When ‘Going Cheap’ Is a Bad Idea

I usually go “cheap” when I’m spending money on things for myself or for my family. I aim for very low cost and healthy foods – I aim for spending less than $100 a week on food and household items for my family of five while still having healthy meals for all. I buy store brand versions of a lot of things. I rarely splurge on expensive items. I only buy clothes when they’re on sale, usually when clothing stock is getting rotated out at the end of the season.

Having said that, over the years, I have found that there are some things that I don’t skimp on.

“What stuff don’t you skimp on?” you might ask. “When is it a bad idea to go cheap?”

Don’t worry, I’ll get there and provide a list of items that I don’t skimp on for you, but first, I want to offer up my general rule on things you shouldn’t skimp on:

If you use an item every day AND you can identify specific features that make a significant difference for you, then you shouldn’t skimp on those items.

That list of items is going to be somewhat different for everyone, because we all live different lives and use different items in different ways. However, there are some things that we do all have in common, such as eating, sleeping, and walking, and my list touches on all of those things.

The thing to always consider is whether or not a good version of an item will meet a genuine need for you and make a significant difference in your life. Something might seem “cool,” but does it really help?

One feature I always consider when it comes to daily use items is reliability. Is it going to last for years and years and years? That’s what I want, and I’m willing to pay more for that. I will pay more than five times the cost for something that will last five years versus something that will only last for a year so I don’t have to deal with the cycle of breaking down and replacement each year.

So, that being said, here are things that I don’t “go cheap” on.

Shoes: If shoes hurt my feet, I’m not going to wear them with any regularity. If shoes feel comfortable, particularly after long days of walking, not only will I wear them all the time, I tend to latch onto those models and keep buying that same model for as long as they’re made.

I generally have four pairs of shoes, one pair of sandals (for the summer), and one pair of boots (for the winter). I have a pair of “everyday” shoes, a pair of “hiking/outdoor/likely to get muddy” shoes, a pair of “dress” shoes, and a pair of “gym” shoes. I replace these shoes when they’re either starting to fall apart (at which point I try to get the same exact model as before) or if I’m feeling foot pain (at which point I get a different model). For the most part, I stick with the same models over and over and over and over again until they stop being made or the company changes their construction. For the most part, these shoes last a couple of years each at least. I have a preferred model for each type and I always watch for steep sales on them because if I find such sales, I’ll buy a few pairs and stick them in the closet.

If my feet are hurting because of my shoes and it’s not due to breaking in a new pair of old standby shoes (I do exclude days where I do an exceptionally large amount of walking compared to my normal amount of walking), then I get different shoes. I don’t accept sore feet. I don’t accept the idea that I should dread going for a walk because of foot pain.
Foot pain due to cheap shoes is not acceptable; I will spend more on shoes to avoid foot pain, and I will stick with models that work. I prefer shoe models that will last for a long time and I seek out a good bang for the buck regarding construction quality and price.

In summary, when it comes to shoes, being able to wear them for a long period of time and on long walks in varied terrain without foot discomfort is something I’m willing to pay extra for.

Mattresses and pillows: This is a similar argument to shoes. I won’t tolerate a nightly mattress or pillow that causes consistent back pain or any other form of discomfort. If I am experiencing neck or back pain due to my sleep, then I rotate the mattress as a first response and also carefully evaluate my pillow. If the pain continues, I’ll replace my pillow immediately. If it still continues, I’ll replace that mattress.

I’ll stick with a pillow until it appears to be the cause of neck or back pain. The same is true for a mattress – I’ll stick with it until it appears to be the source of neck or back pain after rotation. When it’s clear that something is causing me to be in pain upon waking or causing significant discomfort during the day, then it is going, no questions asked.

For replacing a pillow, I have a consistent pillow that works well for me for about a year before becoming too flat and causing some minor neck issues and upper back pain (this is the one I prefer). Mattress replacement is trickier simply because of the difficult marketing of the mattress industry which does all it can to make things unclear, but we tend to get lots of years out of a mattress. I usually just take note of what mattresses I sleep on while traveling that cause me to wake up over several nights with no back pain and I look for those models. (I am very much in the “firm” mattress camp.)

In the end, for me, when it comes to mattresses and pillows, a good night of sleep without discomfort or pain in the morning is something I’m willing to pay well for.

Basic kitchen equipment: One thing I do almost every day is prepare at least one, and often two or three, meals in my kitchen. This often involves cooking things on the stovetop, chopping up vegetables, and so on.

For any tasks that I do that frequently in the kitchen, I want tools that just work – tools with a long lifespan that can take a beating, tools that don’t require endless maintenance, tools that just do their job.

For me, the core kitchen tools are a good chef’s knife (the Victorinox Fibrox is perfectly fine; I use a Global I received as a gift, but the Fibrox is where it’s at for quality versus cost), a good paring knife (again, Victorinox is perfect for my needs), a cutting board, a saucepan, a skillet (a cast iron one is best, one you’ve seasoned until the surface is basically nonstick), a pot of reasonable size (a Lodge 6 quart enameled cast iron works for almost anything you might do with one), a small spatula, and a larger one for flipping things in the skillet. With those tools, I can prepare most of the dishes that my family enjoys. Those things must work. Those things must do their job with minimal maintenance.

There are other things that I use frequently, such as a rice cooker, but I don’t mind buying the Goodwill versions of those if I need to replace one.

The core things I use in the kitchen need to be well made, to do their jobs well with minimal maintenance, and to last for a long time. I don’t want to waste time with things that aren’t working well any more when I’m trying to assemble a simple meal quickly for my family. This stuff needs to work. In summary, for me, with the daily use items in my kitchen, reliability and low maintenance are the killer features that I will pay more for.

Heavy-use appliances: I don’t go on the cheap end for appliances we use every day – the dishwasher, the stove, the microwave, the refrigerator, the washer, the dryer. For those large purposes, I tend to study Consumer Reports and go for their “best buy” recommendations, which is usually one that’s near the top of their rankings with a reasonable price. I tend to favor ones that indicate better reliability rather than more features, as I generally only care about the core features of that item. I want my washing machine to wash clothes reliably with just a few settings and ideally while conserving water and energy, for example. I don’t need a touch screen or other whiz-bang features.

This generally means that I’m looking for a middle-of-the-road appliance in terms of price when I’m buying. I usually know exactly what model I’m looking for and I shop around to find that exact model at the best price, and I look for ways to get further discounts on that model. Basically, I’m doing what I can to get a highly reliable but not necessarily feature-laden appliance at a good price. I will pay more than the low end for that. In summary, for the appliances I use every day, reliability is a key feature that I am willing to pay more for.

House guest preparation: When someone is a guest in my home, I don’t skimp on them in the way that I would on myself. The guest bathroom gets good soaps and toilet paper and the like. The guest bedroom is made up as nicely as possible, usually with highly regarded overnight toiletries for their use (usually higher-priced stuff than what I use myself). When guests come over for meals, I serve them genuinely high quality food, generally due to my own extra effort. I don’t serve cheap wine or cheap beverages unless I really know the person (some of my closest friends are quite happy with a bottle of “three buck Chuck” on the table, but when the social connection is more fragile, I will serve something else).

Yes, this means I spend more when I’m preparing for a guest in our home, but I view that cost as a social cost for the people I respect and for the relationships I value. My guests might ask me what kind of shampoo I use, for example, and they’ll often find that it’s a store brand, whereas I have the best shampoo (from Consumer Reports) available for them in the guest bathroom. So, for me, while I don’t use items for guests every day, I value very highly the comfort that guests feel in my home.

Garbage bags: This is one household product where I do not buy the store brand. I have bought ForceFlex bags in bulk for years and they have done incredibly well for our use, as they tolerate being filled to the brim and often handle very heavy items without breaking or tearing. We have only extremely rare issues with the bags no matter what we do to them. In the past, when we have used store brand bags, they often tore no matter what was in them if the bags were over half full.

It is worth paying a little more to reduce the chance of a kitchen trash blowout from 10% of the time to 0.1% of the time. The time invested in trash bag blowout cleanups isn’t time I want to ever invest, so I will pay more to avoid it. It is an extra cost that is at least partially recouped by the fact that I feel fine filling our current bags to the absolute brim, whereas with store brand bags I would barely fill them past halfway to avoid blowouts, and sometimes double-bag them if something heavy was in there. That added greatly to the cost of store brand trash bags. So, for me, trash bags are something I use every day, and the key feature that’s worth paying more is avoiding trash bag blowouts.

Writing tools: I am a writer and a prodigious note taker, and I also write in a journal nearly every day. I am very particular about my writing tools, and I get so much value out of reliable ones that it’s well worth the extra cost.

I virtually always write with a pen, and I want one that just works but isn’t expensive enough to freak me out if I lose it. For me, that’s either a Pilot G-2 or a Uniball Ultra-Micro gel pen (they come in a few different models, but they’re all fine). I keep a staple-bound pocket notebook on me at all times, one with a sturdy cover that doesn’t fall apart at a moment’s notice (the brand varies, but I don’t buy the cheap spiral-bound ones). I also have a number of larger notebooks and journals that I fill to the brim (I really like Leuchtturm 1917 and Baron Fig notebooks and journals). I will happily make do with composition notebooks from the dollar store in a pinch, however, but I prefer notebooks and journals that are really well made and can handle a beating and a lot of leafing-through without falling apart.

Again, the cost per day of use of this stuff remains really low, but it is higher than buying super-cheap pens and spiral-bound notebooks. Neither one of those hold up: the pens often leak, and the notebooks often fall apart.

For me, writing tools (pen and paper) are daily use items, and it’s worth spending a little more to get reliable pens that always write and don’t leak, and reliable notebooks that hold together while being filled to the brim and leafed through later.

Car and tire maintenance: While we don’t go high end for cars (we tend to buy entry-level late model used cars from reliable manufacturers like Honda and Toyota), what we don’t skimp on is auto maintenance and tire maintenance. I fill up the tires at the gas station to the maximum recommended pressure frequently and replace them when we get even remotely close to thin treads. I also stick strictly to the recommended maintenance schedule and have a trusted mechanic do everything (unless it’s just an oil change, which I can do myself).

Those moves simply add to the reliability of the car. It’s not going to blow a tire. It’s not going to skid around on a winter day. It’s going to start when I go out there and start it. It’s not going to have lights go on unless there’s a real breakdown problem. Issues aren’t going to jump out of the blue.

For us, a car that runs is a daily requirement, and I ensure that by keeping up with tire maintenance and auto maintenance. It might cost a little more right now, but it avoids a lot of issues down the road in all sorts of ways and it also extends the life of the vehicle.

Health and dental checkups: In our family, we follow a pretty standard protocol for health checkups. Adults under the age of 65 get one about every two years; children, once a year. Dental checkups tend to happen every six months to a year depending on our dental health. We follow the schedule more or less like clockwork.

Why? Health surprises, when caught early, are usually pretty easy to treat in terms of both cost and life impact. Health surprises not discovered until later can be a complete disaster to treat in terms of both cost and life impact. It’s just that simple.

Our health is something we depend on every day, and without it, quality of life can decline rapidly. A body that runs well is a daily requirement, and this is ensured to the best of our ability by getting regular medical and dental checkups. It’s also aided by being active and eating a healthy diet, of course.

Final Thoughts

These examples cover most of the areas in my life where I don’t “go cheap.” In each case, the same core principle rings true: If it’s something I use daily AND it’s something that I can identify as providing necessary value beyond the minimum expense option, I’ll go for the better option. Good shoes and a pillow and a mattress keep a lot of pain at bay. Good kitchen tools makes meal preparation for my family easy. Auto maintenance keeps our cars running well for a long time. Medical checkups (and a good diet) do the same for our bodies.

In the end, almost all of these things come down to preserving the basics of life: our health, our closest relationships, our sense of well being. If those things are in place and well secured, it’s easy to have a good life. Going cheap on those core things is a bad idea.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.