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Keeping frugality fun: Strategic “splurging”

There is nothing that will squelch the joy in frugality faster than pinching your pennies so hard that you never have any fun. And if you’re planning to practice thrift for the long haul, you need to strategically come up with ways to keep life interesting, exciting, and fresh.

Just because you don’t have a lot of money or are trying to live on little doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to have fun and splurge a little without breaking your budget. Here are a few things we’ve done:

-Go out for dessert and coffee. Or, if you’re really strapped for cash, skip the dessert and split a latte. We used to do this at Barnes and Noble back in our law school barebones budget days. We’d browse books, buy a drink and split it (often paying for it with a card I’d earned through reading emails from MyPoints!), and then sit and read and talk for awhile. It made for a very relaxing evening that cost us next to nothing!

-Take your children to the pet store and then to McDonald’s for $0.99 cones. (Use the seasonal free cone coupons–if you have them–to save even more!)

-Plan one nicer dinner each week. If beans and rice make up a large part of your diet, plan ahead so that one night per week, you have “feast”. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate–maybe something like meat loaf, a potato dish, some homemade bread, veggies, and a dessert. Or if you can’t even afford that, add a dessert to your normal fare and bring out the nice dishes or add a centerpiece. A dessert and a candle can make you feel like you’re having a gourmet dinner even if it’s hamburger helper!

-Ride your bikes or put the kids in the wagon and walk to the nearest ice cream shop and order a few cones to split.

-Have a progressive dinner at your own home. Decorate four different rooms with four different themes and then serve a coordinating menu item for each.

-Rent a movie with a free code from RedBox (or the library), make some special snacks, and watch the movie together under blankets in the living room.

-Plan a CVS “date.” Have extra ECBs to spend? Why not make a fun evening of it? Let each person pick one treat for under $3 to buy and then go to the park and share the goodies!

-Go yard-saling or thrift store shopping as a family or couple. Give each person a small amount of cash to spend and see who gets the most bang for their buck!

-Go to the library as a family (or as a couple, for date night!) and browse different books that you usually don’t get a chance to look at and check some out. You’ll feel like you went shopping and you won’t have spent anything!

-Have a “Loose Change Date.” Take all of the loose change you can find in the house and figure out a creative way to maximize it. Divvy it up between the family members and let each person decide how they want to spend their part for a family evening out.

-Find out if any nearby bowling alleys have $0.99 night or discount nights (many do). When we were first married, we’d go on $0.99 night and rent our shoes for $0.99 each and play two games at $0.99 each–and it was such a fun outing and it only cost us around $6!

This week’s shopping trip and $40 menu

Because we had a little bit more time on Saturday, we hit more stores than normal: Aldi, CVS, Price Chopper, Hen House, and Wal-Mart. Our total was right around $39.80!

This week’s menu:

Whole-wheat pancakes, freshly-made juice
Oatmeal, fresh juice
Cereal, carrot/orange/banana/flax seed smoothie
Baked oatmeal, fruit
Homemade cinnamon rolls, fruit

Split peas, brown rice, carrots
PB&J, pears
Mixed green salad, hard boiled eggs, toast
Baked potatoes, broccoli, cheese

Chicken broccoli rice casserole, homemade whole-wheat bread, salad, green beans, grapefruit
Chili, apple slices, homemade bread, cheese slices (We’re likely going to be having this twice this week since I made such a big pot of it! If so, we’ll serve it over rice with cheese sprinkled on top the second night!)
Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, mixed green salad
Broccoli and cheddar crepes, homemade cinnamon rolls, fruit salad
Barbecue beef pizza, corn on the cob, grapefruit

How to Accumulate a Nice Stash of Coupons

One question I am often asked is “Where do you find all your coupons you use?” Well, I don’t have any super secret source, but I have come across many different ideas for accumulating coupons. Here are just a few ideas that I’ve personally used or heard about from others:

1) Subscribe to your local newspaper.
This is the simplest way to get started couponing – getting it delivered to your door every week! We pay around $1.00/week for this and it has been worth every penny. I waited until I could get it that cheap before I would subscribe, though. Unless you already get the paper anyway, if you are buying the paper solely for the coupons, don’t pay more than $2/week maximum for it. Also, see if you can subscribe to a Sunday-only edition or at least a weekend-only edition.

Other things to look into: Check and see if you can get more than one copy of the paper and get a discount. Or, call around to other local towns/cities – especially larger cities – and see if they offer any discounts on newspaper subscriptions for out-of-town folks. You might also call and ask about them just letting you purchase the coupon inserts. And always ask for a discount – there’s usually a way to get one!

There are a few other online sites, including eBay and The Coupon Clippers or The Coupon Master where you can routinely buy extra coupons from for a fraction of the cost. I encourage you to be cautious when doing this, though, as you can easily go overboard. However, if it’s a really good deal and going to save you lots of money and you’re able to afford it in your grocery budget, then go for it! I know many people who have saved hundreds of dollars buying coupons from The Coupon Clippers or The Coupon Master.

2) Ask friends, relatives, and co-workers for their extra papers.
Let it be known that you are an avid couponer and will gladly accept any extra coupon inserts from anyone who doesn’t use them. You might be surprised how many you can collect this way. Elderly neighbors seem to be especially eager to save their coupons for others, so be sure to ask them. Also, if you know of anyone who has a newspaper route, this might be another avenue for having access to free coupons. It depends upon the policy of the newspaper company, but sometimes they will allow you to have the extras.

3) Check out your local recycling bin.
I’d heard of this method for awhile but never investigated it until a few years ago. Let me tell you – it really works! In the town where we used to live, I discovered where some very clean newspaper recycling bins were located and hit them on my way home from the store, if I had time. In 15 minutes, I could usually salvage 10-15 coupon inserts.

4) Get coupons at the store.
Keep your eyes peeled at the store and pick up any coupons you find on tearpads or in the blinking dispensers. If there are extras, pick up multiple copies of these. A lot of times, this very item will be on an exceptional sale just a few weeks later and you’ll be more than glad you picked up that handful of coupons!

5) Print coupons out online.
If your store accepts “printables,” this can be a great source of coupons. You can do a search for “printable coupons” and it will bring up many different coupons. You can also search for a specific item and see if there are any printable coupons. Most of these sites allow you to print two coupons per computer every few weeks. The coupons offered on these sites usually change every month. Check out the list on the sidebar for some of my favorite links to printable coupon websites.

There are also many other options for obtaining coupons like trading coupons with others online or offline or coupon trading boxes available at some stores or libraries, and other ways. Start actively looking for coupons and you’ll soon find more sources than you can use!

Reader Tip: Write companies and praise their product and request any coupons they might have to offer.

Reader Rachel wrote and said:

If there is a product we really like, I email the contact email on the package and let them know how much we like it.

My recent success was with Mission tortillas and wraps. They are our favorite because they are always fresh and soft, and we go through a couple packs a month. I emailed them and raved about their product and wrote something like this, “I am a single adoptive mom on a tight budget. Would you have any coupons to help us afford our favorite wraps?”

Today I received two coupons, each for a free pack of wraps. Not bad for about a minute of my time! – Rachel

What are your best methods for obtaining coupons?

Q&A: Making CVS work for you

Crystal, Thank you for
teaching us how to shop better. I love your ideas, but I’m having
trouble creating ones that work for me. Our original money strategy was
to buy generic because it can be several dollars cheaper.

At first glance, CVS seems expensive compared to our generics. We don’t seem to use many of the items that are on often on sale.  Our
first try we only bought the NB Vitamins. B1G1 for $12.99 and another
for $9.99 (we thought it was $6, oops). We used a $2/$10, a $2/1 MC and
$3 ECBs. We still paid 17.24 and got $6 ECBs. Now we have $6 ECBs (exp
1/30) to work with, but I have no idea where to go from here. We don’t
need anything on the ECB reward list this month.

husband hates buying things we don’t need. He says it is just clutter.
Do you ever buy fillers that you don’t need to round out your purchase?
For example candy, we don’t eat it. Actually, we do need diet pop and
toilet paper but I think I will come out with less ECBs if I figured it
  Does this make sense?  Can you help me? I am hoping to get this figured out. -Jennifer

off, thanks for a great question. I’ve been wanting to write up a post
further explaining how to make CVS work for you so you have given me
the incentive! Here are some thoughts:

1) Make a game plan for your CVS shopping
– My purpose for shopping at CVS is to greatly reduce our grocery bill
by getting mostly all of our household products (medicines, paper
products, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, feminine products,
cosmetics, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc.) for free and then using the
overage I’m able to come up with in ECBs to buy anything else off our
grocery list I can buy and pay for diapers, wipes, and extra fun stuff
or treats (See how Catherine used some of her CVS overage to pay for
most of her daughter’s birthday gifts here.).

order to accomplish this, I’ve found that usually every week I’ll buy
at least a few items which we might not use or need but which I can
donate to charity, give away to friends and family, or sell in our
twice-a-year garage sales. These help roll over our ECBs so that I can
always have at least $15-$20 ECBs to work the deals with.

2) Base your shopping trips primarily around what you need.
Although some of my shopping trips might seem like random purchases, I
usually have a calculated plan for buying what I do. I plan my shopping
trips based upon what we need first of all.

look over the list of deals each week and decide which items we could
use most. For instance, we’re running low on toothpaste and
toothbrushes and shampoo right now, so buying the Colgate deal and the
Fructis deal was first on my list. I also needed to buy some sandwich
bread and a pack of Pampers and was hoping to work these purchases in
with my ECB overage.

With this in mind, I sat down and briefly
looked through my coupons and ECBs and wrote up a simple game plan for
what I needed to buy and how to best work the deals based upon that. I
added in fillers, as needed, to roll over my ECBs and help accumulate a
few more.

If there are enough good deals, like this week, I
might break my shopping list up into two trips. If there are not hardly
any good deals and nothing that we need, I’ll just skip a week.

The CVS "game" is first and foremost about making it work for you and your family. Think about what your purpose for shopping at CVS is and what your needs are and then plan your shopping trips accordingly.

3) Stock up with 3-6 month’s worth of household items when you can get them free. For those who are saying, "I look at those lists of deals and don’t see anything we need,"
let me stretch your thinking a little bit: Do you use shampoo,
conditioner, or hairspray? Do you use toothbrushes? Do you use
toothpaste? Do you use deodorant? Do you use feminine products
(tampons, pads)? Do you use medicine? Do you use make-up? Soap? Body
wash? Lotion? Batteries? Hand sanitizer? Tissues? Mouthwash? Baby
wipes? Razors and shaving cream? Dish detergent? Do you eat cereal,
crackers, chips, chocolate? Drink soda, bottled water, energy drinks,
or flavored water?

You probably don’t use all of the above, but
I’m guessing there are at least a few things on the list above (and
probably more than a few) that you use regularly. If you never paid
anything out of pocket anymore for any of those things, would that help
reduce your grocery budget? If so, then shopping at CVS is definitely
for you because the above list is just a sampling of some of the things
you could have gotten free or more than free in the last 6 months.

secret is that you start stocking up on items you need or will need in
advance – while you can get them for free or more than free. That way,
when you need them, you won’t have to add them to your grocery list,
you’ll just go get another bottle or box or container out of your small
stockpile stash.

Instead of thinking that you shouldn’t buy
shampoo until you’ve used up the entire bottle and then buying the
generic brand at full price, plan ahead a little bit try to always keep
at least a few extra bottles on hand. Think about the savings to be had
by a little planning ahead. It adds up very fast, especially since some
of these free items are some of the costliest purchases in the grocery

4) Have a budget for your time and money allocated to CVS-ing and stick within these parameters.
I can’t stress this point enough. Getting bargains can be a whole lot
of fun – so much fun, sometimes, that it begins to consume too much
time and effort. If your house is falling apart because you’ve been
running to CVS three times a day, you need to step back and reevaluate

We have a $35/week grocery budget. All of our CVS
purchases are included in this. Since I rarely pay more than $1 out of
pocket for our CVS trips, it doesn’t really dent the budget much. But
knowing I only have a few dollars to work with every week really helps
me to keep my spending in check and maximize the savings.

personal rule of thumb is that I rarely go to CVS more than twice a
week. Normally, I only make one trip per week – these keeps things
simple, helps me be efficient, and saves time. If the deals are
exceptional, like this week, I might make more than one trip. However,
even though our CVS is just right down the street, I try to never go
more than three times a week. This just ensures I don’t get out of
balance in bargain shopping.

I love getting great deals and I
love saving money, but I want to have my priorities in order and not
devote too much time, thought, and energy to this.

5) Purpose to stick with CVS-shopping for at least 3 months before giving up.
When you first start out CVS shopping, it can be really overwhelming.
Believe me, I well remember. When I first stumbled upon this whole
phenomenon on a deal forum over two and a half years ago, I spent about
four hours researching and reading and studying about how the program
works. It was daunting, to say the least and it took me a number of
shopping trips to really get the hang of it. My CVS store was an Osco
Drug store just changing over and no one in there had a clue
about the ECB program and none of the deals were advertised anywhere.
To make things more difficult, I didn’t know anyone else who knew
anything about it either. So, I just read the forums and started
testing things out to see how it worked. Little did I ever know that
someday I’d be introducing thousands of people to it!

any rate, it takes time to learn and understand and time to figure out
how to best work the deals for your own family’s needs. So I recommend
you don’t just try it once and decide against it. Stick with it for
three months and then reevaluate whether it is working for your family
and saving you money.

Those were just some general thoughts
which I hope will be helpful to you, Jennifer, and anyone else
struggling to figure out the CVS "game." I’d love to hear others’ input on this and how they’ve made CVS work for them.

Walgreens 101

I’ve been shopping at Walgreens for a number of years and have found some really great deals there. It is not as complex as CVS, and, sad to say, the deals are not usually as good. However, sometimes they have some excellent bargains and the more I’ve shopped there, the better I’ve gotten at getting lots of groceries for a few dollars or less.

Besides just the normal store sale, Walgreens has two different types of deals to take advantage of:

1) Coupon “Stacking”

The weekly store fliers often include a number of store coupons which are good all week. Since these are store coupons, they can be “stacked” with manufacturer’s coupons, meaning you can use them in conjunction with a manufacturer’s coupon. So, in this case, you can use both a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon on one item. Often, you’ll be able to get a really great deal by stacking a store coupon, a manufacturer’s coupon, and a store sale.

2) Register Rewards

Similar to the CVS Extra Care Bucks Program, the Register Rewards program rewards you for buying certain items each week. When you buy the item or items which are advertised as producing a Register Reward, you will get a printed coupon after you checkout called “Register Rewards” which you can use like cash on your next purchase.

They usually have a few of these items per week–some which are completely free after Register Rewards. By using a store coupon and/or a manufacturer’s coupon when buying a Register Reward item, you are often able to get the item for more-than-free, free, or almost free after the Register Rewards.

Unlike CVS, the Register Rewards (RR) are not tied to a store card. Instead, they just print out for everyone who buys that particular item or items that week. Because of this, there is no limit on how many of one deal you can do. That said, they have recently tightened their system so that you usually cannot roll the same RR over and over again on the same deal.

For instance, not too long ago, they were running a Proctor and Gamble Buy $25, Get $10 in RR promotion and they were also running a Unilever Buy $20, Get $10. With store coupons, manufacturer’s coupons, and the Register Rewards, I was getting most of these items for almost free. However, I couldn’t do the P&G deal over and over using the $10 RR to pay for my transaction after coupons, since the computer is programmed to not print out another $10 RR on P&G products if I paid for with the $10 RR I got from purchasing them last time. Make sense?

So, you can either just do the deals once, or you can do the deals multiple times and pay out of pocket and then save the RR’s you collect each time and use them on groceries or other items later. Or, your best option is to do what I did: Do multiple transactions and alternate between the P&G deal and the Unilever deal. This way, you can keep rolling the RR’s over and over and paying very little out of pocket.

Helpful Tips

From what I’ve found, the Walgreen’s cash register system is set up a lot differently than CVS. So for those who are used to shopping at CVS and always paying less than a $1 for a few bags of groceries, you might find yourself frustrated at first. I’ve spent some time figuring out what works best and here are my tips:

1) You must have as many items as you have coupons.

Most of the registers appear to be programmed not to accept any more coupons than you have items. So, make sure and tally up your items and coupons before you check out. The Register Rewards count as a coupon as do any of the store coupons, so count those, too.

If you have more items than coupons, add on a few cheap items so that you have the same number of items as coupons. I always play it safe and try to have at least one more item than coupons. This just guarantees the register doesn’t have issues.

2) In order to get your total down to the lowest amount possible and for the register to accept all of your coupons, the order you give your coupons in is very important.

So far, I’ve never met a Walgreen’s cashier who knew how to manually push a coupon through. So if you’re coupon won’t go through, it won’t go through. That’s why it’s important that you have as many items as coupons and that you hand your coupons over in the correct order.

After lots of trial and error, here’s the best coupon order I’ve come up with:

-Register Rewards first
-Then manufacturer’s coupons
-Then store coupons

Doing it in any other order than this seems to cost me at least a few dollars more or it causes the system to jam and not allow my coupons through and means I either have to add on some extra items or it means that I pay extra money out of pocket.

I give my coupons to the cashier in batches split up in the groups mentioned above. This keeps things simple and ever since I started doing it this way, I’ve never had a problem with the register jamming or a coupon not going through.

3) If for some reason they cannot get a coupon to go through, request that they void the item right then off of your order.

It’s much easier to just void it off right then and not pay for it, then to try and mess with it later. And voiding it off is a very simple process.

There you have it! I’m sure I missed something and didn’t explain everything very clearly so please feel free to ask concerning any questions you have. Also, for those who are a pro at shopping at Walgreens, please feel free to add in your tips and advice. Fill in the holes that I missed!

CVS 101

Since I’ve mentioned some of the CVS deals for the week here, there have been a lot of readers who have emailed in with questions on how CVS works. I spent a good few hours researching how to “do” CVS when I first began and sometimes forget how complex it can seem when you first start out!

For those of you who are still trying to figure things out, what follows is a CVS 101 Primer:

First off, in order to take advantage of any of the deals at CVS, you need to have a CVS store nearby. Check here to see if that’s the case.

If so, you will need to apply for a CVS card. You can do this online or in-store. If you do it in-store, you can begin using your card right away, so this is the best option.

Always have them scan your card before they start ringing up your transaction. All of the deals are tied to your card account number, so if they don’t scan your card, you won’t be able to get any of the deals.

Once you have signed up and received your CVS card, you are ready to do your first CVS transaction. I recommend you start off with only one or two items. Keep it very simple so that you can learn the ropes and gradually branch out into doing more complicated deals.

Almost every week, there are one or two items which are advertised as completely free after ECBs. What this means is that you will buy the item–paying out of pocket for it–and then you will receive a “coupon” at the end of your receipt which will be for the amount of the item purchased. This coupon is called an “Extra Care Buck” (or ECB as we refer to them online). You can use this coupon on your next purchase just like cash, with only a few exceptions (i.e. you can’t buy stamps or gift cards with them–the fine print on the ECB explains a little more in detail).

So to start out, you would check your local ad and find out what product you needed to buy that week which would generate an ECB that was the purchase price you paid. Once you bought the item, you would receive an ECB at the bottom of your receipt which you could use like cash on your next transaction, thus making that item in essence, “free.”

It is not entirely free in that you paid for it out of pocket, however, once you have paid for the item out of pocket and earned an ECB, you can then use that ECB you earned to pay for the next transaction. You want to keep rolling your ECBs over and over and over, so your goal should always be to use the ECBs you earned from your last transaction, to buy something in the next transaction which will earn you the same amount or more ECBs than you spent.

My goal is to spend as little money out of pocket as possible and to roll over my ECBs to be the same amount or more as the ECBs I spent. By doing this, I usually will get $15-$50 worth of groceries and household items normally paying less than $1 out of pocket and earning enough ECBs to go back and do it again the next week.

In some instance, the item you are buying is actually less expensive than the ECB it will generate and thus you will “make money” by buying it. For instance, one week recently, the Addidas deodrant was on sale for $2.49 and generated a $3 ECB. So, even after tax, you “made money” buying it since you got more back in ECBs than you spent out of pocket in the first place. And if you have any coupons (there were $1/1 coupons for this particular deodorant out recently), you will “make even more money.”

In this case, you could go in and buy 1 Addidas deodorant that was part of this promotion for $2.49, use a $1/1 coupon, pay only $1.49 out of pocket, and you’d get $3 ECBs back to use on your next purchase! This is what we refer to in coupon-world as a “money-maker”.

(Please note: You will not be actually “making money” in that the store will be paying you cash for shopping there, but you will be “making money” in that you will be spending less out of pocket than you get back in ECBs.)

Most of the time, there is a limit on how many of an item you can buy per card which will generate ECBs. Usually it is somewhere between 1-5 and will be stated in small lettering underneath the deal in your ad.

There are weekly deals and monthly deals. The weekly deals are advertised in the weekly fliers and the monthly deals (which are good for the entire month) are advertised in the monthly ECB booklet, which should be available at all stores all month long.

Sometimes, they will advertise a monthly deal in the weekly flier. This is usually just to draw more attention to the deal. However, this does not normally mean the deal can be done both weekly and monthly (doing it twice that month), you can only do it two times, or five times, or whatever number of times the limit is for the month.

Once you have started figuring out the weekly and monthly free-after-ECB deals, you can start moving up to more complicated deals and this is when the fun really begins! Your goal should be to not only roll your ECBs over and over week after week after week, but to “grow” them so you have “overage” to use towards other groceries you need.

How do you “grow” your ECBs? Well, the easiest way is by stacking a manufacturer’s coupon with the free-after-ECB deals.

For instance, if the Addidas deodorant deal mentioned above were going on this week, you could do the deal a total of five times, since that is the limit. You could go in and spend $1.49 out of pocket to get $3 ECBs.

Then, take that $3 ECBs and buy two more deodorants (using 2 $1/1 coupons) so after the coupons, your total would be $3. Use the $3 ECB you just earned on your first transaction to pay for your second transaction, and you’d pay only tax and then have $6 ECBs.

Take the $6 ECBs you just earned and buy 3 more deodorants (using 3 more $1/1 coupons, if you have them), add on another $1.50 item from CVS you can use (toilet paper, etc.), and then pay for your items with the $6 ECB, again only paying tax out of pocket.

You’ll leave the store with 5 deodorants, another $1.50 item, and $9 in ECBs to use on your next trip. All for less then $2 out of pocket!

The next step into more complicated transactions is to start stacking CVS coupons and manufacturer’s coupons along with the ECB deals. Once you have shopped at CVS using your card for 4-8 weeks, your receipt will automatically begin printing other CVS coupons. You’ll want to save all of these until they expire and check them against the deals for each week. Since these are store coupons, not manufacturer’s coupons, you can “stack them” (i.e. use them in conjunction with), a manufacturer’s coupon.

To take the example of the Addidas deodorant above: Let’s say my receipt had printed off a coupon for $1 off any Addidas deodorant last week. I could use that on one Addidas deodorant along with a $1/1 manufacturer’s coupon. This would mean that I’m only paying $0.49 for the deodorant (using ECBs I’ve rolled over, of course!) and getting $3 ECB back.

Another way to make your ECBs grow more, is to use $3/$15 or $4/$20 coupons in conjunction with the other deals you are doing. The $3/$15 or $4/20 are coupons which often print at the bottom of your receipt. They are also sometimes available in your newspaper–especially if you live in an area where there is a lot of drug store competition.

For those not familiar with these coupons, a $3/$15 is a coupon which is just that–you get $3 off of a $15 or more purchase. I look at these as “free money”, meaning, if I’m going to already be spending $15.50 and after coupons and ECBs be paying basically $0.00 out of pocket in order to generate the same amount of ECBs that I spent, if I stack on a $3/$15 coupon, I can get $3 more worth of groceries without paying anything extra. So, I’ll use this extra “money” to buy something that is around $3 and generates more ECB, or I’ll use it to pay for something we need that week–say toilet paper or milk, etc. That way, it is lowering my normal grocery bill, without costing me any more.

Provided you have over $15 or $20 worth of products (before coupons, not after coupons), you can stack these coupons on top of any of the previously mentioned deals, too. You will want to make sure and use these coupons first, though, before you give your other coupons to the cashier. Otherwise, the register could have trouble inputting them.

By the way, if you’ve not done so already, you can also go here and sign up for email offers and you’ll instantly get a $4/$20 coupon. Plus, when you sign up for email offers, they often email you coupons, too!

Oftentimes, there are weekly and monthly deals which generate ECBs, but which are not free after ECBs. These can still be good, so don’t overlook them. Paired with a manufacturer’s coupon, or CVS coupon, or a $3/$15 coupon, or a mixture of all three, you can often get the item for free or close to free. I don’t do this as often as I do the free-after-ECB items, but now that I have a stash of ECBs accumulated, I will often look at these deals and see if I can work one into my weekly shopping trip.

When you are checking out and doing a more complicated transaction, you will want to make sure and have your coupons in good order so that your transaction goes smoothly. The best way I have found to do this, is to always give $3/$15 (etc.) coupons first. Then give any other CVS coupons, then your manufacturer’s coupons. And lastly, give your ECBs.
If you have an ECB that is for more than what your total is, they can either manually reduce it down and just take off the amount for your
total (and thus you lose the rest of your ECB), or you can add on another small item to make up the difference.

I always bring my calculator and tally up the total after coupons to try and make sure I throw in an extra item or two if I need to. It’s best to go up to the register with a very good idea of how much you are going to be spending anyway, so calculating it up ahead of time is highly recommended.