When to Go Generic – and When to Pay More

Sometimes, it pays to get the cheapest option, but sometimes, name brands are best.

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Generic brands suffer from a stigma. People tend to think those cheaper versions of name-brand products are of lower quality. But for many products, that's not true, and you're better off saving money and buying generic. In other cases, though, there really is a quality difference, and it's worth paying a little more. 

In college, when my former classmates and I needed to spend as little as possible, some of us opted for “No Frills” cola, a cheap knock-off of the more popular brand-name soda drinks. This was a pathway to store-brand cola drinks, an acceptable substitute for me as an adult. I’ve since left behind soda in favor of water, but I still shop store brands for some items while finding satisfaction with only name brands for others.

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Here are some of my choices regarding generic brands for a variety of products.

Pain relievers: generic-brand wins. The active ingredients in a name-brand pain reliever and its generic counterpart are identical. Name brands cost more because part of the revenue is used by pharmaceutical companies to cover the costs of research and development, not because of increased efficacy. There are often differences in the inactive ingredients in medication, however, and this could mean differences in how fast the drug is absorbed or in side effects. It’s worthwhile to give the generic brands a chance by testing to determine how well they work for you.

Certain toiletries: name-brand wins. I’ve done quite a bit of experimenting, and I’ve come to the conclusion that given an option, I prefer Cottonelle and Quilted Northern over store brands. I have not yet found a store brand option that is comfortable. I’m willing to pay a little extra for that comfort.

Gasoline: generic-brand wins. The price difference between the gasoline offered at the name-brand stations is often significantly more expensive than the gasoline sold by off-brand stations. Oddly, the off-brand stations often receive their delivery from the same tank trucks that deliver to the name-brand stations, and even name-brand stations can receive gasoline from a different name-brand refinery. There is little incentive to pay more than the lowest-priced gasoline you can find.

Clothing: name-brand wins. For a long time, I purchased the least expensive clothing I could find, leading me to stores like Old Navy when I was younger and Kohl’s more recently. While I saved some money in the short-term, the clothing did not last long – and in some cases, didn’t fit right after a few times worn and washed. I’ve found that purchasing finer brands off-season increases the chance the clothing will last longer, lowering the “cost per wear” of each item. I stay away from designer brands, as you pay a premium for the label, not necessarily quality.

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Food products: tie. Many food factories produce name-brand and equivalent store brand items alongside each other. Occasionally the two productions use the same recipes and the same ingredients, but in some cases there are some slight differences. Soda, as mentioned above, is one product where generic brands can be popular, but consumers should consider their own personal preferences.

What products are best for saving money by buying generic or store brands? Are there any items for which you will not sacrifice quality and require name-brands?

Flexo encourages discussions about money and consumer issues at Consumerism Commentary, a premier blog focused on personal finance.