Money Savin’ Mama: Drugstore game costs more in time than coupons save

I glared at my printer and cursed, stressed out and angry, all over a 75-cent coupon.

So far that day I’d bought two new cartridges of ink, signed up to receive dental care newsletters, downloaded coupon-printing software, printed a smudged, unusable coupon and gone back to the store to exchange the ink cartridges.

Now the website said I wasn’t allowed to print the coupon again. After a bit of profanity, I hooked up another laptop and signed up with another email address to print that 75-cent coupon and another $1 coupon for a bottle of mouthwash I didn’t even really want.

I was trying to play the “drugstore game,” something I’ve seen fellow frugalists do with great success. Combining sales and coupons with store reward programs, they end up with piles of products for free.

I’d followed the advice of a blogger who routinely outlines these sorts of matchups once before. Buy a Revlon nail product at a CVS Pharmacy and get $3 in “ECBs” – Extra Care Bucks, which can be used on a future purchase. She suggested purchasing a $3 nail clipper, making it free.

But when I tried it, the clipper didn’t trigger the ECB deal. So I bought a bottle of sparkly red nail polish for $5.79 (the cheapest they had), and used a 20 percent off coupon. With my $3 ECB, I effectively paid $1.98 for the polish after tax.

It’s a good price, but I didn’t need nail polish.

This is why I’ve avoided super-couponing. It doesn’t matter how large the discount. If you spend money on things you don’t need, you’re not saving anything.

The week of the printer profanity, however, I thought I had it figured out. Between a sale price on the mouthwash, the printable manufacturer and in-store coupons and an ECB deal, the bottle would be free.

Except when I got to the register, the manager wouldn’t take the $1 coupon, saying it wouldn’t ring up as an item. Flustered and frustrated, I walked out of the store, leaving my hard-earned and still valid 75-cent coupon on the counter.

I tried to play the game for a few more weeks anyway, seeming to fail at every turn.

The bottle of lotion bloggers claimed would be free wasn’t on the shelves at my store.

I didn’t have hoards of coupons dating back to April, and the inserts I did have didn’t always include the coupons bloggers said they would.

Finally, last week, I actually had the necessary coupon that would be a “moneymaker,” meaning I’d get more back in ECBs than I spent. But I realized at 5:45 p.m. on Sunday that the coupon expired that day. The store would close before I could get there.

I did have some measures of success. One week I walked out with a box of Cheerios, a bag of M&Ms, bottle of body wash and box of tampons for $3.05 out-of-pocket plus a 75-cent ECB. I also was able to get $7 back on a $7.49 palette of eyeshadow.

But the resources and time it takes to put these deals together – even when sisterly savers outline them for me – just don’t seem to justify the game for me. And really, how much makeup or mouthwash do I need?

Some people are able to do it really well, including a friend of mine who gives her spoils as housewarming or birthday gifts.

But I’d rather save my pennies, profanity and printer ink than spend them trying to score free stuff.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She blogs at