Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

10 Items You Should Always Buy Generic

With so many choices at the store, which items are the best to buy generic? See more pictures of boxed food.
Bananastock/Thinkstock

As of April 2014, the average family of four spends anywhere from $563.00 to $1,283.10 on food a month [source: USDA]. In this economy, we're looking for every possible way we can cut back. Yet many families still aren't interested in buying generic and store-brand products.

Despite plenty of proof that generics are comparable in every way to the high-priced items they're duplicating, only 84 percent of Americans bought even a single store-branded product in 2009. Even though shopping for store brands means an average savings of 30 percent (as high as 52 percent on some items), Americans are still suspicious of generic products [source: Consumer Reports].

The truth is, it's in the big corporations' best interest to keep us in the dark about the way generic and store-brand products arrive on store shelves. After all, they spend billions of dollars a year advertising that their brands are the best!

So what are some items that you should always buy generic and why? What you learn about the products themselves, as well as the reasons for the price differences, may surprise you.

10
Beverages

For most staple beverages like orange juice and milk, you're actually better off with store brands. Because they're produced regionally, there's usually less processing and transportation involved than with national brands, which impacts quality. In fact, a panel of trained tasters told Consumer Reports that a Publix store brand juice ($2.99/carton) tasted better than the Tropicana ($3.48) next to it on the shelf [source: Consumer Reports]

On the other hand, generic versions of popular soft drinks can vary widely in taste and quality. While the ingredients are mostly the same, and the price can't be beat, this is one market that makes a lot of noise about tiny gradations in flavor, even between different versions of the same drink from the same manufacturer. It's worth trying store versions, which have been known to fool blind taste-testers, but most people have been attached to the same soft drink for most of their lives, and the subtleties often matter to them.

9
Cereal and Grain Products
If you can get it past your kids, generic cereal is the way to go.
If you can get it past your kids, generic cereal is the way to go.
Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Did you know that the average preschooler views 642 television ads for breakfast cereal every year [source: CerealFacts.org]? Colorful, exciting ads with adorable mascots, kids having fun and a toy in every box: It's the perfect media attack, building brand loyalty before your kid can even learn to talk. Is it any wonder children get so stressed out when you try to feed them healthier or more budget-conscious alternatives?

Of course, all that advertising and fun packaging takes its toll at the register: Generics in this category generally cost 25 to 50 percent less than their beloved counterparts [source: Walletpop.com]. You know the taste and look of generic cereals is the same as more expensive versions -- and, like most generics, generally produced with the same ingredients by the same manufacturers -- but is it really worth the fight every busy morning?

If your child is attached to the brand and you don't want to argue, you can always refill a name-brand box with generic. Any positive associations the child has toward the brand will be reflected in the replacement.

With an older child, it gives you an opportunity to discuss things like branding, advertising and marketing, and being a smarter consumer. You could even stage a taste-test to prove the point -- and that's a point that'll stick with her a lot longer than you might think. Consumer wisdom starts at home, but it might as well be fun -- and delicious!

8
Staples and Produce
Generic staples like flour, sugar and salt are virtually identical to their brand-name counterparts.
Generic staples like flour, sugar and salt are virtually identical to their brand-name counterparts.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

The FDA requires the same standards of production, ingredients and storage for generic versions of staples like flour, sugar, salt and spices. Obscure details of production aside, it's almost impossible to find a difference beyond labeling for these products [source: The Simple Dollar].

Salt, for example, is a simple chemical compound. Beyond the usual added iodine, it's hard to mess with that recipe! Of course, the variations in price can be astounding: An ounce of name-brand oregano, for example, can sell for almost four times as much as the generic, and the only difference is the name on the label.

Plus, if you've ever dropped a bag of sugar or flour in the kitchen, or opened one up to find surprise visitors, you know the first thing to do when you get home is transfer it to your own containers. And that company label you just paid so much for? It goes out with the recycling.

Likewise, produce and precut salad mix are two more categories where corporate origin has much less to do with quality or freshness. In fact, it's a good idea to ignore those little brand-name stickers altogether and go with your eyes and nose. Otherwise, you'll end up paying for the sticker, with no difference in quality at all.

7
Cleaning Products

A lot of advertising dollars go into making us think that the newest floor cleaner, bleach detergent or dust repellent is going to start a cleaning revolution in our homes. We'll never believe how easy it is to keep a clean house, now that we have Product X!

And it's possible. A truly innovative product comes along every now and then. But the majority of the cleaning products we use aren't really that different from each other, which means -- unless you really like the way something smells, or a particular product really does make your life easier -- you're better off going generic.

Bleach, detergents and oven cleaners all come in generic versions that sometimes mean savings of a dollar or more every time you buy. If you're really feeling thrifty, you could skip the household-cleaner aisle altogether and look into alternative methods of using the ingredients themselves: Most household tasks can be accomplished with vinegar, baking soda and a little time and effort.

6
Technology and Media
While brand-name batteries may last longer, the lower cost of generics may still make them the better deal.
While brand-name batteries may last longer, the lower cost of generics may still make them the better deal.
Hemera/Thinkstock

When you invest in a computer or home theater system, you want to make sure you're getting the best quality equipment. That means buying expensive batteries and A/V cables, right?

Wrong. In fact, those $100 media cables with the gold-plated connectors aren't doing anything that a more reasonably priced set of cables can't do [source: Gizmodo.com]. Not that your helpful big-box sales associate will tell you that, of course! Save your money for DVDs and Blu-rays of your favorite movies, and go with the cheaper cables. They conduct electrons every bit as easily and efficiently as more expensive wires, and that's all they need to do.

And while brand-name batteries do tend to have longer lives, Consumer Reports has done extensive tests to prove that this doesn't outweigh the cost. Don't go for the cheapest batteries, which do tend to fade pretty quickly, but you don't need to hit the top of the line. A lot of marketing goes into telling you the advantages of using longer-lasting batteries, but the price difference can be staggering. For example, batterytruth.info found that batteries from Thunderbolt Magnum, a generic, are almost 57 percent cheaper than the next best value, Duracell CopperTop batteries.

5
Makeup and Personal Care
You'll still look just as beautiful if you choose lower-priced generic cosmetics.
You'll still look just as beautiful if you choose lower-priced generic cosmetics.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

From contact lens solution and eyedrops to cosmetics and skin care products, we're the recipients of almost constant marketing techniques designed to make us feel unattractive and unhealthy. Beauty branding is one of the biggest markets in advertising, but the simple truth is that there are almost no chemical differences between the various products in this category.

In fact, Allure magazine says that most makeup artists swear by Maybelline mascara for the majority of their work [source: Beautystat.com]. As cosmetic chemist and founder of beautystat.com Ron Robinson explained, "There are no rules against making an exact copy." It's just the branding and lifestyle associations we have with more expensive products that makes the difference.

While some high-tech products like anti-aging creams may be patented, the majority of generic cosmetics and skincare lines are formulated in near-perfect replication of more expensive lines. Walmart's Equate line of health and beauty products is regularly singled out for its quality, and other store-brand generics can be as inexpensive as they are useful.

4
Home Equipment and Tools
Store-brand tools are generally just as tough as pricier versions.
Store-brand tools are generally just as tough as pricier versions.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

DIY and home-improvement stores like Sears, Lowe's and Home Depot have built their reputations by supplying the same products for all kinds of projects, whether you're building a deck on the weekends or have hired a contractor to renovate your kitchen. In either case, their brand is built on marketing the idea that you're using the same tools and materials as the professionals use.

For this reason, store brands -- Craftsman from Sears and Ace Hardware, Husky and Workforce from Home Depot -- are generally up to par, and because of the way distribution works for these stores, home-repair equipment in these lines can be offered at a much better price. Most high-ticket tools in this category have a reputation for being rugged and long lasting, and home-repair centers like these need to preserve their branding by making sure their tools meet your needs.

Of course, these kinds of tools are made for ease of use and to get the job done, not necessarily to withstand the kind of long-term use and abuse that a contractor might be putting them through. But if you're just looking for the most budget-efficient tools and equipment for around the house, store brands are a smart, safe bet. After all, the stores want you to come back when it's time for your next project or repair.

3
Medications
All drugs, whether brand-name or generic, are held to the same FDA standards.
All drugs, whether brand-name or generic, are held to the same FDA standards.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

The myth of branding is very important in health and family care, because marketing is all about making us feel like we desperately need a given brand over all the others -- and when your family's health is at stake, they've got you right where they want you.

But drugs -- both over-the-counter remedies and prescription medications -- have some of the most exacting regulations for creating and selling generic versions. The FDA demands that all medications have the same active ingredient dosage and safety measures as the brand-name meds they're replacing.

For store-brand pain relievers, and allergy and antacid medications, you've probably noticed the wide discrepancy in pricing. Perhaps it even scared you away! But in fact, the FDA is watching out for you, the drug quality is identical between the two products and the savings can sometimes be shocking.

The reason is that a drug patent, which covers the active ingredient of a drug, typically lasts only 20 years. This clock starts ticking before the drug ever goes into clinical trials, which take several exhaustive years before the drug is ever put on the market.

That means that when a new drug comes out, it might only be under patent for seven to 12 more years. When that patent period ends, the active ingredient is up for grabs, and the companies producing the new generic version can afford to give you great pricing, because they didn't spend anything on developing and marketing the original drug in the first place [source: FDA Consumer Resources].

2
Infant Care
Your baby will get the same nutrition from generic formula as he would from a more expensive version.
Your baby will get the same nutrition from generic formula as he would from a more expensive version.
Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Similarly, the marketing machine comes after new parents, who want the best for their child and can easily be led into fear or simply expense by these good intentions. When you come home from the hospital with that little bundle of joy, it's usually accompanied by free samples and literature from at least one of the main formula companies, Enfamil and Similac.

But the Infant Formula Act, passed in 1980, guarantees that all formulas, including store brands and other generics, are identical in the nutrition they provide and the circumstances of their manufacture [source: FDA]. The FDA has certified any and all formula that you buy as good and healthy for your baby. Because the recipe is so simple, most of the differences come down to things like taste and texture. In terms of nutrition, there isn't really a difference between them.

Consumer Reports found that the best place to buy formula was mass merchandisers and drugstores the worst. On a mean price-per-ounce basis, Costco came in at 84 cents, Target at $1.06 and CVS at $1.16. Considering how much formula you might be using, those price discrepancies can add up to a lot of money. Of course, you may want to do your own price comparisons, depending on which stores are located in your area.

1
Things to Never Buy Generic
Because the quality of house paint can vary widely, you may want to go with a name brand.
Because the quality of house paint can vary widely, you may want to go with a name brand.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

Now that we've looked at a few ways advertising and marketing try to keep us from buying generic, it seems clear that our fears about buying and using generic items are pretty unfounded. Social identity, fear of poverty and consumer shame are all factors in that decision, but the fact is that a lot of advertising is geared toward keeping those issues alive for all of us.

The rise of generic branding really began in the early-'80s recession, when no-frills branding appeared clever and appealing to people who had less money to spend. It was, in its way, another form of marketing that managed to keep costs down and consumers happy. Fast forward 20 years, and the situation is once again similar: In fact, 2009 saw record sales for store brands, and Consumer Reports says that with lifestyle stores like Target getting into the mix, one in four products for sale is now a generic version of a name-brand item.

But there are some generic products that consumer groups and polls have told us to avoid. Because of the way they're produced, most experts agree that home paper products (like toilet paper and paper towels) and house paint can vary widely between name-brand and generic versions. Garbage bags and diapers are also commonly pointed out by consumer agencies as being products you'll want to explore for yourself.

UP NEXT

How do you pick the shortest checkout line?

How do you pick the shortest checkout line?

In a hurry? Not so fast, that short checkout line may not actually be better. Increase your odds of getting out of that store at HowStuffWorks.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Associated Press. "Generic and Store Brands vs. Brand Names." CBS News. Jun. 19, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/06/19/earlyshow/saturday/main6598113.shtml
  • Associated Press. "Sixty Million Containers of Pet Food Recalled After Dog and Cat Deaths." Fox News. Mar. 17, 2007. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,259223,00.html
  • Biddle, Sam. "How & Why To Avoid Premium Audio Cables." Gizmodo. Jul. 22, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://gizmodo.com/5593784/how-and-why-to-avoid-premium-audio-cables
  • CBS. "Generic and Store Brands vs. Brand Names: Lifestyle Expert Tells When It's Worth the Extra Money for Brand Names, and When It's Not." CBS News. Jun. 19, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/06/19/earlyshow/saturday/main6598113.shtml
  • Cereal FACTS: Food Advertising to Children & Teens Score. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.cerealfacts.org
  • Consumer Reports. "6 painless ways to cut your grocery bill." Consumer Reports Money Blog. Sep. 24, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://blogs.consumerreports.org/money/2010/09/6-painless-ways-to-cut-your-grocery-bill-save-money-tightwad-tod-consumer-reports-money-adviser-supe.html
  • Consumer Reports. "Baby formula: Overview." Consumer Reports. Apr. 27, 2007. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/babies-kids/baby-toddler/eating-and-sleeping/formula/formula-4-07/overview/0704_formula_ov.htm
  • Consumer Reports. "Store brands vs. name brands." Consumers Union of US, Inc. Sep. 13, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Store-brands-vs-name-conreps-1404330146.html?x=0
  • FDA. "Food Advisory Committee Meeting On Infant Formula: Briefing Materials." U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 2002. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/ac/02/briefing/3852b1_01.htm
  • FDA. "Generic Drugs: Questions and Answers." FDA Information For Consumers (Drugs). Sep. 9, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/QuestionsAnswers/ucm100100.htm
  • FDA. "Generic Drugs: Questions and Answers." FDA Information For Consumers (Drugs). Sep. 9, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/QuestionsAnswers/ucm100100.htm
  • Hamm, Trent. "Getting Over The Taboo Of Generics & Store Brands." The Simple Dollar. Aug. 23, 2007. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2007/08/23/getting-over-the-taboo-of-generics-and-store-brands
  • Stohs, Nancy. "A historic walk down the aisles of the supermarket." Milwaukee Journal. Jul. 17, 1999. (Nov. 21, 2010)
  • Trench, Brooke. "The Best Generic Beauty Products You Should Know About." Sep. 8, 2010. (Nov. 21, 2010)http://lifestyle.msn.com/your-look/makeup-skin-care-hair/article.aspx?cp-documentid=20801402