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Where "frugal" implies a certain cleverness and admirable self-restraint, "cheap" is what you call the guy who itemizes the group dinner bill.
But sometimes being cheap is just being smart. Why spend more for a brand-name product when you can get the same quality for less?
To figure out when and where cutting costs pays off, we consulted two people who would know.
Below, Kristen Cross from The Frugal Girl, who has managed to keep her six-person family out of debt and in the green, and Justin McCurry from Root of Good, who became financially independent by age 33 through "careful saving and planning," offer 12 examples of when it's totally worth it to be cheap.
1. Shampoo. "Cheap shampoo cleans just as well as expensive shampoo, so there's no point in paying top dollar for a salon brand," explains Cross. "I buy Suave, and it’s usually 99 cents a bottle. Their Professionals line of conditioner is great, too, and so much cheaper than other brands."
2. Produce. "Frozen fruits and vegetables are frequently cheaper than fresh, and since they are picked and preserved at the peak of freshness, they are usually fresher and more nutritious than the 'fresh' produce," continues Cross. "I buy frozen corn and broccoli, plus lots of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and mango to use in smoothies. Frozen mango is also really great for making mango salsa, and the soft texture it has after thawing actually makes the salsa better!"
3. Prescriptions. "Generic versions of medicine have the same active ingredients at half the cost," says McCurry. "If I can find a $4 bottle of cough syrup at the $1 store, I'm buying a couple of bottles." The FDA regulates the production of generic drugs just as it does brand-name.
4. Water. Tap water is about as cheap as it gets, says Cross, " and if you buy a pitcher filter, you'll get the same quality as many bottled water brands (at least 25% of them are just purified tap water)." You might not even need that filter. Tap water is regulated by the EPA similar to how the FDA regulates bottled water, unless you have a private well ... not to mention that bottled water has proven to be $2,000 times as expensive as tap.
5. Contact lens solution. "You can pay a lot for a name brand solution, but the 99-cents-per-bottle cheap variety works just as well," says Cross. "I usually buy my saline solution when it’s buy one, get one free at Walgreens — of course, I buy the store brand — or at Target."
6. Tools. "For most infrequent users of tools, going cheap makes sense," McCurry shares. "The end goal is to fix something yourself, and if a $2 screwdriver set gets the job done as well as a $20 set, why pay more?" That said, he recommends going for quality when your tools get more advanced. "Power tools with batteries might be an exception — I might choose to spend more on something like a mid-range cordless drill."
7. Coffee. "I get zero value out of 'fancy coffee,'" explains McCurry, "so I tend to go for the $5-$6 big cans (about 2 pounds) of store brand or whatever is on sale."
8. Cell phone plans. "My husband and I save so much money by not having contract phones," explains Cross. "Our combined bill is usually $21 a month with Ting Wireless. It’s so cheap, and we love it!" (In fact, Cross and her husband even have iPhones — you can read more about how they worked it out.)
9. Toothpaste. "Buy the cheap stuff unless your dentist recommends a specific brand or Sensodyne for sensitive teeth," advises McCurry. "Fluoride (the active ingredient) is what you need and the under-a-buck toothpaste is full of it, just like the $5-per-tube Ultra-whitening-fresh-breath-minty-with-baking-soda kind."
10. Pantry staples. "Cheap bulk yeast is the best! I buy a two-pound container from Costco for under $7, whereas a little three-envelope name-brand packet can cost $2," says Cross. "I make almost all of our bread from scratch, and I store my yeast in a screw-top jar in the freezer so that it never goes bad. It works just as well and costs pennies on the dollar."
11. Toilet paper. "Skip the ultra-thin Scott's," advises McCurry, "but get the next least expensive kind. You only use it once." (If you're intrigued, you can see how McCurry's family of five's budget breaks down.)
12. Wine. "To me, the $3-$4 stuff tastes as good as the $10 stuff," says McCurry. It's worth considering — try a few $3 bottles and see what you think. If you don't like it, it was only $3.
A final word: Of course, this list will be a little different for everyone. You might place more value on expensive coffee, but take these experts' points to heart: If there's an expense that doesn't inspire any particular loyalty, it could be a good place to cut back.
"It's really about finding 'enough' quality at a very low price," explains McCurry. "Take what you save and spend it on something fun — or save it to fund your eventual financial independence or retirement."
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