Cheap products are enticing. I don’t know about you, but I love feeling like I’m getting a good bargain, and the companies making these products bank on that. While it’s not always true that you get what you pay for, it’s true often enough to make me think twice before buying an eighteen dollar blender from Walmart or a fourteen dollar pair of shoes from Target.
Learning to resist these “deals” meant having to deal with delayed gratification. I’m not wealthy. While getting an eighteen dollar blender doesn’t require a ton of forethought, holding out for the one that costs over a hundred bucks requires budgeting and planning ahead for the purchase. That can be a bummer when you want a blender right this very minute, but it’s a bigger bummer to have a cheap blender die in the middle of making your morning smoothie three months after purchase.
This seems to be true for some types of products much more often than others, so I’ve compiled a couple of lists to help you figure out where to spend more up front to save in the future, and where you can probably go the cheap route without paying for it down the road.
Spend More Now, Save More Later
- Fresh Produce, Meats, Eggs, and Dairy Products – Buying local and organic is means more money up front, no question about it. But food is preventative medicine, and I guarantee you that spending more at the grocery store now is cheaper than medical bills and prescription costs down the road. While eating healthfully does not ensure good health (I suffer from a chronic disease, so I get it!), a diet high in crap and low in whole foods all but guarantees future health problems down the road, and if you’re already suffering from health problems, food can either help or hurt the situation.
- Kitchen Appliances – When it comes to kitchen gear like mixers, blenders, coffee makers, and toasters, the cheap stuff almost always has a short life span. I can’t count how many blenders I went through before I finally sucked it up and saved up for a decent one.
- Cookware – If you love to cook, you probably already know that cheap pots and pans are a kitchen nightmare. For your health, you should avoid Teflon and aluminum. Cast iron, ceramic, glass, and ceramic coated cookware are all good bets. Beyond health concerns, cheap cookware oftentimes conduct heat unevenly, get dinged up quickly, and nonstick coatings start flaking and chipping off before too long.
- Knives – bad knives cause unnecessary injuries and endless lessons in frustration in the kitchen, until you finally get fed up with them and replace them with a new set of cheap knives that will need to be replaced roughly once a year. High quality knives will last your entire lifetime and beyond. If the prices make your jaw drop, rest assured that you don’t need one of every kind. That’s more of an advertising ploy than anything else. I used to know an extraordinary chef who owned his own restaurant, and he told me that he only needs three different kinds of knives to do anything and everything in his kitchen. Ask professional chefs, or do a quick Google search on the topic, and you’ll quickly see that you don’t need nearly as much as the specialty shops would lead you to believe.
- Tools – If the extent of your toolbox contents is a hammer and a screwdriver, because you’re never going to do any home improvement projects beyond hanging a few pictures and occasionally changing a light switch plate, ignore my suggestion to invest in good hand tools. A five dollar hammer will do the trick. If, however, you love DIY projects and prefer to make your own repairs and refurbishments instead of hiring a handyman, you won’t regret spending a bit more up front. A good set of tools will take a beating over decades of use and still function as well as it did when you bought it. If you’ve ever frequented estate sales, you know that you can find tools for sale that were probably purchased when your grandparents were your age that are still going strong. They still make ’em like that, you just have to pay a little bit more for them.
- Furniture – You can slap a pretty coat of paint or varnish on some pressboard and make a cheap piece of furniture look good on the showroom floor, but it won’t stand the test of time. Cheap sofas and chairs are not only flimsy, they’re usually uncomfortable, too. As quickly as most inexpensive furniture falls apart, it’s almost like throwing your money way.
- Bed Sheets – Human beings spend approximately 1/3 of their lives sleeping. Creating a cozy, comfortable, and enticing sleep environment is an excellent investment. Making your bedroom conducive to sleep includes purchasing sheets that breathe and feel good against your skin. Not only that, but discount brand sheets are usually quite thin and don’t hold up well under repeated washings, dryings, and nightly use.
- Bath Towels – For some reason, towels are one thing I repeatedly find myself being enticed into buying on the cheap. Unfortunately, I usually regret it pretty quickly. Every time I’ve bought towels from somewhere like Target, Walmart, or JCPenney, they look like I’ve had them for a decade in less than a year. I’ve had my most recently purchased set for just over six months and they are unraveling in places already. Every time I wash them I have to cut away long strands of tangled, knotted thread. Lame. Lesson learned. Next time I’ll hold out until I can afford a nice set.
- Shoes – Our feet work hard for us, and we should treat them right. Roughly 75% of people have issues with foot pain/health at some point, and much of this could be prevented by wearing good shoes. Shell out for the good shoes and save by avoiding the podiatrist. If comfort alone doesn’t convince you, think of how much you’ll save by buying really great shoes that will last.
- Clothing – I’m talking about adult clothing here. Growing people fall into an entirely different bracket! But if you’re done growing, paying for well made clothes can save you a bundle down the road. If you buy classic basics, you can get many years out of a lot of pieces, as opposed to a season. Here’s an example: I currently own two grey hoodies that were purchased at the same time, approximately a year and a half ago. The thirty dollar Target hoodie is biting the dust. It looks ratty and pilly, and the zipper sticks. It’s time to throw it out. The other hoodie was originally $150 (I didn’t pay anywhere near that much for it. I found it new with tags at a thrift store), and even though I’ve worn it more than the dying Target one, it looks brand new. If it continues to hold up this well, I will get at least a few more years of wear out of it. While I think $150 is excessive for a hoodie, it does illustrate the point that oftentimes pricier clothing brands are more durable. Cheap brands rely on repeat business because you’ll come back for more when their clothes wear out. Expensive brands rely on repeat business because you’ll keep coming back because their clothes don’t wear out easily.
- Baby Gear – When it comes to things like cribs, cradles, strollers, swings, and car seats, paying more might pay off in big ways. You want your baby to be comfy, so the ergonomics and padding for these items really matters. And if you’re a parent expecting your first baby, let me give you a hot stroller tip… most of the cheap ones suck, suck, suck. They are unwieldy and difficult to navigate, and come possessed with the ability to turn any outing into a visit to hell’s inner sanctum. Bonus suffering for crowds and small aisles. Plus, if these things are still in great condition when your baby outgrows them, the resale value is pretty decent for higher end items, so you’ll be able to recoup a decent chunk of what you spent.
- Camping Gear – I spent an entire year camping when I was 23, so I feel pretty well versed on this subject. When it comes to camping gear, much of the time, it truly pays to pay more up front. It’s also one purchase category where it will be well worth your time to read customer reviews and talk with sales people at outdoor stores. Even though they are selling, overall, I have found salespeople in these types of stores, especially REI, to be both incredibly knowledgeable and refreshingly honest. I’ve even had them steer me away from a couple of high-end items because they didn’t perform to their standards. You don’t have to worry about this so much if you’re just planning to spend a weekend or two in a campground with full facilities each summer, but if you’re going to be hiking the back country for a week, you don’t want to find yourself miles from civilization with a leaking tent or a backpack that’s coming apart at the seams.
Go Ahead, Buy Cheap!
- Non-Organic Grocery Staples Like Cereal, Salt, Sugar, Flour, and Jarred Spices – Yes, of course it is best for your health to avoid processed foods as much as possible, and to buy organic, yada, yada, yada. Not everyone can afford to eat that way. Just as importantly, sometimes there is nothing more pleasurable that a big bowl of Cap’N Crunch with Crunchberries (and if you agree with me on this, you should know that Malt-O-Meal makes a knock-off called Berry Colossal Crunch that is just as good, if not better). And sometimes you just want to bake a comforting batch of chocolate chip cookies using your grandma’s recipe, and you need white flour and white sugar. In any case, when it comes to these staples, you’re not going to find wild variances in the quality from brand name to generic most of the time, so get whatever is cheapest.
- Dishes (Dinnerware) – It always amazes me how much it makes me squirm to admit that some of my preferences are purely aesthetic, not reasonable. I love gorgeous dishware, and I’m willing to pay more for the look I want. That being said, I have owned everything from bargain basement to high end dishes over the course of my adult life, and I really haven’t noticed much of a difference in lifespan from one price point to the next.
- Drinking Glasses – Just like dishes, for everyday glassware, a pricier set isn’t necessary. At higher price points you’re paying for artistry or name brand, not durability. Which is fine as long as you’re aware of that, in which case, love the heck out of your expensive dishes! I like pretty things, too. For less that six bucks you can get perfectly nice looking glasses from Ikea that stand up to daily use as well as any other glasses I’ve ever owned.
- Sunglasses – Sunglasses are one of the most frequently lost items most people own. They also seem to get broken through random acts of clumsiness more often than most things. Spend enough to make sure you’re protecting your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays and not a penny more. Otherwise, you may find yourself sobbing when you get home from the beach and realize that your $400 pair of Gucci shades stayed behind in the sand.
- Baby Clothes – Babies are gorgeous, adorable little creatures that seems to elicit an overwhelming compulsion to excessively purchase tiny jeans and sleepers in most people. This is great fun, but there are three important things to remember when outfitting your little darling. #1 They don’t give a shit what they’re wearing, as long as it is weather appropriate and not uncomfortable against their delicate skin. #2 They outgrow clothing at an astonishing pace. Sometimes I didn’t even get the tags off an outfit before my girls would be too big for it. #3 If, by some miracle, they do get to wear an outfit more than a small handful of times before they outgrow it, they will probably ruin it. As tiny babes, they will accomplish this through spit up and diaper blow-outs. When they’re a wee bit bigger, keep those first two factors, then add in the minefields of first foots and crawling wear and tear, and you can bet that unless you’re one of those creepy hyper-controlling parents who don’t allow their babies to explore the world with their senses, those cute little clothes are going to look like costumes for the street urchins in Oliver Twist before you can blink.
- Trendy Clothing/Accessories – I love fashion. I suppose it isn’t very minimalist of me to admit that, but I do. Trendy clothes and accessories can be a lot of fun, and I see nothing wrong with keeping your wardrobe fun and current with a couple of trendy pieces each season. That being said, when you splurge on a trend, remember that these are not investment pieces. You will not want to wear that astronaut kitten sweatshirt in five years. You just won’t. Hell, you might not want to wear it by the end of this year. This is why trendy clothing is listed down here, while I list clothing in general under Spend More Now, Save More Later. Spending several hundred dollars on a Burberry trench coat can make sense. A classic trench looked as fantastic on Greta Garbo as it does on Kate Moss. It’s timeless. You can buy one when you’re 25, and you’ll look chic and sophisticated, and your eighty year old grandma could borrow it and it would look just as appropriate on her. Take care of a garment like this, and you’ll be wearing it for years, if not decades. Burberry for trench coats, Forever 21 for space kittens.
- Organizational Supplies – This one is kind of painful for me to admit, because I have a deep and abiding love for organizational supplies, and The Container Store is the stuff fantasies are made of for me. And in fairness to the frou-frou niche market organizational stores, they do carry some specialty items you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. But for things like drawer organizers, you can get perfectly functional cheaper version at stores as varied as Target, Home Depot, and even a lot of dollar stores. It’s not like the little bins and dividers that keep your socks and undies neat and tidy are going to take much of a beating, so how durable to they have to be? I’ve purchased some of those things for anywhere between $1-$5 that are still going strong several years later.
- OTC Medications – Ibuprofen is Ibuprofen. Acetaminophen is acetaminophen. Advil and Tylenol do not possess any magical properties that their generic equivalents lack. The only exception to this is if you have an allergy or sensitivity to any ingredients used as fillers in drugs, as these can change from brand to brand, so if you do, be sure to check the inactive ingredients!
- Menstrual Products (Disposable) – Disposable products are not the most frugal/minimalist choice here, and I strongly recommend exploring options for Diva Cups and/or cloth pads, but if you can’t quite wrap your head around that, or it just doesn’t work for your life for some reason, consider trying store brands to save a bundle. If it has been many years since you bought generic pads or tampons, you’re probably shaking your head in disgust. As recently as five years ago, brand names really were the way to go. The store brands were almost always dreadful. The adhesives didn’t stick, they bunched, they leaked, and some would even fall apart (gross, I know), but this has changed. I can’t vouch for the quality of every store brand out there, but when I’ve had occasion to use them, like forgetting my Diva Cup at home on a road trip, I’ve had great luck with a few. Notably CVS store brand pads and liners are every bit as good as the name brands, and they’re considerably less expensive.
- Seasonal and Holiday Decor – It’s awesome to have an heirloom quality menorah or nativity set to pass on to your kids when they’re grown up, but other than getting a few quality pieces, go frugal. Your kids aren’t going to want every last wreath and bauble from their childhoods, and the reindeer ornaments from Target will look every bit as darling on your tree as the ones from Pottery Barn at a fraction of the cost. Because these items are used for such a short time, they’ll usually last for many years even if you get the cheaper stuff.
- Supplies for Hobbies You’re Trying Out for the First Time – Not all hobbies stick. You might love the idea of playing the guitar or knitting sweaters, but until you’re sure that you actually enjoy the process of learning, go cheap. You can invest in higher quality supplies once you’re sure you won’t be selling your guitar or yarn stash on Craigslist in a month.
- Cars – Cars are a major financial investment, and they start depreciating in value the minute you drive them off the lot. Surprisingly, for such a big ticket item, this is one product category where inexpensive doesn’t always mean shoddy, and expensive doesn’t always mean reliable. I’ve owned several cars, and of the lot, the two Kia models I’ve owned were by far the most reliable. Both the Sedona minivan and the Spectra sedan never required anything more than routine maintenance. Other than having a battery die once (and it was old enough to be expected), I never once broke down in either of those cars. While I did have to forgo a lot of the cushier features of more expensive cars, since my primary concern was getting safely and reliably from point A to point B, I was totally pleased with my choice both times. I had friends with cars sporting nicer stereo systems and heated seats who spent a hell of a lot of time at the mechanic’s getting repairs, so I felt like I got the better car. Be sure to read reviews before you ever set foot in a car lot. You can learn a lot through other people’s experiences.
Where have you found that it’s best to spend more money up front to save money in the long run? On which purchases do you think going the cheap route is the smarter option?