It is good to save money, most people are taught from an early age. If you have a coupon, use it. If you aren't going to be in a room, turn off the lights. Buy those holiday decorations after December 25. And on and on.
But being frugal can also backfire: Just visualize what might go wrong if you bought a really inexpensive smoke alarm, or brakes for your car. Here are three categories in which you should pay careful attention to what you're spending.
Baby products. You can overspend on your baby to the point where it makes little financial sense. (The Burberry Diaper Bag that retails at Nordstrom for $1,295 is probably nice, but c'mon.) Still, with some purchases, it's safer to spend more than choose the cheapest item you can find, especially with cribs, car seats and high chairs.
In some ways, you're perfectly safe buying the least-expensive item on the market. Baby products are heavily scrutinized and regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, so if you don't have a lot of money, you can feel generally safe knowing that even the cheapest baby products sold in stores are supposed to meet stringent standards. But recalls often occur because new products don't work the way they're supposed to, and in some cases, you really do get what you pay for.
Take car seats, for instance. "With the more expensive car seats, it's usually easier to install, and that can make those car seats safer to use," says Jamie Grayson, a New York City-based baby gear consultant who works with businesses and individuals. He says he also finds it interesting that parents "don't think twice about buying a $1,000 crib, but then they put a cheap mattress in with low-quality components. You want to go as organic as possible."
Of course, you may not be able to afford a $1,000 crib or an organic mattress, but whatever you do, don't buy your crib, car seat or high chair second-hand.
The CPSC recalls a lot of baby products and continually changes the standards of what is considered safe. For instance, in 2010, it outlawed the sale and manufacture of cribs with drop sides. Those types of cribs, in which one or both sides can be lowered so parents can put down or pick up their baby easier, were blamed for the deaths of 32 infants from 2001 until 2010.
And, yes, the high chair you found at a garage sale or thrift store may look sturdy, but for all you know, it was recalled three years ago because the screws sometimes come loose. So spend more on baby furniture - and go to garage sales and consignment stores for baby clothes.
Footwear. "Cheap shoes lead to blisters and calluses," says Alan Berman, a podiatrist who practices at Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group in Carmel, N.Y. "I live close to New York City, and we'll often see someone come in with a stress fracture because they've basically been walking the streets barefoot, even though this foot-covering, so-called shoe is on their feet."
Rather than buying based on price, Berman says, consumers should look for a shoe with a strong, rigid heel counter (at the back of the shoe) and a strong and sturdy arch. He would also like to see some flexibility in the toe area and, if we're talking sneakers, perhaps some mesh for breathability.
More often than not, that's going to be a more expensive shoe. Berman likes Aetrex and New Balance, which aren't cheap (prices vary widely, but Aetrex is typically around $100 or more; New Balance is typically around $50 and up).
"If you can bend the shoe in half, wrap it up and fold it in your pocket, it's not a very good shoe," Berman says.
Appliance delivery. We know we'll use an oven, dishwasher or refrigerator over and over again, so many of us aim to buy the best we can. But sometimes consumers will try to cut corners by transporting the appliances themselves if the merchant doesn't offer free delivery. If they can borrow a friend's truck and avoid that delivery and installation charge, they figure, why not?
If you have strong friends who can lift heavy appliances and have great DIY skills, that's one thing, but keep in mind that the company you're buying the appliance from is responsible for it until it's installed. If you're transporting it, and especially if you haven't purchased a warranty to cover accidents (which, yes, many personal finance experts feel are a waste of money), you are taking a risk that you or a friend might drop it.
Over the years, newspapers have reported occasional stories of appliances falling out of flatbed trucks and onto the road, and similar tales pop up on various Web forums. For instance, on ApplianceBlog.com, one fellow a year ago shared his story of how he bought a refrigerator from Sears and put it in the back of his Ford Ranger. There wasn't much room due to a 325-pound crated wood stove inside the rear of the truck, but he managed to fit it in.
"I was only going a short distance," the guy who called himself Joe Football wrote. But it didn't matter: "A gust of wind sent it right over."
And onto the cement. He soon learned that the freezer of his new Frigidaire worked fine, but the refrigerator didn't get cold - until he followed the advice of a member or two and managed to get it working again. Still, if you're thinking of strapping an appliance in your cousin's truck, remember that Joe Football's story could soon be yours - without the happy ending.
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