The CVS loyalty system can be a bit confusing at first, but if you go through a few transactions, you will start to get the hang of it.
Nearly every week, the CVS ads show are 1-3 items (almost always limit 1 each) that run $4-$6, and reward $4-$6 ECBs back. These are the delightful free-after-ExtraCare-Bucks (FAECBs) items that make our hearts sing. :)
As you well know, there are sometimes coupons for these FAECB items to be had from the Sunday paper or other sources (including CVS store coupons) - and thus applying the coupon(s) can make them 'profitable' (they are truly very profitable if you pay for them using ECBs and net a surplus of ECBs). You can use a manufacturer coupon and a CVS coupon on the same item! If you have a Gillette shampoo manufactuer coupon and a Gillette shampoo CVS coupon, you can use both of these on a single bottle of Gillette shampoo. However, you usually cannot use two Gillette shampoo CVS coupons in a single transactions, so you need to break up your CVS single-item coupons into different transactions if you want to buy more than one.
Besides the FAECB products, there are also "just plain free after coupon" products - whose sale price is the same or less than a recently-issued coupon for that item. Again, you can combine manufacturer coupons with CVS coupons if you have both for the same item!
Then there are the golden $/$$ CVS coupons - the couposn that make CVSing truly worthwhile. These coupons will read "$2 off a $10 purchase at CVS", or $3 off $15, or $4 off 20, $5 off $30, and so on (the biggest variation I saw was a coupon kiosk printout of $10 off $50, issued to me just before Thanksgiving). These coupons are either
- Emailed to you (you must go to your ExtraCare Card account on CVS.com and specifically elect to have coupons and promotions emailed to you),
- Findable on the web, for instance, in newspapers or magazines that are also published online,
- Findable in physical print versions of these publications,
- Printed out to you after a CVS transaction, on the end of your receipt (these are coupon register tape - CRT - coupons),
- Printed out to you at the "coupon kiosks" at CVS - the in-store red pillar 'scanners' which can scan your ExtraCare Card and print out coupons.
SO (I'm getting to the strategy part now): you need to "fluff up" your purchases with as much "free after ECB" and "freebies" to get to the "$$" total specified on your "$ off $$" coupon. Go as nearly as possible to the "$$" total without going under.
Sample: You have $15.49 worth of merchandise, and a $3 off $15 coupon. Always hand your "$ off $$" coupons over to the cashier first while the computer registers the total as being over $$.
Then, offer your other manufacturer coupons and CVS coupons. Say you have $5 worth of in manufacturer coupons in addition to your $3 off $15 - now your subtotal is down to $7.49. Use any CVS ExtraCare Bucks in your possession to get as close to $7.49 as possible without going over (you cannot use ECBs valued more than your amount owed). If you had $7 ECBs, your out of pocket would be $0.49+tax! - and you would leave the store with all of the ECBs from your FAECB purchase acquisitions - very often more than your outlay of out of pocket and ECBs paid in!
An alternative strategy here is to use this type of transaction structure over the course of your month so that you can build up to the ECBs. For example, say that "Buy $15 of Garnier, earn 5 ECBS" is a monthly deal. If you use every week's free stuff to fluff up your transaction, plus a $1 off Garnier shampoo/conditioner coupon and the Garnier to bring the transaction up to $15, you could get your Garnier for free or pretty close to it every time you pick some up. By month's end you would likely have hit your $15 needed for the ECBs, and so earn $5 ECBs on free Garnier!