Avoiding Low Quality Generics While Still Saving Money

national_generic_peas by rstinnett on Flickr!As a rule of thumb, I think it’s a good idea to try generic versions of products you already use, or, at the very least, try out lower end versions.

But there’s a problem with that philosophy, one that’s explained very well by Allie, who recently emailed me on this topic:

The reason I don’t buy generics is because I’ve usually already found a brand I like, so why should I risk buying something I don’t like?

It’s a good argument, so let’s walk through the logic a bit and see where it leads us.

The Generic Argument

Let’s say you’re in a grocery store and you’re looking at your various options for tomato sauce. You can either buy a name brand you’re familiar with – like Hunt’s – or you can buy the store’s generic brand. Which do you choose?

If you flip the cans over and compare the ingredients, you’ll usually find that they’re identical.

The contents of the can you’re buying are the one and the same for many items.

The only significant differences, in many cases, are the labeling and the price.

The name brand usually has a prettier label from a brand you recognize, but the other one is usually substantially cheaper.

If the item inside the package is the same, take the cheaper one.

Is it really a value to spend extra for that nice label and that name that you may have heard of before? Likely, it’s not.

Not All Items Are The Same

Obviously, though, there are differences in quality between brands with many items. You might not be able to distinguish between tomato sauces, for example, but you certainly can distinguish between brands of toilet paper.

Because of this varying quality, most people tend to find a brand that they know they like and stick with it

(lo and behold, the status quo bias strikes again!). It actually makes sense – it makes shopping easier and you know you’ll wind up with a product that works for you.

This is the thought process that leads people to fill up their cart with name brand items. They are familiar with those items and know that they meet their basic needs, and because this is the “norm,” they fill up their cart with those items, quietly paying the premium cost for a perceived insurance of basic quality.

The “Generic” Experiment

Instead of following that route, try this one on for size. The next time you go to the grocery store, actively replace all of your regular purchases with the low-end generics. Buy the cheap dish soap, the cheap deodorant, and the cheap wheat bread. Then just use them like normal and see if you actually notice any difference.

Likely, you will notice that some items are lower in quality

Some might even find that some aren’t acceptable for your use. However, many of the items will just automatically replace the more expensive versions without you even noticing.

Keep track of the ones that work for you and the ones that don’t

You may find that generic spaghetti is a good buy for your family, but your family hates the generic toilet paper. Lesson learned – go back to the name brand toilet paper, but stick with the generic spaghetti.

Make Up For The Losses

All of this sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t really help if you’re standing in your kitchen one night holding a jar of really foul generic peanut butter that you don’t want to consume. If you’re just throwing that jar of peanut butter away, isn’t that a waste of money?

Of course it’s a waste of money, but if you discover a handful of generic items that work for you and your family, it more than balances out over the long haul. Let’s say you try twenty five generic items on your next shopping trip and, on average, they cost $2 and save you $0.50 off the name brand. At the end of that week, you find that ten of the generics are up to snuff and become regular parts of your grocery list, while ten more aren’t up to snuff and five more were bad enough that you had to chuck them.

On that first grocery bill, you saved $12.50 overall. At home, though, you had to chuck five items, which at $2 each ate up $10 of that savings, leaving you only $2.50 ahead and with ten generics you really don’t like. Not the best deal, right?

But look at the long haul. If you buy the ten generics you do like twice a month, your newfound use of generics saves you $10 a month in perpetuity. Every month, you’re spending $10 less than you would have spent and your family is just as happy as they were before.

Give “The Generic Experiment” a Try!

This week, buy generic versions of everything on your shopping list. Keep a list of all of the generics you bought and put it on the fridge. If you discover one of the generic items isn’t up to snuff, just cross it off that list on the fridge.

The items that remain on that list are the “safe generics”

These are the items that are okay for you buy. If you find yourself with even a few items on your “safe generic” list, this experiment will pay for itself and far more over the long haul. Likely, you’ll be surprised how many of the generics are as good as the name brands for your own use, and that fact will save you a lot of money on your food and household expenses.

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  1. Amanda says:

    Has anyone found a generic brand of mayo that is comparable to Best Foods? That is the only brand my husband likes, but we do go through quite a lot of it (and boy has the price gone up in the past year or so!), so I would really be happy if I could find a generic that meets with his approval. It’s not just the name he likes, either, because I have tried to switch brands without telling him, but he always can taste the difference.

  2. Suzanne says:

    Trent, this is excellent advice! In general, our family uses generics with a few “must have” brand name products. But I do know of several people who are very status quo about their brand name purchases. This would be an excellent experiment for them.

  3. writer dad says:

    My wife and I have to shop for a nursery school, so we need large quantities of everything. We’ve replaced most of the things we need to buy with generics. I would say that half, easily, are just as good. A few have even been better. Some, not so much, but you just find better replacements for those. It’s rarely the most expensive on the shelf though.

  4. Martin says:

    In a way, this post is too respectful of the people who are having such qualms. We live in tough economic times, and one hears people lament the difficulty in making ends meet with great regularity. People should be made to recognize that a reluctance to switch from Hunt’s/Heinz/Hellman’s etc. is incompatible with a presented worldview of genuine economic hardship. Put short, if you are too addicted to luxury to give up Heinz, you forfeit your right to grumble about the economy!

  5. Red says:

    Actually.. Target brand TP is very comparable to Northern. I got the smallest pack, just to “try” it… Now I am stuck on the Target brand!

  6. KC says:

    I’ve done this in the past – through the years – and I’m now pretty set on what I buy. I just can’t go generic on some things (soap, shampoo, detergent, etc – maily cause of allergies) and I do go generic on some things (some cereals, bread). Over the years you’ll learn what you can and can’t go without. When you have to have certain name brands you’ll just start looking for them on sale.

  7. Olivia says:

    This is a great article! I have always used generics. I don’t think my grandparents EVER bought a canned good that was name brand! But there is something I’ve noticed lately. My favorite generic brand, ValuTime’s prices have made a sharp increase, while quality has gone Way Down. Just the other day, I opened a can of tinned grean beans, poured it into my veggie soup, and then at dinner time my husband and I realized our soup was full off… I don’t know? Stems? And several times lately we have opened tins of corn, only to find a can of chopped corn cob.

    At this point I know we’re going to have to switch, and I hate it. Perhaps it is the status quo bias at work, but I think it’s something akin to reverse snobbery. I guess it goes to show that people can just as easily be smug about saving the most money as they can about having the “best” of everything!

  8. Another Personal Finance Blog says:

    We find that Safeway has a good selection of generics that ares still fairly healthy and comparable in quality.

  9. Sandy says:

    Before you throw away that peanut butter, make some peanut butter cookies out of it! (maybe add some extra sugar?).
    I have been lucky with generic beans (garbanzo, kidney, pinto, black), tomato sauces, sauerkraut,frozen veg, and dog biscuits. I go with a mid-range TP, myself…the generic was too wimpy…the ulta X too pricey, the mid range just right!

  10. aphexbr says:

    Some generic brands are made to very different recipes than the brand names and the brands can taste/feel much better. It’s usually not hard to work out which those are.

    Other generics are literally identical products. I don’t know if the same system is used in the US (I’m English), but I remember a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago about his experience working in a biscuit factory. For most types of biscuits, the only difference between the generics and the brand name (which cost close to double the price) was the packaging. The biscuits that went into the packaging were from the same production batches.

    Overall, the article’s great advice. You don’t always get what you pay for when dealing with the corporate world so experiment and see if you can lower your shopping bill.

  11. Djben75 says:

    I would also like to point out that some generic (or house) brands now offer a money back guarantee, so if you don’t like it you just return the unused portion!)

  12. Excellent information here. After being a “Brand Snob” most of my life I have learned recently that generic or store brands are usually more than acceptable for my taste.

    About a year ago I did what you suggest in your Generic Experiment. For one week of grocery shopping I went with generics as much as possible. Not only was the bill 40% lower, all the meals tasted the same that following week. THAT is what convinced me that I was onto something good.

    If you are on the fence about generics try this out: buy generic pasta and use it for supper one night. Or purchase some frozen generic vegetables and see how you like them. Both items are pretty hard to mess up in the manufacturing process.

  13. Jenn says:

    I agree with Sandy. The generics you don’t like don’t have to go to waste. Find some recipe to use it up in the most palatable way possible. Throw in some chocolate chips if it makes sense. My family will eat just about anything if there’s chocolate involved.

    Kroger currently has a promotion going on where their generic products are being featured as bargains. They’re not on sale. And they’re the real generics in plain white packaging. Not their store brand products. So for table sugar, there was the name brand sugar, the Kroger brand sugar, and then the Kroger generic sugar being featured. The interesting thing is the Kroger generic sugar is sold in 4 lb bags instead of 5 lbs and the unit measure was something different than oz which all the other sugars used. So you couldn’t make a true comparison without doing some math. I determined it still was cheaper but thought perhaps they were trying too hard and since I was baking for company, I bought the brand I was familiar with.

  14. ednams says:

    Supposedly it is now not legal to offer a generic food product that is lower quality than the name brands. Generics have improved a lot in recent years..Try ‘em…You might like ‘em.

  15. Susan says:

    I have been doing this sort of shopping for some time now. It works great! I have found that the generic store brand items I have purchased that were just really bad (to us), I have been able to return them to the store for my money back (on my next regularly scheduled trip, not a special trip). :) I have had Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kroger and Albertson’s all return my money for an unsatisfactory item.

  16. n_star says:

    I recently received a Rite Aid ad in the mail that had coupons for something like this… If you buy a name brand item (such as Ziplock bags), you would get the Rite Aid brand equivalent for free. I thought it was a great advertising idea — not only would you get double the items you pay for but if you don’t see much of a difference, you will buy the cheaper store brand one next time. Plus, since they are giving it away, it reduces the bias that you get when paying for an “inferior” generic product.

  17. harmgb says:

    From the pic, canned peas always struck me
    as a bad idea in name brand OR generic, LoL.
    I’d say salt, sugar, baking soda, distilled water,
    and oatmeal are hard to go wrong with…..

  18. Carolyn says:

    Hi, Trent,

    I’ve been very pleased with Albertson’s store brand. I don’t know if you have Albertsons there, but everything I’ve tried is just as good or better than my regular brands were. At first, I just tried one or two items, and only because the store manager told me anything I didn’t like they would refund. I don’t know if stores will do this for generics, but it would be worth asking if they will back their own store brands. That way, you could get the savings without any of the risks. As my confidence built, I bought more and more, and I’ve never been disappointed.

    Carolyn

  19. skyrt says:

    This is great advice. But also, I have heard the same as aphexbr about items being made by the same companies. I have heard on the news or other shows about bargain shopping that there are many “name brand” food companies that actually have a contract to supply the exact same item for the store brand–not just bakeries. Like aphexbr said, they are made at the same time and same batches, they just switch out the packaging for the store brand or generic. I wonder if there is a way to find out when that is the case…

    Another tip is that alot of the generics will say on their label “compare to or just like so & so name brand” and that is a key to me that they are made in the same style if not by the same company. There are products like cereals, pb, beans, and many others where I know I prefer a particular name brand, and then just need to find a generic that is made in the same way. My kids have learned that if I bring home Target brand cereal that looks the same as the name brand they like, that it’s usually just fine–and they know I’ll buy it when I won’t buy the name brand because it is SO expensive. Our allergist told us we were wasting money to buy a particular name brand otc allergy pill, as the generic (same strength active ingredient) was EXACTLY the same at a ridiculously low fraction of the price. I do make sure to check labels now on everything to minimize sugars, salts, hydrogenated oils, and high-fructose corn syrups. Otherwise, I at least try the generics and store brands.

    But also, double check those prices–sometimes a name-brand on sale can even be cheaper than the generic! Then I stock up to support the sale and let them know the price matters.

  20. Melinda says:

    Timely article in these difficult times………….
    I’m with Sandy, never throw out something (edibly foul on it own) add it to your baking mixes and the taste takes on new dimension.
    Furthermore, keep snooping around smaller chains of supermarkets(IGA, FOODMART & FOODWORKS in OZ).
    They have some remarkable generics on products you cannot always find in the big stores.

  21. Shadox says:

    If in generics you also include store brands – such as Safeway’s Lucerne – some of those generics are superior to conventional brands, and I actually prefer them on the merits. Cost is an added bonus.

  22. Treva says:

    I’ve got a couple of co-workers who won’t touch generic with a 10-foot pole. They consider it to be a sign of poverty. My family eats something generic almost every day. A few items we are particular on, but only b/c we’ve tried the generic and it didn’t suit us.

    I’ve yet another co-worker who worked at a tuna cannery; he said once every couple days the machines would be stopped, the labels would be changed in the labeler, and the machines would get turned back on. To this day he only buys the cheapest tuna he can find. I think most items in a regional area come from the same packing or processing plant.

    Some stores I think do a particularly good job of packaging their store-brands; Target comes to mind. That may have something to do with why their store-brands seem to be “acceptable” to those same people who adamantly oppose generic.

  23. Kate says:

    If it’s something like peas or sliced carrots that would be an ingredient in a casserole or soup, I always use the generic or store brand, especially with food prices going up.

  24. D.B. says:

    As mentioned, generics are good for baking, even if you don’t like them for eating directly.

    I use generic or dollar store canned fruits for smoothies, milkshakes, pureed fruit sauces, and homemade ice cream.

    If you don’t like the generic peanut butter, save it anyway. It can be used to bait mousetraps. The mice love it just the same!

    My only complaint about generics is that it is often hard to find low-sodium options among generics. I follow a lower-sodium diet and sometimes have to buy the name brand to get a lower-sodium product.

    D.

  25. Sara says:

    I am more than willing to buy generic for many products (there are even a few products where I prefer the store brand to the name brand), but I have found that I can often get the name brand for less by combining a sale and a coupon. For example, I’m happy to buy generic cheese, but an 8 ounce package costs $2.25. Sargento cheese, however, will often go on sale for $2.50, and if I use a $.50 off coupon (which the store doubles), I get the name brand cheese for $1.50.

  26. April411 says:

    I already purchase a lot of generics but this is a great idea for those who are reluctant to try them. BTW target has pretty good store brand peanut butter(Market Pantry brand). It tastes different but still good.

  27. In my area, most of the grocery store brands offer a satisfaction guarantee, which makes those items at least worth one try. I’ve found a lot of decent generics this way, and the ones that were duds got taken back for a refund.

  28. That’s an interesting read. I always try to buy generics versus the brand name whenever I see that the content behind the packaging is the same.

  29. Many grocery stores will take the products back if you don’t like them. In fact, around here you can get your money back plus one of the national brand if you don’t like the store brand.

  30. Carlos says:

    Following a previous TSD post, I am trying very hard not to eat anything with a commercial brand name (generic or national), ala the 100-mile diet.

    It’s not a way to save money, but sure is fun – like solving a puzzle.

  31. LC says:

    When my children were little, we made a game of it. We would shop for our usual brands, and try two “store brand” items each time. When we ate them, we would vote to keep or go back to the name brand. We found lots of items were just as good. Surprisingly, it wasn’t just the “recipe” items (like mayo, spaghetti sauce…) that were of less quality. Frozen broccoli, for example, were mostly stalks, no “trees”. Over all, we had fun and I taught the kids that name brand doesn’t always mean better quality. Just sometimes.

  32. LC says:

    Isn’t it funny that people who grew up with little money see things differently? I know of parents who will never send their child to school with generic or “cheap” brand anything, thinking it is a sign of poverty. Now that they make money they want the “best” for their kids. I grew up fairly well off, shopping at KMart and consignment shops with my mom so we could spend our money on our house and college. Its all in the perception.

  33. Mary Ellen says:

    I mostly agree about generics and store brands, and we use a lot of them. However, generic Pop-Tarts (aka “Toaster Pastries”) are just foul. My mother tried to get some when I was a kid, and we refused to eat them. A few years ago, my husband had the same bright idea, with the same result. Yuck.

    Of course, the healthier option would be to quit eating Pop-Tarts entirely, but that’s where I draw the line. I have very few guilty pleasures; I think I’m entitled to that one.

  34. Sarah says:

    It just occurred to me how very odd it is that food can have a brand. (And I’m not a hard-core-farmer’s- market-all-natural type of gal.)

  35. Nick Wright says:

    We’re moving away from buying pre-packaged foods in any form.

    But when we do buy them, we buy generic. Our favorite grocery store in the whole world (besides perhaps Whole Foods) is ALDIs.

    They sell (almost) nothing but generics. And they are the rock bottom price. They just unload boxes of stuff and stick it on the floor of their store. You pick up what you want and take it to the register. They don’t bother with bagging unless you bring your own or buy some from them. Load up your car and away you go.

    My wife and I will on occasion go and spend between $50-100 on nothing but their canned veggies, and that load will last us many many months.

  36. Ms. Clear says:

    We buy mostly generics. If we aren’t buying a generic, it’s because there probably isn’t one. For example, Special K Protein Plus keeps me full and helps me watch my weight. No generic available with the same fiber content and taste. So I buy it. But peanut butter, jelly, butter, bagels, cream cheese, canned diced tomatoes, shredded cheese etc? All generic. The peanut butter isn’t quite as good, but I think the savings are worth it. It’s not bad or anything.

    Two times I do splurge for the brand? Bumblebee Albacore Tuna in Water and Kraft Mac and Cheese.

  37. Jen says:

    We recently moved to an area that has Publix supermarkets, and I LOVE their generic organics. I believe Safeway carries a store brand of generic, as well — we used those when we lived in California. It’s a great way to go organic without a huge change in grocery costs.

  38. Fiona says:

    I’m a recent generics convert and canned tomatoes have been the biggest revelation. I would formerly buy only branded Italian tomatoes, sure that no generic alternative could be as good. Having made the experiment (and noting that the generic brand is imported from Italy), I find I can make a tomato pasta sauce – a staple for my family – every bit as good as with the branded tomatoes and for at least 20 cents cheaper a can. I won’t be going back to brand. I’m experimenting now with a breakfast cereal mix I’ve made from packets of generic ingredients (bran flakes, oats, various kinds of dried fruit) as the quality branded breakfast cereals are so expensive and we’ve not found a generic cereal mix that suits everyone in the family. This morning’s findings suggest I’m on the right track with high praise from the family fuss pot. I commend Trent’s advice to give the generics a go. There will definitely be some areas where you lose nothing in quality and come out with substantial savings over time. I’m now happily using generic canned tomatoes and beans, tuna, olive oil (for cooking, not for salad dressing), soap, dishwashing liquid, soda water and tonic water (but no compromise on the gin!), milk, breakfast cereal, cleaning cloths, laundry detergent (with the addition of some Eucalyptus oil) and various cleaning solutions (bleach, sugar soap, baking soda, white vinegar) If you are sensitive to the snobbishness of friends and neighbours, shop at midnight and stash your generics in the back of the cupboard.

  39. Paul says:

    I used to be a Kraft mac/cheese only kinda guy, but when I was at Wal-Mart and it was $1/box, I had to try the Great Value (Wal-Mart store brand) for $0.33. Guess what? We like it better and haven’t bought Kraft in 6 months.

    Same thing for Albertson’s Augratin potatoes. We used to only buy Betty Crocker brand but one day the store was out so we bought the Albertson’s brand. We like it so much better and it costs about half what Betty charges.

    My wife still has to have Dawn dish soap though. ;-)

  40. mariah says:

    Many of the generics do work just as well.

    One way I use generic spaghetti sauce and other canned products is by additional herbs and spices – if needed can bring a generic brand up in quality to tasting as good as name brand.

    Breaking mental dependency and rote mechanical efforts in shopping can pay big dividends in the long run! Automatically buying the name brands is a form of “shopping snobbery” that I don’t want to continue.

    So much shopping is a psychological game the manufacturers play with our heads and I resent it. But since I can’t stop it I will fight to win the game by couponing and smart buying and breaking old habits!

  41. SBT says:

    I shop at Fareway here in Iowa, and their store brand items are generally of excellent quality. I save twenty or thirty cents over name brands every time I pick up a can of tomato sauce.

    My absolute favorite wonderful buy is Garden Club jams and preserves. They often contain more chunks of visible fruit than more expensive brands, like Smuckers. They taste great, and best of all, they come in glasses. My everyday glasses look nice, are extremely durable, and I got them for $1.79 each filled with jam. Love it!

    SBT

  42. Sods says:

    I do shop with as many generic products as I can, working in manufacturing, I know that alot of the time products do come from the same Line into different packaging.

    I just want to mention one thing I have noticed in the local stores. I am sure if this applies to stores in the States (I am from Canada) but some of our generics are actually MORE expensive than brand names. Presidents Choice from Loblaws stores is kind of the “Premium Generic” and in certain areas is more expensive than the brand names, just a warning, watch out, generic doesn’t automatically mean savings.

  43. Fiona says:

    It occurs to me that the best use of generic brand foods is not to replace favourite prepared foods but as ingredients in cooking or baking. The quality of the generic prepared food (eg peanut butter, biscuits, breakfast cereal, jam, “toaster pastries”) has often been too heavily compromised in order to keep the price low. I suspect this is more the case the more processed the product is. Further, the supermarket isn’t as concerned about the brand-quality link for its individual generic products as is the producer of well known branded items eg Pop Tarts. All this explains why generic canned tomatoes and tuna, butter, milk, pasta and cereal grains are barely distinguishable from the branded product while generic spreads and sauces, snacks, desserts and other prepared foods often seem a bit mean in their ingredients (too much sugar or fat and too little fruit or veg) or just taste funny.

  44. mariah says:

    One way I use generic spaghetti sauce and other canned products is by additional herbs and spices – clever seasoning can bring a generic brand up in quality to tasting as good or better than the name brand.

    Breaking mental dependency and mechanical efforts in shopping can pay big dividends in the long run! Automatically buying the name brands is a form of “shopping snobbery” that I don’t want to continue.

    Open mindedness can pay big dividends!

    So much shopping is a psychological game the manufacturers play with our heads and I resent it. But since I can’t stop it I will fight to win the game by couponing and smart buying and breaking old habits!

  45. Georgia says:

    We’ve always bought a lot of generic. Only time we ever had anything really bad was from Aldi’s. It was applesauce. It was the only fruit type stuff my young son would eat and even he refused to eat it.

    However, sometimes it pays to try a second time just to be certain. My husband was convinced it was simply a batch that used green apples and so had a very sour taste.

    Thanks for all the savings tips. I am a widow who has a somewhat limited income, which is sufficient unless things get much worse. I remember my uncle who retired in his late 50′s with what seemed like a very substantial retirement. However, about 30 years later, it was not as much – about $350 a month. Luckily, he and my aunt had saved and owned their own home, so they could be able to survive.

  46. NYC reader says:

    I always scan the lists of ingredients on generics and compare to the name brands. Sometimes the generics are the same or similar, sometimes they have less of the good stuff or more of the bad stuff (ingredients are listed in descending order).

    One trick I use when comparing the generics/store brands to the big name items is to compare the product batch codes. Sometimes you will find that the exact same batch (or a different batch from the same factory) is poured into the store brand jar as the name brand. Periodically when there are product recalls, this is confirmed when you find out the Walmart Great Value brand is made by the name brand company (peanut butter was a recent example, GV was made by Jif).

    Another trick I use is limited to dairy products. Look at the pasteurization plant code on dairy products (e.g. 38-1234). By law, that code is specific to a given plant that produces the item. I look at the code on the store brand and compare to the codes on the name brands. That’s why I’ll never buy the name brand unless it’s cheaper; in my area, the store brands of mozzarella cheese all are made by either Sorrento or Polly-O.

    If you’re buying a meat-based product (canned or frozen), there’s a similar trick you can use with the Agriculture Dept. code; those are also specific to the plant which produced the item.

    Of course, a name-brand manufacturer could use a different (and cheaper) recipe or formula for the store brands, but it’s a good starting point. There are contract manufacturers which do nothing but produce private label products, and some of these can be very good, and often preferable to the brand name. I’ve found the private-label Masterchoice line of pasta sauces are excellent, all-natural without those chemistry-set lists of ingredients, and are very inexpensive. Even my friend’s fussy kids prefer the Masterchoice pasta sauces, so you won’t have to do much convincing when the quality is good.

    Drugstore items are another good place to substitute generics. Ask your physician to check the box that says ‘Generic substitution allowed’ on the prescription.

    For over the counter items, I almost always go with the cheapest store brand; the FDC regulates the industry, so the generic equivalent of Claritin is exactly the same as the name brand. Ditto for vitamins, the formula for the generic equivalent of Centrum may vary by a smidgen from the brand name due to the exact formula being copyrighted (that’s why the label says “Compare to Centrum”), but it’s close enough and one third the price.

    Warehouse club brands (Member’s Mark at Sam’s Club and Kirkland at Costco) are also usually very good, and both offer full refunds if you don’t like them. Many stores offer full refunds if you don’t like the store brand, so toss in one can of the store brand while you’re buying the name brand stuff and try it out. If it’s truly awful, bring the empty can/jar back to the store and use the name brand stuff you bought.

    Don’t forget to compare the prices in the warehouse clubs to your local supermarket; you may find it’s cheaper to buy the name brand at Costco than the generic at Safeway.

    There are a few items where I’ve found I prefer the name brand, so I look for bargains and stock up.

    Thomas’ English Muffins are a good example. I don’t like the store brands, so I buy them on sale or at the warehouse club, wrap them extra well (the flimsy plastic bag is not suited for freezing), and freeze them. They last for months in the freezer.

  47. Louise says:

    On average I would say that 90% of the generic items I have tried have been very similar in quality to brand name items, and I’ve never been a brand snob. These days the only thing that stops me buying generic is that I try to buy Australian grown produce whenever possible, and a large number of the generic groceries are grown and processed in different countries. For instance, my local supermarket no longer has even one brand of Australian canned tomatos, generic or otherwise. The same with canned fish, asparagus and all canned legumes. I’d rather pay that tiny bit extra to support my country.

  48. Melissa says:

    My FI and I typically go for whatever is cheapest, and that is usually generics/store brands. There are some items, however, that I will simply not buy generics of, having tried them and hated them: string cheese and tuna. I currently have half a package of generic string cheese in my fridge that I am loathe to throw away, but just can’t bring myself to eat. It tastes awful! And I’ve found that buying cheap tuna always yields something yucky in the can, i.e., pieces of really dark and questionable meat, etc.
    I agree with a previous poster about buying generic, plain spaghetti sauce and throwing in your own spices and such. We’ve done this and it tastes just as good, if not better, than buying name-brand sauce. Not that name-brand sauce is THAT expensive, but hey, every little bit helps, right? :)
    Good article!

  49. Soni says:

    For health and other reasons, I try to buy organic and local as much as possible, and local organic store brands can be hard to find (although our local chain, Ingles, has an excpetionally large selection of both in their store brand, which is nice).

    This has led to a few discoveries in our attempts to trim our grocery bill without sacrificing our values:

    1. Organic items that may not sell as well in a traditional grocery store like Ingles are sometimes actually cheaper at the local “granola/crunchy” Whole-Foods-type store (we shop at our local EarthFare). We’ve found several of our regularly purchased items, like organic milk and locally-produced organic eggs, are actually a far better buy at EarthFare than they are at regular groceries, mainly because the high-end store can sell far more of them.

    2. Crunchy stores like Earth Fare have bulk sections where I can get very nice, organic bulk nut butters, beans, granolas, black and herbal teas, spices, herbs, tofu and snacks at far lower prices than grocery store equivalents. Plus, if I bring my own containers – big coffee cans with resealable lids are great for this – I avoid paying for and bringing home throw-away packaging. In addition, I get a few cents off my bill for bringing my own shopping bags.

    3. Don’t forget to check out your local “bent and dent” stores. We have a local chain here in western NC called Amazing Savings that gets the overstocks and outdateds from the high-end granola/crunchy organic grocery stores like EarthFare and Greenlife. We find that we can get really excellent organic brands of things like corn chips, herbal teas, sauces, those expensive organic juicebox-packaged soups and so on at ridiculous discounts. I hear that another AS location has opened an incredible deli area with organic meats (which hubby eats) and the like – we plan on checking it out soon.

    4. Two words – farmers markets. Nothing beats the local farmers markets and tailgate markets for cheaptastic produce. We’ve been buying huge bushel baskets of incredible Alberta peaches for $12, enough Romas to make a quart of sundried tomatoes for $5 (at the local store, $5 will get you a small handful, if they’re on sale), and an amazing assortment of other fruit and veg for very little money. End of the season is a great time to snag egregious deals on fading produce that’s perfect for roasting, drying or saucing.

    Although the main farmers market out here tends to be mostly the same “outsourced” produce as the grocery stores (albeit much cheaper), we are lucky enough to have several local-farmer-only tailgate markets as well, including one that is strictly all-organic.

    Local, organic and cheap. With a little creativity, it can be done.

    PS – we also grow some of our own, although we’re in an apt, so it’s nowhere as much as we would like.

    Nick Wright @#23:

    I’m all about Aldi’s. Their store brand Grandessa is some of the best food I’ve ever had – superior ingredients, very little if any unnatural stuff and absolutely amazing flavor – all super cheap. Yum!

  50. Kate says:

    I use generic all the time except for:
    Peanut butter
    Shortening
    Vegetable Oil
    Orange Juice
    Oatmeal

  51. Christine says:

    Funny thing – I actually PREFER the generic canned fruit to Dole or DelMonte! I started buying it when I was mostly broke, and only had to buy 1 can of ‘the good stuff’ to realize that the generic was better (packed ‘in juice’ MEANT juice in the generics – it meant light syrup in the name brands).

    The only things I’m picky about brands are Mac & Cheeze (though from a comment above I’ll try the WalMart brand), tomato soup (gotta be Campbells!) and peanut butter.

    Everything else I buy comes down to what’s cheapest. :) My Mom’s so proud of me! LOL

  52. MVP says:

    My husband’s not too keen on generic cereals (the ones that come in the bags), but I’m pretty happy with the plain bran flakes. I’m sure they’re the same as the ultra-pricey national boxed brands. I often buy generics of prepackaged foods like Rice-a-roni and hamburger helper. I’ve noticed no difference except price. I don’t do generic hair products, but my husband doesn’t mind them. They don’t seem to work as well for my hair. But I’ve found many of the generic hygiene products are fine, like face washes and such. But you’ve really gotta watch it with generic medications. They really don’t all work the same, for whatever reason, even if the no. 1 ingredient is the same.

  53. Bradley says:

    I agree with Soni about buying local and focusing on organic brands at some of the ‘crunchy’ stores. I’m more and more concerned about where my food comes from, and what sort of additives are in it. I have found that our local farmer’s market (held in a downtown park of a major city) has higher-than-the-supermarket prices, but I am actually meeting the people who grew/produced the food, and I know exactly where it comes from. This makes it worthwhile. I also know that the money is going straight to the grower, is not being wasted on packaging that I’m going to throw away, and doesn’t have anything in it that I don’t want to be there.

    Not to diss the generic brands, but I’m all for knowing MORE about my purchases and sticking to them.

  54. Mike K says:

    OK… I had to comment on this. Although I’ve been driving/riding the ‘generic train’ for some time, there is definitely a difference in quality. I’ve been bitten by it more than once. But to be honest, the situations where the quality may have been noticeable are still overlooked – in favor of the lower cost. Go figure. Family members don’t notice, and so the train keeps rollin’.
    Heck,I get burned on quality more ofrten by eating out than I do buying generic, so there!

  55. Simon says:

    I did this one weekend for my groceries while school was still in session and it was quite surprising how much I saved. I purchased pasta, spaghetti, chicken, mac & cheese and oil from generic brands. I compared the receipt with what I would have paid and saved about $10!

  56. Jules says:

    I’m a fan of generics and/or store brand. There’s actually a fantastically low-price generic product line in Europe produced by EuroShopper, but the quality is definitely hit-or-miss. Cashews are a hit, shampoo a miss. But I’m pretty happy with the store brand of most packaged products. Not that we buy that many–mostly inedibles and canned tomatoes.

  57. Morton Fox says:

    I’m the other way around since I started with store brands first and only try name brands when coupons and store specials combine to make those cheaper than the equivalent store brands. Pathmark has a decent selection of store brand items though, so I’ve rarely had to look at name brands.

  58. Patrick says:

    Just a quick comment on the Generics Experiment that Trent proposed: a slightly fairer evaluation would be to see if other users of the purchases (excluding the purchaser) notice the brand change without being told. The purchaser, as the buyer, would know that the products are generic instead of the brand name and therefore may be psychologically biased that the generic product would be inferior (the placebo effect).

  59. I am always up for trying generic. I have found products that I like and some I don’t. For the most part, Walmart generics are VERY similar to the product they immitate. The only problems I have found so far are their Head and Shoulders generic and their bread crumbs. However, we buy their bread, veggies, stuffing and mashed potatoes all the time. I can’t tell a difference at all. Also, I use coupons like crazy so a lot of times I can get the brand name products for less than the name brand.

  60. Great advice about reading the label… often generic canned foods will have more sodium than others. Other than that, they’re usually about the same. Though sometimes they’re SO different I can’t believe it’s the same product!

    And sometimes same-ingredients doesn’t mean same-product. For example, buying hearts of palm in a can (hearts of palm, water), especially cheaper brands, can give you inconsistent hearts of palm (woody or thick, sometimes off-tasting). But buying the more expensive ones in the jars (also hearts of palm, water) tends to leave you with tender delicious hearts.

    But like you said, trying the generic is always a good idea. Otherwise, how will you know whether you can spend less for a just-as-good product?

  61. Kendra says:

    We try to use generics as much as possible… we’ve had to decrease the use of generics though because my son is allergic to dairy and eggs. Many of the generic brands may be “free” of the offending ingredients but were “produced” on equipment where there is dairy/egg cross contamination potential… so we can’t buy them anyway! Needless to say, we hope our son “outgrows” these allergies! We use coupons and shop at Sam’s in the meantime.

  62. Why would I buy generics if I can use coupons and sales to get name brand for nearly free, free, or even with overage! :) Of course that doesn’t always work but I’ve found that some of my favorite items go on sale and have great coupons, making them much cheaper than the comparable generics.

    I have become brand loyal to my organic milk though. It is SO yummy, tastes much better than any other generic we’ve tried, and lasts longer too.

  63. Mary says:

    Most of the products I buy are generic, store brand, but I actually look for the best value. Doing this takes time; you have to be prepared to look at the unit prices for the given selection and calculate it yourself if it doesn’t seem right (they do try to trick us on unit price sometimes). One misleading product is the bagged cereal, hardly any difference.

    There are a few items I prefer name brand. Cheerios, DAWN dish soap–I actually waste $ buying the cheap version, even if it’s in an identical package. An average size bottle of dawn lasts me over a year (I live alone). It also works well at getting out grease stains and killing fleas; no other dish soap has been able to kill fleas. The walmart knock off of dove soap is terrible, even though the bars are shaped the same.

    This is what I think is wrong. Many generic products are starting to use identical packaging and often states “compare to…” This is very misleading.

    Aldis is a great place to shop. Many of their products are better than the name brands. They have really good soy milk, better than Silk. Since I don’t have an aldis in my area, I buy silk. It’s more nutritious than some of the generics and doesn’t have that watered-down taste.

    I think Trent should start a forum where we can discuss our favorite off-label products and warn about discusting ones. Some of it may be a matter of preference but I’d be more likely to try a product if someone else thought it was note worthy.

  64. Tish says:

    Nice article! I agree with those who said a big issue with many people buying generic is that it reaks of “cheapness” or “poverty”. But breaking that train of thought goes right along with the whole idea of “the simple dollar”, and taking control of your financial life, of course. I have no problem with buying generic, but I do have friends that actually look at me funny when they see them! It used to bother the hell out of me when my mom would buy generic. What a brat I was! I do remember the faux-Cheerios tasting way inferiror to the real thing, though.

    I also buy generic OTC meds, but do first check the ingredients against “the real thing.” If I am not mistaken, generics come about once the patent has expired on the brand names. The generics then use the recipe to make their own. So, really, they are the same. That’s another bit I try and tell my co-workers that give me funny looks when I have brand X OTCs.

  65. JE says:

    Just a thought – some of the generic foods folks have mentioned are even less expensive (and healthier) if you make them from scratch, i.e. mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, cereal (vs. oatmeal or homemade granola).

  66. Sandy says:

    Just a random thought…if you have young children, it might be wise to start them out on the generic versions of foods (like honey nut cheerios, mac-n-cheese, etc..).
    They wont’ know the difference, you can pocket (and save for their college?)the difference in a lifetime of savings.

  67. Soni says:

    I’m with Mary – I’d love to have a Simple Dollar BB forum to discuss issues on! Great idea.

  68. K says:

    Wegmans is a chain in the NY area and I’ve found that I prefer a lot of their generics WAY more than the brand name, especially on organic peanut butter (no stirring required) and on the tortilla chips. All the other generics are equal quality. Even at Aldi they have a double your money guarantee and I’ve only found one thing there that wasn’t as good as the “real thing,” and I save 40-50% over the chain stores.

  69. Rachel says:

    Excellent advice. Additionally useful if you have a family member who works at the store – my boyfriend’s brother and aunt work at our local Kroger, and we saved probably $5 the last time we shopped there just by buying Kroger products on which we got a 10% discount.

  70. Mel says:

    Sometimes the generic is actually cheaper AND better than the name brand; last year I had the worst flu I’ve ever had, 2 weeks and I just kept getting worse so I was trying everything. I’d used Airborne before and thought it helped make the flu easier to deal with but when I went to the store and compared Airborne with the generic I realized that Airborne uses mineral oil while the generic uses canola. I never use products with mineral oil in them (it’s a petroleum product, even in small amounts, I don’t want that in or on my body!) so I bought the generic and it works just as well as Airborne without the icky mineral oil component.

  71. Amber says:

    I have always purchased generic prescription drugs, because they are well-regulated, but I stick with name-brand over-the-counter products, because I have read studies that suggest those generic products don’t have as stringent quality controls. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

    In terms of grocery items, this thread seems very foreign to me, because I buy so few packaged products — like condiments, mac and cheese, canned vegetables, etc. Since all fresh food is generic, I suppose we do avoid name-brands. However, the few cans I do buy (like whole, plum tomatoes), I will spend more for a higher-quality product. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in the generic product and the Hunt’s product, but I favor the Italian San Marzano’s, because they include fewer broken tomatoes and have a higher pulp to juice ratio. To me, that’s a better value.

    For those who want to trade notes on which brands/generics are the best quality, Cook’s Illustrated often does tastings of super-market varieties to see when it’s worth it to be a more expensive product.

  72. Kevin says:

    We only buy store brand cereal from Shop N Save (Supervalu chain) – I would guess it saves us a good $5-10 a week depending on how many boxes we buy. For example, Frosted Mini-Wheats are $1.79 a box for the store brand, but the Nabisco/Kelloggs brand is usually over $4. Same with spaghetti sauce – store brand is under $2 while Prego/Ragu is usually over $3.

    We don’t tend to buy canned foods since most of the can liners contain BPA, preferring to buy fresh veggies/fruits instead.

  73. Great article. I like the analysis of how throwing one jar of pb away is nothing compared to the $.50 you’ll save every week on another generic item.

    We buy a lot of generic but I still need the name brand aluminum foil and Q-tips.

    Also down here in Houston I’ve noticed that different stores have different quality levels of generic. Here HEB and Target have much better generic items than Kroger or Walmart so don’t give up on the generic just because you had one stores version.

  74. Meg says:

    Up where I’m from, most of the generics are mimics of major brands, and make it VERY CLEAR what brand they’re equivalent to. This makes it extremely easy to decide which generics to try. My local drugstore makes a generic version of a cleanser my dermatologist recommended — it’s in the same size and shape tube, with same color label, and the only ingredient difference is the fragrance. It costs less than half as much (when it’s not on sale, which it often is), so that’s what I use, and I get the same results. I’m a college student, so generics are a really great way for me to get what I want without going broke. :)

    I’ve heard that some generic products are even made in the same factories as the name-brand products, and just have different packaging. Really makes you think about how much money we pay for the brand and not the product.

  75. Kristina says:

    I agree. Generic Cheerios taste much better than the name brand. The Wal Mart brand of baby powder is just as good as Johnson & Johnson. Wal Mart sour cream is horrible, though.

    MVP in post #52 brought up a good point about medications though. For prescription medications is it worth it to give the generic a try? Even if the doctor allows the prescription to be replaced with a generic, that does not mean it is just as good.

  76. sleepy pete says:

    good idea re: generics comparisons. At the store I shop at (HEB in Texas) this is a risk-free strategy as they will refund your money on just about any purchase that you aren’t satisfied with.

  77. Bruce says:

    Mayo – the cheapest way is to make your own at home in the blender, but it takes practice or a good family recipe. Basically eggs, vegetable oil and a touch of vinegar.

    A big savings area for generics over name brands is in breakfast cereals. Between the store brands, the generics and the low-end brands like Malt-o-meal, you can usually find some acceptable flavors and the savings are usually on the order of 30% and higher. For example I buy store brand “frosted flakes” for $2.39 vs. $3.59 for the brand name.

    The biggest bang for your buck in generics is going to be the things your family uses the most. So while you might get some good deals on store-brand ketchup or mustard, that will only happen once every 2 or 3 months, but if you buy the store brand yogurt, eggs, milk, cheese, frozen vegetables and so on, that’s a weekly savings.

  78. radio1 says:

    Generics and private labels are the way to go.

    Private labels (store labels) are always comparable in quality to national brands. True generics are usually slightly lower in quality because they are much cheaper.

  79. Sally says:

    I think generics are always worth a try. If you like them – keeep buying. If not – go back to whatever brand you liked. I always buy generic pain relievers and sometimes cleaning products. I have tried this route in the cosmetics dept. too. L’Oreal is made by the same people as Lancome – however there is a difference!

  80. matt says:

    Generic drugs are the same as the brand name. There is a multi-year dea program a generic drug manufacturer has to go through to achieve approval for distribution to the public. This procedure begins when the original patent for the drug expires, but the paperwork goes in early to speed the release of the generic onto the market as the patent expires. Basically the difference between name brand and generic drugs is the name brand was originally afforded a monopoly by the government, and retains brand recognition in the mind of many members of the public who are willing to pay a premium.

    As far as generic food items go, it is difficult for me to decide which side to take. I understand the price differences, however many generic items are not consistently made from the same sources, packaging plants, or bottlers. If you had a bone to pick with a corporation (smithfields is mine) you would have no idea month to month if they were involved with the product! Basically the most efficient way for a consumer to vote is with their wallet, and generic products basically rob consumers of that vote.

  81. Sally says:

    Generics are usually my automatic choice for most things, but I’m starting to think from the other direction. Commercials for Dawn are always trying to show how you can wash more dishes with the same amount of soap, and save money that way. Or will you use less toilet paper if you buy the fancy stuff because it’s thicker? Do you have any experience with items that will ultimately save you money because you buy more expensive brands?

  82. NYC reader says:

    @ Sally

    I’d say it depends on your usage of the product. Take paper towels, for example. If you use them mainly to cover your food in the microwave and don’t use them wet, the cheapest are fine.

    If you are using them to soak up liquids, the cheap ones shred, don’t absorb much, and it takes three or four sheets to do the job of one Bounty sheet.

    I’ve found that my usage pattern for paper towels (I rinse/reuse for counter wipeup) favors the expensive Bounty. I buy it at the warehouse club, so it’s cost-competitive with the generic supermarket brands. I’ve tried the warehouse club brands, they are a step or two up from the generics (and cheaper than Bounty), but not as good.

    As for the endless toilet paper battles, it really depends on how sensitive your [insert body parts here] are to the cheaper stuff. Some folks really are fine with sandpaper, old leaves, or pages out of the Sears catalog, but some folks need fluffy TP and are willing to pay extra for it.

    YMMV.

  83. anna says:

    Amanda: it is easy to make your own mayonnaise. And you can get it to taste exactly as you want it. Forget Best Foods.

    The idea that generics are of lesser quality than branded goods is outdated. These days the main difference is the amount that the brands spend on packaging, advertising and distribution. One would be a fool to always prefer brands over generics for… what reason?

    Sure some generics are of a lesser quality than some brands. But that’s not because they are generic. If you compare any set of things, some things will be better than others. And, some generics are BETTER than brands.

  84. sherri says:

    It is so nice to finally see an article that tells the truth about generics – not all of them are “just as good.” (Some are awful!) However, some really are totally acceptable substitutes, and I like that you encourage people to at least give them a try.

  85. Penny says:

    I find that generic things like pasta and cheeses usually don’t make a difference what you buy— a good rule of thumb is that staples are good no matter what brand. However, I have found that generic specialty items are NOT GOOD. So, that’s how I split up my grocery list.

  86. Tim says:

    My last big shopping trip that I did at BJ’s, I did what you suggested. Got generics of everything. Even went down to single ply toilet paper. Paper towels, tissues, socks, under-shirts. The whole shebang. It actually saved me a pretty significant amount of $$$ too.

    I started doing this at Bloom for groceries, too. Their lowfat chocolate milk is the best tasting chocolate milk in the USA, and it’s 1% (unlike some of the name brands).

    Thanks for all the good advice. I used to think about doing this, but hearing someone else suggest it might be what got me to actually do it.

  87. Matthew says:

    About the only name brands I’m insistent on are Coca-Cola and Boar’s Head deli meats and cheeses.

    The wife and I have been almost 100% pleased with the store brand stuff at Publix; in fact, there’s quite a few items we think are better than the name brands. The savings can add up quickly, usually enough to cover the pricey deli order I rack up.

    Throw in shopping at Sam’s for things like spaghetti (why buy a name brand?) and other staples and you can cut your grocery bill substantially, with minimal to no impact on quality.

  88. Will says:

    Meijers Frosted Flakes taste just like Kellogs

    Kroger Frosted Flakes is poison

    National Cup is a Tea generic that’s only $1 for 100 bags. I looked it up online and it’s made by tetly, so i assume the quality is good.

  89. amy says:

    Has anyone tried a brand of shampoo called ValuTime rejuvenating something or other? I was at the store and wanted to try something cheaper because salon shampoo is really pricey. I got two different kinds ($1 each) and turns out, they cleaned my hair better than my $15 Biolage, or so it seems so far. Maybe repeated use with prove otherwise…thanks!

  90. Kathy Robinson says:

    It doesn’t have to be risky to try out generics–if you don’t like it, you can always return it, just keep your receipts. Yes this can be a pain and sometimes is messy, but every retailer has cheerfully refunded my money when I’ve done this. Almost all products have guarantees printed on the side, and all retailers (in my experience) will refund due to customer dissatisfaction, so why not use these policies to take the risk out of trying new products, generic or not?

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