Jessica Clark, a 37-year-old Nebraska mother and the founder of Gluten Free Supper, knows that sometimes you get what you pay for in the grocery store.
“For some reason, manufacturers just cannot get the flavor of cola right,” she said. “It never tastes anything like Coke or Pepsi. So if you are a soda drinker, you probably will want to spend a bit more for the name brand.”
Clark might be right that Brand X cola just doesn’t cut it. But plenty of other familiar products have cheaper competitors with nearly identical quality, taste and performance. The key is knowing the difference.
Here’s when it makes sense to go for lower-priced alternatives to the products that don’t deliver on their premium prices.
Savvy shoppers know that store brands offer the same products for less than their big-name competitors — but they’re not always as good. One key to identifying generic products that are indistinguishable from their brand-name counterparts is to learn who makes them.
“Did you know that most generic/store brands are actually created by the same manufacturer, so they are essentially the same products?” said Clark, citing Aldi’s Millville line of cereals, which are produced by Post. “Also, stores like Costco and Trader Joe’s that have their own products tend to be much higher quality than Walmart store brands — Great Value, for Example — and it really just depends on the manufacturer.”
Just like commodities such as copper, natural gas and crude oil, pantry staple commodities are virtually identical to each other regardless of who produces them. But their generic versions are a whole lot cheaper.
“When it comes to staples like sugar, salt and flour, brand names rarely offer a significant advantage over generic alternatives,” said Sumeet Kumar, NFEC-certified financial education instructor and founder of the personal finance site DollarsRise. “The quality of these essential ingredients is often indistinguishable between the two, yet the price difference can be substantial.”
As a coffee roaster and owner of Craft Coffee Spot, Marko Lazarevic works with grocery stores sourcing and selling coffee. He follows what he calls the “long-lasting vs. short-term principle” when choosing between brands and price tags.
“For items with a long shelf life, like canned goods, the generic brand will usually do just fine,” Lazarevic said. “However, for perishable items like coffee, you want to go with a brand.
“Much more effort goes into sourcing perishable branded items that usually make them better than private label.”
When you hit the produce aisle, focus not on brand names, but on where the product comes from and the time of year it grows.
“Seasonal and locally sourced fruits and vegetables are often better regardless of the brand,” Lazarevic said. “During their peak season, even cheaper options will offer amazing taste and nutritional value.”
Those who can afford it are usually willing to pay more for the best medicine, but you don’t always have to trade cost for quality.
“Brand-name medications and their generic counterparts often have the same ingredients and same effects,” said Brad Godwin, senior vice president and head of partnership at Shopkick. “Paying a few dollars extra for the name you recognize may only amount to more aesthetic packaging.”
Just like medicine, people are naturally cautious about pinching pennies with cosmetics because inferior ingredients could harm their bodies. But similarly, you can save money without skimping on quality with this notoriously pricey product category.
“Makeup is another common item that often has high brand-name prices but generic alternatives with some of the same ingredients,” Godwin said. “Pretty does not have to hurt your wallet, so don’t hesitate to try more budget-friendly options.”
As a professional chef with over 15 years of experience in Western, Mediterranean and Italian cuisine, Rosie Elliot, owner of Kitchen Appliance Answer, knows a thing or two about pasta. While there’s no substitute for the freshly made soft stuff, there’s rarely much variation with the packaged and processed hard kind.
“Barilla is great, but the store-brand shells and rotini cook up fine for half the cost,” Elliot said.
Sarah Bridenstine, a professional baker and chef who has run Baking Kneads with her husband for six years, says she “practically lived in a bakery growing up, as my mom ran one.”
She has learned that one crucial category offers plenty of opportunities to save.
“During my time at a local bakery, I was constantly surrounded by an array of spices,” Bridenstine said. “The revelation was that many store-brand spices often stood shoulder to shoulder with their pricier counterparts in terms of aroma and flavor.
“Take cinnamon, for instance. A dash of an economical off-brand variety in your apple pie can evoke the same warm, comforting fragrance and taste that a top-shelf brand can. It’s all about knowing when and how to use them.”
Buying organic can expose you to fewer chemicals and artificial ingredients while promoting a healthier ecosystem. But, according to WebMD, it’s not a cut-and-dry classification and organics aren’t always better or safer than conventionally grown alternatives.
For example, farmers can use potentially harmful fertilizers and pesticides and still earn the organic label as long as they’re not synthetic — and since organics typically cost 20% more, it pays to be sure.
“While organics have their merits, they can sometimes pull on our purse strings a tad too hard,” Bridenstine said. “It’s not unusual to find that the quality difference between them and regular items isn’t as vast as the price difference suggests.”
Bridenstine concurs with WebMD that it’s all about understanding the terminology on the packaging.
“It pays dividends to scrutinize those labels and assess if you’re getting true value for your dollar,” she said. “However, there are exceptions. Some delicacies, like certain olive oils or specialty meats, might merit a higher spend. In these instances, the elevated price can genuinely uplift your culinary creations, making every cent feel well spent.”
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