Generic brand products: six to buy, six to avoid

In many cases, generic products are identical to name brands at a considerably lower price. But in some cases, stick to brands you can trust.

Mike Spencer/AP/File
Delly Mellor, of Delly's Deals, thumbs through a binder full of coupons that she carries on her grocery shopping trips at her home in Wilmington, N.C. in this April 2012 file photo.

Generic and store brand products can be a very nice money saver. If you can save a dollar or two by buying a generic item and wind up with essentially the same item, then it’s a very good financial move to buy those generics.

I’ve tried the generic and store brand versions of items I use all the time. Most of the time, the generic is just different enough that I notice it, so I’ll buy the generic unless I have a coupon.

However, sometimes the store brand is identical to the name brand, so I’ll always buy the least expensive one. Other times, the quality difference is so large that I never buy the generic or store brand again.

Here are some of the things I always buy generic and some of the things I always avoid in generic form. Use these lists as encouragement to try a few lower cost store brand products, as well as a useful reminder to not buy something that will end disastrously.

Generic Products I Buy
 Some store brand items are virtually identical to their name brand equivalents. Here are six items where I’ll always buy the cheapest entrant.

Over-the-counter medicine Quite a lot of the time, you’ll find that there’s a generic version that’s an exact duplicate of the “name brand” version. Compare those ingredients carefully and you’ll often find yourself saving some real cash.

Cereal For most basic cereal types (bran flakes, corn flakes, and so on), the generic cereals are pretty much indistinguishable from the name brand ones. If you start your day off with a bowl of cereal, peruse the generics.

Spices Dried herbs and spices have identical ingredient lists. Unless you’re going to a store where they dry the herbs and spices for you (and you’ll be paying a lot for them), the various kinds of jarred herbs and spices on your store shelf are more or less identical.

Gasoline The gas you buy at one station is going to be identical to the gas you buy at another. Quite often, it came from the same refinery, and virtually always it came from the exact same refining process. Just get the cheap gas.

Sugar and salt Compare the ingredients here. In each case, the ingredients are identical. If you do a side-by-side, you can’t tell the difference between brands. Yes, you can tell the difference between sea salt and table salt, but the difference between salt brand A and brand B is virtually unnoticeable.

Electronic cables A cable carries data. One cable works the same as any other. If you take it home and it doesn’t work, return it. Just buy the cheap ones and you’ll be fine. Spending $100 on a cable doesn’t add audio fidelity or make your computer monitor better.

Generic Products I Avoid
 On the flip side, there are some generic products I simply won’t buy due to repeated bad experiences.

Trash bags Every time I’ve bought a box of generic trash bags, I’ve had the bottom rip out of one of the bags. Even when I fill them only two thirds full, I eventually have a kitchen floor disaster. I usually buy ForceFlex bags in bulk and I can’t remember the last time one of them ripped out on me, even when we overfill them. That’s well worth the extra price.

Paper products Cheap paper towels and toilet paper just shred and fall apart when you use them, often resulting in the need to re-do the task at hand and to use twice as much paper as you would use if you hadn’t gone the cheap route.

Baby wipes Generics simply don’t do a good job wiping down a dirty baby. I have to use a spray bottle to do the job, whereas with a good name brand (like Pampers wipes), it just works. Our preference is to use a spray bottle and a piece of cloth, but if we’re going to use a wipe in a pinch, we want it to just work.

Diapers A similar phenomenon is true with disposable diapers. Babies are shaped differently and I’ve found that once you find a brand that works for your baby’s shape, stick with it, whether it’s generic or not. A brand that doesn’t fit your baby well will cause countless blowouts and messes and disasters, and you’ll regret ever trying to save a dime on that diaper. (Better yet, go cloth. We love them.)

Electronics I’ve purchased off-brand electronics several times. More than once, the item ceased to work and when I would call the customer service number, I’d either get an out-of-service message or someone who didn’t speak English and eventually hung up on me. It’s not worth it to buy an electronic item from an unknown manufacturer.

Condiments This is the one food item that always seems to fail at taste tests if you stick with the cheap route. People seem to have a particular type of ketchup or mustard or barbecue sauce that they like. The flavor variations here are huge. It’s worth trying several kinds, but for me, if the flavor’s not right, I just won’t even bother using it. Thus, there’s no reason to buy the generic.

Generics can certainly save you money, but if the generic version doesn’t actually fulfill the purpose you bought it for, you’re losing money and time on the purchase. My suggestion? Give generics a try, but don’t stick to them exclusively. The best item is the least expensive version that gets the job done well.

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