a budget-shopper, my favorite pharmacy is CVS because they have an Extra Care in-store “coupon center” right when you walk through the door. Cardholders simply walk up to the machine, scan their free loyalty card and the machine prints out valuable coupons on the spot — no clipping necessary!
Many times, the coupons are similar to the ones you might find in the Sunday paper, but the weekly coupons are often BOGOs (buy-one-get-one-free) or even free items ($0.79 off a $0.79 candy bar, for example). You might not find these deals anywhere else, so this is a great advantage.
As an ExtraCare member, you’ll collect 2% of your spending back in ExtraBucks, which you can apply to future purchases. You can also collect additional ExtraBucks by taking advantage of deals like “fill 10 prescriptions, earn $5” or “Spend $50 on beauty products, earn $5” to get extra points for purchases you’d be making anyway.
In addition, cardholders earn quarterly rewards based on spending over the previous three months. The same “magic red box” that prints your weekly coupons also prints out vouchers that can be used like cash toward your purchases.
How to Save Money at Rite-Aid
Rite-Aid weighed in at number three in the Drug Store News report because it trails behind Walgreens and CVS in terms of prescription sales. However, Rite-Aid boasts similar savings/rewards programs, so if you happen to be a loyal customer, you’ll find great deals here — some of them even better than those at the top two.
Rite-Aid’s loyalty card program is called wellness+. However, its benefits (“+Up Rewards“) are a little different than those of Walgreens and CVS. Members earn one point for every dollar spent on non-prescription purchases and 25 points for every prescription filled, with some exclusions.
Here’s one big advantage: “members who reach 1,000 points can save 20% off storewide for a year!” Twenty percent off storewide for a year?! Awesome! While that’s the “gold level” (1,000 points), Rite-Aid also offers silver (500 points; 10% off storewide for a year) and bronze status (250 points; 10% off Rite-Aid brand for a year and a 10% one-time savings pass).
Once you’ve unlocked a discount level, you can save on everything you buy in the store: household goods, cleaning supplies, toys, batteries, cosmetics and even greeting cards. You might even find yourself making some of your regular superstore purchases here instead!
The wellness+ program also offers additional services like 24/7 access to live advice from a pharmacist, emails with more money-saving offers and the ability to load eCoupons to your card (in addition to the in-store cardholder savings).
Insider Tips to Make the Most of Your Savings
Rather than replacing your coupon-clipping habit entirely with these strategies, combine them for the biggest savings. Stack the in-store coupons with your clipped manufacturer’s coupons and walk away with deeply discounted or even free items! If you have any coupons left over, you can always sell them online.
Does that sound like too much trouble? Sites like Couponing 101 take the guesswork out of couponing by posting weekly “coupon match ups” for these pharmacies (as well as other stores).
In addition, Blogger Amy of Amy Loves It hosts a $5 challenge for CVS and one for Walgreens, where shoppers see how much they can buy at a pharmacy armed with only $5, their loyalty cards and printable coupons from links Amy provides. The printable plans for each week outline how to handle the multiple transactions and are a fantastic resource.
Finally, here’s a tip to help you stay organized — there’s no point in trying to save money this way if it’s going to add more stress! The rewards programs are great, but all the different loyalty cards can start to take over your keychain or wallet. That’s where apps like Key Ring come in. These digital loyalty card holders store the scannable information for multiple cards, eliminating the need to carry around the plastic versions.
Turn Your Pharmacy Visits Into Savings Opportunities
With very little extra effort, you’ll be on your way to getting great deals on bathroom essentials, cleaning products, cosmetics and snacks, all while waiting for your prescriptions to be filled. Combining errands and saving money? Sounds like a win to me.
Your Turn: Do you shop at your local drug store to save money? Did I miss one of your favorite strategies?
Leah Thayer is a Nashville-based writer and teacher. She enjoys shopping, organizing, couponing and writing about her money-saving adventures.