Are You Paying Too Much for Over-the-Counter Medicine?

We set out to find the answer to this question by comparing prices for two commonly purchased over-the-counter products: Advil (i.e. ibuprofen) and Claritin (i.e. allergy relief medicine). While our findings suggest what may be obvious to most – that it pays to comparison shop – the results revealed a few surprises as well.

For this study, we shopped at five different locations in the Northeast: two drugstores (Walgreens and CVS), one supermarket (Shaw’s), one discount retailer (Target), and one online supermarket (Peapod by Stop & Shop). For the four offline locations, we stayed within the same zip code in order to maintain geographical consistency.

While the prices of these items may fluctuate from store to store, price variations are more evident based on geographical location. Relative differences between items are likely to be found in other parts of the country and when comparing these products at other retailers (not just the ones that we researched).

Based on our findings, we’ve provided a few money saving tips for buying Advil and Claritin.

Tip # 1: Shop Around

Advil is a pretty common over-the-counter medicine that can be purchased at a wide range of retailers. Of the five stores we looked at, they all had different prices for the same exact product. There are a number of factors that go into the prices that retailers set for a given product, including their own costs for running the store and what they perceive to be added value they provide to consumers (such as convenience).

Take a look at the chart below. We compared the price of a 50-count bottle (“count” here means number of tablets in the bottle) of 200mg Advil tablets.

Cost of 50-count bottle of 200mg Advil tablets

As you can see, prices vary quite a bit by retailer. There are similar price variances for other size bottles (24-count, 100-count, etc.).

When we compared the cost of the same exact amount and type of Claritin across multiple stores, the prices varied from $8.04 to $11.49 per 10 count package.

Cost of 10-count package of 10mg Claritin tablets

Based on our experience with both Advil and Claritin, it is definitely worth it to shop around before you buy.

Tip # 2: Buy in Larger Quantities

We found that the per-count amount also had a big impact on price.

As you can see in the example below, when you buy a 24-count bottle of Advil, you pay 130% more per tablet than if you purchased a 200-count bottle. Put another way, each additional tablet above the first 24 tablets costs you a little under $0.06 per tablet when you buy the 200-count bottle!

We also looked at Claritin on a cost per-count basis and, like Advil, found that the more you buy, the less you pay per tablet.

Now, it doesn’t make sense to buy more of something because it’s cheaper if you’re going to end up throwing away the excess amount. Keep in mind that ibuprofen supposedly expires (we’re not sure if this is true, but since manufacturers stamp expiration dates on every bottle, we’re not going to suggest you do otherwise), and that as a single person, for example, you may not need 200 Advil tablets over the next couple of years (at least we hope not!).

So while the 200-tablet bottle of Advil is a lot cheaper per count than the 24-tablet bottle, you’re still paying an additional $10.50 when you buy the 200-count bottle and, consequently, you will forfeit your perceived savings if you throw most of the contents away.

Still, the next time you’re at the store, remember that the price per count typically drops when you buy in bulk (and this tip is not limited to Advil or Claritin medicine). So spend the extra couple of seconds figuring out how much you’re likely to need over the next year or two as it could save you money in the long run.

And one additional tip here: While not for everyone and maybe a bit impractical for most, if you can, consider buying items such as Advil or Claritin with someone outside of your household. You can buy larger volumes between the two of you, and then just split the items on your own.

One side note here: Buyer beware. Some stores have caught on that many buyers automatically assume that the greater the bulk, the better the deal. Pay attention to the cost per count.

Tip # 3: Consider Generics

Advil contains one active ingredient: ibuprofen. When you buy Advil, you’re buying a brand that has been heavily marketed over the years. The makers of Advil want you to believe that its form of ibuprofen is better than all others. But as far as we can tell, ibuprofen is ibuprofen. Paying for a branded version of the product doesn’t make any sense. We suggest you buy the generic for common medications. The savings are significant.

Similarly, the only active ingredient in Claritin is Loratadine. There are other brands that offer the same allergy medicine, such as Alavert, as well as generic versions. Just as with ibuprofen, the generic form of medicine provides quite a bit of savings.

A Few Other Notes

Surprisingly, stores commonly referred to as “drugstores” have the most inflated prices on over-the-counter medicines in our study. Perhaps it is their “convenient” locations resulting in the high prices??? Unless you’re in an emergency situation, buying Advil at a drugstore (at least in the neighborhood we were in for our study) makes no sense. Furthermore, buying Advil makes no sense at all. You’re not getting any added benefits, and you are clearly spending more money.

And while we have highlighted Advil and Claritin as examples here, buying generic for many other over-the-counter medicines, as well as lots of other products sold in different quantities, can mean huge savings with no apparent downside or trade-offs.

One important note/disclaimer about buying generics: While we feel comfortable buying generic forms of basic, over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers and allergy medicine, we have heard of instances where people have had negative reactions to generic forms of medicine. While we’ve only heard of this happening with prescribed drugs, we suggest that you exercise caution and ask your doctor about the differences between generics and branded products if you have any concerns related to the trade-offs of using generic medicine. We have provided links below to two articles having to do with some of the concerns around some generic drugs, but by no means is our research on articles on the subject comprehensive, so we suggest you do your own.

  • Generic Drugs – Friend or Foe?
  • Examining Antidepressant Generic Drugs

    Note about this study: Keep in mind that we only checked out five stores and that we think we might have found even better savings had we ventured outside of this one zip code and included retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco, and BJ’s.

    Bottom line: Think twice about where you buy, and consider buying generics

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