Drugstore Freebies: More Than Junk Food and Harsh Chemicals
This week the fine blog Get Rich Slowly offered a brief introduction to playing the CVS game. This is the method of taking advantage of instant rebates offered at CVS (and similarly at Walgreens, as Nora Dunn wrote about here).
The post drew a surprising number of negative comments. The main complaints: 1) The items you can purchase at CVS are unnecessary and wasteful, 2) the system takes too much time, which could be used to earn more money than the money saved, and 3) you could save more money by being frugal and simply buying less, and 4) these programs will not last because of those of us "greedily" exploiting the system.
I had many of the same doubts before I became a CVS convert, so I thought I would share the experiences and information that have shown me how wrong these critics are. Of course, I am not saying that everyone should immerse themselves in CVS-ology. If you don't enjoy figuring out good "transactions," live far away from a CVS, or truly cannot use a thing sold in conventional drugstores, then of course it's not for you. But I think many people who believe it's not for them would be surprised. I was.
Criticism 1: I don't use any of that junk.
When I first started cruising Web sites for people who play the CVS game, I was turned off by the ubiquitous photos of their weekly hauls. I saw mostly things I would not buy: lots of candy and chips, soda, beauty products.
But the truth is, even my small neighborhood CVS holds all kinds of things that have turned out to be very useful in my everyday life. It's true that to really benefit from CVS shopping, you need to buy things you may not want. But those purchases generate instant rebates, aka "Extra Bucks," that you can use on anything you want.
I have found that I can use CVS to supplement my grocery bill, practically eliminate the cost of gift giving, fill everyday household needs, and keep my children entertained. Here is a list of items I have "shoplifted with permission," as I call it, for my family in the four months I've been CVSing:
- milk, several times a week
- canned soups that we use occasionally for casseroles
- ice cream
- every kind of toiletry we use, stockpiled for the next year
- diapers and wipes
- toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, plastic bags, wrap, aluminum foil
- every kind of cleaning supply including vinegar and baking soda
- soda for guests and parties
- birthday party gifts and wrap
- Mother's Day gifts
- Easter basket fillers
- toys and craft supplies
- lawn bags
- extension cord
- vitamins and otc medications
- sippy cups
- small electronics
Some things that I bought just to generate more Extra Bucks, and those things I have given to friends and family and donated to the local homeless shelter. I even sold a few things at a rummage sale.
But overall, I have been favorably surprised at the large number of things we no longer need to buy, because I can just work whatever it is into my next CVS purchase. If I lived near a bigger CVS that stocked more groceries, I would save even more. Another thing I wish my local store would stock: Environmentally friendly cleaners such as Simple Green.
Criticism 2: In the time people spend CVSing, they could earn more money than they saved and spend it more conveniently at Costco.
The commenter who made this post said he or she could make $100 consulting in an hour. That's obviously something that most stay-at-home mothers and retirees, the core CVS'ers, cannot do. Personally I like CVSing because it's a way I can help my family economically WITHOUT getting a babysitter. The alternatives -- caring for other kids as well as my own, mystery shopping -- don't compare. I haven't tried phone sex, in the style of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," but I think CVSing is more wholesome, even if I do commit the transgression of buying some environmentally unfriendly things for relatives who would buy the same things with their own money if I didn't give it to them.
Many people say they only spend 15 minutes a week on CVS. Personally, I will admit that I spend much more time. Between clipping coupons, reading the flyers on paper and online, searching for and printing online coupons, planning my own scenarios and actually going to the store, I probably spend as much as five hours on it many weeks. I'm pretty hardcore, and that is why I am able to make so many ECBs and use CVS to fill so many family needs.
Realistically, I might be able to make $60 an hour freelancing. Of course, I would need to pay taxes on that income, which brings it down to around $40. I would need to pay for childcare. I am lucky enough to have access to cheap childcare for limited amounts of time -- just $5 an hour for two kids. I'm down to $35. Also, when I freelance I probably spend an hour marketing myself and researching potential stories for every hour spent on paid work. So let's cut the earnings down to 2.5 hours work at $35 an hour.
But, wait! If I didn't CVS, I would still have to shop for this stuff. I used to go to Target once every couple of weeks. Between the drive and wandering each aisle checking out all the temptations, I always spend at least 2 hours, often 3, on a trip to Target. So, let's subtract from my potential work time 1 hour per week for Target runs.
That means that if I didn't CVS, I might be able to work an additional 1.5 hours per week, earning about $52.50. Do I save that much every week by CVSing? Definitely. I usually get for free at least four gallons of milk alone each week, and that's $12 right there. I would also spend about $10 per week on diapers and wipes. Need I go on?
I won't bother factoring in the tax deduction we will take for the hundreds of dollars worth of goods from CVS that I have donated. Or the gas I've saved not driving to Target.
Criticism 3: You could save more by simply buying less.
I understand that the excesses of the CVS game seem anathema to those who have immersed themselves in frugality. First, I convinced myself that I didn't need brand names because store brands were just as good. Then, I convinced myself that I didn't have to buy shampoo at all because I could make it myself. But then, I realized that getting shampoo at a profit at CVS is actually more frugal than buying the ingredients to make it myself.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to buy less instead of playing the CVS game. But the fact is, you cannot save MORE MONEY by buying frugally than you can buy working CVS, because dedicated CVSers get everything for free. All they pay is a small amount of sales tax. Actually, I have obtained several gift cards from transferring prescriptions to CVS and by returning things that I bought with Extra Bucks (not something I would do on purpose but sometimes I accidentally buy the wrong thing), so I don't even pay money out of pocket for the tax. I literally will pay ZERO for the things I plan to buy at CVS this week.
Yes, I understand that many things people buy at CVS would not be needed or even desired in other people's homes. However, there are some items nearly all households need: toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper and soap, for instance. Even if you bought only these four items, you could most likely fill those needs for free if you bought them strategically.
Criticism 4: Because of "greedy" people like me, the drugstores will soon end these promotions.
From talking with people in marketing for both manufacturers and the drugstore companies, I don't think this is true. Retailers advertise special deals to get people into their stores, and once most people are in the store, they will spend money and the retailer will earn some. They are not stupid. It doesn't shock any executive at Safeway or CVS that some people come in to only buy the loss leader. They're not going to trash their promotional program because it doesn't bring in profits from every single customer.
Besides, CVS'ers don't get stuff free at the expense of the stores alone. In fact, I doubt CVS loses any money on most of my transactions. I achieve the state of freeness using a comination of manufacturer's coupons, store coupons, sale prices, and Extra Bucks. CVS gets reimbursed for the manufacturers' coupons, and you know what? They get reimbursed for the Extra Bucks too. A friend recently told me that -- of course -- the big companies who want their goods promoted in CVS flyers are the ones who foot the bill when their product is given away for free.
Heck, the companies behind the brand names are probably thrilled when bloggers like me display photos of their products that we got for free. We're promoting their brand for them! Their investment is working!
Those are my three reasons that CVSing is not a waste of money, effort or time. If you CVS, what are your reasons? Or perhaps you are still skeptical?
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