20 Things You Should Always Buy Generic

Loyalty usually is a great quality, but it can be costly when you shop. Sticking to just one brand rarely makes sense when the only meaningful difference between a national brand product and its generic version is the price.

Sometimes brand-name products offer something unique. More often, though, they don’t. Here are some generics we consider worthwhile. All can save you big bucks over their brand-name counterparts.

1. Water

If you must buy bottled water, choose store brands and save money. However, if you want to rack up serious savings, forget bottled water entirely and drink tap water — the quintessential generic. If you’re still unsure, get a good filter and run your tap water through it.

Even generic bottled water is a lot more expensive and not necessarily any safer than tap water. An estimated one-quarter or more of bottled water comes from a tap, according to the National Resources Defense Council. The nonprofit adds:

“It’s important to note that the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be.”

2. Medications

Buying generics is generally a great way to save on medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that generic and brand-name medications — whether over-the-counter or prescription — conform to safety standards.

3. Baby formula

The FDA also regulates baby formula and holds generics to the same quality and safety standards as brand-name products. So, this is another opportunity to save money and still have the peace of mind that you are safe in using the generic product.

4. Milk

The more local your dairy, the fresher your milk will be. Read labels on milk cartons and bottles to see where the milk originates. Often, a store-brand product comes from the same dairy as a costlier brand-name product.

Generics may not be the best choice for all dairy products, though. For example, The Kitchn advises that you skip generic yogurt. The blog says generic yogurt “usually features extra additives and sugars, and distinct quality and texture differences distinguish brands.”

5. Sunscreen

Like medications and infant formula, the FDA regulates sunscreens.

Look for an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of 30 or more and protection from both UVA and UVB rays, known as broad-spectrum protection. To be sure a product offers the latter, look for sunscreens with the phrase “broad spectrum SPF” followed by an SPF number on the front of the product. Under federal law, manufacturers can use that phrase only on products that pass a broad-spectrum testing procedure.

6. Seasonings and spices

Freshness is what counts when buying herbs and spices. Brand names do not necessarily guarantee freshness. Try your store’s generics, and see what you think.

7. Meat

Depending on the product and the source, store-brand meats can be just as good as heavily advertised brands. As always, read labels to confirm ingredients and the source of the product.

If you must buy brand-name meat — or to save more on store brands — consider buying meat at a wholesale club. We cite meat in general in “The 13 Best Things to Buy at Warehouse Stores.”

8. Frozen fruits and vegetables

Especially in cooking, baking and making smoothies, it’s unlikely you’ll notice a difference between store-brand and nationally advertised frozen fruits and vegetables.

9. Canned vegetables and beans

You can routinely save on groceries by buying your grocery chain’s canned beans, vegetables and fruits. If you are wondering about the generic version of a particular item — canned tomatoes, for example, can vary widely in flavor — try a can of each and compare.

10. Plastic wrap and aluminum foil

Some of these kitchen aids are as good as their brand-name cousins, others are not. But experiment with generics because good generic foil and plastic wrap will save you a bundle.

11. Baking and cooking supplies

The researchers who wrote the “Do Pharmacists Buy Bayer?” study also looked at the shopping patterns of chefs and other food professionals. The pros, they found, use store brands more often than the average grocery shopper. (NPR made a chart from the research showing how likely chefs were to purchase certain foods in either generic or brand-name form.)

The top 10 products that professionals most frequently preferred in generic brands include:

  • Baking mixes
  • Baking soda
  • Powdered sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Baking supplies

If these generics are good enough for professional chefs, consider that they’re probably good enough for you, too.

12. Snack foods

Who doesn’t love frozen pizza, chips and other snacks? In many cases, you can save money and go with store brands. Professional chefs in the “Do Pharmacists Buy Bayer?” study favored multiple types of generic snacks over branded products. In additional to frozen pizza and snacks, they included:

  • Spreads and dips
  • Dried fruit
  • Pickles and olives
  • Nuts
  • Cookies

13. Cleaning products

Many people use generic or brand-name cleaning products interchangeably, depending on the availability of coupons and sales. Unless you’ve got a favorite cleaner that you believe outperforms all others, you’ll get the job done and save money with generics.

You can save even more with the DIY approach. Case in point: “Never Buy These 7 Overpriced Cleaning Products Again.”

14. Personal-care products

Some store brands of personal-care products have the same active ingredients as name brands and work equally well. Every expensive name-brand product you can drop from your routine –substituting a less-expensive generic version — adds to your bottom line. Try generic or low-cost versions especially of soaps, hand and face creams and moisturizers, facial cleansers, bubble bath and hair products.

Additionally, “Is Cheap Toothpaste a Bad Idea for Your Teeth?” explains how to spot cheap but high-quality toothpaste.

15. Gasoline

When the Orange County Register examined whether cheaper gas really hurts a car’s engine, as advertising sometimes claims, the newspaper found that highly advertised additives don’t matter.

“Buy the cheapest gas you can get that’s convenient and close,” Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California Automotive Research Center, told the Register. Mazor has been testing gas for more than 30 years.

As long as you’re getting the right octane level for your vehicle, “you might as well use the gas that’s the cheapest,” William Green, a chemical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the newspaper.

16. Fresh produce

Prices for fresh produce vary enormously. Local, no-brand fruits and vegetables are usually your best bet. They don’t have to travel as far to reach your table, so they are likely to be fresher and more flavorful. Look for them at farmers markets, independent grocers and farm stands. Generic produce found at Trader Joe’s and in big-box stores like Costco is often an excellent deal, too.

17. Cereal

Try out generic versions of your favorite cereal — be that flakes, loops or nuggets. The chances are good you’ll find that store brands and off-brands have the same look and taste for as much as $1 less a box. What’s not to like?

18. Diapers

Many generic diapers do the job as well as brand-name ones, but at huge savings. Of course, not all generic diapers are created equal. Test the off-brands for yourself, buying a small package before investing in bulk purchases.

19. Soda pop

Is brand-name soda really better-tasting? The answer, it turns out, is quite complicated.

We are not suggesting that all generic cola is as good as its brand-name equivalents. But consider this: Repeatedly in taste tests, subjects tell researchers they prefer what they think is a brand-name drink when it’s really a generic.

Of one study, the Huffington Post wrote:

“Interestingly, when the scientists scanned the subjects’ brains using MRI technology, drinking what they thought was name brand soda created activity in the reward center of their brains. But drinking what they thought was generic soda triggered activity in … the part of the brain used to make value judgments.”

If you ignored the common prejudice toward famous national soda brands, could you enjoy a generic soda as much as your favorite brand? Why not give it a shot? You’ll certainly save money.

20. Packaged salad and fruit mixes

Buying a national brand’s cut fruit or prepared salad does not guarantee freshness. Many grocery stores offer their own salads and cut fruit, often prepared on-site. If the price is better, give the store brand a try.

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