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Generic vs. name-brand: 19 recommendations

Among the products where you're better off with generic: baby formula, bleach and gasoline.

Posted by Karen Datko Wednesday, October 13, 2010 12:14:08 PM

This guest post comes from Kate Forgach at the Go Frugal Blog.


Where do you stand in the generic vs. name-brand products debate? Do you proudly flaunt your thrifty buys or stealthily slip your generic purchases under oversized toilet paper packages?

Is your selection a reflection of your personal tastes or simply a matter of money?

The main reason for buying generic products is simple enough: You're a thrifty consumer. But there's something to be said for turning your nose up at marketing manipulation by major manufacturers.

The generic vs. name-brand battle, particularly with over-the-counter meds, has nearly been won, as consumers clue in to the savings at hand. A Consumer Reports study revealed that shoppers can save an average of 30% if they buy generic. For example, if you spend $100 a week on groceries, those savings add up to more than $1,500 a year. Add on savings from bulk buying using grocery free-shipping coupons and you've moved from savvy shopper to frugalista.

According to Consumer Reports, there's no reason store brands shouldn't hold their own against the big boys, particularly since some of the same companies manufacture both. Companies doubling up include Sara Lee (baked goods), Reynolds (wraps and storage containers), 4C (bread crumbs, iced tea and soup mixes), McCormick (seasonings, extracts, sauces and gravies), and several other big names.

Here are 19 recommendations as to when you're better off buying generic vs. name brand, with a few instances where the decision depends on your circumstances.

Baby formula: generic. People don't want to skimp on baby formula because they think more expensive products are best for their baby. As with over-the-counter medications, however, throwing money at a product doesn't always make sense.

The Infant Formula Act requires that specific procedures be followed in making infant formulas. Thus, paying $13 more for a can of Enfamil or Similac over a generic brand is a waste of money, since both are certified by the Food and Drug Administration as good and healthy for your baby.

Batteries: It depends. Brand-name batteries, from Energizer to Duracell, claim they keep going and going and going longer than other batteries, including generic brands. This is one case where the advertising is true, but the added cost may not be worth it. An unscientific study by found that branded batteries provided more hours of energy, but their high cost made it cheaper to replace batteries.

The premium price may be worthwhile, however, when you're dependent on those extra hours. Examples include a smoke detector or car flashlight.

Beauty products: It depends. Drugstores have learned they can duplicate brand leaders' beauty products and still make a profit while charging consumers half what they would have spent on the name-brand products. If the process isn't patented, there are no rules against making an exact copy.

On the other hand, women can tell you that some quality brands stand head and shoulders above generic products, particularly when it comes to all-natural ingredients. The big-box stores sneak in a lot of multi-syllabic ingredients that can be hard on the skin. Alcohol, a drying agent, often is listed as one of the main ingredients in generic skin lotions. It pays to read and compare when it comes to your body.

Even better yet, learn how to make your own organic beauty products so you know exactly what you're putting on your skin and hair.

Bleach: generic. Bleach is basically watered-down chlorine, so it makes no sense to buy a name brand. If you want to go even cheaper than buying a gallon generic jug, add one teaspoon of chlorine granules as the water runs into the wash tub of your washing machine, let it completely fill and agitate for a minute before loading the clothes.

Cereal: generic. Cereal is one of the biggest values when buying generic, saving you anywhere from 25% to 50%. A $6 box of brand-name cereal costs $3 for the generic version and usually comes in a bigger package with less air. Parents of children who insist on the brand name can buy the expensive version once and refill the empty box with the generic cereal. Kids will likely never notice the difference.

Cleaning products: brand name. Many cheaper products skimp on actual substance and add water. After several years of cleaning for a living, I have to say it's not worth buying generics because you'll just go through them faster. You'll save roughly 35% but use them up in half the time.

Electronic cables: generic. If you're going to spend $1,500 on a new TV, why not $100 or so on HDMI and other cables to connect it? At least that's what the sales rep will tell you. The truth is, $9 cables will make the same connection and work just as well as the name-brand version.

It's natural to fear blowing up your new flat-screen, high-def, 3-D investment if you don't buy the highest-priced connecting cables. Salespeople are trained to pounce on that fear. Manufacturers claim the copper conductors on the expensive cables provide a better signal transfer, but in reality a cheaper cable will work just fine.

Gasoline: generic. Buying "off-brand" gas gets your car from place to place in the same shape as fuel from name-brand stations. In fact, it's often the same gas, yet the price can differ by about 20 cents a gallon. That 20 cents must be paying for the extra nifty service you receive, like washing your windshield, checking your oil. Oh, wait a minute. They don't do that anymore. Never mind.

Margarine: generic. You can't believe it's not butter? I can't believe you're paying extra for a name brand. A quick check of the ingredients frequently reveals you're paying 50% more for packaging with silly claims like, "Perfect for the lactose intolerant!" and "100% less cheese filling!" Well, not really, but pretty close.

Milk: generic. Unless you can detect a hint of sunflower with overtones of fruit in that name-brand milk, you're paying a pretty premium for vintage lactose. My local supermarket recently offered a name-brand milk for $5.39 and their store-brand product for $2.39. That's a whopping difference for something you drink every day.

Over-the-counter drugs: generic. Look at the Advil. Now look at the generic equivalent. Then back at the Advil. Now back at the generic.

Sure, the fancy packaging and advertising are tempting, but a peek at the contents reveals they're identical. That's because the Food and Drug Administration requires that generic medications have the same active ingredients as the patented medications they replace.

In general, generic medicines are just as effective and much cheaper than branded medications. For example, a name-brand acetaminophen that recently cost $10.99 at a local big-box store was just $6.99 for the store brand. 

Pantry staples: generic. Flour, sugar and other single-ingredient items are all the same. Really, they are. Government regulations require the same production and storage for generics as they do for brands, so buying a label is like giving money away for walking down the grocery aisle. And since the brand-name versions are rarely on sale or have manufacturer's coupons, generic is the best way to go.


Prescription medications: It depends. U.S. laws regulating prescription drugs are so convoluted, we end up paying far more than most other countries, which is why you receive so many e-mail offers for Canadian drugs.

Price is the single biggest difference between many generic and brand-name drugs. On average, generics are up to 60% cheaper. For example, the common asthma inhaler Ventolin costs $1.44 per day but the generic albuterol form costs just 69 cents per day. Prinivil, a hypertension medication, runs $1.16 per day and the generic form lisinopril is just 60 cents per day.

For some people and some medications, however, brand products work better than generics. There's an ongoing discussion regarding generic vs. brand-name Wellbutrin, a medication for depression. Many report unpleasant side effects and loss of effectiveness when taking the generic form. But this isn't true for all prescription drugs.

Naturally, insurance companies prefer that doctors prescribe generics instead of branded medications because they're cheaper. If the brand version works better for you, however, ask your doctor to write to the insurer.

For full details, check out Consumer Reports' unbiased comparison of different medications at "Best buy drugs."

Salad mix and produce: generic. Lettuce is lettuce and an apple is an apple, whether it has a brand name or generic sticker. As with all produce, check for freshness and you'll be in good shape.

Soft drinks: brand name. As the years went by and our family grew, my mother progressively bought cheaper and cheaper pop until "soda" was defined as water made fizzy and sweet by an Alka-Seltzer-like tablet. They tasted terrible, just as do many generic sodas. (Whatever you call it -- soda, pop or something else -- it's a bias people carry throughout their lives.)

Spices: It depends. Generic spices tend to be dryer and less flavorful. In some instances, particularly with powdery spices or those you use less frequently, this isn't important. Salt, pepper, paprika, alum and such can be as generic as you like. Actually, leafy, aromatic types like basil, parsley and imported Asian spices should be fresh. In fact, freshly grown basil is a necessity in my kitchen.

Tuna: brand name. Generic tuna tends to have more water than actual fish particles -- "particles" being the operative term here. Often the so-called chunks of generic tuna are so small they'll seep around the lid during straining and end up down the drain, rather than in your sandwich.

Vacuums: brand name. The latest vacuum technology is well worth the premium price, particularly for pet owners trying to keep dander and hair to a minimum. Brand-name products usually have better warranties and are easier to get serviced than lesser-known models.

Whatever you do, however, don't buy a secondhand vacuum. Most have seen heavy-duty use and will cost more to repair than you actually paid for the machine. 

Water: generic. It's beyond me why you'd want to pay for something that comes out of the tap, but some people still buy small bottles of water and pay a premium. Next time you're about to shell out for a single serving, check the label for the water's fountain of origin. That "crisp and fresh" beverage is often drawn from a central processing plant, not the trickling stream shown on the label (which wouldn't be healthy, anyway.)

In terms of price, bottled water costs between 25 cents and $2 per bottle while tap water costs less than 1 cent. Typically, 90% or more of the cost goes to things other than the water itself, including bottling, packaging, shipping, marketing, retailing and, of course, profit.

More from the Go Frugal Blog and MSN Money:

Tags: consumer guidefrugalgroceriespersonal caresavings
10/15/2010 2:17 PM
Has this woman ever eaten generic cereal? Like hell I'd take advice from her to feed my baby generic baby formula!
10/15/2010 12:00 PM
I totally disagree with the recommendation to buy brand name soft drinks.  It's fine to recommend steering clear of alka-setzer tablet like soft drinks.  However, not all generic soft drinks are like that.  My roomates and I buy generic soft drinks in 2 liters from Walmart.  They taste exactly the same as name brand, but are significantly cheaper.   I'm sure some generic soft drinks do taste worse than name brand, but to lump them all in together isn't right.
10/13/2010 12:24 PM

generic drugs can have up to 30% less active ingredient than formulary drugs. i know this is true because of the difference i feel when taking tramadol, as compared to ultram.


yes some of the drugs might have an equivalent amount of active ingredient as the non generic, but i bet its a small percentage of the drugs available.

if you were a generic drug maker, selling the drugs for a much lower price than the originals, wouldn't you jump at the chance of lawfully using less active?

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