12 Items You Should Buy Generic (and 4 You Shouldn’t)

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What does your loyalty to brand-name products stem from? Do you think the items are truly superior in quality, or have you been won over by fancy marketing campaigns?

Either way, it’s likely you’re spending more than you need to just for a label. A new study “estimates Americans are wasting about $44 billion a year on name brands, when they could be buying the exact same products if they switched to cheaper store brands,” CNN Money said.

That study also found that those in the know, like pharmacists and professional chefs, most often buy the store brand for health care products and baking supplies, respectively, while the rest of us are much more likely to buy name brands, which usually cost twice as much, CNN Money said.

Fortunately, Money Talks News finance expert Stacy Johnson, in the video below, identifies items you can buy generic without sacrificing quality. Take a look, then meet me on the other side for more, along with a list of items where the store brand just won’t cut it.

1. Pantry items

If professional chefs and bakers aren’t overpaying for pantry staples like salt, sugar and baking powder, why should you? Sugar is sugar, regardless of what name appears on the label.

Will the everyday home cook notice a difference between name-brand garlic salt that costs 50 cents an ounce and the generic for 18 cents an ounce?

2. Cleaning products

I’ve used generics and brand-name cleaning products interchangeably over the years, depending on what’s on sale and/or has the best coupon. The end result is usually the same, if not better, when I’m using the store brands. The only difference is in the aromas.

So skip the name-brand window cleaner, bleach and detergents, and take advantage of the more cost-efficient options. (Some may disagree with me when it comes to liquid dish detergent and its grease-cutting capabilities.)

And for the super-frugal, there’s always the do-it-yourself approach.

3. Produce

Fruits and vegetables are an essential part of our diets, but that doesn’t mean we have to empty our wallets to consume the amounts suggested in the health chart. If it’s fresh and ripe, it’s more than likely right for your tummy, even if there’s not a big-name company on the label. In fact, a number of grocery stores in my area sell produce from local farms, like the exceptional strawberries from Plant City, Fla.

And if it’s in a can or frozen, check yourself and see if the big name means better taste and quality.

4. Water

We’ll never be one to encourage you to regularly buy bottled water, because you most likely have a nearly free source of water at home. (And if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, get a filter.)

But for those times when you need to buy water, go with the store brand every time. It’s drinking water, whether it costs $1.35 a gallon or only 83 cents for the store brand.

5. Dairy products

Butter, milk and some cheeses have a similar taste across the board. As Money Talks News’ Stacy Johnson says, “[T]here’s not too many ways to squeeze milk from a cow. How can a name brand be better?” 

6. Over-the-counter medications

The pharmacists and other medical professionals in that study we mentioned aren’t wrong. Compare the labels. Federal regulations mandate identical quantities of active ingredients in the generic version, along with the same standards for quality and safety.

A pharmacist brought this to my attention years ago, and I’ve saved a ton of money ever since. If you still have reservations, ask your doctor.

7. Prescription drugs

Generic prescription drugs must also meet strict federal guidelines to go on the market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says, “They are copies of brand-name drugs and are the same as those brand-name drugs in dosage form, safety, strength, route of administration, quality, performance characteristics and intended use.”

Consumer Reports adds:

… In addition, manufacturers of a generic must demonstrate that the drug is “bioequivalent” to its corresponding brand by showing that it delivers the same amount of active ingredients into a person’s bloodstream in the same time as the original brand. A 2009 analysis of 2,070 bioequivalence studies found that the average difference in absorption — using two measures — between a generic and its branded prototype was about 4 percent, the same variation that is found between two batches of the same brand-name drug.

And what a difference the price makes. You can save up to 95 percent by buying the generic version, CR says.

8. Beauty and other personal-care products

The store brands can work just as well, and may even have the same ingredients as the brand you’re loyal to. Experiment, and check for reviews and recommendations online. For instance, POPSUGAR recommended its favorite generic beauty products a few years ago.

Also see: “Does Bargain Toothpaste Work Just as Well?

Unless you’ve found, through trial and error, a particular makeup or skin care product that works wonders for you, be open to store brands. However, I’d strongly suggest testing the waters before you dive in and fully commit.

9. Gasoline

Must you really purchase gas from a name brand like Shell or Hess? Business Insider says the off-brands can be just as good.

“While it may seem generic gas is too good to be true and not the best option for your vehicle, unbranded fuel should not damage an engine,” AAA said in an email.

“Even ‘unbranded’ fuel is required to meet legal requirements for RVP, ethanol percentage, octane, detergent content and more. In many cases, the local unbranded gasoline is actually supplied by a major oil company, but simply not sold under their name.”

10. Cereal

Same look, same taste, so what’s the issue? I’m a big fan of the Walmart version of Froot Loops. They seem to resist sogginess longer and taste delicious. I also save $1 or more per box. What more could a mom ask for?

11. Soda

Does that generic version of Sprite or Ginger Ale really taste that different? If you’ve never ditched your Coke for a generic cola, I suggest you give it a try. Some store-brand sodas are quite good, while others are not. Some experimentation is required here, too.

12. Salad and fruit mixes

The ingredients are the same, so why aim for the Dole when you can buy the Publix brand instead? There are no guarantees with produce; a rotten apple is a rotten apple, no matter where it came from. Always check for freshness before you buy.

When generics won’t cut it

1. Infant care products. I’ve never been a fan of skimping on baby gear for the best bargain. It’s not worth the rash, soiled clothing or other adverse effects that may result. And let’s not forget about the cheap wipes that may not hold up after your bundle of joy has a wipeout.

I’m not suggesting that all store-brand infant products are bad, but you should test the waters before moving forward.

What about formula? Says Mayo Clinic, “Although manufacturers might vary in their formula recipes, the FDA requires that all formulas contain the minimum recommended amount — and no more than the maximum amount — of nutrients that infants need.”

2. Household paint. Can we say cheap and thin? A cheap, watered-down paint will require more coats. Read online reviews before you make a commitment.

3. Paper goods. Ever tried cleaning up a large mess with paper towels from the dollar store? If so, you know that the hype surrounding the durability of some brand-name products is true.

Also, cheap paper plates don’t hold up well when they’re piled high with picnic food.

4. Batteries. Generic batteries that are not alkaline likely won’t have as much power or last as long.

What’s your experience with generic products? Do they perform as well or even outperform the big-boy brands? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Sean Cammack

    I agrees with everything you said, except the part about generic fruit loops. The generic and the brand name may both taste good, but they both pure poison for you and your family. The artificial colors are carcinogenic and have been linked to ADD.

    For thirty years my vise used to be Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I couldn’t get enough until I analyzed the ingredients about a year ago. The preserving chemicals and the GMOs (soy) are bad for our health so I switched to Nature’s Path organic cereal. I reccomend trying the Blueberry Cinnamon Flax variety. The taste is amazing!

    • laracraft518

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    • Duke Leigh

      Heh, heh, heh. My question was what does Walmart’s manufacturer’s add that keep them from getting soggy?

    • Neer NFar

      oh really. then why eat cereal at all if you are so afraid of it? you might want to try something like oat meal instead.

      • Sean Cammack

        I eat cereal because I enjoy it. I’m not afraid of the big brands. I choose to minimize my exposure to preservatives and GMOs.

  • laracraft518

    nice

  • Gars

    I usually buy generic unless there’s something unique about a product like Heinz 57 sauce vs the Great value Brand from Walmart. I pay more for it.

    Oddly, I do buy one box of Branded Quaker Oats and refill the empty box with the Great Value oats because I like the art work on the name brand box!

    • Neer NFar

      there really is a difference in generic products. if you buy, say generic or store brand soup, take a look at the ingredients as well as the amount of sodium, msg and other stuff…large differences. usually the name brand will have a much better flavor too. so i disagree with that as well. it isn’t true in every category but there is indeed a difference in flavor. store brand ice cream can be kinda chalky tasting and say, friiendly’s of the same flavor is dramatically better. you need to choose what is good for you, not go by any stupid article that blankly assumes generic /store brand is always better, because that is untrue.

  • grandmaguest

    I’m always willing to try a generic “no name” brand. Many are just as good and some are even better. If for some reason I don’t care for it, I simply make a note of it and try another brand. Often times with canned goods there are several “no name” brands or store brands on the shelf to try. Most of the time I prefer a generic over any of the big names. And I only buy a generic case of water to keep on hand should I lose power to my well water pump. So far my water has been sitting there for 2 yrs. Guess it’s about tie to use it to water my houseplants and get a new case for this winter. Otherwise my water is great tasting and only costs me the electricity to bring it to the surface.
    I am a bit more careful with pet food. It doesn’t have to be a premium food but after 40+ yrs in the veterinary field I am very aware that some are not quite up to snuff for a long term diet. After all, they don’t get the variety in their diets that we do in ours .

  • Faith

    Good points Allison. Thanks for the article. I always wonder about the off brand gasoline and if there is a difference between Shell gas and Joes’ Gas Mart. I usually use Kroger’s gas because of the points I earn while shopping there and haven’t had any problems with them.

  • sleddogs1

    I don’t think generic soda is an option for me. My soda of choice is Moxie. If there is a generic version I haven’t tasted it.

  • pennyhammack

    Recently bought a store brand of sugar. It looked like it had some kind of powder mixed in (maybe powdered sugar) and it took more to satisfy my sweet tooth. Bought another store brand at a different store and it looks and tastes better. You’d think that sugar is sugar but it sure didn’t seem that way.

  • Duke Leigh

    I’ve “been off” brand names for a long while. One difference I’ve noticed though is the reclosable packaging. I often have to use another wrap or plastic box to keep generic items fresh.

  • http://myoverflowingcup.com Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    I have heard that often these products are produced by the same manufacturer, but just labeled differently. In the cases where that is true, I am assuming the product is identical and we are just paying more for the name.

  • MerryMarjie

    I was just at WalMart and noticed the $2 difference between Vaseline brand vaseline and WalMart’s. I have used both and never noticed a difference, so that choice is a no-brainer. When I’m serving company, I choose name-brand vegetables and fruits, but when I’m dumping a can of beans into chili or making a fruit salad, I use the house brand. I have been a housewife nearly 50 years and can pinch pennies with the best of them!

    • Neer NFar

      i like what you said Merry ! i agree with you there. Vaseline and walmart vaseline is essentially the same, and there are no benefits one over the other except for one being a lot cheaper. so i agree with you.

  • Ed Jackson

    Both brand names and generics almost always use many unhealthy chemicals to prolong freshness, improve flavor or appearance, etc., so it’s important to read ingredient lists to avoid them. High fructose corn syrup, soy fillers, GMO’s, sugar, and many artificial flavors and colors are added after processing out many nutrients. This is done to prolong the shelf life, which increases the profit margin. The FDA and USDA don’t try very hard to keep processed food healthy, so the public has to be well informed. Much information can be found on health sites like webmd, etc.

    • Neer NFar

      omg! run away now the sky is falling!!! OH NOES…. geez yanno the only way to get out of that scariness is some valium and farm everything for yourself. really people, come on, if all the food you get is so evil and horrible, then farm it yourself. grow your own grains, your own fruits and vegetables, and your own livestock. that is the only way to get away from all these scary things …..try it :D

  • sleddogs1

    There are differenced in bottled water. Read the label and look for the source. Most “drinking water” is municipal tap water that has been bottled. It may or may not have been filtered. Sometimes you can taste the chlorine. Then there is Artesian well water and spring water. One is not necessarily better than the other but every groundwater source contains different minerals that affect the taste. You’ll have to do your own taste test. I’m lucky because my well draws from one of the same aquifers that Poland Spring exploits. You can say I wash my truck and flush the toilet with Poland Spring Water. There is also a spring that flows year round that’s only 400 feet from my house. So I am lucky for not having to store water for emergencies.

  • Neer NFar

    i disagree about generics being the same as prescription named drug.
    sure they have to show that they are the ‘same’ but they really aren’t
    the SAME. the company that came up with the drug developed the method
    to create that drug. they are not ‘generic houses’ they are what we call
    ‘ethical pharmaceutical” companies. its like this: your mom bakes a
    mean apple pie. i attempt it. even with HER recipe. Sure I get an apple
    pie but it isn’t the same as your mom’s…why? because she has come up
    with that recipe and mastered it after all those years. same thing with
    drugs. for example. sudaphed (if i even spelled that right) works
    better for me than does the generic name. my mom can’t take generics
    for her medicine because there is something that just doesn’t work right
    for her. I did research into this stuff. Sometimes, maybe many times,
    generics will work out alright. But not always. I don’t like to take
    chances with my health so whenever I can I buy the drugs that are made
    by the company that developed it. hate me, so what but you get what
    you pay for. you want cheap you get cheap..and that is for both over the counter AND prescription medicines.

  • Neer NFar

    their canned cat food is good too. the dry one no, but the canned food has a great recipe.