You’ve probably heard the old saying, “You get what you pay for,” and in some cases, it’s true. If you’re buying something you plan to get a lot of use from, such as a good suit, a new sofa, or a cast-iron pan, it’s worth paying more for quality. These are investment purchases, so spending more money upfront will pay you back in the form of a longer lifespan.
But for other goods, spending more money doesn’t get you anything in return. That’s often the case with luxury items. Some people assume that designer clothes look better, salon shampoos work better, and vintage wines taste better simply because their prices are so high. But that’s not necessarily the case.
In situations like these, shelling out for a luxury brand is a waste of money. There are cheaper alternatives to these and many other luxury goods that are just as good as “the real thing” if not better.
Affordable Alternatives to Luxury Goods
Luxury goods aren’t all alike. Sometimes, their high price tag reflects the cost of superior materials or artisanship. In those cases, buying a luxury item is just paying extra for good quality.
But in other cases, the high price is all about status. The alternatives offer the same look or performance at a much more affordable price point. In these cases, you can save big money by choosing the affordable alternative and indulge your Champagne tastes on a beer budget without sacrifice.
1. Jewelry & Accessories
In a way, jewelry is the ultimate luxury good. Many high-end products, such as designer clothes and gourmet kitchen appliances, are simply expensive versions of practical commodities everyone needs.
But jewelry is purely decorative. The only reason to pay thousands of dollars for a gorgeous diamond necklace or bracelet is because it looks good. Yet in many cases, there are less expensive substitutes that look just as good — if not better.
A diamond is just crystallized carbon, and scientists have known for over 100 years how to create diamonds in a lab by applying high heat and pressure to cheaper forms of carbon, such as charcoal. These lab-grown diamonds are not imitations. Physically and chemically, they’re the same as diamonds mined from the earth.
According to Forbes, only the most sophisticated instruments can distinguish between lab-created diamonds and natural ones. One key difference between them is that many lab-created diamonds are perfect specimens — they don’t have the flaws found in most natural diamonds. They’re better than mined stones with a significantly lower price.
According to The Diamond Pro, lab-grown diamonds today are typically 30% to 50% cheaper than natural stones. You can buy a diamond ring made in a lab for around 40% less than you’d pay for a mined stone the same size — or get a stone that’s 40% bigger for the same price. And these synthetic stones don’t have the ethical and environmental problems of mined gems.
However, consumers often see lab-grown diamonds as inferior. That’s primarily due to the efforts of the De Beers diamond cartel, which has waged a massive PR campaign against them. De Beers has long kept diamond prices high through “artificial scarcity,” limiting the supply of stones available. Lab-created diamonds are a threat to that business model.
But if you look past De Beers’ hype, you can see that choosing a lab-created stone is a way to save on an engagement ring and feel good about your diamond’s origin. Many online retailers, such as With Clarity and MiaDonna, carry lab-grown diamonds. You can also find them in some department stores, such as Macy’s, and at online retailers like Amazon.
In theory, a watch is practical as well as decorative. A good watch should both look good and keep accurate time. And ads for timepieces from high-end brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe often stress their superior quality, implying they’re worth buying for the sake of accuracy and durability.
But nowadays, these arguments ring a bit false. Most people don’t need watches at all. They can check the time simply by glancing at their phones. If they choose to wear a watch, it’s usually for the sake of style.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a watch because you like the way it looks. After all, you wear it every day, so it makes perfect sense to want one that fits your personal style. The mistake is thinking high style needs to cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
A 2021 roundup published by Primer shows it’s possible to find fantastic watches at just about any price point. Many excellent brands, such as Timex, Invicta, Fossil, and Skagen, offer numerous choices for $100 or less. They’re accurate, well-made, and beautiful — everything you could ask of a luxury watch without the high price tag.
2. Fashion Brands
Fashion isn’t the same thing as clothing. If all you need your clothes to do is keep you decently covered and protect you from the elements, inexpensive basics from Walmart — or even more affordable secondhand clothes from the thrift shop — work just fine.
But fashion comes at a much higher cost. Always having the latest trendy looks means revamping your wardrobe from scratch every season — and if you insist on designer labels, each new season’s wardrobe will come at a steep cost. You could pay over $500 for Alexander McQueen sneakers, almost $650 for a Gucci T-shirt, and over $2,000 for a Louis Vuitton handbag.
These high prices might be worth it if they represented an investment in quality clothing that would last for years. But according to a 2018 study conducted at Britain’s University of Leeds (via The Telegraph and Insider), they can be just the opposite. When researchers stress-tested jeans and T-shirts at various price points, cheap fast-fashion pieces typically outperformed those from luxury brands.
Of course, most fashionistas would say that quality is about more than durability. The fashion blogger at The Luxe Strategist argues that even if her designer clothes don’t last longer, the artisanship and attention to detail they display are enough to justify the high price tag.
But these days, you don’t necessarily have to buy clothes from high-end designer brands to get this level of quality. Many luxury fashion brands offer entry-level lines, sometimes known as bridge lines or diffusion lines, that offer the designer look at a much more affordable price. That lets them reach customers who aren’t willing to pay top dollar for a high-end label.
Prices for bridge lines can be much cheaper than for a designer’s high-end signature line. For instance, designer Hugo Boss’ diffusion line, Hugo, offers a spiffy pinstripe jacket for $445, while jackets from the signature line start at $645. Similarly, bags from Miu Miu (Prada) and shoes from REDValentino cost around half as much as signature versions from Prada and Valentino.
If these prices still aren’t your idea of affordable, there are ways to get the designer look for even less, such as:
- Consignment Shops. A consignment shop is a type of thrift shop that specializes in high-end clothing. According to TimeOut, many consignment shops offer designer clothes for 50% to 90% off their retail price.
- Consignment Websites. If you can’t find a consignment shop in your area, try visiting one online. Examples include TheRealReal, Luxury Garage Sale, Poshmark, and Rebag.
- Outlet Stores. An outlet store is like a giant version of the markdown rack in your favorite department store. You can find apparel and accessories marked down by 50% or more at Saks Off 5th, Nordstrom Rack, Neiman Marcus Last Call, 6pm, The Outnet, and The Runway at T.J. Maxx.
- Designer Knockoffs. Designer knockoffs are cheap copies of a designer’s styles. They may not be as well-made as the real thing, but that hardly matters for a piece that’s going to be out of style in six months. For the best value, choose cheap knockoffs for trendy pieces and spend more on classic investment pieces you’ll keep for years.
- Affordable Luxury Brands. High-end designers don’t have a monopoly on style. According to Forbes, some of the fastest-growing fashion brands on the market are affordable luxury brands that combine fashion with value for money, such as Style Mafia, AYR, and DSTLD.
As with diamonds, the eyewear market is dominated by a single company. That company, EssilorLuxottica, makes dozens of brands of designer frames, including Burberry, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Oakley, Ray-Ban, and Versace.
The company also owns several major chains that make and sell eyewear, including LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, as well as EyeMed Vision Care, one of the largest vision insurance companies in the country. In fact, two eyewear executives interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 2019 say EssilorLuxottica effectively controls the entire eyewear industry.
The eyewear executives say that results in widespread price gouging. One of them notes that in China, where many American-market eyeglasses are manufactured, you can buy a set of designer-quality frames for around $15 and a set of “absolutely first-quality lenses” for $1.25. Yet in the United States, those frames and lenses together could easily cost $800.
One way to save on glasses is to buy them online. At sites like Warby Parker, GlassesUSA, EyeBuyDirect, and Zenni Optical, you can get a complete pair of single-vision glasses for as little as $10. Even with top-of-the-line frames, you typically pay no more than $200. And some of these online retailers even accept insurance.
But getting a quality pair of glasses online is a bit harder than buying them in a store. You need to make a separate trip to the optometrist to get your prescription before you shop and enter all the details carefully on the site. With many sites, you can only “try on” frames virtually using a photo (Warby Parker has an at-home try-on feature).
Then, you must wait for your glasses to be delivered. And you may need to make a separate optometrist visit to have the fit adjusted or possibly even send them back if the prescription is wrong.
If that sounds like too much work, there are a few places to buy eyewear that aren’t part of EssilorLuxottica. Warby Parker has retail locations in 30 states and two Canadian provinces. And if you have a Costco membership, Costco Optical gets top ratings from Consumer Reports (via Clark.com) and typically charges less than $200 per pair.
For more information, check out our article on the best places to shop for low-cost eyewear.
4. Makeup & Beauty
Looking your best can be expensive. According to the latest Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average single male spends $270 a year on “personal care products and services,” such as haircuts. Single females spend even more — an average of $663 per year.
And that’s just the average. People who are hooked on luxury products like high-end makeup, fragrance, and shampoo are paying even more. And while they may think these designer products are worth the cost for the results they produce, expert testing and research suggest they’re not always getting what they pay for.
There are considerable differences in price among makeup brands. You can pay $56 for Tom Ford lipstick, $30 for Dior mascara, $63 for Guerlain foundation, and $32 for Laura Mercier blush — or you can go to your local drugstore and buy the same kinds of products for under $10 each. But will you look as good in these cheaper products?
Based on several experiments conducted by beauty publications, it depends. Reporters from Cosmopolitan and Byrdie, both of whom describe themselves as hooked on high-end makeup, tried cheaper cosmetics and were impressed by nearly all of them.
However, a tester at Bright Side had a more mixed experience. The drugstore brand of eyeliner performed identically to the department store brand, and the drugstore eye shadow actually held up better. However, the cheap foundation didn’t go on evenly, the cheap (supposedly waterproof) mascara ran in the rain, and the cheap lipstick came off when she ate an apple.
The bottom line appears to be that it makes sense to save on some cosmetics and splurge on others. The Bright Side and Cosmopolitan articles both conclude that a high-end foundation can be worth the money. However, for eye makeup, drugstore brands can perform just as well or better.
Also, not all drugstore cosmetics are equally good. Reviewers on Walgreens.com rave about some inexpensive products, such as a $4 NYX lip pencil and a $3 E.l.f. eye shadow palette. But they’re lukewarm about some others.
If you’re thinking of switching from a luxury makeup brand to a drugstore brand, it’s worth checking reviews for it first. That way, you’re less likely to be disappointed. But even if it doesn’t work that well for you, it’s no big deal since you’re only out a few bucks.
Fragrance is a very personal thing. You can’t find the “best” perfume by checking reviews from professionals or other consumers. You have to try the scents in person to find the one that works with your body chemistry and personality.
That’s bad news if the perfume you think of as yours is a designer brand like Chanel or Tom Ford. Fragrances like these can cost upward of $100 per ounce. But if it’s your signature scent, it may seem like you have no choice but to pay up.
But there are ways to get the scent you love for less. Imitation fragrances mimic well-known luxury perfumes at a much lower price. For instance, Instyle Fragrances offers versions of scents like Black Opium, Chanel No. 5, and L’Homme, all for less than $5 per ounce.
Many reviewers on Amazon swear they can’t tell these imposters from the originals. Their main complaint is that the knockoff versions aren’t as long-lasting. Still, even if you have to reapply them several times per day, five spritzes of a $5 perfume are much cheaper than one spritz of a $100 designer fragrance.
Many people pay $30 per bottle or more for salon shampoos. If you’re one of them, you probably think it’s a worthwhile expense because it makes your hair look so much better than a cheaper brand. But some beauty experts say that’s probably not true.
When CBS interviewed beauty expert Paula Begoun in 2005, she said there was “absolutely no difference” between salon products and drugstore shampoos. She said there was no reason to spend more than $6 (about $8 in 2021 dollars) on a bottle of shampoo. And when a CBS staff member blind-tested three different shampoos, she liked a $4 brand as much as a $20 brand.
Begoun isn’t the only beauty maven to recommend drugstore products. Cosmetic chemists interviewed by Well + Good say accessible brands perform just as well as luxe ones. Editors at Marie Claire include several drugstore brands on their list of the best shampoos. And stylists interviewed by Good Morning America recommend L’Oreal Paris, Neutrogena, Suave Professionals, and Gliss (an affordable version of the salon brand Schwarzkopf).
They recommend avoiding:
- Harsh Surfactants. Surfactants are the cleansing ingredients in a shampoo. But overly strong surfactants can strip healthy oils from your hair and scalp. Unless you have an oily scalp, avoid sulfates, such as sodium laureth sulfate or ammonium lauryl sulfate. Look for gentler surfactants such as sarcosine and betaine.
- Parabens. Many shampoos contain preservatives called parabens. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says these ingredients are safe. However, 2006 and 2020 studies published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology show they can cause skin irritation and, at high doses, interfere with normal hormone function.
- Toxic Ingredients. Parabens aren’t the only ingredient in shampoo that could harm your health. According to Healthline, some shampoos contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Other harmful ingredients to avoid include hexachlorophene, which is irritating to the eyes and skin, and phthalates, which cause hormonal problems.
Instead, look for:
- Natural Oils for Dry Hair. If your hair is dry, experts recommend a shampoo that contains natural oils, such as coconut, argan, jojoba, grapeseed, and shea butter. They preserve moisture, soften your hair, and tame frizz. Also look for glycerin, which helps lock moisture into your hair. Avoid products with alcohol or sodium, which can be drying.
- Lighter Ingredients for Oily Hair. On the other hand, if you have oily hair, natural oils like coconut can be too heavy. Look for a shampoo that’s lighter on these moisturizing ingredients and heavier on the surfactants.
- Volume Boosters for Straight Hair. To add more volume to straight hair, look for natural oils and vitamins B5, C, and E. Natural proteins, such as keratin, rice, and corn, can also make hair softer, smoother, and fuller.
Like shampoos, skin care products run the gamut when it comes to price. You can pay $190 per ounce for La Mer moisturizer or less than $4 per ounce for Ultra Hydrating Gel Moisturizer from Trader Joe’s. But can the pricier brand make enough of a difference to your skin to be worth the cost?
According to skin care chemists interviewed by Byrdie and Well + Good, the answer is complicated. The high cost of luxury skin care products depends on a range of factors, such as ingredients, development, packaging, and marketing. But only some of these affect a product’s performance.
For instance, some high-end skin care brands have expensive proprietary blends of ingredients. These pricey ingredients can make a real difference in performance — but sometimes, all they do is add a distinctive feel or scent. You could make an almost identical product without them and sell it at the drugstore for a lot less.
Another complication is that the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics. Companies have to reveal what ingredients go into their products, but they don’t have to share the amounts. So when you buy a luxury skin care product containing some special component like purified green tea extract, you have no idea how much of it you’re getting.
The experts conclude you can’t rely on a product’s price tag as an indicator of quality. Instead, check the label for well-researched, tried-and-true ingredients, such as retinol, vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid.
Also, look for products with lots of positive reviews. For instance, Well + Good recommends skin care from The Ordinary, which offers many highly rated products priced at $10 or less. The beauty team at Insider also recommends products from The Ordinary along with many other drugstore brands that cost $25 or less.
When you travel a lot, quality luggage is a must. You need bags big enough to hold all your essentials, light enough to carry through miles of airport corridors, and strong enough to stand up to being tossed around by baggage handlers.
But quality luggage and expensive luggage aren’t necessarily the same thing. True, publications like Good Housekeeping, Insider, and Travel + Leisure give high marks to some high-end luggage brands, such as Tumi and Rimowa, which can cost upward of $1,000 per bag. But these publications have plenty of praise for more moderately priced brands too.
For instance, all three reviews love Away luggage, which costs $200 to $600 per bag. It’s very durable and lightweight and comes with a built-in battery charger and a lifetime guarantee. Other well-reviewed brands, such as Samsonite and Travelpro, are even cheaper.
Moreover, none of these publications recommends designer luggage from brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. These bags cost thousands of dollars, but all they really give you for the money is a name on the label. In serious professional reviews, they don’t make the grade.
Handbags are a slightly different case (no pun intended). They don’t have to stand up to the rigors of travel, but they do get a lot of use. The best handbags look fantastic, are durable, and keep all your stuff organized.
Designer bags can do all that — but at a cost of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There are plenty of alternatives that offer both quality and style for less. For instance, Madewell and Cuyana are ethical fashion brands that sell many purse styles for $200 or less.
If you prefer trendy styles rather than one good bag you can use for years, Stylight recommends several lower-price brands that can deliver the look you want at an affordable price point. For instance, stylish bags from Vince Camuto are generally under $200, and most Aldo bags cost less than $100.
If you’re a wine lover, you may take pride in having a few rare and expensive vintages in your cellar. And if you prize these wines for the bragging rights associated with the label and cost, you may be getting what you paid for. But if all you want is a great-tasting wine, studies suggest you could do just as well with a cheaper vintage in most cases.
Studies covered in The Guardian, the “Freakonomics” podcast, the Journal of Wine Economics, and the journal Research in Agricultural & Applied Economics suggest most people can’t really tell the difference between a cheap wine and an expensive one.
Even the experts can’t always distinguish between the two. Not only do professionals disagree about which wines are the best, but they also don’t always give consistent ratings to the same wine when they taste it twice.
None of that means all wines are the same. It’s just that the differences between them have little to do with price. James Hutchinson, a wine expert interviewed by The Guardian in 2013, says he’s been disappointed with wines that cost hundreds of pounds, while other vintages priced between 5 and 10 pounds (about $7 to $14) have been “absolutely surprising.”
Blind taste tests also confirm that cheaper vintages can taste just as good as pricey ones, even to an expert palate. For instance, a 2016 test conducted by United Kingdom consumer product research firm Which gave high marks to inexpensive Champagne and red wine from discount grocery store Aldi. And in a test by Insider, 3 out of 4 wine experts preferred a cheap malbec to one four times the price.
The bottom line is you can get good wine for less by focusing on the wine itself, not the label. Consult the best-buy list from Wine Enthusiast for suggestions for highly rated vintages that cost $15 or less. Or just ignore what the experts have to say and buy whatever wine you like best that fits your budget.
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Seeking cheaper alternatives to luxury goods isn’t about skimping on quality. For instance, there’s no need to give up on luxuries like fine art or fine dining if you really love them and can afford them.
Similarly, if you’ve lost your heart to a luxury car, it could be a better long-term value than a cheaper car you’ll soon grow dissatisfied with. Unlike many luxury goods, luxury cars can offer significant benefits in comfort and performance. And it’s better to spend $40,000 on a car you’ll love for 15 years than $20,000 for a new one every few years.
The mistake is to assume that pricier products are always better. If you can see just as well through cheaper eyeglasses, look just as good with an inexpensive shampoo, and get just as much pleasure from affordable wine, why spend more? With a cheaper alternative, you will truly get what you pay for, and you’ll free up more money to spend on the luxuries that matter to you.