Drugstore Freebies: More Than Junk Food and Harsh Chemicals

Photo: Carrie Kirby

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
  • juice
  • birthday party gifts and wrap
  • Mother's Day gifts
  • Easter basket fillers
  • toys and craft supplies
  • lawn bags
  • extension cord
  • tape
  • vitamins and otc medications
  • sippy cups
  • batteries
  • 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?

No votes yet
Your rating: None

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Guest's picture

If you buy everything in the book it's a waste but if you select what you need or what you can get free wrap up and give to a friend it saves a great deal of money. When I was doing this monthly I would tend to spend 10 dollars on 45 dollars worth of items. Everything from toothpaste and tooth brushes and makeup to vitamins and baby products. I don't have a baby so I would give those items to the pastor at church he always appreciated some baby shampoo or wipes. What cost me a few cents for the 6% sales tax saved him a few dollars a month.

Guest's picture

rationalization after rationalization. big difference between frugality and being a tight wad. this screams tight wad.

Linsey Knerl's picture

So sadly, I can't participate.  We are getting a Walgreens in the next town, so I may take advantage when I'm making the drive anyway.  I do take advantage of the Walgreens FAR's and buy them online.  If I can get enough purchased (of stuff I need anyway), it makes shipping free, as well.

Sometimes hubby looks at me kind of oddly when I open my box of "Free stuff from Walgreens" because it's stuff I wouldn't normally buy.  However, I'll ALWAYS use it.  Just because a special canker sore medicine wasn't needed at the time I bought it, doesn't mean we won't use it up in the next 3 months.  And to not have to spend that $8 during a month when I can't afford it is priceless.

Thanks for such an honest and informative article, Carrie!

Guest's picture

I don't do this and probably never will. Why? Well #1 I'm vegetarian and #2 I'm going green. Meaning less waste, less plastic, less chemicals.
I think what people are saying is that there is little need for overconsumption. Yes you may use these products, but at what cost to yourself and the environment. For example I recently switched to a "green" shampoo and my hair has NEVER looked or felt better.
I looked at your shopping and there isn't one thing I would use (I buy recycled toilet tissue, biodegradable laundry detergent etc, and we're have soymilk/icecream) so no the CVS wouldn't work for me.
Maybe the people at GRS had other reasons for being so down on the CVS system, like I do. Its not all about frugality, we can save money sure but at what cost to our health and planet?

Guest's picture

Actually, my CVS stocks many items such as biodegradable laundry detergent, soymilk, etc. I have bought a number of Seventh Generation products for free or very cheap. I am a green person, as well, but I think many of us run the risk of being arrogant about it. Many stores have these products, and paying less for them is good for my budget and the environment.

Guest's picture

You mentioned a few things about CVS that are a little questionable to me. Ethically speaking I know that it isn't right to return items that you have purchased and recieved extra bucks on without surrending the extra bucks you recieved with the return. I know you don't intend on returning the item just for the purpose of returning it to keep the ECB's, but if I were you I would follow the rules that CVS lays out about this issue to avoid any type of fraud.

The problem I have found with CVS is that it is highly addictive! I used to spend hours - I know you mentioned that you spend 5 hours a week - if i was very realistic and actually documented my time accurately i would say I spent 5 hours total at CVS in a combination of several trips. This is not including the hours I spent searching for deals, matching coupons, and shooing my kids away from the computer so I could come up with the best possible scenarios.

Finally, I am concerned with your article on CVS because I feel it might be a slight misrepresentation of the truth. You are telling your readers that you basically spend no money at CVS and get several items you need for free. I am a member of several coupon websites that have cracked down on their coupon ethics because people have been abusing programs offered through CVS. I know of several people that have multiple cards (which is now considered a violation of the terms of CVS due to the "one per household" rule).
My question to you is are you getting these deals completely ethcially, guilt free, and with absolutely no coupon fraud whatsoever? If you are, -and I really hope you are- I would absoultely love to hear about how you work your CVS magic and possibly use your information to refine my own CVS'ing skills.

CVS did save me a lot of money but the time it took away from my family, the guilt I felt due to rationalizing many aspects of the programs rule, and the actual money I did have to fork out ultimatley weighed heavy on my decision to tone it down and stop CVSing. If you could personally respond to me or even write another detailed article with CVS scenerios, etc (for what you are planning to do this week for example) that would really help me to determind if CVS is right for my family and our budget. Thank you.


Guest's picture

I read the comments at GRS and I have to say there were very few from "haters" most people simply stated that this drugstore game wasn't for them. In my opinion there was much more vitriol in the comments from people defending playing "the game".
I live in Canada so this doesn't apply to me but I doubt I would do it even if I lived in the States, this doesn't mean I'm a "hater", just that I do still genuinely doubt that this would make a big difference to me- the personal aspect of personal finance.
On the other hand to those who are enjoying it and saving lots- fair play- long may your good CVS hauls continue!!

Guest's picture

I think this is a very good set of reasons for CVSing. I am working up my nerve to try it. Who knows... maybe I'll be posting my own pictures soon.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Those are very good questions and I will post a response on my own blog, www.shopliftingwithpermission.com. I will try to get that up tomorrow and will email you when i do.

Oh, and to Looby, I used the term "haters" in jest. Can anyone really use a word like that in dead earnest any more? Also, a lot more people have weighed in on the positive side since i read it last night.

Guest's picture

The great thing about the CVS game is that you can play to whatever extent you wish. I only buy a few things every other week or so, only when there's a good deal on something I need or buy anyway. It just feels wasteful and unnecessary for me to buy things I won't use since we don't have much storage space and I'm not organized enough to figure out what to donate where and when. Therefore I don't get everything for free, but I'm averaging a 50-60% discount on what I do buy, and I know I'm doing it all honestly. I get frustrated with the "all-or-nothing" mentality that seems to plague this subject and our culture in general.

Guest's picture
Lisa S

I don't CVS because ...

A) I'd rather buy the giant jug of detergent at Costco instead of two jugs at CVS. Less packaging = less waste.

B) They don't carry the brand names I want and use.

C) We don't eat very much prepackaged or convenience food.

D) The whole thing reminds me of the Columbia House record club, where your bargain of 5 CDs for a penny (plus shipping and handling) was offset by having to buy other CDs at a markup (plus shipping and handling) and having to maintain constant vigilance against the terms of the deal.

I'm glad you wrote this post because playing the CVS game probably works well for people with really high (or stereotypically American) consumption levels. But the idea of stockpiling and buying things I don't need to save a few bucks on the things I do ... that has no room in my simple, frugal lifestyle.

Guest's picture

Personally, I find it does take too much time for too little reward. Often deals only work by using coupons limited to "one per customer" more than once. And posts like this one make it unlikely that you find ECB items in stock, throwing off your elaborate deal calculations.

Guest's picture

So, I read the article. Interested in how you CVS to the extent you are discussing. I understand how normal rebates work but I am not familiar with the CVS system...Are you spending money on items to get extra cash back to use on other items? B/c if you are it seems that maybe CVS hikes the price up on items and offers cash back which results in a closer to normal sale price of the item...If I am wrong, please explain the process a little better for me.

Guest's picture

Moneysavingmom has a very good introduction to CVSing here:

I also write a lot about my latest CVS deals and things I've learned on my own site: http://www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

A short answer to your question about how it's done: First, you find some CVS coupons that will reduce say, a $15 transaction by $3. Then, you get the monthly booklet available at CVS of products that pay ECBs, or Extra Bucks. There are also a few ECB deals in each weekly flyer, but the monthly is the best.

When you pick a few things -- $15 worth is good if you have one of the abovementioned coupons -- then look for manufacturers' coupons for those items. Moneysavingmom and slickdeals.net are good places to find out where you might find coupons for the current deals. The Sunday papers and the Internet are the main sources.

To use a $3 off coupon (or a $4 off $20, or whatever), most CVS stores require the total to hit $15 BEFORE coupons are deducted. So if you put $15 worth of stuff in your cart that is "free after ExtraBucks," use $5 worth of manufacturers coupons and a $3 CVS coupon, you end up paying $7 to get $15 Extra Bucks.

This is how you build up Extra Bucks. In just a couple transactions, you will get to the point where you no longer have to pay any real money, except for tax and maybe a dollar or less to cover the difference between a $5 Extra Buck note (you don't get change for them) and a $5.75 total. In the future, you can either buy a ton of "free after ECBs" stuff at the beginning of the month and then use ECBs instead of cash whenever you need something, or you can pair something you need with something that pays off so you end up getting back about the same amount you spend on each trip.

I'm getting on a roll here, so I'm going to continue this explanation at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture

It's amazed me to see how many people just refuse to consider it even if there is nothing to loose. But I guess that's the nature of us - human.. Change is something we don't want to do. I admitted that I was the same before. I tried couponing a few years back and thought it was a waste of time. Little did I know that it's not the system but it's me who doesn't have enough information on the system.

I am not the greeniest person in my block but we do try to living in the green way anyway possible. I shopped at CVS and participate in the CVS program. There is no rule to tell force you to buy everything and anything. I picked and chose the deals that work for me. I only buy items that I know I will use or can donate. Even in living in green, do you buy organic toothpast, using organic toothbrush (does it even exist), using organic shampoo? These are items that I work it into my shopping. I still shop locally for organic milk and food items. So before you shoot it down, maybe check out your local CVS and see what they have in stocks. You might be surprised.

On the flip side, it's ok if you don't want to do it. I wouldn't want to compete with all CVS-ers for the items I want. :)

Guest's picture

You know, I just got a coupon for a $30 gift card if I transfer my prescription to CVS... I'll have to try this!

Guest's picture

I work at CVS and would not recommend anyone buy from them, esp. groceries. CVS regularly ships food items and nonfood items together in the same tray -- Pam antistick spray w/ hairspray and Raid insect killer, summer candy w/ Raid, Boost w/ Rid lice killer w/ permethrin, also pet food w/ cough and cold, baby formula in the same tray as cigars. Regulations are routinely ignored by everyone except me -- cases of bleach placed atop food items on palettes in basement, for example, after I have gone to the trouble to carefully segregate them. I once dared complain about this to a manager who did this, and as a result he cut my hours w/ no reason given even though I am their best worker. Cases of food are placed on filthy basement floor. Perishables are not rotated. Maybe you think I an just an employee w/ a grudge, but you can verify all this if you take the trouble. Just go in on the day they have delivery, you can see for yourself.