One of the most common types of questions I get from readers for the Reader Mailbag is product recommendations. People are thinking about making a significant purchase or are rethinking an ordinary purchase they make frequently and they want to know whether I’ve done the research myself on that type of product and what I’ve concluded.
What I usually do with questions like this is limit them to one or two per mailbag and then directly answer reader questions that go beyond that (provided I’m not completely swamped, of course). This means that there are a lot of specific recommendations that readers have asked for that simply didn’t make it into the mailbag.
Today, I want to fix that. Here are a bunch of specific product types that readers have requested (or that I did a bunch of homework on myself and wanted to share) and my recommendations for a specific product to buy in that category.
Before we get started, though, let’s talk about my basis for making recommendations.
How I Choose Products
There are a few main things that I think about when deciding on any purchase.
First of all, I’m price conscious. This should be obvious, of course. I don’t assume that the more expensive item is better. Rather, I generally seek out the best “bang for the buck,” and that’s often among the lower priced options.
Second, it has to reliably and effectively do the job I want it to do. In other words, it needs to do the tasks I want it to do without lots of extra steps or extra effort, and it needs to do that job consistently every time. I want minimal maintenance and minimal steps when using the product, and I absolutely don’t want failure. This means that there are often some low-end versions of products that I skip over.
Third, if I’m unsure, I tend to rely on the store brand or on the “Best Buy” recommended in Consumer Reports. That usually provides a starting point for purchases. If I find that there’s something lacking in that purchase – which is rare – I’ll move on and try something else based on the above two principles.
Finally, if I’m buying a non-consumable item that’s new to me, I virtually always try to buy it used and as inexpensively as possible. This allows me to figure out whether it’s something I’ll use regularly and what features I personally need in such an item. This isn’t always possible, but if you’re willing to poke around secondhand stores and local buy/sell/trade groups and ask your friends, this often does the trick. It saves me from spending a lot on an item that might not do exactly what I’m hoping or might not click with me like I’m imagining.
Here are a whole bunch of different product categories, along with my recommendations for each of them. Most of these came from reader questions; a few were due to my own recent explorations.
I generally buy whatever I can find on sale. For example, right now I’m using Duke Cannon soap, which are these giant bars of soap that I was able to buy for $1 each from a store that was going out of business. I bought several of them. I wouldn’t pay the normal retail price for them – they’re pretty expensive per bar – but for $1, they last for a long time.
When I use liquid bath soap, I put it in a pump bottle. This is because the lids on most liquid bath soaps seem to dispense way more soap than I need. Spending a minute or so pouring the liquid soap into a large pump bottle and then keeping the pump bottle in the shower means that I can dispense soap by the pump, getting a much smaller amount that actually does the job rather than watching a bunch of the liquid soap go down the drain. If for some reason a pump bottle isn’t an option for you, then I would lean toward bar soaps, as they seem to get a lot more uses per dollar than liquid soap that’s excessively dispensed.
I’ve only bought one kind of bath that I hated, and I don’t even have to mention it here because it’s no longer sold anywhere in the world as far as I can tell from some internet research. No need to disparage a company that discontinued a bad product and kept the ones that do the job.
The best bang-for-the-buck coffee I’ve found is Eight O’Clock Coffee, original, whole bean. That’s what I’ll grab by default whenever I need coffee and there’s a bean grinder available to me. When I make coffee, I take about one cup of whole beans, grind them on a coarse setting, and then put them in a cold brew coffee maker with four cups of water and sit it in the fridge overnight. I can then heat up the coffee in the morning if I want (I usually prefer it cold, though).
Since the question will inevitably be asked, we use a coffee bean grinder we received as a gift years ago that doesn’t seem to be made any more. If I were to buy one, I would go with the KRUPS Pro burr grinder if I had to have an electric one, or I’d get the manual Whereamoz burr grinder that’s done by hand but quite a bit cheaper. I do not recommend a blade grinder for coffee beans as the blades cause friction that can burn the beans, as I’ve experienced in the past. Blade grinders are definitely cheaper, but it’s not worth the burnt-tasting coffee. The KRUPS model is the least expensive good quality electric burr grinder I’ve seen, and it was recommended to me by a coffee-loving friend who was suggesting a great entry-level grinder.
As for brewing cold brew coffee, I highly recommend this Gourmia cold brew coffee maker, which comes in around $20 and is the one I use (I got mine on sale, but the regular price is quite good). You just put the coarse grounds in the filter insert, add water up to the 32 ounce line, and stick it in the fridge. It takes about ten seconds to clean (at most).
This seemed to be more of a question of what condiments I keep around as staples in the fridge. So, let’s go take a look.
Ketchup, store brand (I can’t tell the difference between it and Heinz)
Mustard, yellow, store brand
Mustard, brown, French’s (we often buy store brand, not sure where we picked this up)
Mustard, brown, Pommery Meaux, which was a gift and is fantastic but I am not paying that much for mustard
Mayonnaise, Hellman’s. I don’t think my local store even has a store brand version of mayo.
Sriracha, Huy Fong (the one with the rooster on the bottle)
Ssam sauce, Momofuku, my wife is addicted to this stuff
Preserved lemon, homemade
I’m not sure what else counts as a condiment.
I hang onto empty condiment squirt bottles. This is because I love making condiment mixes, as described here. When I buy a new bottle of ketchup, for example, I’ll probably use half of it immediately making a new condiment mix to put in the old bottle. Here’s a list of many of the mixes I like; my favorite is “fry sauce.”
I buy whatever’s on sale, usually whenever I notice a three-pack on sale. This is sometimes a warehouse club buy. I don’t have a particular brand preference, as they all seem to do reasonably well. The last bundle I bought was a six pack of Speed Stick Power and those seem to do a really good job (and they were quite cheap).
Again, I usually buy the least expensive bulk option at the store. I find that if you take a few basic steps to keep your dishwasher clean and keep soap scum from building up inside it and on the sprayer heads, most dishwasher detergents do more or less the same job. Right now, it looks like we have a bucket of Finish pods under the sink, likely purchased at a warehouse club by my wife sometime recently.
If I have time, I’ll sometimes make an ice cube tray full of my own homemade dishwashing detergent by mixing together a cup of baking soda, a quarter cup of salt, a couple of drops of liquid dish soap, and enough lemon juice so that it turns into something I can mold when mixed thoroughly. I press this mixture into the wells of an ice cube tray, let it dry out for a couple of days, and then pop them out and keep them in a jar near the dishwasher. These are really cheap to make; the only thing keeping me from doing this all the time is that I simply forget to do it and then I need to run a load and I’m out of them.
A great trick for making any dishwashing detergent work well is to regularly clean out your dishwasher. I do this whenever I notice that there are spots on the dishes when they come out of the dishwasher. I just put a cup of vinegar in a spray bottle along with a bit of lemon juice, then I spray all of it all over the inside of the dishwasher and run an empty load. (I actually mentioned this in a frugal life skills article I posted recently.) This makes all dishwasher detergents work quite well, in my experience.
Many years ago on The Simple Dollar, I noted that I didn’t like using store brand trash bags because I had many experiences in which they ripped out on me during normal use. I found that, back then, if I filled them much more than half full, they would frequently rip out all over my kitchen or entryway floor, and if I was only filling them halfway, I might as well buy the name brand that allowed me to fill them completely, as it put less plastic in the landfill, meant I took out the trash half as often, and the cost for the name brand bags was barely twice as much per bag as the cheap brands.
Since then, I’ve switched back to store brand trash bags, specifically Target’s Up and Up kitchen and yard drawstring trash bags. I’ve tried a few different store brand bags at retailers I have easy access to and these do the best job for the buck.
I should note that, if you’re a Costco member, Kirkland Signature drawstring bags are even more highly recommended. I was able to pick up a bulk box of both kitchen sized and yard sized bags from a Costco once when shopping at one with a friend (and taking some notes for The Simple Dollar along the way) and I found that they did a great job for a very economical price per bag. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough to a Costco to make this worthwhile.
I generally don’t recommend that people buy a butcher block full of knives for kitchen use. Most people really only need two or three knives in the kitchen – a paring knife, a bread knife, and a chef’s knife will do the trick. Paring knives work well for small things, particularly trimming vegetables and fruit. Chef’s knives work well for cutting larger things, like heads of cabbage or meat, and for chopping. Bread knives work well for, well, cutting bread.
If you’re just buying those three singular knives, the absolute best bang for the buck for those types of knives is Victorinox, on all three counts. The Victorinox chef’s knife is probably the best one I’ve ever used, period, and it’s a fraction of the cost of expensive ones. Their paring knife is amazing and costs less than $8. Their bread knife is excellent and is around $20. You can get those three knives for about $50 and have knives that will last you for many, many years and handle virtually everything you’ll do in a home kitchen.
I would recommend getting a low cost honing steel and honing the chef’s knife and paring knife regularly. This will keep the edge on the blade for a very long time so that it cuts magnificently even many years from now. Here’s a great guide for using a honing steel.
I have this wonderful safety razor that I sometimes use. It’s a Merkur double edged safety razor, for which I have a box of replacement blades. This is a very inexpensive option, as I just replace the blade itself regularly, and the blades cost a penny or two a pop. That’s cheap!
The only problem is that I’ll shave with this a dozen times or so and then I’ll be rushing and I’ll cut myself and start bleeding all over and end up making a huge mess and spending a bunch of time stopping the bleeding and cleaning myself up when I can ill afford it. At that point, I inevitably stick the safety razor back in the closet for several months.
What I typically use is Harry’s subscription razors. I use these in the shower, using my normal shower soap as a “shave cream.” I get my face nice and wet with hot water after washing my hair and using a bit of soap and/or shampoo as shave cream, dive right in with that razor. I have to rinse it a few times in the shower water to get a good shave, but it does the job. I find I need to hone the cartridge after four or five shaves, and then after five or so honings, the cartridge needs to get tossed, so a cartridge usually lasts me a couple of months.
I hone the blades by using a technique called “stropping.” Basically, I take a Harry’s razor with the cartridge in it, pull out an old pair of blue jeans, and then run the razor in the wrong direction down each pant leg ten or so times. That’s enough to get the razor honed so that it works well again. I usually do this when I get out of the shower and put on a pair of old jeans for weekend activities like hiking or working in the yard. I already have the old pair of jeans and I have the razor because I just got out of the shower, so I just do it and it’s done in thirty seconds or so.
So, in terms of “subscribing,” I actually use them at a lower rate than even the slowest rate at which they’ll send me razors. So, I subscribed for a while, then cancelled the subscription and now I have tons and tons of blades that will last me for years.
Aside from an old-fashioned safety razor, which I’m apparently incapable of using without cutting myself badly once a month or so, this is the best “bang for the buck” option I’ve found. You don’t have to “strop” the cartridges if you don’t want, but it does get many, many more uses out of a single cartridge for something that takes maybe 30 seconds every 10 days or so.
The frequent question I’m asked is about shoes for general purpose use – walking, light hiking, occasional sports, and things like that. I’m rarely asked about hardcore athletic shoes or dress shoes.
My current recommendation for the best “bang for the buck” general purpose shoe is the Reebok Royal Astrostorm, which can be found often in the $20-25 range and do a magnificent job for the price. They’re just simple shoes that do the job, and they’re inexpensive enough that you don’t feel bad wearing them out in the mud or in the garden or anything like that. These are the best general purpose $25 shoes I’ve ever seen. I’ve obviously seen better shoes, but they were marginally better at many multiples of the price. These are great for walking on pavement, for low-intensity hiking and trail walking, and for pretty much any non-athletic use you can think of. They won’t pass for dress shoes, but they’re great for everything else, especially at the cost.
I don’t really have a recommendation for women’s shoes, unfortunately. Sarah typically buys “whatever New Balance shoes are on sale” and wears them into oblivion.
Easy. Just buy one that’s available at your local secondhand store. Most secondhand stores seem to have slow cookers, so just go in there and pick one.
What if you want to buy new, though? Maybe you can’t find a used one, or you’re buying one for a gift. My pick is the Crock Pot 6 Quart Manual, which clocks in at under $30 and has a large 6 quart crock that can make a huge amount of soup and pretty much any meal you can think of for a large family.
If you are frequently going to be out of the house and want a slow cooker that can automatically switch to a “keep warm” mode at a certain time (keeping food hot enough to keep bacteria at bay, but not so hot that it keeps cooking and burns), I’d probably suggest the Crock Pot 6 Quart with Timer. The timing mechanism adds $20 to the price, but it can make all the difference when it comes to some busy families.
My recommendation here is to play cellular providers off of each other to get new customer discounts as often as you can. Simply be willing to jump from provider to provider as necessary and sometimes use the threat of jumping to your benefit when talking to a cellular provider at the end of a contract.
If you do that, you can usually get a good phone very inexpensively. My strategy has been to get the previous generation iPhone when hopping around like this, because it’s almost always at a significantly lower price than the newest models, but Apple (thus far) has done a great job of supporting older iPhone models for many years. Then, use that phone until either the device isn’t being actively supported, you need a new device because of damage, or there is some change in your current cell phone agreement. At that point, go look for a new cell phone contract.
Pay-as-you-go phones are a great option if your data and voice needs are pretty low, meaning you don’t rely on having a data connection for work and you mostly only use them for emergencies or low-importance socializing. If the most urgent thing you use your phone for outside of life-or-death emergencies is arranging a meetup with some friends, I generally recommend choosing Ting as your provider and using a phone you already have (as it works with most phones). If you don’t have a phone, get one of their refurbished options.
As you probably observed, I buy a lot of store brands and bulk items, and I tend to really research what the best “bang for the buck” items are on non-consumable purchases. I actually enjoy figuring out the best option for a particular product type.
As always, if you want my input on a specific product, follow me on Facebook and send me a direct message asking about the type of product. I’ll probably share my findings in an upcoming mailbag or in a future post like this one.