Cold and flu season isn’t just physically painful — it can hurt your wallet too. The average consumer shops for over-the-counter medicine 26 times each year. That’s $338 per household, according to data collected by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association , a trade organization, in 2015, the most recent available. That same year, Americans spent $328 billion on prescription retail drugs, or prescription drugs purchased in pharmacies, according to estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Spending on prescription drugs and over-the-counter products increases during the winter m
onths, according to Doug Hirsch, co-founder and co-CEO of GoodRx, a website and app that tracks the best prescription drug prices in the U.S. This has left many people on edge amidst cold weather and rising insurance premiums. But there’s no reason to rollover in pain just yet.
“There are so many ways a consumer can save,” said Hirsch, whose website has 8 million visitors a month.
Here are a few tips to prevent consumers from feeling financially sour this winter.
1. Shop around.
Since drug prices vary from store to store, comparison shopping is key. This includes buying generic versions of name brands, which most major chain stores offer at a cheaper price. “The quality is just as good,” Ken Majkowski, chief pharmacy officer of FamilyWize, a company that partners with pharmacies to find the best prescription prices. Also, buying online is a good way to save. But Majkowski cautions that this makes it difficult to check expiration dates. “Medicine does expire,” he said.
2. Discount programs.
FamilyWize, GoodRx and WellRx offer free app-based discount programs. And individual stores like Walgreens, CVS, Target, Rite Aid and Walmart are just some of the retailers that have their own programs. Some programs offer cash back. Amazon has the subscribe-and-pay program that allows consumers to compare prices.
3. Stack coupons and buy in advance.
Manufacturers start releasing over-the-counter medicine coupons in late October, according to Caroline Carpenter, financial adviser and creator of the website mycouponexpert.com. Coupon inserts with additional savings on over-the-counter medicine can be found in newspapers during this month. “This is the best time to buy,” Carpenter said. She recommends combining in-store coupons with manufacturer coupons for bigger savings. Also, go to store websites, like Costco Pharmacy, to search for deals.
4. Use coupons wisely.
Maximize coupon savings by buying the smallest size, which leads to less spending overall. If you don’t have a coupon, buy the middle size. On average, Carpenter said, the best price value can be found on medium-sized products.
5. Talk to your pharmacist.
Ask your pharmacist if they have their own discount program. Many pharmacies offer discounts or make products cheaper to get consumers to shop there. “Almost all pharmacies do this, but you have to ask,” Carpenter said. “They don’t advertise it.” Some pharmacists will match their competitors prices. Also, when purchasing prescription drugs, it’s a good practice to ask how much it would cost without insurance, as many insurance plans have deductibles that need to be met. “Some prescriptions cost less than the copay,” Hirsch said.
6. Buy less.
Purchasing medicine for individual ailments can be pricey. Instead, invest in fewer products. "Most products have multiple ingredients that do the same thing," Majkowski said. "You just need two: one for day and one for night." He recommended a multi-ingredient decongestant for daytime hours and a generic version of Nyquil to sleep through the night.
7. Common sense prevention.
“The absolute cheapest thing you can buy is water,” Majkowski said. “Hydrate yourself.” Other things: wash your hands, change toothbrushes often and get the flu shot. Natural remedies to sooth pain are also cost-saving, such as gargling with salient solution and drinking tea with honey.