Five Simple Steps to Free Stuff at Drugstores

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“I have not bought toothpaste since 2008.”

In a Chicago Tribune story, Frugalista mom Carrie Kirby—whose has been brushing her teeth with free toothpaste for a couple of years now—explains how to play what she calls the “drugstore game” in five steps. Tons of people take the first few steps, including just joining the loyalty programs offered by CVS, Walgreens, and other retailers. But some participants are way better than others in maximizing the perks and freebies while playing the game.

Knowing the ins and outs of how the loyalty programs work helps, as does knowing some of the lingo: CVS’s Extra Care Bucks are called ECBs, and Walgreen’s Register Rewards are known as RRs for short. These rewards sometimes don’t print out properly, and an obvious but oft-overlooked step consumers must take is double checking that the clerk rings purchases up correctly.

The final step Kirby lays out is the most essential—and the one that truly sets great drugstore game players apart from the mediocre masses:

Use the reward you earned to buy items that also pay rewards. If you earn $4 in Register Rewards this week and bring them back next week to spend them on an item that costs $4 and pays $4 Register Rewards, you’ll pay nothing out of pocket but the tax. This is what we mean when we say we are getting stuff for free!

Incorporating coupons from Sunday circulars increases your chances for freebies:

For instance, drugstores frequently advertise toothpaste at $2.99, with a $2 ECB or RR rebate. This means that your price after rewards would be 99 cents. Sunday newspapers often have $1 off coupons for the same brand of toothpaste. If you use that coupon, you pay only $1.99 (plus tax) for your toothpaste and get $2 in rewards back. Free toothpaste!

One of the masters of the coupon-rewards program game (at supermarkets and drugstores) is Jeffrey Strain, who has used these systems to accomplish such feats as feeding six people on Thanksgiving for $1 and living for 100 days on a total $100 food budget. Strain blogs about his experiments and offers expert couponing tips at Grocery Coupon Guide.