Prescription drugs have made life better for innumerable people. From mood-boosting antidepressants to slumber-inducing sleep aids, from beta-blockers to regulate your blood pressure to anything you can get your hands on to quell your rumbling stomach, many now rely on a constant source of medicines. But swallowing a fistful of life-preserving and life-improving drugs every day can get quite expensive.

If you want to cut your prescription drug costs, you can do more than just switch to generic brands. Shop around, and you may find some striking differences among pharmacies. A little work will pay off most for anyone who lacks insurance or has limited prescription drug coverage. You can also profit if a pricey name-brand drug happens to be the best treatment for you.

Shop around
There's strong competition among retailers vying for your prescription-drug business, and that can work in your favor. The giant discount retailers, such as Costco (NASDAQ:COST), Target (NYSE:TGT), and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), have been pecking away at traditional drug stores like Rite Aid (NYSE:RAD) and Walgreen (NYSE:WAG). Investors have been watching closely to find out how CVS Caremark's (NYSE:CVS) recent merger, combining a retail chain with a pharmacy benefits manager, will shake up the market.

All this competition means you might find great bargains if you shop around and ask your favorite pharmacy to meet a competitor's price. A recent Consumer Reports study, which compared the costs of obtaining five common name-brand drugs, found some pretty striking variations in quoted costs.

Their research found that, in general, online pharmacies charged the least. We're not talking about outlets from mysterious and far-flung places. The list includes online services run by the retailers competing for prescription drug business and online pharmacies like (NASDAQ:DSCM). The Food and Drug Administration recommends you stick to Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, which have been approved by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

The study found drugs got more expensive at independent pharmacies, supermarkets, and drugstore chains, in that order. There are exceptions on every list, so check around before you automatically head anywhere to have a new prescription filled.

While you're checking on prices, find out if your insurance plan or pharmacy benefits manager allows you to order your drugs by mail. That can offer substantial savings, sometimes by delivering several months worth of pills at a time.

Other strategies
A friendly chat with your doctor or pharmacist may turn up additional savings. Just bringing up the topic might prompt your doctor to prescribe a less expensive medication that works just as well, instead of automatically prescribing the newest, most expensive drug. There might even be an over-the-counter remedy you could try first.

If it's appropriate, you might be able to get a prescription for a stronger dose of medicine and split the pills in half. This can stretch a bottle of pills and cut your costs, but it doesn't work with all medications. Don't try it without talking to your doctor or pharmacist.

Ask around for rebates and coupons. They aren't just for toasters and cereal. You can sometimes find coupons and free trials for prescription drugs. Check the manufacturer's website.

Buy generics
Although you can do more than just switch to a generic drug, you can get some of the biggest cost savings by leaving a name-brand behind. If you've been taking the same drug for a long time, it's worth asking your doctor if an appropriate generic has entered the market. Some top drugs have recently seen their patents expire. Competition for pharmaceutical business has also forced prices of generic drugs way down. You can now get a 30-day supply of more than 300 generic drugs for just $4 at Target and Wal-Mart.

Get help
If you're uninsured, or you're trying to help an aging parent drowning in drug expenses, find out whether you qualify for a drug-assistance program. Check the Partnership for Prescription Assistance and Rx Outreach for more information.

And although I'm not a doctor, I'd also prescribe this month's edition of Motley Fool Green Light, which offers other resources to help you shop around for prescription drugs, as well as some help with another costly health-care issue -- long-term care insurance. You can take it free for 30 days. Side effects may include an increase in your bank account balance, and a warm feeling of well-being.

Related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple does not own stock in any company mentioned in this article. She welcomes your feedback. Costco is a Stock Advisor recommendation, while Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool has a very healthy disclosure policy.