Does It Pay to Be Cheap or Will You Regret It?

No one likes being called cheap. Not even bloggers who write about such things. The word “frugal” is preferred and although they often apply to and mean the same thing, frugal does make one sound smarter, doesn’t it?

Being a smart shopper means knowing when it pays to buy cheap and when to spend more for quality. Here are my thoughts on three categories.

When I first starting writing this blog, I spent most of my time on it writing about shopping and bargains. Making your money stretch and last longer also means being able to save more when you spend less. And you can use that savings for some really important stuff like retirement or healthcare or building up your emergency funds.

I often write about saving money and you might want to say that makes me “cheap”. But it doesn’t. However it does raise the question, “Does it pay to be cheap?”

Your Shopping Instincts

When you’re shopping, it’s easy to assume that a higher price tag always means a better product. That’s what most manufacturers and retailers want you to think. You see prices that are often just inflated tags hanging on items and then slashed by big percentages. That makes you feel really good about getting those things at big discounts!

From all my years of experience as a retail executive, I can honestly say that finding ways to make you think that something was a bigger bargain than it really was…that was my goal every day. That’s why when you see a sign when shopping that says “save 70% off” you get really excited.

If that wasn’t true, people would spend their hard earned money on more expensive items. They buy more when they could get some of those items for 70% off!

The problem is that it’s very difficult for you to really figure out whether something is worth the price you see hanging on it, no matter how good a shopper you think you are. Manufacturers and retailers know that.

Quality and Price

Be honest with yourself here, you are probably like most people and just can’t always buy the “top of the line” items that you really want (but probably don’t really need).

While there are times when it makes sense to go for quality over price, you’re better off saving your money and purchasing the less expensive options more often than not. But in some cases, you might pay more now, but you’ll end up saving money in the long run. Sometimes that’s a tough decision to make and in some cases it’s impossible financially to make.

There are three basic categories that all of us regularly shop for and have to make these kinds of decisions about almost daily. They are: Food, Clothing, and Transportation.

Food and Drink

The price of certain types of food and beverages often doesn’t reflect the quality found within. Let’s use chocolate as an example. There are different qualities of chocolate, and some people will happily shell out $7 or more for a bar they believe to be made from cocoa beans sourced from a single location (usually some distant place like France) and produced using fair trade labor. But it turns out that many people can’t taste the difference between a high-priced luxury chocolate bar and chocolate from a mainstream candy brand like Hershey’s!

Another consumable category where it doesn’t always make sense to go with the pricier option is alcohol. Wine (which I swear is impossible for me to tell differences in quality) is an obvious example, but vodka, a flavorless, odorless, clear beverage is an even better one. If you walk into a spirits shop, you’re likely to find rows and rows of vodka bottles ranging from under $10 per bottle to well over $50 per bottle.

You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a $10 bottle of vodka and a $50 bottle of vodka. Bloomberg reported that in tastings conducted by Chicago’s Beverage Testing Institute, cheaper brands earned higher scores than brands that charge over $50 per bottle. See what I mean?

Do higher prices mean healthier eats?

When it comes to food and drink, a higher price isn’t just associated with higher quality. People tend to equate higher price tags with healthier options.

It is true that healthier food options tend to cost more, but, according studies, healthier food costs are just slightly more per day than the unhealthy food choices. It might just be worth that extra buck here.

The tricky thing about cheap food is that it usually ends up costing you more in the end.

Buying vegetables and fruits at the market might lead to a higher grocery bill than buying cans of salty soup and boxes of cheesy pasta, but those cheaper foods tend to be more likely to contribute to health issues, such as obesity and diabetes. And the cost of treating chronic health issues can be staggering. My own personal health story is a testimony to all of that.

There’s no point in paying higher prices on something called “designer food”, however, it’s better to pay more for whole foods like produce, whole grains, eggs, and lean meat than to save money at the register by buying lots of processed items. I guess my verdict at this age is simple, “Don’t be so cheap when it comes to your food choices!”

Clothing

You can say to yourself that it’s better to go for quality when it comes to items that go on your body. You only get one body (see food choices about that) so you want to treat it well. How well you treat your clothes does determine how long they last. That said, you don’t always have to splurge on high priced items to wear mainly because the price tag is determined by the label and has no real reflection on the quality of the product.

Many times you are paying for the name of someone who has been paid simply to endorse a product or line of clothes and may have absolutely nothing to do with it except using their name!

Is it ever worth paying big money for clothes?

It can pay to spend more for quality when buying clothes. The better made a garment is, the longer it will typically last. Higher-quality clothing is also easier to care for than the cheap stuff. If you’ve ever tossed a pair of cheap shorts or a top in the wash and had it come out not looking like itself, you know what I’m talking about. It happens all the time.

Quality clothing lasts longer because of better fabric and better construction. If you’re not sure if a piece of clothing is high quality, your eyes and hands can tell you. Feel the fabric. A rough or scratchy texture is often a sign of a lower-quality. Look up to the light and make sure you can’t see completely through the fabric.

Take a close look at the seams on any garment. One of the ways that clothing manufacturers try to cut costs is by sewing shoddy seams. If it’s a seam worth its salt, it won’t pull apart when you tug on it.

The trick is to be a diligent shopper and carefully inspect every item before you bring it home. If you buy something online, make sure it’s from a site that lets you return items, since you’re not able to give the clothing a once-over test before buying it.

When should you invest and when should you save when it comes to items you use at home? How often you plan on using a product and how effective that product is can influence whether it’s worth splurging on or not.

Travel/Transportation

We often equate quality with safety. The more you spend on something, the more likely it is to have certain safety features. When it comes to cars, the newer models tend to have more safety features than older ones thanks to advances in technology.

When you buy a car, the total cost of the vehicle is going to be more than what is on the sticker. There are always fees attached and that alone can be the subject of another post.

How much more that car will cost you depends on its fuel efficiency, insurance, and maintenance. But as you know, older used cars often cost a lot less than newer models up front, but what you might save on the price of the car, you quickly end up paying for in repairs and gas efficiency.

Can you afford to risk your life?

You might be taking your life in your hands every time you get behind the wheel of an older vehicle, potentially increasing your medical costs according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Does your car have full driver airbags including side airbags? Some older models have them, but a good number don’t.

But don’t feel you have to buy a new car to get the most bang for your buck. This week my mother-in-law is looking for a new car since her 17 year old minivan is now falling apart. We’re looking at cars that are 7-10 years old.

A used car that’s a few years old is often the best of both worlds for price and safety. You get the safety features and fuel economy you’re looking for and a price that’s right. Used cars also typically have fewer fees, taxes, and insurance costs when you buy them. We’re off to find a deal right now.

What about a bike?

That’s an expense you don’t need and can save on, right? Well, not so fast. While you don’t have to spend a lot on a good reliable bike, it does pay to invest some money into such two-wheeled transportation in some cases.

Back in February of 2019, I wrote about bicycles and just recently my 39-year-old daughter (carless these days) bought one to get her around town and help accomplish her shopping as well as get some healthy fresh air. For a little more than $100, she accomplished all that and I’d say that isn’t being cheap but smartly frugal! Oh and don’t forget a lock and a helmet!

But there are some cheap bikes (often called “bike-shaped objects” or BSO). They might look and feel like bikes, but they are often made of materials that don’t perform as well or as safely as they should.

That said, you can find an affordable bike that is still of high quality. But no matter what you decide to do, think of the cost of ownership before buying a car or bike. A cheaper model will often cost you more in the long run and can even put your life at risk.

Final Thoughts

Frugal or Cheap? Smart or foolish? I guess that debate won’t end with this post. But I am sure of one thing. I don’t like wasting my money and I do like feeling I got a bargain that is worth more than I paid for it.

Often the process of shopping is a matter of heart over mind and it shouldn’t be that way. Using your brain will guard against your making a rash or even a wrong decision based on “savings” and not on value.

You can get better with practice. It only took me about 40 years to figure it all out, so there is hope for all of us.

Where can you save money when you shop that still gives you safety and value? Do you consider quality over price and will you rethink how you shop? Are you one who shops with their heart and not their smart(s)?

2 Comments

  1. That’s great advice Gary, and an interesting take on the retail world from a former insider. I’m almost immune to those Jedi tricks because I’m an engineer but still it is always a question of when is the least expensive product just as good and when is it a disaster. For my wife and me it has been a trial and error process too over the last 40 years, on store brands versus name brands. On cars I tend to buy used luxury models that have up to date safety features but sell for about half of their original sticker price. Great post!

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