West Side Stories: In recovery from the pharmacy coupon racket

Perhaps ignorance is bliss when it comes to my obsession with the pharmacy coupon racket. I was never much for visiting the pharmacy and rarely shopped at Walgreens, CVS, or the bankrupt Rite-Aid chain. But a few years ago in West of Washington they put a CVS at the top of the street, and I began to shop there.

One day I made my purchases, gathered in the six-foot long receipt, and moved quickly to the rubbish to throw it away. A buddy of mine from the next street over stopped me before I could toss it, pulling me aside. “Hey, what are you doing?” he said, pointing at the receipt. “You can save a *$%x@load of money with that.”

We walked out to the parking lot, and he went over the secret dynamics of CVS rewards coupons. He explained the ‘ExtraBucks’ program whereby the coupons are worth between 25 cents to $10 automatically with no restrictions. Then there was the ‘Save 30 percent on your next order,’ followed by the same percentage of savings on the most expensive item in the cart. He detailed toothpaste deals, and how to parlay a coupon and the buy-one-get-one-half-off mouthwash so both bottles are nearly free. Speaking carefully, and looking around to see if we were being watched, he whispered instructions about how to pull the trifecta – using the coupons to get toothpaste, dental floss, and deodorant for free – while also getting money back!

“Who knows about this?” I asked. “Not too many people; just be careful,” he warned.

I was never the same after that. It was like the day years ago when an old man from Revere explained the ins and outs of betting on horses at Suffolk Downs. I remember my first win, and my second win. But I retired after a massive loss on my third try. With that, you kinda know what you’re in for. It’s horse betting.

CVS coupons seemed more innocent, but those receipts became a high-stakes game of household frugality. Soon, I was cutting them with scissors, they were in my car on the dashboard, and carefully placed in my wallet.

Here and there I had some early victories, and with that came fliers in the mail offering more savings on frequently purchased items. That’s where the fishhook caught my gills and one day everything lined up just right.

I watched the register in wonder as one coupon after another wiped away large chunks, and by the end I had taken the bill from a Benjamin down to two Jacksons. “Ohhhh, there’s one to remember,” said the cashier with a wink my way.

It was consumer euphoria. I walked out with free stuff: a humidifier and accompanying filters, a wrist brace, Dr. Scholl’s shoe liners, and toothpaste for far into the future.

But I wanted more. I set to plotting my next trip, engineering even more savings, and went about building up the household needs while I gathered coupons. I encouraged everyone in the house to brush frequently. I took an extra length of dental floss every morning. And we needed more vitamins, E, K, B Complex and D – the whole supplement alphabet. I was going for it all – everything for free with cash back.

The day came and the game plan was set. I went to the CVS on Washington Street up from the house. I had coupons for everything, plus extra savings from the mail and a couple of 30 percent off jobs that expired the next day. I gathered my items carefully and proceeded to the counter. The anticipation while waiting in line was close to unbearable.

What would be the look on the cashier’s face? Would they have to call over the manager to double check? Was there a secret ‘Hall of Fame’ for this stuff? Anything seemed possible.

The cashier scanned my many items, and I handed over the goods with a smile. The coupons showed up on the screen, but no savings popped up like the last time. Instead, it read ‘PEND,’ or ‘pending’ where the savings should have been. People behind me in line grew impatient. The cashier punched buttons fruitlessly, and I began to sweat. Where was that half-price deodorant now?

Then the cashier delivered the hammer. It seems there were two loyalty accounts – one for the pharmacy and one for the store. Half of the coupons were on the pharmacy account, and half were on the home account. I could only use one or the other. Plus, it turned out that a relative was surreptitiously tapping into my ‘ExtraBucks’ rewards and had drained them dry.

My careful plan was shot all to hell. My three large bottles of mouthwash were no longer buy two, get one free; the singing cat Hallmark card laughed at me as I paid full price for a stack of sympathy cards to console deaths that hadn’t yet happened; and my three sale-priced twin-packs of dental floss had to be full price to get 30 percent off – a new trick they rolled out quietly last year. So there I stood at checkout, over-flossed and overly sympathetic. The evil lure of bargain candy bars and cut-rate hygienic products had broken me.

I don’t know how it got that far, but I have recovered. Time has passed, and I’ve gathered the pieces of my failure at frugality by coupons and come to terms that full priced toothpaste isn’t the end of the world. Humidifiers and air filters can be purchased before getting coupons in the mail. And sympathy sentiments can be arranged after the fact.

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter