How to Save 97% at CVS Without Clipping Coupons: 7 Hacks From a Pro Shopper

People walk by a CVS in Chicago, IL.
Pedestrians walk pass a CVS store in Chicago on Feb 7, 2012. M. Spencer Green/AP Photo

Some people love the thrill of blackjack, skydiving or drag racing. I love the thrill of saving money at CVS. It’s excitement, disbelief and accomplishment, all rolled into one.

I get such a rush watching a big total reduce to just a few dollars. On a recent visit to the store, I saved 97% while buying stuff I actually need. While the difference isn’t always that dramatic, I generally save at least 60% on my purchases.

But it’s not fair to keep all my CVS saving secrets to myself. Here’s how to save money at CVS, reducing your bill by the double digits every single time you shop.

1. Never Shop When Desperate

The best way to score deep discounts on toiletries at CVS? Never shop when you run out. Instead, shop when the price is right. Just as you should never grocery shop when hungry, you should never drugstore shop when you actually need something.

If you wait until you’re squeezing the very last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, you’ll likely spend more than if you had bought it last week during a great sale.

Keep an eye on the weekly sale flyers and shop when CVS has a great toothpaste deal (which luckily, is often.) Even if you don’t need it right now, having a tube or two of toothpaste on hand is never a bad idea. When you run out, you can “shop” your own medicine cabinet.

2. Throw Brand Loyalty Out the Window

If you insist on buying a particular brand of deodorant, body wash or laundry detergent, you won’t be as successful in hacking your way to CVS savings. For maximum savings, let the sales and special offers drive the brands you buy.

Though you may find a great deal on a product you love, you can save bigger bucks if you’re open to buying any brand. Even if your favorite product is on sale, a competing product might be even cheaper. You’ll save more when you look at every price tag, then go with the lowest one.

3. Get Strategic About ExtraCare Bucks

All pharmacies have rewards cards, but I find the ExtraCare Rewards Program to be the best money-saving card of them all. One big reason: ExtraCare Bucks, or ECBs.

These are essentially CVS gift certificates ranging from $1-10 that print on the bottom of your receipt. They usually expire in 30 days, but you can use them right away. In fact, you can even divide your items into two transactions and use ECBs from transaction one to bring the price down in transaction two.

So how do you get ECBs? Each week, certain items are designated “Extra Buck Offers.” Smart CVS shoppers review the week’s ad before visiting the store and stick to items that have ECB offers.

Once you get going, you can start “rolling” your ECBs. You know you’ve reached true CVS savings nirvana when you hand over a stack of ECBs from your last shopping trip, which gets your price down to just a few dollars. And then even more print out to use next time.

4. Scan Your ExtraCare Card Before and After Every Trip

Every CVS has a red machine that looks like a price checker (and indeed, it is. You can also scan products here to verify their prices.)

The first thing you should do when you walk into a CVS is scan your card at this machine. It will spit out a whole bunch of random coupons. You might get something like “$5 off $15 oral care purchase” or “$3 off $11 personal cleansing.” You never know what you’ll get. Many of these coupons are triggered by what you already buy (and since you’re religiously using your ExtraCare card, CVS knows.)

Use the coupons on the spot or save them for later. These coupons are especially valuable because you can combine them with other offers to save even more money.

Before you check out, don’t forget to hand your card to the cashier. Every three months, you’ll get back 2% of what you’ve spent in the form of ECBs, so you want to make sure every purchase you make qualifies for that 2%. Keep in mind that certain items don’t count, such as gift cards, alcohol and stamps, but almost everything else does.

5. Register for Extra ECB Offers

Snag extra ECBs by taking advantage of additional CVS programs. If you have prescriptions, get them from CVS and sign up for the ExtraCare Pharmacy & Health Rewards. You’ll get $5 ECBs for every 10 prescriptions you fill.

The ExtraCare Beauty Club is another great way to rake in the ECBs. You get $5 ECBs for every $50 you spend, plus $3 ECBs every year on your birthday. Even if you don’t buy a lot of makeup, several other items are included in Beauty Club such as shampoo, body wash and face wash.

Look for one-off ECB offers as well. CVS may ask you to take a survey and reward you with ECBs. Right now, they’re pushing their mobile app and will give you $3 ECBs if you download it.

6. Add Your Email to Your Account

You’ve reviewed the weekly CVS circular and know your plan of action. But wait! Don’t head to CVS until you’ve received this week’s additional email coupon.

Once you’ve registered your ExtraCare card, be sure to go online to add your email address to your account. You’ll soon start receiving additional coupons almost every single week. These coupons tend to be 20% off your entire order, $5 off a $20 purchase or $3 off a $15 purchase.

So when you shop sale items, then use these coupons along with your ECBs, you’ve got potential for huge savings.

7. Stick to Your List

There’s a reason you’ll find such great sales at CVS. Take this popular offer CVS frequently runs as an example: $3 ECBs on a $7.99 razor, cutting the price almost in half. Razors are notoriously expensive, so this is a great way to get customers in the door. And those ECBs are a great way to entice customers to come back.

Once you’re in the store, CVS knows you’ll likely throw other things into your basket besides that razor. Don’t do it! You’ll end up spending more than you need to.

Plan your strategy and know exactly what items you’ll buy before you step foot inside the CVS. Exercise restraint. Just because you can also pick up your favorite candy, a frozen pizza and a carton of milk while you’re trying to maximize your savings doesn’t mean you should. Of course, if those items are part of your shopping list or strategy, go for it.

Putting It All Together

Just one of the above tips can save you some cash. But if you’re strategic in your shopping, keep a close eye on the sales and maximize your ExtraCare Card benefits, you’ll be well on your way to blissful extreme savings at CVS.

Here’s my best score so far: I combined the ECBs I had in my wallet, the weekly email coupon and several coupons that printed off the machine (while only purchasing sale items, of course) to bring down my total from $46.63 to $1.27 before sales tax — a savings of 97%. It was so epic, even the cashier was impressed. And now I’ve got a small stockpile of toiletries I know I’ll need soon. Let me know if you need some toothpaste!

Betsy Mikel is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter. She loves biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria.