Updated on 02.22.16

30 Store-Brand and Generic Items I Use… and Five I Don’t

Trent Hamm

Most of the time, generic versions will save you money without a noticeable drop-off in quality. But there are exceptions.

When I go to the grocery store, most of the items that I put into my cart are generic or store-brand items. I continually walk right by the brands that you see in advertisements and placed in the background of television shows and instead put items from “Up and Up” or “Market Pantry” or “Kirkland Signature” or “Fareway” or “Hy-Vee” into my cart.

The thing is, I didn’t always have this perspective. Once upon a time, I had the perspective that name brands were the “quality” versions of the item and the store brands were somehow “watered down” versions of the item. The only reason I could see buying a name brand is if you were so desperately broke that no other option was available.

Over time, I broke out of that mindset, mostly due to the guidance of books on frugality as well as my own initiative to try different things. What I learned is that, most of the time, the store brand is practically identical to the name brand. This isn’t always true, but it’s true more often than not.

Nowadays, when I go to the grocery store, I buy mostly store-brand items.

Why Store Brand Over Name Brand?

Now, something must have significantly changed over that period to shift me from mostly avoiding store brand items to almost entirely buying only store brand items. What caused that transition? Why did I make that change?

For me, the choice boils down to three big factors.

First, the store-brand items are usually functionally identical to the name brand items, or the difference in quality is negligible. There just simply isn’t a whole lot of difference in terms of the functionality of the different options available to me. Yes, one version might be slightly better than another version, but it’s usually negligible and hard to notice, especially when that particular item’s exact performance is not a “front and center” issue in my life.

Second, the store-brand items are significantly cheaper than the name-brand items. This varies greatly from item to item, but the cost difference can be as much as 70%, though I would say the average is somewhere around 30-40% or so. Even on an inexpensive item, that’s a noticeable savings.

Third, this is a very multiplicative effect, meaning that there are a lot of store-brand choices per store visit and a lot of store visits per year. Let’s say I save $0.75 by purchasing a store brand item over a name brand item. “Seventy five cents? Big deal!” you might think.

Let’s also say that I make 20 such decisions per shopping trip, and that I go to the store once a week. Over the course of a year, that means I’m making 1,020 such choices. If I’m saving $0.75 per choice, that’s $760 in annual savings just by consistently choosing to buy a functionally identical store brand over a name brand item at the grocery store.

$760 is no laughing matter. That’s a couple of car payments. That’s more than our budget for a week-long family vacation for us that involves a road trip and a lot of camping.

But what does buying store brands really look like? Here are 30 store brands I choose myself when visiting the store each week.

30 Store-Brand and Generic Items I Use

Flour seems to be identical from brand to brand. Some types do require a bit of sifting, as other brands seem to be a bit “fluffier” in the bag, but that’s simple.

Sugar and salt seem to be completely identical, regardless of brand. I’ll just buy the least expensive sugar that meets my recipe needs.

Breakfast cereal varies a little bit, but in many cases I actually find the store brand to be more palatable. This has to do more with taste than anything. Try all the brands, and if it makes no difference to you, stick with the cheaper one that’s up to snuff.

Oatmeal is something that I usually buy in large containers or in bulk, depending on price. Again, this is a staple – steel cut oats in a Quaker package cook the same as oats from the bulk bin.

Dry beans completely replace canned, name-brand beans for me. They’re far, far cheaper per pound – a 15-ounce can of cooked beans can cost as much as four times the price of a pound of dry beans, and the dry beans triple in size when you cook them. They also taste better, and all you have to do to prepare them is leave them in the slow cooker with some water all day long while you do other stuff.

Dry fruits like raisins or cranberries are identical from package to package, as far as I can tell. I’ll often buy these from the store bulk bins as well.

Nuts are usually bought from the bulk bins at the store. If I want to season nuts, I do it myself by putting seasoning in a small container and tossing the nuts around in the seasoning.

Ketchup is practically identical among brands, as far as I can tell. There are slight variations on thickness but it’s really hard to tell. If I want a flavored ketchup, I’ll just mix a bit of sriracha or hot sauce directly into the ketchup bottle myself. This type of thing definitely comes down to taste buds, though, so try store brands with an open mind or even with a blind taste test.

Yellow mustard is basically the same for my taste buds regardless of whether it’s the store brand or the name brand. I’m not paying extra for a bottle that just says “French’s” on the front. Again, as with ketchup, this often comes down to taste preferences, so try different brands and taste them blind to see what you actually prefer.

Cheese appears to be largely identical for my purposes. If I’m just buying some simple cheese for simple recipes, I’ll buy the store brand, but if I’m cooking something special, I’ll get it from the high-end cheese area. The “name brand” cheeses just get skipped.

Cottage cheese is a pure store-brand thing. It’s essentially curdled milk, so I don’t feel the need to pay extra for a name brand. Sour cream follows the exact same logic here.

Bottled water is something that I rarely ever buy – that’s what Nalgene bottles and a water fountain or a tap are for – but when I do, it’s the store brand.

Similarly, soda is something that I’ll buy in the store-brand form if I ever buy it at all. The store-brand sodas taste perfectly fine if you’re just wanting something fizzy. On the rare occasions when I want to make, say, a root beer float or something, I’m very picky about the soda, but for most purposes it makes no difference which brand I buy because it’s all sweet and fizzy.

Baby formula was something our pediatrician encouraged us to buy in store-brand form because he stated that almost all brands are practically identical because they’re so specific on the FDA regulations for formula. While we never used it very much, it was usually the store brand.

Frozen vegetables and frozen fruit are flash frozen versions of what you find in the produce aisle. If you buy generic in one place, you should buy generic in the other.

Thus, unsurprisingly, fresh produce is an area of the store where we completely ignore the labels.

Salad mixes can be convenient, but there’s no need to pay a buck or two more per bag just so that it says “Dole” on it. You can see what’s in the bag – it’s greens in both bags.

Over-the-counter medicine usually contains the exact same ingredients in both name brand and store brand forms, so I just buy the store brand versions. It seems to take care of my minor illness symptoms just fine.

Dishwashing soap seems to work equally well regardless of the version that I buy. There is a perception that it “used” to work better before restrictions on phosphates changed the formulations of all dishwashing soaps, but that has nothing to do with generics or store brands or name brands.

Laundry soap is something that seems completely unnecessary to spend good money on. I actually make my own laundry detergent from equal amounts of washing soda, borax, and soap flakes, which is 90% cheaper per load than Tide.

Hand soap does a great job of getting my hands clean regardless of whether I buy the store brand or spend a buck or two extra on the name brand, so I just buy big refill jugs of the store brand and keep it cheap.

Bar soap (or body wash) accomplishes a similar effect in the shower – as long as it removes any dirt and grime from my body and washes away unpleasant odors and gets my body clean, I don’t care what name is imprinted on the bar or written on the bottle.

Men’s shampoo and men’s conditioner are items that I buy as inexpensively as possible. I keep my hair really short and I’m mostly concerned with it not appearing dirty or excessively oily, and generic conditioner and shampoo do the trick really nicely.

Paper towels are something we rarely use, so we just buy them in generic form. Instead of paper towels, we have a “rag drawer” which we use for most spills. The “rag drawer” consists of a bunch of old rags that work really well for cleaning up the types of things that paper towels are usually used for, so we rarely use paper towels at all.

Window cleaner, for us, isn’t something we buy in the window cleaner section of the store. I actually just mix 1/4 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, and two drops of dish soap in a spray bottle and use that for window cleaning. It works just fine for everything I’ve needed, and we have three kids that are constantly smearing windows.

Paper plates are rarely used around here. We basically never buy paper plates to begin with, using either our own household plates or a stack of plastic ones for all such purposes. On the rare occasions when we do (like a color-themed children’s party), we buy the cheapest ones we can find.

Five Name-Brand Items I Use Instead of the Store Brand

I don’t buy everything in store-brand form. Here are five things that I make sure to buy in a specific brand.

Garbage bags are an item that I’ve had many bad experiences with. I’ve had many bags rip and dump lots of trash on the floor, resulting in a lot of cleanup and a lot of wasted time. I went on a mission to try lots of different trash bags and I found that Glad ForceFlex kitchen bags worked the best for us, so I’ve stuck with them ever since.

It costs about $0.07 per bag extra at my preferred store to purchase the brand I prefer over the store brand, and considering that my experience with store brand bags saw a bag splitting about once in every 25 or so bags, it’s well worth the $1.70 on average to avoid that splitting. I’ve never had a ForceFlex bag break on me.

Toilet paper is another item that I’m fairly picky about. Again, I tried lots of different brands of toilet paper along the way because I found the store brand to be very rough. I just kept trying brands until I found a middle-of-the-road brand that was acceptable for my use without being overly expensive. I actually didn’t like some of the expensive brands, either, as they almost felt slick to the touch.

Batteries are something that I almost never buy these days. That’s because our house is loaded with eneloop rechargeable batteries, which work really well and seem to hold a charge for quite a long time. Because of that, I rarely buy batteries, but when I do, they’re eneloops. I got started with eneloops as the result of a gifted “starter set” that included a charger and several batteries.

Another item I don’t buy in generic form is bread. This might seem like a strange choice, but bread is a food where the ingredients are vastly different from brand to brand and loaf to loaf. Some breads are virtually devoid of fiber, while other breads are loaded with it. Some breads use whole grains in their baking, while others have none. Some grains have a lot of different nutrients, while some are basically just mouthfuls of starch.

This is one item that I definitely buy based on the nutrition facts label, not the price. Plus, many more expensive breads are much more filling than other breads, meaning we eat fewer slices in a meal, meaning that the loaf actually lasts for longer and the cost per meal is actually pretty comparable to the cheap bread.

I also avoid buying store-brand or off-brand electronics. If something goes wrong with an off-brand device, you often have absolutely no recourse in terms of getting it repaired or replaced. They also tend to be fragile and operate very slowly.

The important thing to note here is that these are my own personal experiences that are derived from actually trying store brands and figuring out what works for me. You may find that some of the things I avoid are just fine for your needs, or that some of the things that I buy in store brand form aren’t up to snuff for you.

Some Strategies for Getting Off the Name-Brand Train

Even after hearing all of this and seeing the obvious savings, many people still keep buying name brands and avoiding store brands. There are a lot of reasons for this – brand loyalty, for one, and habit for another.

If you intellectually understand the benefits of buying store brands but still find yourself going for the name brands when you’re in the store, here are some strategies to try that will help you break that connection to name brand goods.

Simply try store brands for yourself – even if it doesn’t work out, it’s not costing you very much. When you’re in the store, make a conscious decision to put a store brand item in the cart instead of the name brand item. After all, it’s often in the moment in the store aisle where the decision is made to choose the name brand, even if it’s not consciously chosen.

One good way of doing this is to specifically write this information on your grocery list. Specifically note that you’re going to try the store brand of a specific item. When you see that in the store, you’ll remember that instead of just grabbing the default name brand that you always grab.

Shop at stores that feature store brands or don’t even carry name brands. For example, stores like Trader Joe’s and ALDI focus almost entirely on their store brands. Other stores, like Costco, put their store brand (Kirkland Signature, in this case) front and center all throughout the store.

If you’re in a store that puts at least some emphasis on the store brand, you’re more likely to buy store-brand items, which will end up saving you money. Plus, you’ll find that the store brand in stores that emphasize it are usually top quality.

Do blind taste tests. If you’re doubting that a store brand item will actually taste as good as a name brand item, buy both and do a taste test for yourself. Make sure that it’s a blind taste test, however, as knowing which is which in advance can sway your judgment.

My wife and I have done quite a few blind taste tests in the past, where one of us will prepare samples for the other one without any indication as to which is which. You’d be surprised how often we wind up having no preference or a preference that’s very small. I’d estimate half of the time I actually guess wrong when I try to identify which is which between a name brand and a store brand when I don’t have other clues (like labels) skewing my results.

Final Thoughts

We literally save hundreds of dollars a year by simply buying store brands of specific products where we know that the name brand brings nothing extra to the table for us. We discovered this by trying store brands with an open mind and learning along the way that many store brands are just as good as name brands – you’re just not paying extra for that familiar label on the outside.

I don’t know about you, but I care a lot more about the quality and usefulness of the product on the inside than I care about the label on the outside. I just want something that works for what I need and, ideally, costs me less money. Most of the time, store brands step up to the plate perfectly for my needs, providing just what I need at a better price.

The next time you’re in a store, going through your grocery list and dropping items in your cart, consider trying some store brand versions of the regular name brand items that you buy. You may just find that they work wonderfully for your needs while also leaving some of your hard-earned cash in your pocket where it belongs.

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