You wouldn’t pay more if you didn’t have to, would you? Many of us do though. We pay a premium for brand names or for products marketed as superior that ultimately end up being identical under the hood. It’s really just a part of the whole experience for American consumers. Sometimes you’re trying to choose between two competing products that are actually produced by the same company. Or you might end up trying to figure out what makes one bottle of furniture spray superior to another to warrant an additional $3 on the price tag.
It can be maddening, especially after you learn you were hosed by a salesperson or retail store by buying a $10 product when the $5 version would have sufficed. The opposite can be true, of course. There are many brand-name products that have a reputation for a reason. They’re produced by reputable companies and last a long time. You can depend on them. And the generic or off-brand versions simply don’t stack up.
You should always do a little bit of research on the stuff you buy, even if it’s something as simple and bland as laundry detergent. In many cases, you might be buying something that is literally the same as the product next to it on the shelf, only with a fancier label. Here are some products that have notoriously wide price ranges, and in many cases the generic or off-brand is a wiser choice.
- Whether you’re paying $200 or $10, HDMI cables are all the same.
This is perhaps the classic example of identical products being sold at wildly varying price levels. But at the most basic level, they’re all doing the same thing with more or less the same level of success. That said, you should steer clear of overpriced HDMI cables that promise to move data at interstellar speeds from your model to your TV. You’ll be fine with the cheaper cable. There will be some slight differences from manufacturer to manufacturer but nothing you need to worry about.
Next: Pain relievers
Advil versus generic ibuprofen
- Advil is simply branded ibuprofen — and as a result it’s sold at a markup.
Want to give yourself a headache? Think about all of the money you’ve spent over the years buying brand-name medications — pain relievers specifically. Brand-name medications, such as Advil, Tylenol, and Aleve, all have generic versions that contain the same active ingredient. The only difference? A brand name, fancier packaging, marketing, and a price markup. Medicines are regulated by the FDA and are going to leave you with the same results.
From the FDA: “A generic medicine works in the same way and provides the same clinical benefit as its brand-name version. This standard applies to all FDA-approved generic medicines. A generic medicine is the same as a brand-name medicine in dosage, safety, effectiveness, strength, stability, and quality, as well as in the way it is taken and should be used.”
Next: What about automotive products?
- Unbranded and branded gasoline both come from the same refineries, and it can be impossible to tell whether one is better than the other.
Like medicines and drugs, gasoline is regulated. It’s a bit trickier, however, than an apples-to-apples comparison like Advil to ibuprofen. There are differences among types of gasoline, especially when it comes to grades. But it’s the branding that you really shouldn’t fall for. Gas has to meet certain quality standards. That means no matter where you’re getting it, gas is pretty much going to be the same. It’s all coming from a handful of pipelines and refineries. And as a consumer, you don’t really have much say in what you’re getting at the pump. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could even tell you where it came from.
Next: Is human fuel the same?
- Like gasoline, milk is regulated. That means the generic brand is more or less the same as the branded version.
You could say that gas is gas. And you could say the same for milk — as long as you’re making an apples-to-apples comparison. Obviously, there are many different types of milk out there. But if you’re looking at 2% milk and comparing the store brand with some other brand-name 2% jug? Many times, they’re coming from the same facilities. Milk is produced and processed at regional facilities, so the store or off-brand stuff is probably the same (or close to it) as any other type.
Next: Milk isn’t for everybody. Snacks, though, are.
Nuts and seeds
- Is that jar of Planters really any different from the industrial-sized jug from Costco?
Nuts and seeds can vary in quality. There’s no denying that. They can also come in different containers, flavors, and varieties. But when you really drill down to it, if you’re buying peanuts, you’re buying peanuts. You’ll notice at the store that a generic or store-brand bag of nuts may cost a few bucks. But the brand-name stuff, such as Planters? It can cost nearly twice as much. You might notice a difference in quality, but either way you’re going to end up with what you want: a bag of nuts or seeds.
Next: Paper products
Paper towels and toilet paper
- Yes, there are some big differences when it comes to toilet paper. But at its most basic level, it’s still just paper.
Some people can be incredibly picky when it comes to toilet paper. It’s understandable. If you’ve found a brand you like, then stick with it. But toilet paper and paper towels, even with a fancy brand name and handsome lumberjack on the label, are still just toilet paper and paper towels when you get down to it. Again, there might be some variations to choose from (ply, pattern, strength, etc.), but if you just need some toilet paper you can save by going with the off-brand.
Next: Savings opportunities for those with a sweet tooth
- You can pay a premium for specific candy brands. But taste tests often show it’s unnecessary.
This is another item that might be subjective. But when it comes to candy, most of the time you’re going to be fine going with a generic versus an off-brand. That means during Halloween you might be able to get away with the generic (and cheaper) stuff without too much bellyaching. Of course, it’s going to vary from person to person. And if you’re a Hershey’s aficionado, then go for the Hershey’s chocolate. But if you don’t care that much there’s cheaper chocolate out there that will do the trick.
Next: What about personal cleaning products?
Soaps and shampoo
- There is an incredible number of products out there. But as with other product types, many contain the same active ingredients.
Anyone who has ever set foot in a Target or Walmart knows the section with the shampoos and soaps is a downright labyrinth. And if you don’t have a preference for a specific shampoo or soap, you might have no idea what you should or should not buy. Well, like many other items on our list, a lot of these products boil down to the same few ingredients. It’s the colors, packaging, and scents that vary. We’ve all had run-ins with bad soap and shampoo, so that’s not to say it isn’t out there. But again, if you’re impartial a bottle of generic hand soap is probably just as good as a brand-name.
Next: Allergies got you down? Save by ditching brand-name loyalty.
- Like painkillers, generic allergy medications are pretty much the same as their branded counterparts.
We’ve already dug into the world of painkillers and their generic counterparts. Well, it’s the same story when it comes to allergy medications. There are a few big ones on the market with names you’ll likely recognize — Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin are among the biggest. All have generic cousins that, like painkillers, are regulated and contain the same active ingredient. It’s yet another area in which you can save some money by going for the off-brand.
Next: Everybody needs some cleaning products.
Furniture spray and dusting agents
- Again, these are nearly identical products being sold under different brand names — often at a higher price.
In the cleaning aisle, you’re apt to find all kinds of cleaners that are either exactly the same or, like medicines, contain the same active ingredients. There’s bound to be some minor or slight differences in the amounts of chemicals and scents, for example. But if you look through the ingredients list, they’re going to be more or less identical. Some manufacturers even make and sell the same products under different brand names (Pledge versus Favor, for example).
Next: Another unnecessarily expensive product? Makeup.
- Makeup comes in many shapes and forms, but like several other products it’s typically comprised of the same basic inputs.
This is another one that will come down to personal preference. Not all makeups are made equally. But some are. There’s been a lot written comparing bargain or off-brand makeup to designer brands. And though it depends on the product and some specifications, a lot of it is the same stuff. Again, if you’ve found a product that you like, trust, and works for you, it’s probably in your best interest to buy it. But if you’re shopping around? Compare ingredients. They’re bound to be identical or close to it.
Next: Laundry detergent
- This is another product in which most of the active ingredients are going to be the same with a few slight alterations.
This takes us back to yet another area that we’ve already covered, though we’re getting a little more specific. When it comes to cleaning agents (or soaps), we’re really looking at active chemicals. Laundry detergents contain these chemicals, plus a few other active ingredients, and are usually very close to being the same. There might be some differences that steer you toward a specific brand (a particular additive, for example). But at the end of the day, it’s just soap. Cheaper stuff might not be as effective, though, so use your best judgment.
Next: We dive into your refrigerator.
- Heinz might be your best bet. But all that off-brand stuff? It’s probably coming out of the same factory.
When it comes to condiments, people have their loyalties. Heinz ketchup tends to rule the roost in most families. The same goes for French’s mustard. And don’t even try to sneak in a bottle of off-brand Sriracha (Huy Fong or die). But once you get away from those bigger brands, almost everything else out there is pretty much the same. In fact, like many other products, it might all be coming from the same factories and put into different bottles.
Next: A common pantry ingredient
- Is Arm & Hammer really any better than the generic brand? And what the hell does baking soda do, anyway?
Baking soda is a magical substance that sucks up odor and can be used to clean up dog vomit or make a model volcano. And yes, it’s even used in baking. What you probably associate with a small orange box of Arm & Hammer really contains a chemical compound called sodium bicarbonate. And it probably doesn’t matter much at all if you buy the off-brand or store brand. It’s just a salt compound, and there isn’t much extra a brand name is bringing to the box.
Next: Finally, something a bit more controversial
- Yes, there’s a difference between Cocoa Puffs and Cocoa Dyno-Bites. But are the extra couple bucks worth it?
You’ll meet people who will fight over whether certain cereals are better than their generic or off-brand counterparts. It can be a lively debate. But at the end, the two products really only have slight differences. The point is if you want to save some money, going for the store or off-brand might net you a couple of extra bucks. You might notice something slightly off when it comes to the taste, but you’ll have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the extra money to you.