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 out of, 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 up front will pay you back in the form of a longer lifespan.
But for other items, spending more money doesn’t get you anything in return. That’s often the case with luxury goods, which many people value simply because they’re expensive. For some folks, buying a pair of designer eyeglasses or an expensive bottle of wine is merely a way to show off their wealth and status to the world.
However, if what you care about in a product is its function – for instance, how well your new eyeglasses work or how good your wine tastes – then shelling out for a luxury brand is a waste of money. Here are four examples of cheaper alternatives to luxury goods that are just as good as “the real thing,” if not better.
Luxury Goods With Affordable Alternatives
1. Lab-Grown Diamonds
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 out of 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-crafted diamonds are “perfect specimens,” without the flaws found in most natural diamonds. In other words, diamonds grown in a lab are actually better than mined stones – and significantly cheaper.
De Beers’ Campaign Against Lab-Grown Diamonds
The main reason lab-grown diamonds aren’t more popular is that there’s been a massive PR campaign against them by De Beers, the cartel that effectively controls the world diamond market. Forbes explains how De Beers has long kept the price of diamonds high by creating “artificial scarcity” – that is, deliberately limiting the supply of diamonds available. Competition from lab-created stones is a threat to De Beers because it loosens their stranglehold on the market. Thus, the cartel has gone out of its way to distinguish between “synthetic” diamonds made in a lab and “real” ones that come out of mines.
However, in 2018, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission made this kind of advertising harder for De Beers. It revised its jewelry guidelines to remove the word “natural” from the legal definition of a diamond, recognizing that lab-grown diamonds are genuine gemstones. It also ruled that it’s deceptive to use the terms “synthetic” for lab-grown stones, or words like “real” and “genuine” for mined ones, in any way that implies that lab-crafted diamonds are fake.
De Beers is now taking a new and surprising tack: It has started making and selling its own lab-grown diamonds. As Reuters explains, De Beers is trying to “create a clear distinction between lab-grown diamonds and natural gems” by marketing its lab-created stones as low-end fashion jewelry.
Their efforts have driven down the price of lab-grown diamonds to more than 40% cheaper than natural stones. De Beers’ goal is to make lab-created diamonds less profitable, discouraging new investors from coming into the market. This will allow De Beers to control both sides of the diamond market, selling mined stones as fine jewelry and lab-crafted gems as fashion jewelry.
Advantages of Lab-Grown Diamonds
Whether De Beers’ strategy will work out for the company is unclear. However, it’s definitely good news for consumers who want a beautiful diamond at a bargain price. With prices for lab-grown diamonds lower than ever, you can buy a diamond ring made in a lab for 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.
Lab-created diamonds have ethical advantages, as well. By choosing a stone made in a lab, you can avoid the problems associated with mined diamonds, such as:
- War Funding. Many natural diamonds are mined in war zones in Africa, and the profits from their sales help finance the conflict. Efforts to ban these “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” have so far been unsuccessful. You can buy natural diamonds certified as “conflict-free,” but this certification is likely to cost you extra, while a lab-grown stone will cost you less.
- Human-Rights Abuses. The conflict-free certification process excludes only diamonds from areas where rebels are trying to overthrow the government. It does nothing to stop abuses by the government itself, such as the massacre of over 200 diamond miners in Zimbabwe in 2008 or child labor for starvation wages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- Health and Environmental Problems. Even when diamond mining doesn’t involve forced or child labor, it’s still a hazardous job. Accidents such as landslides and mine collapses are common. And according to the Environmental Literacy Council, open-pit mining causes major damage to the environment, including acid drainage from the mines, runoff from the vast amounts of slag created, and carbon emissions.
In short, 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 Sears and Macy’s.
2. Online Opticians
Another area in which a single company controls a large share of the market is eyewear. A single company, EssilorLuxottica, makes dozens of brands of designer frames, including Burberry, DKNY, Giorgio Armani, Oakley, Ray-Ban, and Versace. The company also owns several major chains that make and sell eyewear – including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical, and Sunglass Hut – as well as EyeMed Vision Care, the second-largest vision insurance company in the country.
Two eyewear executives interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 2019 claim that EssilorLuxottica effectively controls the entire eyewear industry, resulting in widespread “price gouging.” One of them says that in China, where many eyeglasses for the U.S. market are made, 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. Getting a good pair of glasses online, rather than in-store, takes a little extra work, but it allows you to get you equally good frames and lenses without the outrageously high markup. At some sites, you can get a complete pair of single-vision glasses with bottom-of-the-line frames for under $10.
How to Buy Prescription Glasses Online
There are a few obvious downsides to buying your glasses online. It’s harder to try on different frames, and it’s harder to have changes or adjustments made to your glasses if there’s any problem. And even if your new glasses fit perfectly, you’ll have to wait a few days to have them delivered.
However, there are ways to work around most of these problems. Here’s what experts recommend when you’re shopping for glasses online:
- Get a Prescription. Before you start shopping for glasses online, you’ll need to go to an optometrist to get a current prescription. Don’t rely on a prescription that’s over a year old.
- Check Your Pupillary Distance. When you get your written prescription, make sure it includes your pupillary distance (PD), which is the distance between the centers of your pupils. This measurement is necessary to place the lenses correctly in your glasses, but optometrists often leave it blank for the optician to fill in. In a few states – Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, and New Mexico – optometrists are required by law to include PD in the prescription. If you don’t live in one of these states, ask your optometrist to provide the measurement, explaining that you intend to buy your glasses online. If the optometrist can’t or won’t comply with this request, there are ways to measure your own PD.
- Try on Frames. Many online eyewear vendors let you try on frames “virtually” by uploading a picture of yourself and superimposing the glasses on it. However, this doesn’t tell you how comfortable the frames will be. It’s better to try on frames in person at a local eyewear shop and then order the specific pair you want online. There are also some online sites that will send you one or more sets of frames to try on at home.
- Research the Seller. Before ordering glasses from an online seller, check out what others are saying about it online. Check its rating at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and search the company’s name along with words like “reviews” or “complaints.”
- Check the Return Policy. Most online retailers charge you for your glasses before shipping them, so it’s important to make sure you can return them if there’s a problem. The best vendors will remake your glasses for free if there’s any mistake in the prescription or fit. Also, check to see if the site offers any warranty to cover problems such as cracks and scratches.
- Enter Your Prescription Carefully. Prescriptions for eyeglasses are complicated, with lots of technical terms like “axis,” “cylinder,” and “sphere.” Any error in entering these measurements will throw off the entire prescription, so check and double-check to make sure you’ve entered them all correctly. Also, make sure you’ve distinguished between the numbers for the left eye (sometimes abbreviated “O.S.”) and the right (“O.D.”) Some online retailers ask you to send a scan of the written prescription to avoid any possible confusion.
- Test Your Glasses. When your glasses arrive, check to make sure you can see through them clearly. Keep in mind that if it’s your first time with a new type of glasses, such as bifocals or progressives, it will probably take you a while to adjust to them. If they don’t seem right, contact the seller to make sure they used the correct prescription. If they did, have your eye doctor recheck and make sure the prescription itself is correct.
- Get Any Adjustments Needed. Some sites offer instructions on how to adjust your new glasses yourself if the fit isn’t quite right. However, an optometrist interviewed by Consumer Reports says it’s safer to go to a professional for adjustments. Many eyewear stores will provide this service for a small fee, even if you didn’t buy your glasses there.
Where to Buy Prescription Glasses Online
Many sites sell eyewear online, but some are more reliable than others. The top sites include:
- Warby Parker. This retailer sells glasses both online and in stores in over 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. It sells only its own brand of frames, so the selection is limited. Browsing the site is easy, according to Forbes, and it offers precise measurements and fit details for all frames. You can even have up to five pairs of frames sent to your home to try on and return for free. According to Consumer Reports, the site charges an average of $95 for a complete pair of single-vision glasses, including free anti-scratch, anti-glare, and water-repellent coatings. However, progressives cost nearly $300 per pair, more than you’ll pay at some walk-in stores. This seller gets an A+ rating from the BBB, but it’s not BBB-accredited.
- EyeBuyDirect. This retailer has a selection of over 1,000 frames to choose from. The site offers only virtual try-on, but it has a generous return policy. You can return your glasses within two weeks for a full refund or exchange, no questions asked, and you can get a defective pair replaced at any time within a year. Shipping is free for orders over $99 and is $6 otherwise. The site has an A+ rating from the BBB but is not accredited.
- Zenni Optical. This site offers a wide selection of inexpensive frames, including a few that cost just $7 per pair, complete with lenses. Consumer Reports says customers who buy their glasses from Zenni pay an average of $69 for a complete pair. The site’s Virtual Try-On feature lets you see how frames look on your face at different angles. One downside is that the site offers only a 30-day return period for defective glasses and does not cover return shipping. It will remake your glasses for free if it finds they’re defective, but if you simply don’t like them, you can get only 50% of the cost back. This site is a BBB-accredited business with an A+ rating, but user reviews are only fair.
3. Lower-Priced Wines
If you’re a wine lover, you may take pride in having at least a few rare and expensive vintages in your cellar. If you prize these wines for the bragging rights associated with the label and cost, you may be getting what you paid for. However, if all you want is a great-tasting wine, studies suggest that in most cases, you could do just as well with a cheaper vintage.
The Science of Wine Tasting
Numerous studies have shown that most people – and even some experts – can’t really tell the difference between a cheap wine and an expensive one. Moreover, recommendations from experts about the “best” wines aren’t particularly reliable. 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.
Here’s a sampling of studies that cast doubt on the science of wine tasting:
- Wiseman, 2011. In 2011, British newspaper The Guardian reported on the results of an experiment conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman at a science festival. He invited 578 people to comment on a variety of red and white wines, ranging in price from £3.49 (about $4.60) to £30 (about $40). The testers could distinguish between the cheap wines and the expensive ones only half the time – about as well as if they’d just flipped a coin.
- Harvard Society of Fellows. When economist Steven Levitt was a junior fellow at Harvard, he ran an informal experiment – some might say a prank – on the other members of the Society of Fellows. As he relates on the “Freakonomics” podcast, he selected two expensive bottles of wine from the Society’s cellar, then went down the street to the liquor store and bought the cheapest wine he could find of the same variety. He poured these three wines into four decanters, with one of the expensive wines appearing twice, and asked the Fellows to rate them. Not only did they rate the cheap wine as highly as the expensive wines, but the two wines that differed most widely in their ratings were the two identical samples from the same bottle.
- Brochet, 2001. In 2001, Frédéric Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 57 wine experts to sample and describe two wines: one labeled as an expensive grand cru, the other as an inexpensive table wine. However, both bottles contained the same Bordeaux wine. Testers generally described what they thought was the more expensive wine with positive terms such as “agreeable,” “balanced,” and “complex,” while dismissing the seemingly cheap wine as “weak,” “flat,” and “faulty.”
- Hodgson, 2008. From 2005 through 2008, scientist Robert Hodgson offered the judges at a major wine competition a “flight” of 30 wines to evaluate. However, some of the samples were identical – three glasses of the same wine poured from the same bottle. His results, published in the Journal of Wine Economics (JWE), show that only 10% of the judges gave these wines the same rating each time they tried them. Moreover, the judges who were most reliable in any given year turned in only an average performance in other years.
- Hodgson, 2009. In another JWE article, Hodgson analyzed how more than 4,000 wines performed across 13 different wine competitions in the United States. He found that 84% of the wines that received gold medals in one competition won no awards in other competitions. In other words, as he wrote, “many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others.”
- Goldstein, 2008. In 2008, food writer Robin Goldstein analyzed data from 17 blind wine tastings. The data covered more than 6,000 observations from more than 500 people, including both amateurs and wine professionals. It also covered all types of wine across a wide price spectrum. His findings, published in Research in Agricultural & Applied Economics, were that the average person was slightly less likely to enjoy an expensive wine than a cheap one. Only people with wine training liked the expensive wines better. Goldstein concluded that recommendations from wine experts are actually “poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”
Getting Better Value in Wine
None of this means that all wines are the same; it’s just that the differences between them have little to do with price. Dr. James Hutchinson, a wine expert interviewed by The Guardian in 2013, says he has been “disappointed” with wines that cost hundreds of pounds, while other vintages priced between £5 and £10 (about $7 to $13) have been “absolutely surprising.”
Blind taste tests confirm that cheaper vintages are often just as satisfying as pricey ones, even to an expert palate. For instance, testers from Britain’s consumer magazine Which? gave a “Best Buy” rating to a £10 (about $13) champagne from the discount grocery store Aldi, though it didn’t score quite as well as a £30 ($39) vintage. And a £6 (about $8) red wine from Aldi was the sole Best Buy in its category, while considerably pricier wines came in at the bottom of the rankings. Similarly, in a blind taste test by Business Insider, three out of four wine experts preferred a £4.50 (about $6) Malbec to one four times the price.
The bottom line is that you can get good wine for less by focusing on the wine itself, not the label. Consult the best-buy list from Wine Enthusiast, and you’ll find many suggestions for highly-rated vintages that cost $15 or less. Or, in light of what the science shows about wine tasting, you could forget about what the experts have to say and buy whatever wine you like best that fits your budget.
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4. Drugstore Shampoo
Many women, and some men, 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 helps you look your best. However, some beauty experts say that’s not necessarily the case.
When CBS interviewed beauty expert Paula Begoun in 2005, she said there was “absolutely no difference” between salon products and cheaper shampoos from the drugstore. She argued that there was no reason at all to spend more than $6 (about $8 in 2019 dollars) on a bottle of shampoo. CBS then put this claim to the test by having a staff member try three different shampoos without knowing which was which – and sure enough, she liked a $4 brand as much as a $20 brand.
Begoun isn’t the only beauty maven who recommends drugstore products. Editors at Marie Claire include both salon and drugstore brands on their list of the best shampoos and conditioners. They name a $5 shampoo from L’Oreal Paris as the best pick for curly hair, give a $5 Pantene the nod for controlling frizz, and call a $10 John Frieda tops for “sensitive hair,” whatever that means.
Paying for Packaging
If a cheap shampoo can perform just as well as a salon brand, why do the salon products cost so much more? Several beauty experts interviewed by Domino say the difference is partly due to the ingredients. Higher-end products are more likely to contain natural ingredients, and they’re often more concentrated. Thus, while both salon shampoos and drugstore brands can make your hair look good, you might have to use more of the cheaper shampoo to get the same effect.
However, the experts also admit that a big part of salon products’ cost depends on their “luxe packaging.” Salon brands often come in extravagant bottles, which cost more money to make. One expert, a cosmetic chemist, argues that while some high-end brands contain “exotic ingredients,” their cost is most often due to “brand and packaging.”
It might seem silly for salon brands to spend so much on packaging when they could attract more customers by selling their products in cheaper bottles for less money. However, those fancy bottles are a key part of their marketing strategy. Just as labeling a modest Bordeaux as a grand cru can convince people it tastes better, putting shampoo in a high-end container can convince people it works better.
The discount brand Suave illustrated this point with a social experiment it ran in 2017. It gave several noted beauty influencers the chance to try a new luxury brand called “Evaus,” which was really Suave Professionals in a slick, minimalist bottle. The beauty influencers all raved about the new brand and were shocked and delighted to learn its true identity.
Finding the Best Shampoos for Less
Although a high price tag is no guarantee of a shampoo’s quality, that doesn’t mean you can pick the cheapest brand off the drugstore shelf and expect it to give you good results. The best drugstore brands can perform as well as salon brands, but you have to know how to identify them. According to beauty experts, the best way to do this is to look at the ingredient list.
Here’s what the experts interviewed by Domino, as well as a separate panel interviewed by consumer site Reviews.com, say you should look for in a shampoo:
- No Harsh Surfactants. A surfactant is the ingredient in a shampoo that cleans dirt and grease out of your hair. However, surfactants that are too strong can go too far, stripping away the healthy oils from your hair and scalp. This can leave your hair dry and damaged, irritate your scalp, and cause hair color to fade faster. As a general rule, experts recommend avoiding sulfates, such as sodium laureth sulfate or ammonium lauryl sulfate. Instead, look for gentler surfactants such as sodium lauroyl sarcosinate or cocamidopropyl betaine.
- No Parabens. Many shampoos contain preservatives called parabens, such as propylparaben and methylparaben. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there’s no evidence parabens are harmful to human health, many scientists say there is cause for concern. According to the Environmental Working Group, there’s strong evidence that these chemicals interfere with normal hormone function and also are common allergens. These concerns led the European Union to ban the use of five parabens in cosmetic products in 2014.
- No Silicone. Although many products contain silicone to add shine, experts say it doesn’t do your hair any favors in the long run. This ingredient builds up and coats the hair shaft, making it impossible for moisture to get in. Over time, this can lead to dryness and breakage.
- Natural Oils. If your hair is dry, experts recommend a shampoo that contains natural oils, such as olive, coconut, argan, jojoba, avocado, and shea butter. These ingredients preserve moisture, soften your hair, and tame frizz. Other ingredients that help lock moisture into your hair include honey, aloe vera, and glycerin. Avoid products with alcohol or sodium, which can be drying. On the other hand, if you have oily hair, look for a shampoo that’s lighter on these moisturizing ingredients and heavier on the surfactants.
- Strengthening Ingredients. For damaged hair, look for ingredients that strengthen the hair shaft and prevent breakage. Panthenol and hydrolyzed wheat and silk proteins can both be beneficial.
Seeking cheaper alternatives to luxury goods isn’t about skimping on quality. For instance, if you truly love the look of designer clothes, then they’re worth spending money on – although there are ways to get designer clothes for less. Similarly, there’s no need to give up on luxuries like fine art or fine dining if you really love them and can afford them.
The mistake is to assume that a more expensive product is always better. If you can see just as well through cheaper eyeglasses, get your hair just as nice with a cheaper shampoo, and get just as much enjoyment from cheaper wine, paying extra is a waste of money. By choosing a cheaper alternative, you truly will get what you pay for, and you’ll free up more money to spend on the luxuries that matter to you.
Which products do you think are worth paying more for? Which ones do you think are just overpriced?