How to stay under your budget for over-the-counter drugs

Brian Acton


Brian Acton

Brian Acton

Contributing Reporter

Brian Acton is a contributing reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance news. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA Today, MarketWatch, Inc. Magazine, and HuffPost. 

Published|3 min read

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Over-the-counter medications are useful for managing pain, reducing symptoms and preparing your household for illness. But OTC products aren’t usually covered by insurance, and they can sometimes be more expensive than prescription drugs.

Whether you’re managing a major health condition or battling a cold, it pays to reduce your OTC spending. Here are nine ways to save on OTC medications.

1. Use an FSA or HSA

Employers sometimes offer flexible spending accounts to employees, while individuals who participate in high-deductible health plans can open health savings accounts. There are some differences between these account types, but they both let you save funds tax-free for medical expenses, including eligible OTC medications.

Check your plan’s list of qualified expenses for eligible medications. Some purchases may only require you to submit a receipt. Others may need a prescription or letter of medical necessity from your doctor. Either way, FSAs and HSAs allow you avoid taxes on funds you use to make eligible OTC purchases.

2. Get the prescription equivalent

Certain OTC drugs have prescription equivalents that are eligible for insurance coverage. Your insurance copay for a prescription medication may be cheaper than the OTC version. (We can help you compare health insurance prices.)

This strategy only works for certain medications. Often, OTC medications are cheaper than prescriptions. Check with your physician and pharmacist when they recommend an OTC medication to find out if you can save by going the prescription route.

3. Buy generic medications

Most OTC drugs have generic versions. Generic drugs are as safe to use as their name-brand counterparts. The Food and Drug Administration subjects them to the same reviews and guidelines. They must have the same active ingredients, dosage and effectiveness.

Generic versions are usually cheaper than brand-name drugs. When you pay more for the name-brand version, you’re really just paying for marketing. Look for the generic option the next time you go shopping.

4. Get a store membership

Whether you buy your OTC medications at a pharmacy, grocery store, big box store or online retailer, a store membership can help you save. Check with your supplier to see if they offer a store membership you can use to save money on your OTC purchases. For example, the CVS ExtraCare card lets you earn 2% back in ExtraBucks on eligible purchases, which can be redeemed for future CVS transactions.

5. Shop around

Your favorite OTC supplier might not offer the best prices. Check with different stores to find the lowest price. Websites like and let you compare drug prices online and find the cheapest medications near you. Online sellers may also be able to undercut your local pharmacies and retailers.

6. Stock up on larger quantities

Many OTC medications offer bigger savings the more you buy. For example, a small bottle of aspirin may be more expensive per pill than a larger container. When it comes to medications your household uses frequently, you can save by stocking up. Next time you’re at the store, compare the price per pill or per dose between smaller and larger bottles.

Check expiration dates, and don’t buy large quantities of medications that will expire before you can use them.

7. Hunt for coupons

If you have a favorite brand of OTC medication, check the manufacturer’s website for coupons before you shop. Alternatively, you can check the retailer’s coupons or look for sale items in the store.

8. Check with your doctor

Your physician may recommend against buying certain OTC medications or know of cheaper alternatives. If you’re concerned about the cost of OTC drugs, check with your doctor to see if you’re taking an unnecessary medication or if there’s a less expensive option.

9. Switch your kids from liquids to pills

For kids, liquid medications offer certain advantages: They’re easy to swallow and often come with a kid-friendly flavor. But after a certain age, you may want to switch your kids to pills, as they usually cost less than liquids. Of course, this depends on the child and your comfort with administering medications in pill form.

Disclosure: This post contains references to products or services from one or more of our advertisers or partners. While these codes earn us a small fee at no additional cost to you, we only refer products we love.

Image: Aleksandra Jankovic

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