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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: How To Get Started Playing the Drugstore Game

Last week, I talked about how playing the Drugstore Game had helped to significantly lower our grocery budget. If you’re new to the Drugstore Game, here are some basic steps to help you get started:

1. Pick One Store to Start With

If you have more than one drugstore chain in your area, please do me a huge favor and don’t try to learn the ins and outs of CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid all at once. Start with one drugstore chain and learn the ropes of it before adding in another.

I’d suggest beginning with CVS as it requires the least outlay of cash. You’ll likely make some mistakes in the beginning, so the less outlay of cash, the better.

2. Read, Read, Read

Before you jump in with both feet, it’s highly important that you take time to read up on how the drugstore rewards programs work and what their coupon policies are. It is vital to be well-informed and well-versed. Plus, it greatly increases your confidence level — and you need confidence in order to work the drugstore deals successfully.

Depending upon which drugstore you chose to begin with (see point #1), here are some articles for you to read: CVS 101, Walgreens 101 or Rite Aid 101. I also encourage you to look at the scenarios and deals posted in the weekly CVS Deals, Walgreens Deals or Rite Aid Deals posts and review them until you really feel like you had a handle on how it works.

3. Start Small

I know that it’s easy to want to have some incredible transactions right out of the shoot where you get $80 worth of items for $0.22, but don’t even think about going there yet. Start with a handful of items and work your way up.

I’d suggest an initial Drugstore Game scenario of around $10 to $15. This is enough that you can learn the ropes, but not too much that you’re out a bunch of money if you have some failed transactions.

4. Don’t Expect to Do It Perfectly

Notice I keep mentioning making mistakes? That’s because pretty much everyone makes them when they are first learning.

Even once you’ve armed yourself with lots of information and have reviewed deals incessantly before planning your own, you will very likely make some mistakes. It’s okay. If you’ve never ridden a bike before, you usually don’t just jump on and ride it flawlessly from the beginning. It takes practice and patience.

The same is true with the Drugstore game: you’ll probably not have flawless transactions from the very get-go. But practice and patience will pay off in big dividends. So accept the mistakes you make as part of the learning process.

5. Be Prepared With a Backup Plan

Oftentimes, drug stores will be out of an item that’s part of the rewards offer or they won’t even stock it. A backup plan is key. I often work out 2-3 different scenario ideas and then make my final game plan once I’m in the store and able to see what they have on hand.

I also would suggest finding out when a store restocks their shelves and planning your shopping trip somewhere near those times. It’s frustrating to go in and find that they are completely out of everything that is free after rewards that week. You have a better chance of finding everything on your list if you shop right after they restock the shelves. In addition, if you don’t see something in stock, be sure to ask if they might have extras in the back which they’ve not put on the shelves yet.

6. Commit to Sticking With It For Three Months

While the Drugstore Game can save you a tremendous amount of money on household and bath and beauty products, it’s certainly not for everyone. It takes time and effort and you might find it’s just not worth the time and effort for your family.

However, can I caution you not to give up too soon? If you want to really see if it’s worth, commit to sticking with it for three months. Do at least one transaction every two weeks for three months and then evaluate at the end of the trial period whether you feel like this money-saving idea is worth the return on investment for you.

What are your best tips and tricks for someone who is a newbie to the Drugstore Game? What do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

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  • Andrea Q says:

    Designate a place to keep your “rewards” so that you don’t lose them! I keep my CVS extra bucks all together in one section of my coupon organizer.

    • Jodi W says:

      @Andrea Q, Yes! I separate my ECB from my receipt immediately and place it in a ziploc snack bag inside my CVS envelope (where I keep all of my scanner qs, lists and other qs I may be using).

    • @Andrea Q, Yes, I agree!!! I have a stash of red envelopes. I keep one in my purse for my CVS extra bucks and Walgreens RRs. Being red, it sticks out and doesn’t get lost in the other “junk” stuffed in my purse. When the envelope gets ratty, I just switch it out for a new one.

    • Bartley says:

      Best way to use EBs is don’t leave the store without using. Your visit should be planned so that you go back through the line to get another item that you already pre planned to buy and is on sale and you already have a coupon for it.

  • Heather says:

    You don’t have to go after every single deal at every single store!! You’ll make yourself crazy… and you’ll burn out QUICK. I wish someone had told me that!

  • Laura says:

    Good points! I committed to couponing for the summer last year and now have been at it for just about a year. It IS work but has been well worth the effort.

  • donna says:

    you can get a rain check, if they are out, at the CVS ….worked for me last week and I got rewards too 🙂

    • Adriane says:

      I’ve found CVS to have a liberal raincheck policy. So if I can only make it to one store at the beginning of the week, I opt for Walgreens. I can always get a CVS raincheck later. (Sometimes I prefer rainchecks if I only have a few ECB’s and don’t want to spend anything out of pocket.)

      I have one suggestion for those using rainchecks:
      Cut out the product’s ad from the weekly ad and staple it to the raincheck. This is helpful if the ad shows several varieties and the cashier only writes one thing on the raincheck – you can show the cashier when you use the raincheck that you are indeed allowed to use it for a similar product. I had this happen with a Reach deal – the cashier wrote the raincheck for toothbrushes, but the ad stated that the deal was good for floss as well.

    • Carrie says:

      I was ready to ask at CVS for a raincheck with the Old Spice ECB promo last week. The nice lady there offered to replace the Old Spice w the CVS brand, and still give me myECBs. I didn’t use the B1G1 Old Spice coupon I had, but was thankful she replaced it AND gave me the ECBs.

  • Nicole says:

    Know when enough is enough… therefore, donate surplus.

  • beth says:

    VERY good lesson 🙂 Have been at it for 5 months and this is exactly right on. I could add- find a friendly store and make friends with the cashiers- what a world of difference the cashiers make.

  • Nicole P says:

    I’m learning the ins and outs of Walgreens right now. I’ve been doing this for two months now. I feel like I’m starting to understand their game. Honestly, the thing that has helped me out the most is finding someone who appreciates couponers. Usually one in three stores has (usually) a woman there who is a couponer herself or enjoys helping couponers with their purchases. Make sure when you are going to check out that they SEE your coupons. Also, at Walgreens, I find that the beauty counter person is the most helpful. I’ve spent $5 and saved $36 last time I was in there, which is great since we haven’t seen a paycheck in nearly two months. Couponing is helping keep our family alive.

  • Agnes says:

    Good morning, Crystal! Off topic here…..what happen to the tiny icon at the end of your (awesome) articles? I got used to clicking on it and emailing family/friends.

    Thank you,

    • Crystal says:

      You should see an envelope icon at the bottom of each post. You can click on that to email an article. Let me know if you’re not seeing it, though!

  • Kara says:

    I wish I would have known about rain checks when an item is out of stock.

  • Susan says:

    I just concentrate on diapers and wipes since I have a newborn. It might help to narrow it down to specific products until you get the hang of things.

  • Char says:

    Another important thing to remember about Walgreens….their RR expire after only two weeks. CVS gives you a month to redeem their ECB. I took my $8 RR to Walgreens the day after they expired and they refused to honor them, placing the blame on the manufacturer. To me that’s a cop-out!

  • Beth says:

    Another (minor) thing that I learned early on, but was a little anxious about when I first went to CVS is that they tear down the shelf tags on Friday’s (at least in our area). The items are still on sale until Sunday when the sales change, but for Friday and Saturday, you have to rely on the ad only. Iwalked in and thought I had missed all my deals that week, and was totally wrong!

    • Liz says:

      @Beth, I’ve also noticed that my CVS will do that…however a lot of times it is on the “Free after ECB” deals. I make sure that I scan all my items before I check out so that I know I am buying the sale items (I’ve been tricked a few times…but that is part of the learning experience.)

      On another note…I’ve found that having different scenerios isn’t as important anymore at CVS since they have really limited the $X/$XX coupons.

  • Beth says:

    One question I still have is how people then “step it up.” I think I”m pretty good about rolling ECB’s at CVS, and I have a good supply of Pantene, and toothpaste, dishsoap and shower gel, etc. I just never quite understand how someone could grow to such a large quantity of items weekly. I think I’ve had up to $15 or $20 in ECB’s, but usually have around $8-$10. This might be the next post, but is something I’ve wondered about as I read about the great deals others get.

  • Karen Rucker says:

    Work WITH your store personel, not against them. Be friendly, ask questions politely, and be willing to skip the occasional great deal rather than get in a fight over it. Let them know that you plan on telling your friends what good deals you’re getting at their store. And (when prices are reasonable) purchase a few non-loss-leaders. In other words, become a customer that your store values and will want to treat well.

    • @Karen Rucker, I agree! Believe me, they will get to know you when you come in week after week with a load of coupons and you walk out only paying pennies. I always try to thank my cashier for ringing up all my coupons.

      Two more things: don’t be disappointed when a deal doesn’t work out quite like you think – try to visualize the bigger picture! For instance, if you get 5 or 6 items but do the math wrong and have to pay $3 out of pocket instead of $.25, remember that you’re still saving a TON of money on the rest of the items you buy. You will get better as you go along!

      Also, be sure to buy the reusable bag tag at CVS! It only costs a dollar and gives you 1 EB back after every 4th visit. I have made about 5 or 6 bucks profit just from using that bag when I go. 🙂

      • sarah says:

        @Jessica @ This Blessed Life, what is a reusable bag tag?

        • @sarah, They have “Green Bag Tags” in various places throughout the store – usually on the endcaps or up front by the registers. It’s a little plastic leaf with a barcode attached, and it costs $.99.

          You attach it to a reusable bag (your own, not the store’s), and have them scan it for you each time you check out (in addition to your Extra Care card). It will keep a running tally on your receipt, and after 4 “swipes” it will issue you a $1 EB at the end of your receipt. You can only use it once per day, but multiple times per week. It’s GREAT! 🙂

  • steph says:

    What an encouraging post. I was a Target the other day and screwed upon a deal where I needed to buy 5 to get the gift card, but I only bought 3! DER! So, I simply returned them a Customer Service and my card was debited back my goof. Then, I went back and did it correctly. It was a total bummer and rookie mistake, but it is a reminder that is really does take practice and strategy to get the best deal.

  • SarahD says:

    One thing that I was VERY excited to learn is that CVS’s rainchecks (which I have to get frequently for the free after ECB stuff) DON’T EXPIRE! EVER! I like to redeem them when I have a $ off of a $ purchase coupon in my inbox. Also, I’ve had multiple cashiers and managers tell me that ECBs don’t expire either. They have an expiration date on them, but they take them even if the date has passed.

  • A definite tip for newbies: stick with your list! I know it’s been said over and over again in other forums, but it bears repeating… I’ve walked in to Rite Aid (Oh! How I LOVE Rite Aid!), ready to make some great deals, only to get sidetracked by buying a BIGGER size for a little more money… Upon crunching numbers later on, I realized that I could have saved MORE by sticking to my original plan (list). Ugh, the bitter taste of defeat stuck in my mouth, until I made another killer money-saving purchase there.

    Another tip, once you become more adept at the art of couponing, is to find/create a storage/organization system THAT WORKS FOR YOU. It doesn’t matter how neat those coupon binders are, if it doesn’t fit your needs. I am in the process of creating a system that will work for me, as my current one is -well- busting at the seems.

  • Rhonda says:

    I loved your advice about sticking with it for at least 3 months–it takes a while to get the hang of it so don’t give up too quickly. I’ve been at it for about 1 1/2 years now. Yesterday, I picked up the UKotex w/coupon at Walgreens, so they were free after the 2.50 cat plus I got another coupon with my cat for free Always pads! How’s that for a bargain!!
    After shopping at Jewel, Target, and Walgreens, I spent 23.00 plus a 10.00 gift card and received back 12.50 in cats, 7.00 in free cat items, plus another 5.00 gift card. So my total cost for over 30 items was about 9.00, which came out of the 10.00 gift card:) But it’s taken me awhile to learn the strategies, but it’s so worth it! Stick to it:)

    • Courtney says:

      @Rhonda, I’m VERY new to couponing so please forgive me here, but what are “cats”? Thanks! 🙂

      • Rhonda says:

        @Courtney, Hi, cats are the pieces of paper that come out with your receipt–they are just like coupons or can be in the form of dollars off your next purchase. Jewel is most well known in our area for giving you say, a 5.00 cat if your purchase 20.00 worth of certain items. Walgreens cats are also redeemable at Jewel.

  • Kelly says:

    1. Take your printed add with you! Sometimes I will find that the items are not marked, but if you have your advertisement, you know the size and quantity to buy!

    2. Stay organized, I play all 3 drug stores so I have an envelope for each one in my purse. I keep all my ECB’s and RR’s in their proper store envelope along with my weekly list and coupons needed. All I take into the store is my purse, my envelope and my advertisement.

    3. Do not leave the store until you are sure you got all of your ECB’s or RR’s. Double check. It is easier to correct it on the spot!

    4. At Walgreens you cannot normally roll register rewards. So if you are doing the deal twice, do not use the RR from the same deal from a previous transaction!

  • Heather says:

    Actually, I’d say to start with Rite Aid. You get real money back (in a check form), and although you do have to wait a few weeks for it to come, it’s a real check that you can cash or put in the bank and do what you like with. There is no pressure to “roll it over” or do more deals before it expires. For me it’s easier for me to see what I’ve really spent and saved, whereas with CVS, my head gets confused with the whole “I’m spending $3.99 for an item that I wouldn’t spend that much on normally, and even though I get $3.99 back in ECB immediately, I have to spend it on something else that’s a good deal . . . . ”

    Not that I don’t do CVS, but I think Rite Aid is a good choice for beginners. In fact, I started with them about 8 or 9 years ago, long before I did other couponing in any meaningful way. And I figured it out on my own – never knew anyone else that did it. In other words, it’s simple.

  • Summer says:

    I’m a college student who recently got a car and I’ve been wanting to start playing the drugstore game. Thanks for this post!

  • Traci says:

    Newbies also need to remember that the drugstore game is where coupons for items you don’t normally use come in handy. Before I started shopping at CVS, I only clipped coupons for products that were something we’d normally use and tossed the rest. But a lot of times, you need a coupon AND the store reward to result in a free item (or sometimes OVERAGE!). Items like body wash and Glade candles aren’t something I’d pick up at regular price – but if they’re free or just pennies, they are certainly something we can put to use!

    So now, I still only clip coupons I’m pretty certain I’ll use, but I keep the rest of the inserts in a file drawer. If a deal comes up, I can go back through the inserts to see if I have a coupon that makes for a great deal.

    • Kim says:

      @Traci, Yes, that’s a great idea! I have been thinking of keeping the “leftovers” from my coupon clipping in a file marked with the date so I can find those coupons later if I find a deal on something I wouldn’t normally purchase.

  • Lana says:

    Okay! I had said I was not going to do drugstores but last post convinced me to try it. I did do the Ecotrin and U Kotex deals twice this week. Now I am just nervous about using those RR’s in time and correctly! It is good to have a new challenge.

  • Autumn says:

    I completely agree with all of the above advice. I made ALL of the same mistakes and it took awhile to build up the confidence when I first discovered the key to saving with coupons and Crystal’s helpful blog. Week after week after seeing how my stockpile was growing and I was saving more money than I ever had, this was something I was excited about sticking with. Yes, organization is key and being armed with your “coupon rights”. Knowing the stores coupon policy and being able to stand up for yourself when you know the cashier is simply misinformed. (sometimes the manager as well). Rain checks relieved a lot of my frustration of items being sold out and now I don’t feel like I have to race to every store the second they open on sale day. I was running around like crazy and shortly became burned out as described in the other posts. Yes, this is some work but make it fun and rewarding for you and your family. My first couple months all I could think about was coupons 24/7 and didn’t get much sleep. I would be thinking about this transaction and that transaction and I know my boyfriend thought I needed to slow down a bit. Fast forward 3 years later, I much more confident but yes, mistakes will still be made and thats just part of the learning process. I missed watching one of my items being rung up and after arriving home caught the mistake. Overall, Ive saved so much money that I’ve learned to not beat myself up over it. I’m in the process of teaching my mom how to use Crystal’s blog to save money and this is perfect timing to have her read all this great advice for newbies. Thanks everyone!

  • sara says:

    Great advice! My two cents- I live in a small town with only one each of certain chains- 1 Walgreens, 1 Rite Aid, no CVS, no Target, 1 Walmart… When we make our scenarios, please please please consider other shoppers. No matter how early in the week I get to Walgreens, the same group of 3-4 women beat me to all the RR deals. The cashiers tell me they make as many as 40 transactions and CLEAN IT OUT. Duuuuuuuuuuuuude. Leave some for the rest of us. I get the idea behind stockpiling; I totally support it. In fact, I am trying to make our own stockpile for our family of 2. But there comes a point when there is just greed at hand. It is beyond frustrating when I can’t get a good deal on *one* tube of toothpaste because someone has swooped in ahead of me to buy 20. I’ve had improved results with trying to catch the restock mid-week, but I have a full-time job and don’t always have time to triple-trip it. I know how awesome it is to get these deals, but please take a minute to think about the people who are coming in after you:)

    • chelsea says:


      I live in a small town too, and I encounter this problem ALL THE TIME. And when I walk up to the deal section and see every. single. item. for the deal is gone, I’m like- Wha….?? It is sooooo frustrating! Which is why I make it a point to not bring more than two coupons with me for the same item. Gotta leave some for the next person, and I don’t need 2 more tubes of toothpaste when I already have the two I got for free last week, right.

  • Lauren says:

    Several people have mentioned being polite in regards to both the store staff and other couponers (i.e. not cleaning out the shelves). Don’t forget, though, that these drugstores also serve people who are NOT couponers! They get REALLY frustrated when you are at the register trying to do three or five (or sometimes more) transactions. I’ve found that it makes quick friends with both the cashier and the person in line behind me if I step aside in the middle of my transactions and let other customers who are not trying to coupon go ahead of me. This way, they can get “in and out” (which is probably why they’re at the drugstore and not the local super center) and the cashier isn’t flustered about all of the people who are waiting! Everyone wins this way!

    Also, go at a time when you’re not in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than trying to make a “quick” run to play the drugstore game. Take your time and think through everything so that you don’t get flustered while you’re trying to learn the ropes! Staying in there a few extra minutes and getting things “right” pays big dividends–to the tune of about 85% a lot of the time!

    • Andrea Q says:

      @Lauren, Our Walgreens will no longer split things into multiple transactions, except healthcare items and prescriptions.

      • Kim says:

        @Andrea Q, I have left the store and come right back in again for the next transaction if the cashier is testy about doing multiple transactions. In fact, I do this at Safeway all the time because they have become pretty strict about only using one double coupon per visit. I go put my stuff in the car, come back and do the deal again. 🙂

        • Andrea Q says:

          @Kim, I guess I’m not brazen enough to do that in a small town where there’s often only one cashier on duty. I don’t want to see coupon deals completely disappear, so I try not to do anything that could be seen as pushy. If I didn’t have my children with me (which is rare), I would definitely do it at a busy grocery store.

    • alyssa says:

      Cashiers at my Walgreens just ask me to check out at the beauty counter instead of the main front registers if I have multiple transactions. Works great since the front registers seem to always back up!

      • Lauren says:

        I’ve had that same experience. In fact, my cashiers in the beauty department BEG me to come to their register…. I’m thinking that I read somewhere that the cashiers get some sort of “kickback” or “reward” when customers purchase certain products. Maybe that’s why! Also, my CVS cashiers are SUPER friendly about the multiple transactions. We’re pretty much on a first name basis 🙂

      • Sarah Townes says:

        I worked at Walgreens in college and know that you are judged by how many dollars you check out during your shift. So if they can get you to check out there it adds to their total. Beauty has less of a total but still like $200/a shift. It shows their working.

    • Amanda says:

      @Lauren, Agreed, being willing to step back a spot in line can instantly take the tension out of a situation. Going to whichever counter doesn’t sell cigarettes (photo, mostly) seems to be the easiest way to check out quickly, where I am, which is something else to consider.

  • Vanessa says:

    I’m new to the drugstore game, but I can’t wait to get started. I only have a Rite Aid near me, but I just signed up for their new wellness program and hope to start soon!

  • Carol says:

    Another reason to stick with it for at least 3 months is that the deals seem to go in spurts. There will be weeks in a row when there are hardly any good deals at CVS and just when you’re ready to say “this doesn’t work for me,” the great deals come back. I’ve been doing this for about 3 years now, so I’ve seen lots of “dry spells,” but the good deals always come back!

    • Crystal says:

      Excellent point!

    • Lauren says:

      I’ve only been doing the drugstore game for a little over a year, but I’ve noticed that the best weeks tend to be the 1st and 4th weeks of the month. Have you noticed the same thing since you’ve been playing the game longer than me?

      • Carol says:

        Interesting observation. I’ve never paid much attention to what weeks of the month have better deals (of course, most of the time I can’t even remember what week of the month it is LOL).

  • Katie says:

    I’m still starting out on this and have been doing it for about a month now. I am really greatful for this blog and for you ladies sharing all of your wisdom and thoughts about drugstore games. 🙂 I did do a transaction the other week and got about $20 worth of products for $1.08, but then there are other times I spend alot more when I think I would save more. I’m still learning but I’m not going to give up! I will get the hang of this! Thanks again ladies for all your help !!!

  • Laura Latham says:

    I just started doing the drugstore game this past week and got $6 in ECB’s at CVS. My question is… can I spend my ECB’s on any product in the store? (I know that gift cards and things such as that are excluded)

    • Lauren says:

      Yes, you CAN spend it on most things in the store. I think there are exclusions for prescriptions, alcohol, and tobacco, etc., but most “regular drugstore” products you would want to buy there, you should be able to use them on. Most shoppers who have been playing the drugstore game for a while, though, typically hold those ECB’s for another deal that earns ECB’s so we end up spending very little (or nothing!) out of pocket. I’ve also used them on things like makeup that don’t always earn bucks, but I could get really cheaply on sale when I paired my bucks with another manufacturer coupon I had. Hope this helps!

  • Laura Latham says:

    Lauren, thanks! that helps a bunch!

  • Angela says:

    I tried CVS with their ECB’s, but I’m confused as to when I get them. Do they come quarterly? I don’t shop there regularly & so I’m not sure if I missed some of my ECB’s because I didn’t shop there to get them.

  • Courtney says:

    Wow! This is spectacular information! The articles, the other readers’ tips, all of it! I have just started the Drug Store Game (love that name, by the way) about a month ago. I clearly have TONS more to learn, but I’m very excited about saving money for my family. I was very proud the first time I looked at my receipt and I had saved more than I had spent. I look forward to the pennies on the dollar purchases. 🙂 Thanks again everyone!

  • Sarah Faith says:

    It really helps to have some “filler” items planned out in advance. When I first started, I would spend so much time just figuring out what I was going to buy so I could use my RRs.

  • Sarah Denley says:

    I went back and read the CVS 101. In the example you used, it looks like you got six deodorants instead of five. Did I miss something in the example…I am just tying to figure this out and I’m so confused! Thanks!

  • Sarah Denley says:

    Also, one more question (I would have asked on that post, but comments were closed): Would it have made any difference to have bought all six deodorants in one transaction and used the bucks on your next visit? Would it be the same savings??

  • I linked to this on my weekly roundup, the post is under my name. I wish I lived closer to a drugstore where I could play the game, too!

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