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Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Use Coupons: Pharmacies - CVS

The pharmacy is where you will be able to save the most and potentially even make money when shopping. Trust me, I understand that it makes no sense when you initially think about it. I hope that the next series of posts will enable you to do as well as I have while shopping at pharmacies.

I'm beginning my series on Pharmacy Couponing with CVS because it is my favorite store to shop at. I LOVE their customer service and there are usually great deals to be had.

Coupon Stacking

Most stores allow you to do what is called "Coupon Stacking." This means that you can use two coupons on one product: a manufacturer's coupon and a store (in this case CVS) coupon. CVS provides many places to get store coupons. You can print CVS store coupons here, you can find them in the CVS Reinventing Beauty Magazines (ask for them at the front counter, different stores have them in different places), and you can print them at the ExtraCare Coupon Center (more on that below). There are a couple of different ways to tell whether a coupon is a manufacturer's or a CVS Store Coupons. CVS Store Coupons may say "Redeemable only at CVS." Do not be fooled by those that say "Redeem at CVS" or at Walmart or any specific store; as long as it does not have the word "only" on it, you should be able to use it anywhere. Also, manufacturer's coupons almost always start with the number 5 underneath the barcode at the bottom. CVS coupons usually start with a 4. You will not be able to use two coupons that start with a 5 on one product, or two coupons that start with a 4 on one product, but you can, and should, definitely use one of each.

ExtraCare Program

The ExtraCare (EC) Program provides you with the most opportunities to save at CVS. It is a basic loyalty program with some added perks. 

If you don't yet have a CVS card, you can register for one in store or online (once you create an online account you will have to continue on to sign-up for a EC card). 

If you have a EC card but have not created your online account, you should do so now by clicking here and then attach your EC card number to your account. 

Be sure to go to the "Card Information" and then "Update Personal Information" section and check the "yes" box next to the question "Do you wish to receive valuable coupons and offers by email from ExtraCare?" If you're setting up a new account, you should receive an email with a coupon for $4 off a $20 purchase. If you already have this set up, be sure to keep an eye on your inbox and SPAM folders for coupons and special deals. 

Now that all of the sign-up logistics are out of the way, we can move on to how to use your EC card and coupons to make you money...

ExtraCare Bucks (ECBs)
Everything that is on sale at CVS is only on sale with your EC card. If you ever forget to bring your card to the store, ask them to please look up your account with your phone number. You must use your card EVERY time you shop if you want to save money.

Each week CVS puts out their ad with sale prices. Many weeks, CVS also has items with ExtraCare Bucks (ECBS), or what is basically money that can be used only at CVS. The majority of weeks have deals where an item, lets say Colgate Total Toothpaste for example (this was a deal from a few weeks ago), is on sale for $3.49. BUT, you also get $3.49 back in ECB, effectively making the Colgate Total free (+tax, in NJ). Without using even one coupon, you're already getting a great deal on toothpaste.

I've been couponing a long time now though, and I'm not willing to pay even the $.24 in tax it would have cost me to buy this toothpaste. I looked at the coupon match-ups and discovered I had a coupon from a newspaper insert for $.35 off of Colgate Total. Even better, I had a coupon from the CVS Reinventing Beauty Magazine and from an issue of the All You Magazine for $1. I couldn't use all three coupons, though, because they were all manufacturer's coupons. So I looked at the expiration dates of the two worth $1 and I used the one expiring the soonest. On top of that, I had a CVS coupon that printed from the ExtraCare Coupon Center for $1 off any Colgate Total toothpaste. 

(The ExtraCare Coupon Center, which I affectionately call the Magic Red Box, is located towards the front of each CVS store. It can be used to scan a barcode to check a price on an item or it can be used to print coupons. Every time you walk into a CVS you should scan your card there at least twice. I scan it until it comes up with a message that says "No more coupons available. Check back tomorrow." Some of the coupons it prints are good only for one day, some are good for up to 3 weeks. I throw the majority of the coupons out because they are often for products that I don't use and that don't go on sale, but sometimes they can make for a great deal. The Magic Red Box is also where ECBs occasionally print, but more on that later.)

So back to the Colgate deal...the price was $3.49 with $3.49 in ECB. I had a manufacturer's coupon for $1 and a CVS coupon for $1. So, with tax added, my total came to $1.73 (the total price of the item is always taxed before coupons are taken into account). I paid my $1.73 (though I  used an ECB from a previous transaction to bring my out-of-pocket, OOP, expenses down even further), and I got $3.49 back in ECB to use on a future transaction. So I just made $1.76 on that purchase of toothpaste.

CVS rocks because ECBs don't expire for one month after they are earned. And, while not all CVSs do, many will take expired ECBs; mine takes them for up to a month after they've expired.

I do understand that an ECB cannot be used as cold, hard cash but I believe they are nearly as good. With the amount of shopping I do at CVS, I rarely have trouble spending my ECBs. If I am ever close to one expiring, I purchase something that does not often go on sale that I would be paying cash for anyway. 

Rolling ECBs

To keep expenses down, most coupon websites will break deals down into several transactions so that you can "roll" your ECBs. In other words, you use the ECBs earned from one transaction to help pay for the next. The goal is to walk out of the store with the least amount of ECBs remaining as possible and the least amount of actual money spent. I do separate transactions regularly and have found that as long as I have each transaction planned out with the proper coupons handy and I go to the back of the line for each, customers and employees will not give me a difficult time. There is one employee at my CVS who goes so far as to call other people over to see how well I did! 

If there are nice employees at your CVS, become friends with them. Not only will it make shopping trips more enjoyable, but usually they will be more willing to help if you ever need assistance and some will even let you in on special deals like the occasional 30% off Friends and Family discount days. I see the employees at my CVS so often that I brought them cookies for Christmas this year! I am always thankful when I walk in the door and someone I know is working the register because I know that she/he will be patient with my craziness.

Quarterly ECBs

Each quarter, you will get back 2% of what you actually spent (after coupons) and $1 for every 2 prescriptions filled in ECBs. Quarterly ECBs will print at the ExtraCare Coupon Center or can be printed through your EC online account on or after the first day of the month following the end of a quarter.

Additional Tips (Courtesy of Southern Savers)

  • Purchase a Green Bag Tag for $1 and use it (with your green bag) when shopping at CVS. For every 4 times you use it, you will get $1 in ECBs
  • Make sure you always give them a $$/off $$$ (like the $4 off $20) coupon first before manufacturer's coupons.
  • Always have a list of exactly what is free, sometimes it is very specific items and you want to make sure you are getting the right things. I always grab a flyer when I walk in the store so I can match up the ad with the products.
  • If you are using a $4 off $20 or type of coupon like that make sure you have a few backup plans to hit your $20 in case your CVS is out of something.
  • Take in a calculator to help you quickly add up your total to make sure you are going to have the right amount for ECB’s to cover it.
  • You need to always make sure that what you are buying is equal to your ECB’s or a little more (pennies). You can pay for $4 worth of items with $5 in ECB but you are losing money that way and don’t really want to do that. So find some filler items that you like, $1 disposable razors, a pack of gum, etc.

Where to Find the CVS Deals

You could spend a lot of time going through the CVS ads and using a coupon database to plan shopping trips, or you can just go to a website that already does the work for you! My favorite site for pharmacy shopping is Southern Savers. Once on the site, go to the right-hand side of the page and click CVS. Or, you can bypass the homepage and go right to the CVS posts by clicking here. Jenny (the site creator) also posted a Beginner's Guide Video and the CVS Official Coupon Policy. If you are new to couponing, definitely print out the policy and bring it with you in case there are any disputes when checking out.

I also recently starting using Living Rich With Coupons when shopping at pharmacies. Cindy sometimes posts different transaction scenarios that are more useful to me personally and you may just like her layout better.

Final Points
When you first start couponing at CVS it may seem like I'm being less of a Realistic Couponer and more of an Extreme Couponer. It will take more time at the beginning. If you're feeling overwhelmed just reading this blog post, start by purchasing only the things that are free with ECBs. Then, begin to pair those deals with manufacturer's and store coupons. After that, begin splitting your trips into separate transactions to spend less money out-of-pocket. I have been couponing long enough that my stockpile is built up and now I only purchase things that are money makers or things that are at their lowest prices that I frequently use.

And remember, although you may end up purchasing some things you may not need (you should always puchase something if it is a Money Maker to help offset the items that are not), you can always donate unwanted items to charity or even friends and family; in my experience, poor college students will take almost anything!

The Least You Need to Know
  • Shopping at CVS can save/make you money!
  • Sign up for an ExtraCare Card either in-store or online and use it EVERY time you shop at CVS.
  • Scan your EC Card at the "Magic Red Box" ExtraCare Coupon Center at least twice every time you enter a CVS.
  • Purchase a Green Bag Tag and use it and your Green Bag every time you shop to earn ECBs.
  • Start small and shop just the really good sale items, like those that are free with ECBs.
  • When you're ready, stack manufacturer's coupons with store coupons to save extra money.
  • Hold onto ECBs like they are cash! They cannot be reissued if lost.
  • Roll your ECBs by splitting your puchase into several transaction to lower your out-of-pocket expenses when making purchases.
  • Always buy an item if it is a Money Maker!
  • Use websites like Southern Savers or Living Rich With Coupons to find the best deals and to get ideas for different shopping scenarios.
  • E-mail me if you have any questions or if anything I wrote was unclear!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Use Coupons: Coupon Lingo

How to Use Coupons: Coupon Lingo

When using couponing sites, it is common to come across acronyms. Here is a list of common abbreviations, phrases, and terms you may see on a couponing site; it is courtesy of Southern Savers.

Types of Coupons

Buy 1, Get One Free
Proctor & Gamble Sunday Insert Coupons
Dollars off when you buy XX dollars
RP or V
Red Plum Sunday insert coupons
Fifty cents off one items
Smartsource Sunday insert coupons
Fifty cents off 3 items
Coupon that you peel off the package
Coupon dispensed at the register at the time of purchase (on separate paper)
Coupon dispensed near product, in the store (usually from a “blinking” red box)
Pad of refund forms or coupons found hanging from a store shelf or display
Found on the Internet but different because it is uploaded to a card
Internet Printable
Free After Rebate
Manufacturer or Manufacturer Coupon
Mail in Rebate

Store Specific Coupons

Extra Care Buck (CVS)
Instant Value Coupon (Walgreens store coupon, found in Walgreens Easy Saver Catalog and on in store tearpads)
Register Rewards (these are Catalinas that print out at Walgreens)
Rite Aid Plus Up Reward
Single Check Rebate (rebate system at Rite Aid)

Common Phrases

Coupon states Do Not Double, but the bar code starts with a 5, meaning most computers will automatically double it
Your Milage May Vary (you may find the item priced differently or it may not work for you the same)
Out of Pocket
No Expiration Date
Coupon value only distributed at a certain time
Universal Product Code a bar code on the product
When you buy
While supplies last
Self Addressed Stamped Envelope
Cash Register Tape (coupon that prints on receipt)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to Use Coupons: Grocery Stores

Now that you know where to get your coupons, it's time to use them. 

The key is to start small and set S.M.A.R.T. goals, or those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (thanks for indulging the teacher in me). It is unrealistic to say that you're going to begin your first shopping trip and do 8 transactions and spend only $20 out-of-pocket (OOP) and get $500 worth of groceries. But it is realistic to say "I'm going to save $10 at ShopRite this week using store sales and my coupons." Couponing trips don't always work out the way you hope they will and it is important to set yourself up for success or you'll quickly become discouraged and stop trying.

Couponing can consume a lot of your time if you let it. It is important to keep in perspective the value of your time. I've learned that while saving or making money is a wonderful thing, it isn't as wonderful as spending time with my husband and family and friends. If you think of couponing as a second (or third) job, you will be able to step away from it when necessary and put other things first.

As you get better at organizing and using coupons, preparing for a shopping trip will go faster. However, although I save more time now than when I started due to my familiarity with the layout of each store I go to, large shopping trips can take large amounts of time. Shopping is no longer a "Hey, I see cereal and I think we need cereal so let me just grab a few boxes and move on" sort of thing when you are couponing. Now it will be, "Okay, so this cereal is on sale this week and I have 3 coupons to use on the 18 oz boxes so let me look for those boxes and match them to my coupons before putting them in my cart so that I am sure I have the right ones" (P.S. - this type of monologue seriously goes on in my head while in the store).  Be prepared to spend more time in the store locating the right items than you usually would.

Know that you may not be getting all the deals possible but that saving anything is always better than saving nothing. To save money you can no longer just make a list of everything you need at the store and then go buy it. Odds are, most of the things on your list are not going to be on sale. From this point forward, you should shop based on the sales. Even if you don't use a single coupon, shopping the weekly sales will save you a great deal of money; the goal is to buy an item when it is at its "rock bottom" price. Most sales go in 6 week cycles. This means you only need to buy 6 weeks worth of a product when you shop. If you don't know how much of a product you will use in 6 weeks, date the product when you open it and then use it as you normally would. Now you can track how long it takes to use an item which will help you determine how much you need to buy for 6 weeks. Buying enough for 6 weeks at the rock bottom price will keep you from having to buy a product when it is not on sale. Jenny from Southern Savers has created two lists here and here that can help you figure out if you're getting a good deal with a sale. 

Many websites have already created shopping lists with every sale item from various stores. They then go the extra step (for the ambitious among us) and pair the items up with available coupons. When you are just beginning to coupon, it is unlikely that you will have all of the coupon match-ups. If you don't have the coupons or are short on time, stick with just the available printable coupons and you'll still save big.

The website I use for NJ area stores is Living Rich With Coupons. Go to "Find My Store" and select the store you want to shop at. (Even I, a seasoned couponer, only shop at one store. Some people prefer to shop around but I find that I am never really so desperate for an item that I cannot wait for it to go on sale at my preferred store.) Once you're at your store's weekly deals, you will see all the items on sale and the coupon match-ups. After you click the box to the left of an item, it will appear in the "My List" tab in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. When you go to print or e-mail it (send it to your Smart Phone if you want to be eco-friendly and save money on ink), all of the items selected will come up with the coupon match-ups.  If you see a green check mark on Living Rich, that means the item is likely at it's rock bottom price and if you use it, now is the time to get it. When you're just starting out it may be that you cannot get everything at its rock bottom price but getting as close to that as you can is a realistic goal. Another website I use is Southern Savers but the majority of stores are not located in the NJ area. I will write more on Southern Savers in my Pharmacy Shopping post.

Many coupon sites will tell you that you have to give up your brand loyalty if you want to save the most money. While I believe this is mostly true, I am still particular about certain things (such as Bounty Paper Towels and Puffs Tissues). I know I would save more if I bought Brawny Towels and Kleenex tissues but the savings are not so great that I feel compelled to give up the luxury of not have a red Rudolph nose during cold season. Instead, I remind myself that I am saving in so many areas and that I am buying the brands I like at the lowest prices possible; so, it is okay if what I buy costs a little more. You may not feel this way and would be willing to trade a favored brand for greater savings...that is totally up to you. Just remember that if you buy a brand of something that you then won't use because you don't like it as much, you're not saving anything at all. 

Another thing you should do when you have the time is to calculate the unit price of an item when you're at the store. If you have no coupons, this is easy to do because the unit price is often listed on the label that has the price. Contrary to popular belief, buying in bulk isn't always the most cost-effective thing to do. When you have coupons, be sure to calculate their worth into the unit price to determine which size of a product is really the best deal.

I also try to save my coupons under $1 for use at the grocery store. This is because at most grocery stores, coupons under $1 will double. So a $.30 coupon becomes worth $.60, a $.50 coupon is worth $1, and a $.75 coupon is worth $1.50, etc. Use the coupons under $1 at the places that will double (not at a pharmacy) to make them more effective.
Finally, I really stick to buying only groceries at the grocery store. Items that can be found at a pharmacy like CVS can usually be found for cheaper there, counterintuitive though it may seem. When I first started learning about couponing from my sister, it seemed crazy to me that items like toothpaste, medicine, and shampoo would be cheaper at a pharmacy when I always thought those items were over-priced at places like that. Well, I quickly learned I was wrong and will prove to you why I was wrong in my next post on How to Use Coupons: Pharmacy Shopping.


  • Be realistic with your goals and understand that it will take time before you see huge savings
  • Throw out your old methods of shopping. Don't shop for what you need, shop for what's on sale that you need. Weekly sales ads are your new best friends.
  • Stock up on at least 6 weeks worth of items when they are at their rock bottom prices. Examples of rock bottom prices for various products can be found here and here.
  • If you have a little extra time, use coupons matched-up to sale items to maximize your savings. 
  • Calculate the unit prices of items and take coupons into account to determine the best size to buy.
  • Use coupons under $1 at grocery stores that allow doubling.
  • Use websites that have already done all of the sales and coupon match-up work for you, such as Living Rich With Coupons or Southern Savers
  • Try to be flexible about brand names, but if that doesn't work, just try to get the brands you like at their lowest price. 
  • Buy only groceries at the grocery store. Save items like toiletries for the pharmacy. 
By following these tips you should begin to see big changes in your grocery budget. Remember to start small and not let yourself get overwhelmed! 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Where to Find Coupons

Getting and organizing coupons are the two most, in my opinion, time-consuming tasks when it comes to couponing. But if you set it up well from the start, you will save time later. 

The two main sources of coupons are in the Sunday newspapers (known as "inserts") and printable coupons. There are a few other ways to get coupons, which I will outline below.

Coupon Inserts
There are 4 types of inserts that may come in your newspaper. Red Plum and Smart Source inserts come almost every week (except on holidays). P&G inserts come only once per month and General Mills inserts are sporadic. A tentative schedule for 2012 inserts has been put out, but things may change as it gets closer to the new year. 

Spending a lot of money on newspapers will obviously lower the amount of money saved/earned through couponing. I usually want to have 3-4 copies of each weekly insert to ensure that I will have enough for a larger couponing deal. If this is your first time buying the Sunday papers, your first purchase should consist of a variety of newspapers. In my area, the Star Ledger has the best Smart Source coupons but does not carry Red Plum. I can get Red Plum inserts in the Courier but some Smart Source coupons are missing. Therefore, I find myself buying 6-8 newspapers most weeks to ensure that I have the most complete collection of coupons. 

You can find out what coupons are supposed to be in each paper here. Once you've compared a few weeks worth of inserts to the lists linked above, you will have a better idea of which papers you should be buying. If there is a particular coupon worth $1 or more that I know I will use, I sometimes buy additional papers. When I know I'll be getting at least the amount of money I paid for the newspaper back, it makes it worth it to get extra so I have additional coupons I can use. 

Look at your local dollar store to see if you can get papers there for cheaper than home delivery or at a food store. At my Dollar Tree the Star Ledger (usually $2) is $1 and the Courier (usually $1.25) is $1. When I purchase the papers at the Dollar Tree, I save $4-$7/week. The only drawback to purchasing your papers at the dollar store is that most only get a limited number of papers, maybe 50 of each, so you may have to try to get there when the store opens; if I get there after it's been open for more than an hour I usually cannot get as many as I'd like. 

If making it out of your house on a Sunday morning is an impossible task, there are other places where you can "buy" your coupon inserts. I use quotation marks because it is technically illegal to sell or buy coupons. People/companies get around this technicality by saying that you are paying for their time to clip and organize the coupons. 

You can buy whole coupon inserts several places but the main one that I use is Whole Coupon Inserts. They are fast to ship and you can buy single inserts or combo packs. 

The two sites I use if I want to buy a specific coupon that I may not have gotten in my inserts are Coupons and Things by Dede and Ebay is better for getting the higher value coupons at a lower price. I recommend using the "Buy it Now" feature when possible so that you don't have to wait for auctions to end, especially if you want to use your coupon that week. 

I keep my inserts whole when organizing them. I place one week's worth of inserts into a plastic sheet protector. Then, each week is placed in my portable filing box (similar to this one) in which I have file folders for each month. Some coupons expire in a week, some in 1-3 months, some don't expire for 6 months to year. When I have a chunk of time I will go through my inserts that are more than three months old and recycle any coupons that are expired. You can also send expired coupons to military families who may use them for up to 6 months after they have expired. For more info on helping out military families, visit

Printable Coupons
Printable coupons are very easy to find and use these days. Before you start printing, create an email account for coupons and deals. Many websites require you to register before you can print and you don't want to clog up your personal inbox with company newsletters.

While there are many sites that offer printables, it would be incredibly difficult to scour each for the coupon you want. If you are looking for a coupon on a specific product, use a Coupon Database. Many couponing sites have this tool so here are the links to a few:, and They all have slightly different layouts so which you use is really just a matter of preference. Not only do these databases link you to printable coupons, they also show you when a coupon for that product is available in one of the newspaper inserts; no more flipping through inserts to find that coupon you are sure you remembered seeing at some point!

There are a couple of drawbacks to using printable coupons. First of all, you can usually only print a coupon twice per computer and it isn't always easy to get it to do even that. Once you click "print coupon" and the it does, most sites will either direct you to their homepage or provide you with a print summary. You must hit back on your browser, sometimes several times, and possibly hit refresh to get it to print another coupon. After the second time, it will often tell you that you have printed the allotted number of times (*Note: sometimes this message will come up even if you have never printed the coupon before; this happens if the company providing the coupon has reached the coupon limit). But, you can use more than one computer to get extra coupons, even if you have only 1 printer. Most coupons do reset monthly, which means you may be able to print them again at a later date.

You may have to download a coupon printer application or Java, but, you usually only have to do that the first time you try to print a coupon on your computer. One other issue with printable coupons that I have trouble with is organizing them. Occasionally there will be coupons labeled "Hot" that you will find posted if you are on other couponer's sites. Those are coupons you should print right away if you use that product or if they are matched with an upcoming deal because they are likely to run out fast. I organize those types of coupons (ones I won't be using in the immediate future) in a mini accordian file holder like this, although I got mine from the dollar store. I also put coupons that I cut out but couldn't use or for products I frequently use in mine so that I don't lose them or so I have them handy if I see a good deal. Others use something that looks like it holds baseball cards such as this. Again, it is a matter of preference as to which you should use. I like the one I have because I can throw it in my purse and it doesn't take up too much space but maybe you would prefer to see each of your coupons with a quick glance.

Other Sources of Coupons

  1. All You magazine often has up to $100 worth of coupons in it every month (in addition to having great tips on how to save money). Right now, is offering a promotion where you can get a subscription for $1.25/month and get a $25 gift card in return but this offer is good only until tomorrow, December 13th. Check out for more info.
  2. Vocal Point is a website for a community of mothers. They send out emails with tips on saving and recipes and will occasionally mail coupons to your house. 
  3. P&G Everyday Solutions provides you with samples and mailers with coupons which you can request every 60 days or so.  
  4. Cellfire gives you the opportunity to load coupons onto your store loyalty cards (i.e. your Shoprite card) and the amount automatically gets deducted from your bill at checkout if you buy a participating product.
  5. SavingStar eCoupons allow you to attach your store loyalty cards to your account and then load coupons onto it. Instead of the amount of the coupon getting deducted from your bill, it is deposited into an account. Once your account reaches $5 you can get your payout in the form of a bank deposit, PayPal deposit, or Amazon gift card. You can use a SavingStar eCoupon with a manufacturer coupon to double up on savings. 
  6. Upromise eCoupons work very similarly to SavingStar but the money goes into a Upromise account and then can be paid out in a variety of ways (see my second post for more info on Upromise). Again, you can use a Upromise eCoupon with a manufacturer coupon to double up on savings.
I'm sure after reading all this you may feel like I'm not being so realistic. I know it seems overwhelming but I wanted to provide you with as much information as possible in case you want to take advantage of all of the savings possibilities. In my next post, How to Use Your Coupons, I will try to help you prioritize your time to maximize your savings.