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Tip #17: Buy generic for the stuff you don’t care about

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This is Tip #17 of of the Save $1,000 in 30 Days Challenge. (See past tips.)

Today’s tip is to buy generics for the stuff you don’t care about — while continuing to buy brand-name for the stuff you do care about.


When I was growing up, I was a pretty good kid, but I still remember one of the most annoying/bratty things I ever did. For some reason, I demanded that my mom buy me this expensive shirt (it was Ralph Lauren, I think). My mom tried to talk me out of it for HOURS, but I screamed and cried and she finally got it for me. The next day I wore it to school, where I was on lunch duty, and my dish that day was berry cobbler. Because I was a young and dumb, I thought it’d be fun to smack the cobbler with my spoon — which immediately turned my brand new shirt purple and ruined it forever.

The cost difference between generics and brand-name goods can be significant when you add it up, but the differences in quality have been steadily dropping for years. Yet we tend to buy what we know, which is always amusing because I have friends who insist advertising does not affect them. They say this while eating Cheez-Its, holding a Starbucks frappuccino, and paying for their new Nike shoes with money from their Kenneth Cole wallet.

When it comes to generics vs. brand-name goods, one of the most under-considered factors is prioritization. If you want to save $1,000 this month, you have to prioritize because you can’t have the best of everything. So buy brand-name for the stuff you care about, and cut costs mercilessly on commodities you don’t care about by buying generic.

My friend Jim Blomo does this better than almost anyone else I know:

I remember him calling me up a while ago, telling me he had just gotten another raise. “Awesome!” I said. Ironically, that was the same week he moved into an even cheaper place to live. Maybe it’s not actually that ironic. Whereas a lot of us take our new raises and spend it, really rich people take those raises, invest them, and continue living on the older wage that they’ve become accustomed to.

He makes conscious choices about what he spends his money on. Jim has told me over and over that he doesn’t care much about living in a fancy place, so he saves money on that. He cooks at home when he can instead of eating out every day. But he loves outdoor stuff–biking, camping, travel. And so he splurges on those things. He has a top-of-the-line bike. He just got back from a week-long trip to New York, just for fun.

Read more about Jim’s conscious spending.

What could you de-prioritize?
If I were to ask which of your purchases you don’t care about, what would you say? Would you say you don’t really care about your hair products? Or that you could probably live in a cheaper place? Maybe you’d say that you don’t need to eat fancy cheese.

Most of us don’t think like this. We’re also hesitant to experiment with downgrading. “But Ramit,” you might say, “I need that shampoo. My hair goes crazy without it!”

Maybe it does. Maybe not. But you won’t know until you test it by buying a less-expensive comparison shampoo and try it out. Until then, you’ll slavishly continue buying the more expensive goods. Combine all the name-brand things you buy and you could be overspending by thousands each year.

(If you’re worried about the quality going down, think again: The world is full of people claiming they can tell the difference between things like wines, soft drinks, and shampoos, and when you run double-blind experiments, of course, they really can’t. More about them in my delicious/expertise bookmarks.)

To put it bluntly, we can’t afford to buy the best of everything. When you buy, what can you cut costs on by buying generic?

How I balance quality with generics
For me, I do two things: First, I experiment regularly with the stuff I buy to see if I can downgrade. Recently, I bought generic Safeway sandwich cheese (those little orange squares). They tasted horrible, so I went back to buying Kraft cheese. That’s right, I live large.

Second, when I buy something that I care about, I buy top-of-the-line products and hold them for a long time. But when I buy something I don’t care about, like shampoo or luggage, I cut costs mercilessly. Read more about in Conscious Spending: How My Friend Spends $21,000/year Going Out.

I asked my researcher to go to Safeway and dig up some cost comparisons. Here’s just a sample of what he found:


fish-oil-generic.png aspirin-generic.png

Ask yourself:

  • Can you really tell the difference between Cheerios ($5) and the generic version ($2.50)? Have you ever tried?

  • What about prescription drugs, batteries, or vitamins? How much could you save each month?
  • Would it be worth trying out some generics to see which you’d be willing to compromise on?

Of course it would. Even if it costs a little extra to duplicate what you’ve got in generic, it’s a spend-once-save-forever proposition: If you save 50% on Cheerios for the rest of your life, that’s a lot more than the $2.50 you spent on trying it out.

Some examples of areas you could save money: Toiletries, food, clothes (especially jeans, gloves, underwear, undershirts, slippers), stuff for your pet (I would rather feed my pet a box of napkins than buy Premium food….this may be why I don’t have a pet), and auto stuff.

Try it today: You can’t get the best of everything. What can you compromise on?

Total savings: $50 to $500 per month

Last thing to do
1. See other tips in the Save $1,000 in 30 Days Challenge
2. Leave a comment on this post describing how much you’re saving with this tip and any unusual techniques you use to make this tip work.

If you liked this tip, check out my Premium tips — one long, tactical tip per week. Save money or get a 100% refund.


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  1. I do this- it does work well. One example is that I have really horrible dry, sensitive skin and I have found from experience that I can’t just use whatever random lotion or soap/body wash that’s on sale unless I want to aggravate my skin to the point of hives. So, I shell out for the stuff I know my skin will tolerate. But, I have found that Suave works just fine on my hair and it’s about three dollars cheaper than Pantene or whatever, so I save there. It’s not just about always buying whatever the cheapest thing is at the time. It’s about consciously deciding what things make a difference if they are a specific brand and what things don’t. It’s certainly not a waste of money for me to buy the Aveeno lotion that my skin tolerates. But, it might be for someone else whose skin is just fine with the store brand.

  2. I agree 100% with this article with one exception: the dog food.
    I wouldn’t eat McDonalds everyday, and I will spend more money to buy my pets decent quality food. Those who can’t or won’t buy anything above the cheapest pet food also need to consider the cost of check-ups and vet visits.

    Otherwise, I agree with everything! I’ve started buying generic cereals lately. The one thing that I can’t do is off-brand Parmesan cheese. yuck!

  3. I prefer to purchase products that are multi-use (like vinegar for cooking AND cleanser) and are non-toxic and eco-friendly (like Dr. Bronners). I save a bundle with that every year. I buy generic for random things like office supplies, trash bags, faux-ziploc bags..etc and some of these are things I’m trying to phase out.

  4. I totally agree with jaye britney about the dog food. Your pet’s health will suffer. Not only that, you you often have to feed your dog twice of the generic food, so in the end it’s just as expensive. Not to mention that you have to clean up twice the poop on generic food. Yuck.

    And Cheerios: that is one thing I do always buy brand name. I can definitely tell the difference. The store brand is like little cardboard doughnuts.

  5. Thirded – pet’s are not a place to be trying to save money (especially on food) – cheap pet toys can be dangerous (cheaply made, fall apart quicker) – of course, this doesn’t apply to those who buy heated beds or ceramic bowls – but even those are a one time deal.

    Pet food though – animals have very different digestive systems to humans – our bunny can’t tolerate cheap hay blends, or over processed rabbit food “mixes” and we run serious the risk of serious medical problems if we feed them to him. Dogs digestive systems adapt to one type of food, and you can’t deviate from that without slowly changing them over – so you can’t buy based on sales. Buy them cheap food, with lots of crap mixed in, and you’ll be repaid with lots of that crap coming out too. Get them good food to begin with and life will be much less poopy.

    For humans though – I’ve got a wife with some serious food allergies, I have to be very careful what brands I buy – cheaper foods have more fillers.

  6. Another person who believes people overspend on pets! Honestly, if I had a pet that needed expensive medical coverage or fancy food, I’d be pricing bullets.

    I have a fish that is still eating the same can of food for over a year. I change his water once every two weeks. He lives in a bowl with no electricity. That’s enough pet for me. 🙂

    But yeah, I agree with the generic items. I will buy most everything generic. My mom, on the other hand, swears by expensive foil. I don’t know if it’s better as she claims but maybe it is. I will spring the extra money for Cheez-Its (if I bought junk food any more) because they are so much better than the cheap kind you can buy at Walmart.

    Electronics I will also not skimp on but I also won’t go into the super high range. Just enough where you get a durable product is what I say.

    I also won’t buy cheap cola. It’s just Diet Pepsi for me. I can’t stand Coke or store brand so I wait for Pepsi to be on sale. Luckily it’s on sale just about every other week at one market or another.

    • battra92 really? Shoot it? I hope nobody comes after you with a gun if you should get sick and need medical intervention or need a special diet. .to bad u can’t get a refund on the brain in your head, the one you have is a badly made generic which seems to have passed its expiration date

  7. Don’t just buy generic for the stuff you don’t care about… buy it for almost everything that you don’t mind giving up brand name to.

    In my family, we just buy whatever is cheaper most of the time. So if the brand name is cheaper, we buy that.

  8. Owning a pet is a financial commitment. It is a responsibility. It is not an accessory or a toy. If you don’t wish that commitment, don’t buy one, but to talk about putting one down because of cost just makes you seem like a total asshole. (I realize this was a commenter, but you brought it up and thus started the mindset that it was okay to act like an unfeeling dolt about animals.)

    I budgeted for my pet. I waited until my life was stable enough to take on the responsibility for the animal. There are sacrifices. But that’s what you talk about on here all the time, right? WHy is it different because it’s a pet? You don’t want to be a pet owner – that’s fine – but don’t be dismissive towards a living thing.

    You cannot necessarily skimp on pet food. Some pets might be fine. Others will end up getting so sick that you will spend more on vet bills.

    If you’re not a pet owner it might be better to not counsel others on how to best care for their animals or to suggest that they use their pets as a way to cut costs.

  9. Funny you mention Cheerios. Cheerios is one of the few cereals that I’ve never been able to find a good generic equivalent to. Generic copies, yes, but not that same taste.

    Good tips though. I do this myself.

  10. Don’t buy generic for anything you put into your mouth, period.