This is a guest post from Cathy, who writes about family finances, cooking, and parenting at Chief Family Officer.

I love the philosophy of getting rich slowly by doing the fundamentals: spend less than you earn, pay off debt, and invest wisely. One way that I save money is with what I call The Drugstore Game.

The Drugstore Game involves combining manufacturer and store coupons, and taking advantage of a store’s best deals. When played at the highest level, the Drugstore Game requires only a couple of dollars out of pocket each week to keep you and your family stocked on necessities like toiletries, paper goods and even groceries.

Real-life examples
I recently bought an 8-pack of Bounty Basic paper towels, a Venus Embrace razor, and a tube of Aquafresh Extreme Clean toothpaste for $1.81 out of pocket at CVS. If I’d bought the same items at Target (where I used to shop), I would have paid at least $13, even after manufacturer coupons. That doesn’t take into account the $7.99 CVS store coupon I received that I can use on a future purchase.

At Walgreens recently, I bought ten tubes of Crest ProHealth toothpaste, three bottles of Cascade dishwashing gel, a box of two Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, two boxes of 3-oz. Dixie paper cups, two 20-ft boxes of aluminum foil, a small bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid, a Venus Embrace razor, a tube of Blistex, an Oral B Cross Action toothbrush, four cans of Spaghetti O’s, three cans of Campbells condensed soup, one can of tomato paste, and one box of cereal. I paid only $16.54 for all of these items.

Interested in savings like these? Then read on…

Playing the game
To play the Drugstore Game well, you’ll need the following fundamentals:

  1. Have an understanding of how store coupons and manufacturer coupons work together. Most people are familiar with coupons that come with the Sunday newspaper. These are generally manufacturer coupons that can be used at any store that takes coupons. Manufacturer coupons can usually be combined with a store coupon. A store coupon is one put out by the store. For example, if you have a $1 off Pampers manufacturer coupon and a $1 off Pampers CVS coupon, you can use both coupons at CVS to get $2 off a package of diapers.
  2. Have an understanding of the various store rewards programs. My personal favorite drugstore is CVS, which has the ExtraCareBucks (ECBs) program. ECBs are coupons that print at the end of a receipt after qualifying purchases. The coupons can then be used like cash on a future purchase. Each week, CVS sells items that are “free after ECBs,” meaning that if a toothbrush is on sale for $2.99, you’ll get a $2.99 ECB coupon at the end of your receipt. Walgreens has a somewhat similar program called Register Rewards, as well as the monthly Easy Saver rebate program. Riteaid has the Single Check Rebate program. For a summary of the CVS and Walgreens programs, check out the “Beginners Start Here” section at Money Saving Mom (over in the sidebar). Be Thrifty Like Us has a primer on the Drugstore Game that includes Riteaid.
  3. Have an understanding of how coupons and rewards programs work together to save you money. This is the tricky part, but it is absolutely worth mastering. In the toothbrush example above, a Drugstore Game pro would never pay the full $2.99. Instead, she would probably have a $1.50 off manufacturer coupon. So she’ll pay $1.49 and receive $2.99 that she can use to buy more items. A typical scenario is the one I described in the introduction, where I paid only $1.81 out of pocket. I used a $7.98 ECB coupon to make the purchase, and received $7.99 in ECBs on my receipt. This process is called “rolling over,” and it is what allows Drugstore Game pros to spend less than $2 out of pocket each week while never running out of necessities.
  4. Have good sources of information. You could sit at home poring over the weekly and monthly drugstore circulars, or you could simply sit down at your computer and visit the sites that do all the math for you. If you visit only one site for your Drugstore Game playbook, it should be Money Saving Mom, which lists all of the weekly and monthly drugstore deals, puts together sample scenarios for free or “money-making” deals, and has a robust community that supplies updates. There are many other sites that provide different scenarios, and I’ve found it helpful to read them and find scenarios that best match what my own needs (and coupons) are. These sites also link to available printable coupons in case you don’t have one from the newspaper. You can find a list of my favorite deal sources at CFO Reviews.
  5. Have an understanding and acceptance of the necessity of buying non-necessities in order to maximize store rewards coupons. This can be a difficult concept if you are frugal and constantly ask yourself if you really need an item before you buy it. However, for maximum savings, it’s essential to overcome the tendency to exercise shopping restraint. Mommy Making Money has a good explanation of how buying things she doesn’t need helps her buy those things that she does. (She also describes what she does with those unnecessary items, since they do pile up!)

In my first two months of playing the Drugstore Game, I calculated that I saved over $50. And that’s despite many “mistakes” because I didn’t really understand how to roll over ECBs by buying non-necessities. Now that I have a much better grasp of this concept, I expect to save my family hundreds of dollars before the year is over.

Getting started
If you want to start playing The Drugstore Game, figure out which drugstores are most convenient for you. Then check out BeCentsable for links to deals of the week for your particular store (click on the ‘Grocery Gathering’ tab, then on the store name.). If you don’t have the right coupons for that week’s deals, don’t worry! Just buy the Sunday newspaper and start with the next week’s deals. (Be sure to cut out all of the coupons, not just the ones for items that you’re interested in. You never know what will turn out to be a moneymaker!)

Also, when you head to the store, bring a calculator in case you have to re-work some of your deals due to some items being out of stock. And take the circulars with you (or pick them up in the store before you start walking around). The stores don’t always mark the shelves properly, and sometimes the only way to tell which item qualifies for a deal is to check the printed circular.

Good luck! May you become a Drugstore Game champion!

This article is about Frugality, Money Hacks, Shopping