When Deals Become Less of a Bargain

A few months ago, I was reading an older personal finance article at the library which discussed a very specific method for getting tremendous deals at CVS (a pharmacy chain). All you had to do was follow a sequence of steps and you’d find yourself with piles of items for free!

I decided to give this system a shot. I signed up for the CVS ExtraCare rewards program and started following the method outlined in that older article.

What I found was some good discounts, but not the mind-blowingly amazing discounts described in that older article.

Why didn’t it work out? I actually believe the older article did work as stated at the time it was written. It described a savings tactic that worked very well at a specific moment in time, but as times changed (prices went up, the ExtraCare program specifics changed, the coupons in the flyers weren’t as good), the savings tactic that once worked like a charm no longer worked as well.

(An aside: I’m not saying that CVS ExtraCare isn’t a worthwhile tool for good discounts on pharmacy products. It is. It’s just not the runaway bargain that it was several years ago.)

So, what’s the lesson here?

The big lesson is that no bargain is ever written in stone. Something that saved you a lot of money a year or two ago might not be a great bargain today. The benefits may have been scaled back, or other offers may be superceding it.

What can you do about it? You should re-evaluate your money saving tactics very frequently. I do this surprisingly often. I’ll stop at a different grocery store just to compare the prices to the ones I typically shop at. I’ll estimate the amount of savings I get from the time investment of using coupons (usually, it’s one of those “barely worth it” things). I’ll try to learn about new ways of doing things and see if they beat the way I used to do them (for example, the ongoing Saving Pennies or Dollars series).

How does one “re-evaluate”? The method I always use is calculating how much this tactic saves me per hour. I figure out exactly how much money I’m saving because of what I’m doing and exactly how much time it takes me to do it (if it’s minutes, I divide that by sixty to get the time in hours). I then divide the money saved by the hours spent to get my savings per hour.

That “savings per hour” amount doesn’t have to be more than what I earn, especially because I’m not paying any income tax on my savings due to frugality. It’s mostly useful as a way to figure out how to spend my time. I’d rather spend my time on something that saves me $20 per hour of effort than something that saves me $5 per hour of effort.

You should also be quite willing to discard tactics that simply don’t work any more. If your preferred grocery store seems to be raising their prices a lot, don’t keep shopping there out of familiarity. Look for a different store that has better prices. If you find that the coupons aren’t saving you what they used to, don’t be afraid to ditch them and use that saved hour for something else that saves or earns you more money.

Speaking of which, you might reach a point where the frugal tactic doesn’t change, but you change. Let’s say, for example, that you switch from a low-paying part time job to a better-paying full time position, or that you’ve decided to start volunteering with an organization in your town that needs someone to man the phones. You’re likely going to find that you no longer have time for all of the things you want to fill your life with. This very well could mean cutting some of the frugal tactics that don’t save you as much money. (Of course, that is a cost of your new job, but that opens an entire new can of worms.)

Frugality is never set in stone. It’s all about being aware of what’s going on around you and consistently making better choices along the way.

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  1. Alice says:

    I’ve started steering away from store rewards programs based on privacy, I don’t know what the store plans to do with the information they collect, but I’ve become uncomfortable with someone collecting all that data. Trent, any thoughts of researching what the privacy or other trade-off is for these rewards programs?

  2. Steven says:

    Do you ever calculate how much time you spend calculating the savings, and see if that time is also worth it or not? It just seems to me that you spend a disproportionate time calculating and tracking all these different things that it’s a wonder you’re able to get anything done.

  3. Becca says:

    Steven, Trent is also doing research for his audience. These calculations are worth doing for him personally, but he is also providing a professional service to all of us who read his site. He is one person figuring out something complicated for thousands of people.
    But even so I also do this calculation regularly. Usually when I am doing the actual task, as it is “mindless” I have time to make mental notes and do the calculation. Usually when I am doing the actual task, I make mental notes as I am working. Example, a neighbor up the road has been selling his surplus pumpkins. I asked him if he had any going bad that he wanted to get rid of. He just gave me six that he had set aside, each with a slight bad spot. I wanted to make pumpkin puree. So as I worked cutting and chopping, I made I mental notes. I noted that it took four medium-sized pumpkins to make seven quarts of puree, equal in volume to 14 store-bought cans.
    The last time I had to buy puree, it was $2.50 for the can. I had promised a pumpkin dessert before I realized I had no puree in the house, so asked my husband to buy me a can when he was going past the store, and he paid $2.50. Ouch.
    In this case of puree making I did not go so far as to calculate all my costs of electricity and my time, to determine the hourly wage. Maybe 3 hours altogether to make 7 quarts. I didn’t calculate more precisely because I didn’t have anything more productive to do that day anyway. I just know that puree from free pumpkins is cheaper than store-bought puree.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with Alice @ #1. Those cards are for the store’s benefit, not the customers’. They plan their marketing and inventory based on usage patterns. And when I shop at CVS (& have had it happen elsewhere), the cashier rings up a card for me anyway & I end up getting the discount – they have one they use for anyone, or they insist on giving me one to use immediately & sign up for later at home (which I don’t do).

    And while I agree with Trent that you need to be conscious and vigilant about whether you’re still saving money with a given tactic, I also agree with Steven that Trent spends a lot more time on that than I do. I find that, if I’m paying attention, I can figure out pretty quickly in a spending (or saving) situation whether at that point in time it’s a better deal or not. And sometimes even if it isn’t a less expensive option, the benefit outweighs the added expense.

  5. Alice says:

    Trent spending time figuring out the value of these deals has the added benefit to him of being something to share with his readers. If I read some tactic here that works, I’ll return to the website to see additional tactics. If Trent’s research suggests something is a waste of time, and I would have done the same thing, I’ve saved time by reading what Trent did, so I will return to the website. The amount of time Trent spends on researching these things needs to be balanced against the fact that he’s generating content that will cause people to read and return to his website.

  6. Brandy says:

    You’re not doing cvs right. I walk away with piles of 90-100% off items every week. And you can’t use someone else’s card to get the ecb deals (because you need to use the same card it was earned with to redeem it).

  7. Mandy says:

    Great article – I got out of the habit of using CVS and Walgreens about a year and a half ago. I, like you, found that the deals were still good, but not amazing anymore, and it just wasn’t worth my time and effort while trying to juggle little kids and many other responsibilities. To some people, it may still be worth the few free items you can get, but it isn’t right for me at this time in my life.

  8. Sara says:

    There is a great web site, iheartcvs, that does all the work in figuring out the bargains every week. It really cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend to get the deals. There are similar web sites for other stores, but CVS is the only one convenient to my home. I get so much free stuff from CVS that I collect the surplus in a big box and bring it to a family gathering every year to give it away (and donate the rest to charity).

    I don’t really understand why people are so worried about stores collecting information about their purchases. I have discount cards at many stores and have never experienced any problems from stores using my purchase information. What is it that you are afraid someone will find out from your purchase data? They are not trying to spy on you, personally; they are using everyone’s data in aggregate to run their businesses better.

  9. Rockledge says:

    I have a CVS card and regularly get the coupons printed on the bottom of the receipt. Most are on things I don’t use, but even the ones I wanted to would get promptly lost. Now if there’s a coupon on something I buy or an overall discount, I turn around and use it right away. This trick is only a big deal if you are absent-minded like me, but it’s helped me save money on things I would buy anyway.

    As for the grocery store cards, I find that Kroger’s will send me specific coupons for the exact items I use, which is great since most coupons are for items I don’t buy. I don’t know if they do that for all card users–I cook a lot so I am a very regular customer.

    Honestly, I don’t mind them having my shopping record because I want them to know I’m a good customer. For instance, I purchased a bunch of chicken and when I got home, I found out it had gone bad. I called the store and asked for the manager who told me to bring it back for a refund. Now, I am not making a special trip to the grocery schlepping pounds of open, stinky chicken. No sir! I asked him to look up my shopping record. When he saw that I had been a customer for years, he made a note on my record and said they would automatically refund it on my next visit. I was mollified, the manager knew he wasn’t being ripped off, and they will continue getting my business.

  10. lurker carl says:

    Once upon a time, such invasions of privacy were unnecessary. You frequented neighborhood stores and the employees knew you. If you bought a rotten watermelon and fed it to the cows, you also gave the store manager “what for” and s/he automatically gave you credit for that loss without the hauling a rotten melon or receipt back for proof. They trusted you and you trusted them for honesty and respect.

    In the modern world, you need proof. In a parochial world, you need honor.

  11. AlizaG says:

    I just bought about 15 shampoos and conditioners (and some other stuff to stock our closet with) for about $1 each using CVS sales and coupons last week.

    As to stores using your personal information – remember that ground turkey recal about a month or two ago? My ShopRite store knew who had bought that turkey because of their rewards card use and either e-mailed or phoned the purchasers of said turkey. I ‘d say that’s worth the store having my information any day.

  12. slccom says:

    Our Safeway gives discounts up to 50% for having the rewards card. I’m not buying things I’m ashamed of, and their clearance sections are great. I get my milk for half price, frozen seasoned pizza dough for $.99, and other great deals. I clip coupons of things that I MIGHT buy, and if I see them on sale or clearance plus a coupon, I jump on the deal. I carry the coupons in an index card box sorted by category, put in the new ones in the front, and when my husband or I are a passenger in the car, that is when we sort out of the outdated ones. We could also do the clipping then, I suppose. This makes the cost negligible, since it is downtime anyhow.

    Walgreen’s has the best deals around on canned mushrooms, soups, salmon and other foods. You can really stock up if you go in every day or so and get the limit. Their clearance section is great, too. I got several pounds of brown sugar at $.50 each. CVS used to be great, too, back when we lived near one.

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