Consumer IQ

When Cheaper Isn’t Always Better

When you’re determined to slash costs and save money, it can be tempting to start pinching pennies on everything. However, before you start buying on price alone, remember that adage about being “penny smart and pound foolish.” For some items, it actually does pay more in the long run, to pay a little bit more upfront. Here are some of the areas when cheaper doesn’t always mean better—and how to determine the difference.

When It Impacts Your Health

Switching from brand name to generic drugs is an easy way to slash your monthly medical budget—but keep in mind that there actually can be a difference in formulations from the brand name to generic versions when it comes to some prescription products. If you are taking a generic antibiotic, it’s probably a relatively safe move to make the switch to generic, but other medicines, like a generic low dose birth control pill, for example, might actually produce a different reaction in your body if you’ve become accustomed to a specific name brand formulation.  (That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t make the switch—just be sure that you address the potential causes for concern with your doctor).

Where you buy medicine matters, too. Taking advantage of web-based pharmacies can be a good medical money-saver—but make sure that you know whom you are buying from. In July 2011, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) reported that after reviewing more than 8,000 prescription drug store related sites,  “96 percent [of these sites] can be traced to rogue affiliate networks obtaining prescription drugs from questionable sources.”

If you decide to pursue a physical activity like running, cycling, yoga, or skiing, spending a little extra money for equipment that meets your specific frame and needs can mean the different between injury and health. Consult with those in the “know” if you’re new to any hobby, and seek the expertise of local specialty stores to avoid more costly issues (like back pain) down the road.  If you’ve decided to take up a sport like boxing, weightlifting or yoga, it might also pay to consult a professional a few times to ensure that your form is correct and safe. (After all, paying for two sessions with a pro is cheaper than many subsequent trips to the doctor if you unintentionally injure yourself).

When You’ll Wear It Often

When it comes to shoes and apparel, value and quality are interrelated. Fashion designer Amy Matto is “a firm believer in quality over quantity” and says that in her own fashion design business, customers rely on her expert craftsmanship. “Apparel not only looks better when time and effort is taken to construct each piece with precision, but it also lasts longer! “The idea for my brand grew partly out of a reaction to the fashion industry trend of outsourcing to China. Outsourcing offers an economic means of production, but oftentimes, skimps on quality,” Matto says.

While cheap clothes can be hard to resist, avoid buying on price alone. Instead, think of everything in terms of what you will pay for it per wear. For example, a $20 sweater from TJ Maxx might seem like a great find—but not if it will pill and lose its shape after you’ve worn it twice.  Likewise, that $180 cashmere sweater splurge might not be a bad investment, if you trust that it’s a quality item, fall in love with its fit, buy it in a timeless color, and know that you’ll that you’ll wear it for the next decade.  You can’t apply this logic to justify every temptation you have to buy, but if you can honestly answer that the pricey winter ski jacket will last you for five years or more, versus the one season of wear you’ll get from its generic counterpart that you’re not crazy about, do the math and follow the numbers.

When It Improves Your Quality of Life

Time is money, and opting for cheap appliances that will cost you more headache than they’re worth is the financial equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Quality kitchen knives, for example, will cost you upfront–but can last a lifetime with proper care. Look for blades that don’t bend, and a knife that feels like it’s some heft when you hold it. Think quality over quantity, and splurge only the model of knives you know you will use regularly, like a quality 8″ chef’s knife.

Be realistic about the items you use every day, and spend accordingly. If you bake just once or twice a year, the $12 generic handheld mixer will probably suit your needs. But if you drink coffee every single morning, buying a higher-end coffee maker that will withstand several brews may be well-worth the investment (especially if it helps you from spending $3 per morning at Starbucks). If you have kids and pets, your carpet probably sees its fair share of dirt and traffic. Instead of buying the cheapest vacuum cleaner you can find, do your research with non-biased resources like Consumer Reports to help identify the best buy for your needs.

When It’ll Go the Extra Mile

Some products, though more expensive, actually come with a guarantee behind quality—which help to make their higher price worthwhile for the long haul. Though UGG Australia products will cost you more than $100, their quality is guaranteed for one year. Patagonia, L.L. Bean and Nordstrom are other brands that while pricier than generic counterparts, stand behind their products, and will accept returns for merchandise long after the purchase date.

Likewise, other brands might be worth spending a little more on—only because you like what the company stands for. For example, trendy shoemaker TOMS gives a pair of shoes to children in need for every purchase made.

Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.