How to Save Money on Prescription Drugs

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on July 27, 2016
4 min read

About half of Americans take at least one prescription drug. If you're one of them, you've probably noticed that prescription medications can be quite expensive, and costs are rising.

You've got resources to help you save money while still putting your health first. For starters, your doctor and pharmacist can be extremely helpful -- if you ask. But if you don't speak up, they'll never know.

These medications have the same active ingredients as brand-name drugs, but often at a much lower cost. "It's the first place to start," says Reid Rasmussen, a consumer health expert with 25 years of health care insurance and administration experience. "It's possible that the non-generic works better for you, but by all means start with the generic, always."

The process is easy: If your medication is available as a generic, the pharmacist will automatically give you that version.

"In general, generics are cheaper, but there are some exceptions to the rule," says John Meigs, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians. If a generic is too expensive, it's worth asking your doctor about other treatment options.

You pay for health insurance, so take advantage of it. Each insurance company has a list of drugs that they do and don't cover, called a formulary. But don't bother trying to make sense of it, Rassmussen says. It's much easier to simply call your insurance company and ask about the drugs you take.

And if you get to the pharmacy and find out a drug is too expensive or isn't covered, he recommends you pick up the phone. Say something like, "I went to fill this and my pharmacist said it's not covered. Is there an alternative?" There might be a similar medication that your plan will pay for.

You could try getting a higher dose and splitting it in half, suggests Mohamed Jalloh, PharmD, a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association. "Some insurance companies charge based upon the quantity of medications," he says, "so by doubling the strength of a medication and cutting it in half, you may only be charged for 15 whole tablets instead of 30 whole tablets." (Run the idea past your doctor or pharmacist first, since some pills shouldn't be split.)

"A lot of times, we [doctors] don't know how much medicines cost," Meigs says. "Let your doctor know if you're having trouble paying for medications. He or she can look at alternative medications that might be less expensive."

Check with your pharmacist about special programs or discount cards. "Some pharmacies offer plans where people can get 30-day prescriptions of certain medications for as low as $4. In some cases, patients may even get them for free," Jalloh says.

Pharmacists will also know if drug companies are running promotions. They might also be able to give you coupons for certain drugs or manufacturers. These are things that your doctor wouldn't have known, but your pharmacist will. You might be able to save $50 or so, Rasmussen says.

The price of a medication can vary widely from one pharmacy to another, too. Technology can make it easier to shop around. "Apps like GoodRx help to clarify the prices of medications at various pharmacies. This allows you to identify which pharmacy would give you the best deal for all of your medications," Jalloh says.

When you shop online and get your prescription by mail, make sure you're buying from a legitimate and licensed source. Look for one that:

  • Has a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS) seal from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy or a ".pharmacy" address
  • Is registered with the Canadian International Pharmacy Association,
  • Has high ratings and good reviews at

The price at a pharmacy outside of the U.S. may seem like a huge discount, but a great deal isn't one if you aren't really getting the drug you need.

At some websites, you can pay a monthly fee in exchange for discounts. But "for the most part, these companies are charging you $29 per month to get you free programs," Rasmussen says. Talk to your pharmacist about prescription savings programs instead.

Most drug companies offer patient assistance programs. These help you get free or reduced-cost medications.

You'll have to qualify for the program, and each manufacturer has different standards. Send a note to the company through their website. Or ask your pharmacist for help reaching out to the right place.

This may seem like an obvious no-no, but it's more common than you might think. More than 12% of U.S. adults have skipped taking medication or simply not filled a prescription to save money, according to a government survey.

"A lot of times if the patient can't afford [a medication], they don't take it," Meigs says. "Or they may only take it half of the time. That obviously complicates their care." It makes the drug less effective, which is a waste of money and can lead to serious health problems -- and even bigger bills -- later.