Do You Buy Name Brands or Not?



Note: This is a post from Joan Concilio, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

I’ve needed a new pair of jeans for a while. I hate buying jeans. I am, I guess, not jeans-shaped, which is to say that they never feel like they fit well. Normally, if I can find ones that are “good enough,” I go for them.

And I certainly don’t like to spend much money on jeans.

Well, here’s an interesting thing. For a long time, I’d limited my jeans-trying-on to stores like Walmart and maybe Old Navy. The occasional T.J. Maxx. Kohl’s, on a REAL splurge. Since I never like them anyway (even expensive pairs), I figured, why bother looking at brand-name stores? They’re going to be more expensive!

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I decided to go jeans-shopping. My jeans from about three years ago were from Old Navy, and while their jeans are cheap when on sale, they’re something like $29 or more regular price, well more than I wanted to pay, especially after trying on something like 6 pairs and not finding any that felt even “pretty good.”

So I tried to remember what other brands of jeans I’d worn in the past, and decided to check out the Aeropostale in the mall… mostly out of desperation, and because I knew they had a particular cut I sometimes wear. I resigned myself to the fact that these high-end (for me) jeans would be more expensive, but reasoned that since I buy them so rarely, I could deal with it.

Guess what? I walked in and out with $16 jeans in less than 5 minutes. Couldn’t believe it. And they weren’t having a big sale – they were just standard, not-new-for-this-season jeans, and they were $16 and fit as well as I ever get jeans to fit.

So I started thinking about my brand preconceptions.

You know…

  • If I buy it at that store, it will be more expensive (or, if I buy it at this store, it will definitely be cheaper)…
  • That brand-name food tastes better than this generic food…
  • It doesn’t really matter what brand of TV I buy…

Some of those things are probably true. But my shopping was starting to default to guesses about quality and value that aren’t necessarily the best-informed!

What Man Vs. Debt readers said about name brands

Over the weekend, I asked our Man Vs. Debt community on Facebook to share some thoughts about name brands vs. generic or “off” brands. Here’s what you had to say!

Veda: I won’t skimp on shoes or bras, so I watch for what I want to go on sale . I do a lot of grocery shopping at Aldi, it’s a good place to save on basics. New clothes have to be something that will get a lot of use, otherwise I get those items & housewares secondhand.

Stacey: Aldi’s is great. They even have gourmet generics.

Medricka: Mayo…I only (buy) brand name.

Christy:  Food…Parmesan cheese (that’s the Italian in me, Dairy is preferred to be Organic (milk, eggs) I can definitely taste the difference…and toilet paper/paper towels (both have to be recycled..I like the white cloud). Note from Joan: The Italian in ME is happy with this.

Erin:  Don’t ever go for generic cheese! It won’t even melt..

Heather: I mostly will buy off brands if they are cheaper with the exception of peanut butter, I haven’t found any that taste as good as JIF!

Clare: I will usually buy name brand for things I don’t buy often “ie ketchup”, especially if i have a coupon, but most other things, stores brand or generic is just as good.

Jennifer:  Food wise, I’ve never noticed a discernible difference between generic or store brand and name brand. For clothes, I will buy quality (ex. gently-used Prada shoes from a NYC consignment shop) if it’s something classic I expect to use for a long time, otherwise I’m shopping clearance racks/eBay/garage sales. For household wares, I look for vintage items from garage/estate sales and thrift/consignment shops. Anything “new” I’ve received wears down rather quickly, but my grandma’s kitchen utensils see daily use and are still going strong!

Jenn: I do 95% of my shopping at Aldi – over the years I’ve only found a couple of their products to be sub-par (the refrigerated cinnamon rolls and their canned black beans). Everything else is AWESOME and I save 30-50% on my grocery bill. Clothes – I like decent brands but try to get them second hand or new on mega-sale. I never pay retail. There are only a few brand-name things I gravitate towards…Bounty paper towels, and toiletries (shampoo, hairspray, etc.). I definitely don’t care about brand names for shoes, clothes or handbags – I have a strong aversion to those high-end brands that print their logo all over everything (Coach, Louis Vuitton, etc.). I guess I’m a little anti-brand in that regard!

Sarah: Hate brands that print logo all over. .. in that case they should pay us to carry/advertise for them…ha. People put too much emphasis on stuff like that. That being said I like high quality…w/in reason. I hate crappy shoes… usually comfortable and cute will cost you but worth it in my opinion. Would rather buy awesome jeans used over cheap new jeans! As far as food, cheaper potato chips usually can’t tell much difference.

Queen Buzzy: The only brand loyalty I have is for shampoo/conditioner (Nature’s Gate: sulfate free!) Everything else really just depends on the sale price  Couldn’t care less about clothing labels. I’ll buy clothes at the grocery store if they look cute.

Michele: Toilet paper, laundry detergent, shampoo/conditioner, tampons/pads, and Cheerios have to be brand name for me. Tried the generics and they’re just not as good & for some of those items we’re apparently just picky. Won’t do us any good to save the $ if we end up not using the product.

Laura: I buy name brand on cereal. The generics are never as good.

Sidney: As General Mao puts it – it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white – as long as it catches mice. LOL

Katie: Only care about name brand with laundry detergent and some clothes and shoes!

The thing that stood out to me is that it sounds like most of our community members have at least tried generics and aren’t defaulting to brand-name purchases! I also loved seeing how value factored in to people’s decisions. Because that’s my biggest takeaway.

Joan’s take on brands and cost per use

I’ve talked about this in relation to clothing in particular before. When I wrote How We Buy Our Clothes: When Frugal Isn’t Cheap last year, I pointed out that there are things we ALWAYS go cheap on, and others that we tend to be willing to spend more on up front (or be brand-loyal to) in order to ensure longer wear. In return, though, we know the ways to get our quality buys much more cheaply. Our consignment shop is a huge win; we pile up rewards points at particular stores; and Chris has even been known to get Chaps button-ups for a dollar at the economy store!

The same is true for groceries. There are things we KNOW we prefer brand names on. Simply Heinz ketchup… sorry. That’s all there is for me. Not even regular Heinz. I want THAT ONE KIND and I know it. Same with paper towels. In that case, it’s not one brand, but the cheapest of about three, but with five cats and a large dog, paper towels have to absorb a certain amount of… ick. I have had way too many experiences of buying paper towels that were two-thirds of the price of the name brand – and buying twice as many. That’s NOT saving money.

I’m probably the most mixed on electronics. Despite working online, I’m not super-gadgety. My iPod is from 2005, bought used THEN, and holds something like 200 songs. It’s fine – it does what I need it to do. Most of my other devices are work purchases, and we have a grand total of one TV and it’s not even a flat-screen, let alone HD. That said, it’s a brand-name one – Sony – and probably the only reason it’s lasted for the past 6 years or so, including that time I sort of dropped it, is that it was high-quality for its day. On the other hand, my daughter has KILLED a handful of generic MP3 players over the years. She uses them daily, and has tons of music, and essentially they all have to be wiped off and reprogrammed about once a month because they just crash. (She takes good care of them; they’re just not made for that, I don’t think)! So in her case, I think it’s probably worth it to buy her a decent iPod – and that may be our Christmas choice for this year.

Overall, I want to be clear that I’m interested most in VALUE, not cost. That’s what I mean by cost per use – a $200 purse that I use daily for two years and counting, like my current one, has a LOWER cost per use, at about 27 cents a day, than my previous habit of buying $15 purses that I used for about a month before they ripped or were stained, with a 50-cents-per-day cost. Yes, I’m hard on purses, but it’s a great example FOR ME. If you’re not hard on purses (or, y’know, you’re a guy), the $200 leather Coach satchel is probably not a good value!

In your case, maybe it’s high-quality running shoes that don’t leave you with a podiatrist or chiropractic bill, or gluten-free foods that keep you feeling well. Whatever it is, your budget is best off when you know where you want to scrimp and where you are willing to spend more up front to get a good long-term value!

The thing I’m trying to become even more conscious of, however, is not making assumptions. Not assuming that jeans at Walmart or Old Navy will be cheaper than those at a “brand-name” chain. Not assuming that if I don’t like generic ketchup, I probably won’t like generic mustard – without trying it. That I need to get a new iPod because mine is so old.

That’s not value. That’s silly. And I’m working to change that thinking and to continue to be a conscious consumer when I do need to buy something!

More interesting reading on brand consciousness

Brands Are Imprinted On Our Brains: Now this was fascinating. A study done in Germany showed that people’s brains actually physically responded differently after seeing a name-brand label on soda – even when drinking the same thing three times in a row, the pleasure cues sent to the brain when the drink was labeled Coke or Pepsi were different. Our eyes can override our taste buds? That’s pretty crazy!

Store Brand vs. Name Brand Taste-Off: Consumer Reports tests a bunch of generic and name-brand products and weighs in on where the differences are noticeable. Most are probably not surprises – yeah, we all know Ben & Jerry’s is a bit tastier than other ice creams… (CR also has this great read on the difference between brand-name and off-brand TVs that’s worth checking out.)

Focus on Quality Brands that Hold Up Over Time: This is an awesome read from Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar. It hits a lot of the topics I talked about in my post above about when frugal isn’t cheap related to clothing – and when a high-quality item is really more economical over time. It’s also a great breakdown of the cost-per-use concept I mentioned.


So what do you think? Brand-name? Off-brand? Some of both?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Tell me in the comments!

22 thoughts on “Do You Buy Name Brands or Not?”

  1. Brand name all the way…I suppose I’m a marketers dream come true. I believe in value as you do and buying cheap clothing doesn’t make sense. To use your example, when buying jeans, I spend $90 on them (SIlver Suki’s are awesome if you have curves!). Why? I could never find a pair of $30 jeans that would fit right, it drove me crazy!That and the fact that my $90 jeans have lasted me 3 years and the $30 ones last 6 months. I find that with most Old Navy/Gap products…sad but true.

  2. I don’t know if I live in a bad area for thrift and consignment stores but I’ve never had luck there. After hours of digging, the selection is lacking and the price isn’t great. The better value comes from shopping sales at name brands stores like Ann Taylor or Banana PerceRepublic. And by sales I mean second or third markdowns with an additional percentage off. $8 for a blouse that is classic in style and well made sure beats what I find at a thrift store. And I save a lot of time.

  3. Back in about 2008 I saw a wallet I really wanted, but, at £55 (about $90) it was a bit out of my student price range.
    But I saved up for it, and swore I’d use it until it fell apart. 5 years later, it still pretty much looks as good as it did the day I bought it. I bit grubby inside from dirty coins, but otherwise perfect.
    When it comes to wallets and handbags, I always now go for a lower-end designer bag, just because they last longer, and look good for longer.

    When grocery shopping, the only thing I go for brands on are toilet paper (life is too short to use icky cheap nastiness on your delicate areas!) and tampons. I’ve tried generic brands of both, but never like them. Oh, and things like toothpaste and shampoo/conditioner.
    I use the stores own brand on laundry stuff/other cleaners, because they do a perfectly adequate job, IMO.
    For food, I almost always go for the stores own brand, or the value ranges. I usually can’t tell the difference from the branded stuff. And then that money I save can be used for more exciting things!

  4. When it comes to certain things, food stuffs for the most part, generic or store brand are typically just as good and save money. When it comes to clothes or shoes, depending on the item, it can be worth it to spend a little more, otherwise, buying name brands, in my opinion, is a waste of my valuable money.

  5. I look for QUALITY. If it’s good, I don’t care about the brand. Material matters, how the clothes look on me etc (if we’re talking clothes). I don’t spend too much on it, so I wouldn’t touch something very expensive, but I do try to find good quality stuff at a reasonable price.

  6. We always are willing to take chances with generics when it comes to food, but we are quick to get burned. Like Erin mentioned in your community, we have tried several generic cheeses only to find that NONE of them melt. It’s like it has to be Kraft or Velveeta to have that special melting power.

    For clothing, we are not really wanting to skimp. Mainly because we also realize that clothing sold at small retailers most likely were made in poor economic conditions. While I cant guarantee that my $100 jeans aren’t, I’d rather my conscious be somewhat clear and do the research on the manufacturer and pay for that price.

  7. Re: brands – I like nice clothes, and have the belief that the “higher-status” brands tend to be better constructed and fit better. With that said, I have zero intention on keeping up with the Jones’s. I live in LA, and work in Hollywood. The “Jones’s” here know how to drop serious coin on clothes, cars, etc. Even simple articles of clothing (hoodies, t-shirts, etc.) will be high-end brands that they dropped close to 3-digits worth, just to make a point.

    A specific example, I know an executive who dropped $6K on a pair of Christian Louboutin’s for his teenage daughter. Intense. This kind of spending pervades their entire lifestyle — but if you peeked at their personal lives, honestly, they don’t seem all that much happier, so what’s the point?

    Slightly off-topic, I got thinking about the headline for the other blog post “When Frugal isn’t Cheap.” Something about it nagged me, I’m still struggling to nail it down… It has to do the use of the word “frugal” and the negative connotation we (or maybe just I?) associate with it. Essentially, the inverse relationship implied by the headline is “normally, being frugal means being cheap.”

    I did read the post, and know that’s not the intention of the article (which is well-written, and addresses how Joan shops for clothes, for those who haven’t read.)

    I feel “frugal” gets an undeserved bad rap, when frugal is often a conscious decision that goes something like: “yes, I could spend more money on this, but money is a finite resource and I’d much rather put it into shit I care about, like X, Y, or Z.”

    Just my thoughts, from a first time commenter on MvD 🙂

  8. I tend to stick with name brand but shop the sales for food. I don’t eat a lot of processed foods, mostly fruits veggies and meat so it’s hard but I go to Winco every 3-4 months to stock up on seasonal “pantry” basics. I hit up Trader Joe’s for cheese, nuts and some basics like rice milk once or twice a month.

    Electronics – I only get the best I can afford. And look for good opportunities to “trade up”, etc. by buying refurbished or swapping in old models. I like buying Apple refurbished products because they still qualify for Apple Care. Just traded in my 1st Gen iPad at Target last weekend for the $200 store credit. I bought an iPad mini using the credit (plus and additional $99). Then, I got a $25 gift card for buying the iPad. Quite a deal. I keep an eye on stores like MacMall as well. Also, if you or your spouse are an educator or if you have a student in your household, be sure to look for education discounts on hardware and software. Or see if your company offers any discount programs. We get 15% off our AT&T bill each month with the educator discount and saved about $150 on a recent Apple laptop purchase.

    For clothes, I try to find quality at a good price, unless it’s something like t-shirts. Old Navy, Walmart and Target are “disposable” clothing in my mind. Even though Target has some name brands (like Levi’s) – they tend to be made out of poorer quality. I don’t like the Kohl’s “mark up to mark down” strategy – it exhausts me. I keep an eye out at thrift stores for high end brands like Eileen Fisher that will last for decades. For home goods, my house is decorated in a lot of orange and red – meaning I find great stuff on sale after Thanksgiving and Christmas in those colors at places like Home Goods and Macy’s.

    Living in the Pacific NW, our seasons are a bit out of tune with the rest of the country. But the department stores are still on the same sale cycle. In general, I don’t need summer clothes before the end of June. By that time, Macy’s is already marking things down like crazy. Same for outdoor recreation and summer entertainment stuff.

    There’s a great chain back east called Gabriel Brothers that I love. They have very low prices on name brands. I think they buy up inventory from stores that are closing, last season’s stock and also overstock from manufacturers. You have to go often, need to know the brands and be ready to dig through the racks, but there are some true bargains to be found.

  9. For casual clothing, I stick with LL Bean, because they will take back and/or replace anything and their stuff lasts for a long time. For more business/formal clothing, I shop around.

    I stand behind Bounty paper towels and Secret deoderant.

  10. For me, it’s all about:
    – Value,
    – How much I love the item and will use it and
    – Whether it fits in the budget.

    If the item scores high on all three of these criteria, I don’t mind spending a lot on an item. A purse for me is a good example, I love my Root’s flat bag. I spent just over $100 for mine in 2008 and have carried it nearly every day since then and it still looks great and serves my needs perfectly.

    For clothes, I’ll spend a bit more on a quality item, but it has to be something I can machine wash/dry. I won’t buy clothes any more that require dry cleaning. For food, I try to always buy on sale.

    I love quality and value. Great post, Joan!


  11. There are a few items that must be, such as Jif PB. Will not go with any other. To us, can’t stomach any other. Bounty paper towels, most other items I shop store brand. I’m a senior citizen and have learned that it pays to watch the $$. You don”t know what the future brings and believe me, you may need that $$ more later, so save what you can.

  12. I tend to not pay full price for anything. I’m also fortunate living where I do. I have access to the Adidas Employee Store, Nike Employee Store (I am not a Nike fan, but I know people who work there), the Columbia/Mountain Hardwear Employee Store, and occasionally I can get into an Icebreaker Warehouse sale, or a pass for Keen Shoes…living in the PNW has its perks! I realized recently that aside from my outdoor gear and hiking clothes, I have not bought more than a few bits of new “street” clothes in the past few years. Jeans I get at H&M and if I need something else, I go to Target or Eddie Bauer. I’m not a huge “brand” name person…I just know what fits and looks good on me, so that’s what I go with.

    As for food and groceries, I buy whatever is on sale and looks good. Sometimes this is generic, sometimes it is a brand name.

  13. I agree with the value vs. cost. You can get something that’s great quality, but the high price means the value is low. And you can get some crappy generic brand that’s cheap, but the value is also low. There are some things that I refuse to buy generic, but most things you can get pretty good value at the generic level.

  14. The main thing that i buy name brands on is Shoes.
    For some reason, i go through cheap shoes quicker than shoes with brand names like Born, etc.

    The rest I could care less.
    Wait, maybe watches too.

  15. Have you read Blink by (I think) Malcolm Gladwell? (I really should get up and walk the three steps to my bookshelf to check the author’s name!) It has an absolutely fascinating chapter on food and how the labels and marketing round different items cause us to perceive them completely differently. Definitely a thought provoking read.

  16. Comfortable shoes that last are the top of my list and they are name brands: SAS for comfortable loafers; Tony Lama for western dress boots; Ariat for waterproof working boots. Cheap shoes fall apart within days, weeks or months. SAS shoes last decades even when work daily. Cheap boots last three months. Tony Lama’s and Ariat’s last a couple years.

    When I rode daily I only wore Wranglers because they hold up and have double seams where you wear them out. If I’m not riding I buy used black jeans or blue jeans that have been starched and pressed. They are usually Levis or Wranglers. Other clothes I find in second hand stores in upscale neighborhoods. I don’t care about style or fashion; only what looks best on me, fits well, and holds up.

    Food I buy direct from the grower or online from Swansons Vitamins. They carry Eden Foods and other organic brands. I buy organic hair and skin care products and either Swansons or Traditional Medicinals organic teas from Swansons, too.

    Tools = only buy the best. Hay for horses = only buy the best. Tractors, implements and vehicles only buy them used and only the brands you can get parts and service on.

  17. As far as food is concerned, I don’t buy paper towels (I keep a pile of rags & old towels handy that can be thrown into the washing machine & re-used), or condiments like ketchup. I make my own peanut butter, salad dressings, and whatever else I can since I’m trying to ban processed foods from my life.

    I was raised by one of the most FRUGAL Fathers in the world – and despite what somebody said above, I think that Frugal is a compliment, not a put-down. My Dad taught me that if you know how to shop right, you can buy brand names for less than the generic brands – He taught me how to layer discounts with coupons & sales etc. I’ve taken what he taught me and developed it, and I buy my clothing at Macy’s for less than you can find at Walmart.

    I’ve built one of my businesses on finding treasures to flip for profit at Thrift stores, garage sales, auctions, Estate Sales and also clearance and seasonal sales. While I’m shopping for my business, I also shop for myself – and have found great clothing and houseware buys for myself. I don’t mind having anything second-hand — and it’s a joke in my extended family that we all shop in each other’s closets for our new outfits. Good thing my taste in clothing runs to a more eclectic style, so I don’t care if it’s last year’s fashion, or from 10 years ago!

  18. As a member of the “big and tall” club, it’s hard not to buy name brand clothes. After all, it’s not like most big and tall guys can walk into a thrift shop and buy something off the rack. Having said that, I’m certainly not opposed to buying something used, which is what I’ve been up to lately. I’ve found eBay to be a fairly reliable source of good, used men’s clothing. Try putting “EUC” in your search, as in excellent used condition.

  19. Hey Joan,
    interesting discussion that you’ve got going on here.

    I’m personally a fan of just a few brands in pretty distinct areas of live, whereas other areas are totally full of off-brand products.

    For example when it comes to tech-stuff, I’m guilty of being an Apple junkie. That doesn’t mean I own every single gadget, but I couldn’t do business properly without my iPhone and my MacBook. It’s just a stable system with great (3rd party) software. Another example are peripherals. I rely on those brands, I have good experience with – regardless whether they’re cheap or expensive, since I need my tech-stuff for my daily business routines.

    Whereas I’m not buying any special brands when it comes to things that aren’t related to business. Regardless whether that’s food, sports utilities or anything else.

    I think that it isn’t important to rely on brands or not. It’s important to rely on those things that work best for you. I’m ok with buying overprized Apple hardware, because they simply work for me – and that’s worth the price, because it saves me from a lot of issues afterwards.

    One needs to find the way that works best in a particular situation and shouldn’t get distracted by brands.

    Best regards,

  20. What an interesting conflict. Name brands often mean higher quality that last longer while off brands are just the opposite. However, everyone seems to be showing that’s not always the case and deserves consideration for every situation.

    Good ideas.
    -Marc @

  21. Before, I normally go for branded clothes and shoes. I think that’s the perk of being single and no one depending on you yet.

    Now, one kid and school fees later, I check price tags more than brand tags. I avoid the branded sections like a disease.

    Though I agree with what the others are saying here. Branded things really last a looong time. I see some of my branded clothes and shoes still in good shape now. I can foretell that my kid can use of them a few years from now. (If those aren’t too outdated for her!)

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