Going for the CVS Jackpot

Have you ever played the CVS/pharmacy game? The one where you go in and get $30 or $40 worth of toothpaste and diapers for free? Bloggers write about this all the time. They do show and tell, posting pictures of all the stuff they got for free. They even get some press, like Chrissy Thompson in Atlanta, who got $140 worth of CVS/pharmacy stuff for under $10. The NBC station there did a story on her in May and the reporter told me it was one of the most popular segments of the year.

Erin Gifford, an Ashburn resident, also did this recently on a smaller scale. She proudly displayed the $30 worth of loot she picked up at CVS/pharmacy for nothing in a blog post titled, "I hit the CVS Jackpot Today!" She paid nothing for stuff like children's medicine, toothpaste and soap using a system of coupons and certain rewards she received through CVS/pharmacy's ExtraCare card.

"There are people who are very strategic about it and really map out all their purchases before they go," she says.

Gifford says she got into the CVS/pharmacy game and became a coupon user only recently. Now she admits she buys almost everything she can at CVS/pharmacy, including cereal, using coupons and the savings card. The other day she got two bottles of name-brand shampoo for free, using coupons. Sometimes she actually is in need of the item she purchases, or she buys it because she'll eventually use it, or she buys it because the offer is too good to pass up and she ends up giving it to charity.

The ExtraCare program is the largest consumer rewards program in the country with more than 50 million cardholders, according to a CVS/pharmacy liaison. And these same cardholders received a combined total of more than $1.5 billion in money-saving offers and rewards last year. Washington ranks No. 4 among the top five communities where shoppers saved the highest amount of money through the ExtraCare program. During the last six months of 2007, Washingtonians saved more than $2.3 million using that little red card. But did CVS/pharmacy intend for people to get stuff for free?

"When CVS/pharmacy launched the ExtraCare Rewards program, we intentionally created a unique system that would be both easy for shoppers to use and beneficial enough that they would get excited about it," says John Barron, director of relationship marketing of CVS/pharmacy.

And what about the blog chatter about getting free stuff?

"We're glad that CVS/pharmacy customers share tips and stories with one another about how using Extra Bucks has made a big impact on their lives and budgets," Barron says.

Gifford says CVS/pharmacy is far and away known as the place to shop, especially in the community of blogging moms who write about deals and coupons. Yes, they do it to save money but there's also the thrill of the hunt to master those pennyless shopping trips.

So you want in? Here how it works:

If you don't have one of those red ExtraCare cards from CVS/pharmacy, get one online or in stores. Hand it to the cashier every single time you make a purchase at CVS/pharmacy, even if it's just for a pack of gum. Why? Because every time you do, you collect Extra Bucks, which is money that can be used for future CVS/pharmacy purchases. With every purchase, you earn 2 percent of that purchase amount in Extra Bucks and $1 for every prescription filled. Four times a year -- January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 - the store will give you all the Extra Bucks you collected in the last three months and let you use them toward purchases in the store.

Another way to build up Extra Bucks is through a program CVS/pharmacy introduced in April 2007 where they'll advertise certain items that, when purchased, will earn you even higher amounts of Extra Bucks instantaneously. Those bucks will be printed out on your receipt and you bring that receipt with you on your next CVS/pharmacy shopping trip and use it like a coupon toward your purchase. Just make sure you're buying slightly more than your Extra Bucks because CVS/pharmacy doesn't give you change if you don't use the full amount.

Another way savvy CVS/pharmacy shoppers save is taking advantage of the store's coupons and weekly sales. The store will print out coupons on their receipts and they've also recently installed kiosks in 4,000 stores (266 in Washington, Maryland and Virginia) that will print out coupons on the spot. Gifford has been able to get free items through a buy-one, get-one-free promotion. She uses a buy-one, get-one-free coupon on top of that and ends up paying nothing.

So do you play the CVS/pharmacy game? What's your strategy for getting free stuff there? What other stores have free stuff or good coupons? Who's got the best savings club cards? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  August 21, 2008; 3:00 AM ET General Interest , Grocery Deals
Previous: Tuesday Tips: Organizing Your Closets | Next: Tuesday Tips: Hiring a Photographer


Please email us to report offensive comments.

When stores like Superfresh(and this week Shoppers) have triple coupons, you can get things for free. Superfresh had Colgate total at $1.48 and I had 4 $.50 coupons- so tripled- I got 4 tubes of Colgate total for free.

Posted by: Andrea | August 21, 2008 9:09 AM

I worked at CVS for three years, and I saw this happen all the time. A lot of the CVS coupons, and even some manufacturer's coupons, will say something along the lines of "May not be combine with any other special promotion." It really depends on what cashier you get, and if the manager is at the front of the store, to get the types of ridiculous savings you see in these blogs. I had numerous occasions where customers would purchase over $20 worth of items and after ringing them up, the screen would indicate a negative total. Of course, we didn't give them money, but they did get everything for free. One reason why the ExtraCare program is so effective, at least from what I've seen, is because people come in to buy the one thing on their coupon, but end up spending so much more than they came for. I cannot tell you how many people, upon hearing their total, told me "That much? Wow and I only came in for that one thing."

Posted by: Pat | August 21, 2008 9:57 AM

In marketing, the CVS ExtraCare is classified as being a form of customer loyalty program and it seems to be working, as demonstrated by the one user in the article who says that she shops for everything, even breakfast cereal, at CVS. I worked for CVS too, about 10 years ago, while going to college.

Posted by: Writer_33 | August 21, 2008 11:13 AM

A&P's SuperFresh is a great place to save. The Colgate example is just one of many ways to get an item free or at very minimal cost, especially during triples week.

Regarding CVS, the one drawback to their program is when you receive coupons generated from your Extra Bucks card, you can't apply them to the current purchase.

So you got to be smart. Restrict yourself to buying only buy certain things, and wait for the Extra Bucks to generate your coupons. Then go back into the store and buy the other products to reap the savings.

CVS wants you NOT to do that, and instead take the coupon home, where there is a good chance of misplacing and losing it.

Posted by: pittbull | August 21, 2008 11:14 AM

I personally HATE these kinds of promotions. Probably because I don't put enough work into them, but find that they frequently have another brand on sale for less than the coupon, hold the coupon for too long and its expired. I am sure these loyalty programs work, but they drive me away from the store, not to it.

Posted by: miked | August 21, 2008 11:20 AM

These may appear to be great deals, but how much are these shoppers spending in order to get a few percent on subsequent purchases? My wallet is thick with these "loyalty" cards that the merchants force us to carry in order to get sale prices. What happened to just putting an item on sale with no preconditions?

Posted by: Sam | August 21, 2008 11:54 AM

I would prefer CVS reflect my savings in the red card as oppose to saving scraps of receipts.

Posted by: MDIsac | August 21, 2008 11:55 AM

I stop by CVS regularly as the store is on my walk home from the Metro. If I pick up some milk or cereal or a candy bar...anything really, I always present my red card and pocket my coupons. In the past couple of months I have collected my $5 of $25 coupons and use several at once to redeem luxuries for myself that I would otherwise make do without. Expensive moisturizer and nail varnish in every color to name just a few! I love my CVS card.

Posted by: Juanita | August 21, 2008 12:00 PM

Of course, these cards allow CVS to track your purchases and tie them directly to your name, address, and other info you have give CVS when you get the card. What does CVS do with all that data?

Posted by: David | August 21, 2008 12:19 PM

I want to know how you stack a "buy one, get one free" on top of a "buy one, get one free" and pay nothing. Where's the one she had to buy?

Posted by: Jayne | August 21, 2008 12:26 PM

Is the Post now doing columns promoting individual merchants? How much are they being paid to do this?

Every since they turned into a supermarket tabloid with the Edwards affair series, the bizarre Chandra Levy "retrospective", Bigfoot, etcetra, it seems like Washington has no respectable newspaper anymore.

Posted by: Mark | August 21, 2008 12:28 PM

To really maximize your savings: buy items that are already on sale at CVS and be sure to use your Extra Care card to accumulate quarterly points. If possible, also use a manufacturer's coupon. CVS frequently has coupons for a $5.00 discount on a $25.00 purchase, so try to work that in (no one at CVS has ever told me that I can't combine coupons). Finally, be sure to charge the transaction to one of your credit cards that racks up points (but always pay off your monthly statement to avoid interest charges).

Posted by: Michael | August 21, 2008 12:31 PM

So you got to be smart. Restrict yourself to buying only buy certain things, and wait for the Extra Bucks to generate your coupons. Then go back into the store and buy the other products to reap the savings.

Posted by: pittbull

Actually, I just split my purchases into seperate orders, and use the Extra Bucks coupons that print out on the rest of the items I want to buy. I save TONS of money this way and don't have to worry about coming back to the store. I actually plot out what to buy first, then second and so on to maximize my savings!

Posted by: CA_Expat | August 21, 2008 12:32 PM

The only downside I have found to CVS is that if you don't get there the day of the sale, a lot of items are frequently out of stock.

Posted by: jEN8 | August 21, 2008 12:38 PM

Sometimes I just have to chuckle at how the CVS ExtraCare computer has me listed as "Mr.," even though I'm quite obviously female.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | August 21, 2008 12:43 PM

So how much did CVS pay the Washington Post to run this ad for their Extra Care card? How many of these comments are from CVS marketers? How about some real journalism?

Posted by: jkkogler | August 21, 2008 1:12 PM

Same thing happened to me! I have written and called for years. I'm still Mr.

Posted by: To: Greenbelt Gal | August 21, 2008 1:20 PM

I'm reminded of Jurassic Park... Some folks are so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.

Is it really 'saving' money if you go to CVS and spend more on cereal than you would at the grocery store, just so you can get discounts on bottles of shampoo you won't even use?

A frugal life is one lived free of stuff you don't need, and I've only ever seen Extra Care coupons for stuff I don't need.

Posted by: CC | August 21, 2008 1:25 PM

Funny you should ask Sam. I'm working on a post for next month on the true drawbacks and benefits of store loyalty cards. I can barely close my wallet with all the ones I've collected over the years. Some are better than others. Anyone who has thoughts on this topic can e-mail me at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com.

Posted by: Tania Anderson - Shop To It | August 21, 2008 1:26 PM

This is flipping sad. Is the Post really shilling this dreck....advice on coupons for CVS? I've seen some laughable things come from this very serious newspaper before - enough to keep me reading - but nothing quite as pointless and profoundly hollow.

It looks as though in its search for a bang with less buck, The Post has truly bought what it has paid for.

Posted by: Newsie | August 21, 2008 1:31 PM

To those of you that trash talk, why don't you go to the USA Today site. You'll find much more in common with their so called commenters. . .

I use the CVS card every time I shop at CVS but after about 4-5 years of doing so, I now shop more at Walgreen's - I find their prices better. That said, I do like the extra bucks 4 times a year.

Posted by: WI | August 21, 2008 1:34 PM

I worked for Peoples Drug then CVS for over a decade. To David, asking about the data, it is used to target the coupons for you. For example, if they see you buy glucose strips, many "diabetic friendly" coupons will appear. I generally buy floss, toothpaste, brushes, etc. so I get a lot of dental related coupons. I have not bought off their website in years, but they use to target specific sales for you online as well.

Posted by: lamaccountant | August 21, 2008 1:44 PM

To really get stuff "free", you have to worko at it. Some people have several cards and they have multiple sets of coupon inserts from their local papers. They organize it down to their trip and which CVS they will hit to get whatever ECB deal is in stock.

I never really had time for all of that, but I have stockpiled quite a few things getting the ECB deals with one card, and using extra coupons that I had.

It's been harder to get "moneymakers" lately since CVS hasn't really offered many $2/$10, $3/15, $4/20, etc coupons. Those coupons are really what help you lower your out of pocket.

Posted by: CVSFan | August 21, 2008 2:02 PM

I definitely use my CVS card everytime I shop there but I'm not a "strategic" shopper per se. I do enjoy the benefits of getting coupons and extra bucks. I remember getting a Scrubbing Bubble Automatic Shower Starter set for $3 (original price $20) because I had a manufacturer's coupon and some Extra Bucks. That was awesome.

Posted by: LessThanTwoHoursToGo | August 21, 2008 2:06 PM

The only downside I have found to CVS is that if you don't get there the day of the sale, a lot of items are frequently out of stock.

Posted by: jEN8 | August 21, 2008 12:38 PM

no, the only downside is CVS. Period. Awful stores.

Posted by: ugh | August 21, 2008 2:32 PM

To those who are skeptical, yes, you can really save money by using CVS's loyalty program. I have a 9-month old son, and thanks to coupons and CVS I have not yet paid more than $1.00 for a single pack of diapers (pampers and huggies, not store brand), and there are about 3 dozen packs of diapers stocked up in his closet. I will never buy them unless I can get them for free or close to free and get back more 'CVS extrabucks' on them. And I do not actually *spend* much money to get them, either. My card shows a year-to-date savings of over $2000, and a summer spending of less than $20. This is purely from utilizing coupons, regular store sales, and their extrabucks promotions. Normally, I spend so little in real cash that I do not even qualify for the quarterly extrabucks (they only give back 2% of your cash/out of pocket spending, and you don't get anything if you don't spend more than $25 in that quarter). You just have to hold onto your coupons and save them for a good deal. There are many times when they have a 'free after extrabucks' promotion for something that you can already get for free w/ a manufacturer's coupon, meaning you spend nothing on the item (just sales tax in some states) and then receive an 'extrabucks' coupon back for that amount, for almost nothing. Then you use that on other items that you can actually use (diapers, bath/body products, etc).

Also, to the person who's worried about what CVS is doing w/ you information, you don't even have to give them that information to get a card. Ask for a new card in the store and take the application w/ you. You can either fill it out as you please to bring back later, go online and register it that way w/ only the information that you wish to share, or just not register it at all. Problem solved.

Posted by: cvs-shopper | August 21, 2008 2:52 PM

I'm still waiting for someone to explain how you use 2 "buy 1, get 1 free" coupons and get 2 items for free.

Posted by: Lili | August 21, 2008 3:03 PM

okay..... right, so in order to give things away for "free" to their loyal customers, doesn't that mean that their have to increase their markup across the board, and pass on the higher costs to non-cardholders? This practice just nauseates me because, while I'm thrilled that there's a good segment of supersavers out there, this means instead off holding all of their prices down and passing along quality and cost savings to *everyone,* once again, you have to cough up your privacy to receive a discount at the expense of people who value the privacy. Assume even that their really is no markup - how does CVS make that business model work? By selling off all of your information. Again, good for you if you like it, but the notion gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Posted by: Pete | August 21, 2008 3:16 PM

1. Sign-up online for a CVS ExtraCare card and in the welcoming email they send you a $4 off coupon for a purchase of $20 or more.

2. Check on-line for manufacturer coupons for items at CVS that offer instant Extra Bucks.

3. Use welcome and manufacturer coupons to purchase to most expensive of the instant Extra Bucks items you wish to get, up to a total of $20.

4. Then use those instant extra bucks to purchase then next most expensive items that over instant Extra Bucks, and so forth.

I often manage to purchase $40 worth of items for about $10-12.

Also, CVS often runs promotions offering $25 gift cards when you transfer a new prescription to their pharmacy.

Posted by: Ka Ching | August 21, 2008 3:32 PM

Furthermore, they used to (maybe still do, I don't know) have a pharmacy deal where the first time you filled a new prescription (not a renewal on a drug you previously got there), you got the first one FREE.

Using the CVS pharmacy is great because, wherever you travel in the US that they have a CVS you can get your refills rather easily without having to phone in some "vacation request" to your drug insurance program or going through some rigamarole to transfer a prescription.

But I think the Extra Bucks only really pay off when you use them toward something you really need or otherwise would have to purchase down the road. I'm just as happy with the $4 off $20 purchase as a kind of "sale" promotion on any particular item I want.

And the CVS trend towards more generic CVS-brand products means you can save even more on the $4 off $20. They are being very smart to put the CVS brand prominently right on the shelf next to the name brand, and in many cases, even to use a similarly shaped and size container to suggest to you that their brand is not "just as good" but practically exactly the same - for dollars less.

Posted by: Jean | August 21, 2008 4:18 PM

Pete it appears you are not aware of the way coupons work. Those that are marked Manufacturer's coupons are reimbursed to CVS by the manufacturer. Those marked store coupons are marketing costs for CVS. IF you look at the coupons in the CVS flyer, you might find both types of coupons. Extracare bucks are marketing. There is more to the store coupon than totally marketing expense. Say there is a $1 store coupon for shampoo. The manufacturer may end up selling each bottle of shampoo at 25 cents less than normal price. So even a $1 deduction may not be a $1 in lost profit for CVS.

And if anyone asks, I know because I was an assistant manager for CVS and an accountant now. I read the store financials and knew what was helping or hurting us.

Posted by: lamaccountant | August 21, 2008 5:06 PM

I too, am listed as "Mr." I repeatedly try to change this online, but it doesn't work. I also have written and complained, but no one seems to care. I hate getting free samples of men's products in the mail, when I could be getting things I actually might use!

Posted by: Mister Sister | August 21, 2008 5:56 PM

Drugstore.com has a similar program. 5% back on everything, redeemable once every quarter.

Posted by: rrgg | August 21, 2008 6:06 PM

For a full explanation of how you can take full advantage of the "buy one get one free" promotions see:

I have been going weekly to CVS for about six months now. I always do multiple transactions and use coupons and ECBs to keep my out-pocket expense as low as possible. I regularly spend less than $5 for $100 worth of products. Yes, their cereal and other items might have a shelf price that is higher than at other stores, but if I can use coupons and ECBs and then get ECBs back my net cost for those items is far, far cheaper than at other stores.

I discuss my CVS shopping strategies as well as other local store deals in my blog (www.momandpopoften.blogspot.com). Today at Shoppers during their triple coupon promotion I purchased $406.69 in groceries for only $118.65 (I only used 7 coupons for free items)! Not as great as the savings at Harris Teeters during their triple coupon promotion but I'm pleased anyway. Come visit me!

Posted by: momto8kiddos | August 21, 2008 6:38 PM

I always say no when the cashier asks me if I have my card. I hate those foot-long receipts I get back. I would prefer not to save $5 on my next purchase of $10's worth of CVS brand items.

Posted by: JK | August 21, 2008 7:11 PM

I havea actually had a problem with my CVS card. In the 4th Q of 2007, I had purchased several gift cards at CVS and not one cent of it was applied to my ExtraBucks. Then, I purchased a buy one get one free phone card and the amount of the "free" phone card was deducted from the amount that I had been accummulating from other purchases. I called CVS customer service and they couldn't explain it to me. So I do not trust their system completely, although I have benefitted from time to time from Extra Bucks and purchasing with coupons. Has anyone else noticed this?

Posted by: Jaye | August 21, 2008 7:46 PM

I will never get one of those cards. CVS has the worst customer service ever. I was shocked when they rolled out the ExtraCare card because (a) they didn't care to begin with, (b) now I suddenly could not get any sale prices because I won't add another stinkin' card to my wallet. I hate the card programs. It tells me the stores don't appreciate all their customers (ie, not offering the sale price to non-card-holders). So now, I get the same sale price they used to offer me JUST for being a customer, but now I have to give them all my data and use the card. They get much more out of it than we do. They want me to have the annoyance of using a stupid card, and meanwhile they get all that valuable marketing data! They should offer the same prices to all customers, card or not. I know sometimes they will give me the sale price if I ask, but it is the whole concept that I hate. And again, with CVS having terrible service, I could not believe they had the gall to introduce the Extra Care card. As if I got any care to begin with!

Posted by: Kathleen | August 21, 2008 8:10 PM

For those of you who want to get savings but are concerned with giving away personal data or carrying too many cards around- there is a universal store code that can be used to get customers sale prices. The downside is that you won't get any coupons out of it if that's what you're interested in, but you still get the sale prices and discounts. When the cashier asks for your card, just ask them if they can use the store card. I used to work at CVS. All the cashier has to do is type in 912888888888 into a field and you will get the savings. Cashiers actually get tracked on many different statistics, including card scan rate %, so I always used to just scan in the store card for people that didn't have one without asking. Also, if you don't feel like carrying the card around, you can enter your phone number and have the purchase attached to your ExtraCare account.

Posted by: Pat | August 22, 2008 10:30 AM

I applaud anyone who gets a deep discount or free merchandise from CVS because they are terribly over-priced.

Posted by: luvmynaturalself | August 22, 2008 10:51 AM

Jaye, I can't speak for all the issues you are having, but purchasing gift cards do not count toward ECB's. It is rare to find any reward-based system to give you rewards based on a gift certificate/card purchase. Reason is that they want you to buy "stuff", not a promise to buy "stuff" before they hand out rewards. Think about it in this fashion. You buy a voucher for $100 off a flight. Aside from using a FF reward credit card, you don't earn FF miles. When you use the voucher, whoever is flying can get the FF miles. Same with CVS. When whoever uses the gift card, if they scan their Extracare card, they get the ECB credit.

Posted by: lamaccountant | August 22, 2008 10:55 AM

The CVS ExtraCare program used to offer great savings. I would stop by CVS everyday, but it has become abysmal in recent months. The monthly book and the weekly books used to contain a ton of free after ECB items and CVS used to offer dollars off your entire purchase coupons on their website on top of that. Now those dollars off coupons have dried up for the most part and in August there was only 1 free ECB item in the monthly book. Between the bad attitudes of the CVS cashiers, the lack of in-stock sale merchandise, and the dwindling number of items that are on deep discount, it hasn't been worth the gas it takes to go to CVS.

In the last few weeks, I have been doing a lot more Rite Aid shopping. Why bother with CVS's ECBs when Rite Aid will give me cash? Superfresh & Shopper's Food Warehouse have had awesome coupon deals in the past couple weeks. Shoppers is doubling up to 1, and tripling up to .50, and Superfresh is tripling up to .99. As a long time CVS shopper, when CVS started treating me like they didn't want my business, I got the message and moved on.

Finally, if you shop at CVS without couponing and using ECBs you are being gouged. CVS is WAY overpriced and they build the ECBs into the price.

Posted by: tina | August 22, 2008 11:49 AM

The buy 1 get 1 free promtion is - the store advertises a B1G1 free item, so you buy 2, get 1 free. You have a B1G1 free coupon for the same item. The store is giving you one free and the coupon makes the other item free - 2 items free. This is happening at Rite Aid this week with the Loreal Pro vive B1G1 coupon, and the St Ives Elements B1G1 coupon.

Posted by: tina | August 22, 2008 11:55 AM

Mark, Skkloger + Hewie, stop being such "sourpusses", a lot of us enjoy this info., if YOU don't, then don't read it, unless you must be getting something out of it.

Posted by: Mande3 | August 22, 2008 3:13 PM

Wow, an advertisement dressed up as a news article. LAME!

Posted by: please | August 23, 2008 9:37 PM

I have utilized "the grocery game" website to strategize to the point that that is all I am doing to save! For more practical tips on how to save on groceries ANYTIME without taking up all your time go to www.savemoneytoday.net.

There are even recipes for making your own laundry soap which I have done for years because I like it better than store bought and it is easy.

Posted by: Shara | August 25, 2008 5:36 PM

I understand the need to save money in this economy, but some folks really need to get a life. I mean, really, STRATEGIZING your CVS visit(s)?!

I refuse to get one of their cards for the same reasons others have mentioned - the principle of the thing - prices being raised just to be lowered for cardholders - and the personal info. The other day I happened to go in for a newspaper and they had summer items half-price - but only with the card. So I let the cashier give me an application, got a lounge chair for 7.50, and threw the application away. Duh!

Posted by: just me | August 26, 2008 3:19 PM

The extracare card loyalty program is a FRAUD. The card is colored red because there is so much red tape involved with buying goods from a store and leaving.

Do you have your extracare card?

What is your number?
it doesn't work.

Thank you! Here is your 8-foot long receipt!!!

CVS prices are jacked up so high that you don't end up saving anything in the first place. The whole thing is a wash. All they want is a brainless consumer who wastes all his/her time at the store listening to safe, crappy, music like Phil Collins, and basing his life around buying crap he doesn't need. There is much more to life than consuming!

The definition of saving is NOT SPENDING, so how can you save money by buying more? even with your monopoly money extrabucks?

You are under the assumption that you saved but you (will) have spent a far greater amount than you think.

A CVS Employee

Posted by: Fraudulin Smando | October 6, 2008 3:25 PM

I get approx $100 free at CVS every week. No out of pocket. I share with family and give the rest to charity!!
Thank you CVS

Posted by: Frugal | October 9, 2008 2:30 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company