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Spend More for High Quality or Buy Cheap to Save Money? – Analysis of 13 Categories

If you’re in the market for a new outfit, should you buy the polyester pants that cost $20 or shell out $150 for a wool pair? When you need a new couch, is it better to go to IKEA and spend $400 or buy a $2,000 couch from Crate & Barrel?

When you’re shopping, it’s easy to assume that a higher price tag always means a better product. That’s what most manufacturers want you to think. Otherwise, few people would spend $100 when they could get the same item for $10. While there are times when it makes sense to go for quality over price, in a few instances, you’re better off saving your money and purchasing the less expensive option. In other cases, you might pay more now, but you’ll end up saving money in the long run.

This article will cover how to get the best bang for your buck on:

  1. Clothing and Accessories
  2. Home and Personal Care
  3. Travel and Transportation

Clothing and Accessories

You can argue that it’s better to go for quality when it comes to items that go on your body by saying this: You only get one body. How well you treat it determines not only how long it will last, but also how well. That said, you don’t always have to splurge on products that you buy to wear or consume. Sometimes, a price tag is determined by the label and has no real reflection on the quality of the product.

1. Clothing

woman shopping for clothes

It pays to spend more for quality when buying clothes. The better made a garment is, whether it’s jeans, a t-shirt, or a blazer, 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, viscose shorts or polyester top in the wash and had it come out not looking like itself, you know what I’m talking about.

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.

First, feel the fabric. A rough or scratchy texture is often a sign of a lower-quality fabric, unless it’s meant to be slightly nubby, like a tweed or some types of silk. You don’t want any holes or loose threads in the weave or knit of the fabric either. Next, lift the fabric up to the light. In the case of cotton or wool, you don’t want to be able to see completely through the fabric.

Try to manipulate the fabric. If you crumple up a corner of a shirt or the hem of a pair of pants or skirt, what happens to the fabric once you let go? Some types of fabric, such as cheap cottons and linens, hold wrinkles like it’s their job. If the fabric wrinkles after a little handling, imagine what it will look like after a long day at work or play.

Take a close look at the seams on the garment. One of the ways that clothing manufacturers try to cut costs (and corners) is by sewing shoddy seams. Gently pull on the garment on each side of the seam and look at what happens to the stitching. If it’s a seam worth its salt, it won’t pull apart easily when you tug on it.

Also, check to make sure that the seam is straight and not crooked or bunched up in places. There shouldn’t be loose threads hanging from the seam. If the garment has fasteners, such as a zipper or buttons, those should be securely attached to the item. It’s also a good idea to play with the zipper to make sure it opens and closes with ease and to test the buttons to make sure that they fit the buttonholes.

Although you want to purchase high-quality clothing, you don’t have to pay top-shelf prices to do so. You can find decently constructed gems at fast-fashion shops as often as you can find shoddily constructed garments with designer labels on them. I’ve had a few dresses from Target and H&M last me more than five years. I’ve also had pricier dresses by a so-called “luxury” label fall apart after a few wears. Don’t fall into the trap, at least with clothing, that expensive equals better.

The trick is to be a diligent shopper and carefully inspect every item before you bring it home. If you do 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 before buying.

Consensus: Go for quality, but remember that expensive isn’t synonymous with quality.

2. Shoes

cheap sandals in grass

Every other summer, I head over to Old Navy or Target and slap down $2 for a pair of plastic flip-flops. Those flip-flops then become my summer “home” shoes. Except for wearing them to pad over to the public swimming pool that’s two blocks from my home, I only wear those flip-flops when I’m indoors or hanging out in my backyard. Although I’ve seen similar flip-flops cost more than $50, it makes sense to me to purchase the cheapest pair I can find since I’m not wearing them out and about.

When it comes to shoes I’m going to wear out into the world, I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to purchase quality. I walk a lot, and if I’m not walking, I’m on a bike. That means I need shoes that can put up with the abuse I give them without wearing out in a flash.

Low-quality shoes make my feet sweat since they can’t breathe. They scratch my heels and give me blisters. The cheaper the shoe, the quicker the rubber or plastic sole wears out. If a synthetic or plastic shoe gets scuffs or scratches, you can’t fix them with shoe polish. Plus, plastic or synthetic shoes often don’t fit as well as leather shoes, since the synthetic material never stretches or shapes itself to your feet.

Along with everyday shoes, it makes sense to invest in quality when you’re buying shoes for a special purpose. The wrong running shoes can mess up your feet, a pair of hiking boots that don’t have a good grip can make a hike a dangerous event, and work boots that don’t offer much protection can lead to injury.

That said, you don’t always have to think about quality first when it comes to shoes. If you don’t plan on leaving your home in the shoes, it’s OK to go with something cheap, as long as the shoes are at least somewhat comfortable. Like my $2 flip-flops, I don’t see the point in spending a lot on shoes you’re only going to wear for gardening or mucking about the yard.

It’s also a good idea to think about price over quality when you’re buying shoes for young kids. They’re likely to outgrow the shoes before they even log 10,000 steps in them, so why pay more than a few dollars? You can go the secondhand route for small kids if you want a higher-quality shoe for a lower price tag.

Consensus: If you’re buying shoes for everyday wear or for a specialized activity, don’t go cheap. It’s easier to repair quality shoes when they do wear out, instead of having to buy new. If you’re buying lounging shoes or shoes for kids, it’s OK to go cheap.

3. Watches

expensive rolex watch on hand

My watch cost $50. I can’t remember when I got it, but I’ve had it for several years. It tells the time accurately. In fact, I’m not sure how my $50 watch could possibly tell the time any differently than a $50,000 Rolex, or why the average person would need a watch that pricey, except as a status symbol.

As it turns out, even I might have paid too much for my $50 watch. According to Gizmodo, a super inexpensive digital watch is better at accurately telling the time than both my watch and a pricey Rolex.

Consensus: Unless you’re interested in a watch as a status symbol, there’s no need to shell out the average person’s salary for one. You can get a stylish watch that tells the time for well under $100.

4. Eyeglasses

glasses display

Depending on where you buy your frames and lenses, the average cost of a pair of eyeglasses can be around $300. Stick a designer label on a pair of frames, and the price of glasses can jump to $500 or more. While it used to be that you’d need to visit an eyeglass store or vision center to buy a pair of glasses, these days there are plenty of online-only options offering glasses for a much lower price.

Does a higher price tag mean higher quality when it comes to glasses, or can you safely save your money? For the most part, it’s OK to go with the lower-priced option when buying glasses. The reason why so many glasses cost so much is because there’s only one main brand behind the eyewear industry in the U.S., according to a 2014 report from 60 Minutes. If you buy a pair of Coach or Chanel glasses, you might not be getting a pair that’s any higher quality than frames that have a less well-known label on them.

One thing that’s worth considering before you buy eyeglasses is the type of activities you’ll be doing while wearing them. If you need glasses to play sports, or if you’re a cyclist or skater, it can be worth spending more up front for a pair that’s made of unbreakable materials. That way, you won’t have to keep investing in a new pair when yours break.

If you’re known for leaving your glasses behind, it can be better for your wallet to go cheap. That way, if you lose a pair, you’re only out $50 or $100, rather than several hundred dollars.

Consensus: The next time you need a new pair of glasses, feel free to check out cheaper online options. Just make sure the pair you choose fits your needs and your lifestyle.

Home and Personal Care

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.

5. Food and Drink

woman buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store

Like clothing, the price of certain types of food and beverages don’t often 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 and produced using fair trade labor.

But, as NPR reported, 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. To add insult to injury, at least one brand of artisan chocolate has been accused of using “industrial” chocolate in its bars, according to the New York Times.

Another edible category where it doesn’t always make sense to go with the pricier option is alcohol. Wine 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. Let’s ignore the flavored options and look at the plain ones.

You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a $12 bottle of vodka and a $20 bottle of vodka. Bloomberg reported that in tastings conducted by Chicago’s Beverage Testing Institute, two cheaper brands (Svedka and Wodka) earned higher scores than brands that charge over $50 per bottle.

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 on a calorie-by-calorie basis, but, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, healthier food costs just $1.50 more per day.

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.

Consensus: There’s no point in paying a markup for 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.

6. Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

buying makeup personal care products

When you spend $30 on a lipstick versus $5, are you paying for better ingredients and a better formulation? The answer is yes and no. While pricier lipsticks and other types of cosmetics often have more pigments – meaning more color – the rest of the ingredients are usually the same as less expensive drugstore cosmetics.

The same is often true of skin care products, except for those that are prescription-strength. If you’re dealing with severe acne or have wrinkles that don’t respond to over-the-counter products, it might be worth speaking with your doctor and paying for a pricier prescription-strength alternative. These products often have higher concentrations of active ingredients, such as retinol, and can do more for your skin than anything you’d find on the shelf at a drugstore or department store.

Consensus: If you love a high-end makeup product, go ahead and splurge on it. However, keep in mind that you can often get the same result from a product you’d buy at the drugstore.

7. Cleaners

cleaning products vinegar

One of the joys of being an adult is getting to clean your home. The type of cleaning products you use can influence whether tidying up is a doable chore or a nightmare. Does it pay to spend more on pricey cleaners?

It all depends on what you’re buying. One of my favorite cleaners is Bon Ami. It’s a powdered cleanser made from limestone. Just a little bit of it is enough to restore shine to a stainless steel sink and to scrub stuck-on food off pans. A can lasts a long time and usually costs around $7.

Vinegar is another inexpensive cleaning workhorse. It makes short work of cleaning mold off walls, keeping windows streak-free, and removing mineral deposits from your coffeemaker. A gallon of distilled white vinegar will go a long way, and usually only costs a few dollars.

What are you paying for when you purchase a pricey cleaning product? It depends on the brand and ingredients. Natural products are often repackaged, colorful formulations involving vinegar. The packaging is more visually appealing than a gallon jug of vinegar, and the products often contain oils and fragrances that mask the distinctive vinegar smell. But is packaging and scent worth the higher markup?

One area where it might make sense to splurge and to place quality first is in the realm of cleaning tools. A low-end vacuum cleaner that simply pushes the dirt or pet fur over your carpet isn’t worth the headache. A handheld vacuum that doesn’t hold a charge isn’t worth the low price. Dishcloths and towels that aren’t absorbent or instantly become soggy rags will make you hate cleaning.

Consensus: When it comes to cleaning products, the “oldies but goodies” are the way to go. Vinegar, Bon Ami, and even bleach are all inexpensive and good at cleaning. If you need cleaning tools, it’s often worth the extra cost to go with quality and buy the best item you can afford. Your floors and furniture will thank you.

8. Furniture

couple furniture shopping couch

Whether you splurge or save on furniture comes down to what stage of your life you are in and how much you’ll use the furniture. If you’ve just bought a home and plan on staying there for many years, it makes sense to focus on quality over price. But if you’re just starting out in life or need to move regularly for your job or for school, you might want to hold off on plunking down a considerable amount on your furniture.

Moving is rough on everyone, and that includes any furniture you might transport from place to place. You don’t want to spend more than $1,000 on a couch or dining table only to have it damaged during a move.

How much you use a piece of furniture also influences how much you should spend on it or whether you want to focus on quality. Odds are, you’ll spend most of your time at home in your bed, on your couch or other living room furniture, or seated at your desk. Prioritize those pieces so that you’re able to get a good night’s sleep, relax in your living room, and work at your desk without getting a repetitive stress injury.

Consensus: Aim for quality pieces once you’re settled. Remember, you don’t have to buy everything in one fell swoop. Budget for pieces and buy the most important ones first. If your life is still in flux, focus on your bed, couch, and desk. Fill in any gaps with affordable, but ultimately “disposable,” pieces from a discount store or flea market.

9. Cookware

couple buying cookware

When it comes to buying cookware, it pays to look for quality first. Years ago, my partner purchased a $10 cookware set from a certain Swedish furniture store. He’d constantly talk about how well the pans worked and how cheap they were compared to a pricier Le Creuset Dutch oven I owned. Here’s the thing, though: Those pans ended up being damaged beyond repair. Meanwhile, my pricier Dutch oven still gets lots of use and shows no signs of wear.

Although you do want to avoid the cheapest options, usually made of flimsy metal with handles that can’t stand the heat, you don’t necessarily have to drop a lot of money to get quality cookware. My partner has had a cast iron skillet for many years, and it’s likely that the skillet got decades of use before he acquired it. A new cast iron skillet will probably only set you back about $20 and will last for years, as long as you take care of it.

Some materials are better suited for cookware than others. You’ll get the most value and durability for your money if you look for products made of any of the following:

  • Cast Iron/Enameled Cast Iron. You can use cast iron pans and pots on the stovetop or in the oven. Enameled pans are easy to clean with soap and water and can go in the dishwasher. Uncoated cast iron can be a bit more finicky since you have to wash it by hand. Seasoning uncoated cast iron helps protect it from rust and develop a nonstick quality.
  • Stainless Steel. Stainless steel pans won’t react with the food you’re preparing in them. They heat easily and can be used on the stovetop or in the oven. Most are dishwasher-safe. If you choose stainless steel, look for a model with an aluminum or copper core, which will help evenly heat the pan.
  • Anodized Aluminum. Aluminum pans aren’t ideal, since they are reactive and soft, meaning they can warp or dent easily. Anodized aluminum is specially treated to make it more durable. Aluminum pans are also lighter than steel or cast iron.

Consensus: Go for quality when buying cookware. If new cast iron or stainless steel pans seem prohibitively expensive, check out a local thrift store or flea market. You can often find gently used, high-quality pans for a bargain price.

10. Appliances and Electronics

couple buying washing machine

When buying appliances, such as a refrigerator or stove, or other electronics for your home, it’s often better to go with the pricier model that will save you money in the long run than the low-priced model that costs more to operate. Most home appliances include a tag that details how much energy they use per year and the average cost of that energy.

Let’s say you’re looking at two refrigerators. One costs $500 and uses $250 worth of energy annually. The other costs $1,000 and uses $75 worth of energy annually. After four years, the $500 model will end up costing you $1,500. The $1,000 model will cost $1,300.

It often makes sense to spend more on items that have a longer shelf life than their less expensive cousins. LED light bulbs can last for many years. They usually cost more up front than incandescent or CFL bulbs, but since you only have to buy one bulb every five years or so (compared to multiple bulbs a year in the case of incandescent bulbs, or a new bulb every couple of years in the case of CFLs), you typically end up spending less in the long run.

Consensus: Spending more on appliances and electronics can save you money, up to a point. Don’t feel you need to splurge on nonessentials, such as a refrigerator with a built-in TV or a stove that connects to the Internet. Do the math before you purchase something to make sure it will save you money over time.

Travel and Transportation

We often equate quality with safety. The more you spend on something, the more likely it is to have certain safety features. Additionally, new models tend to have more safety features than older ones, thanks to advances in technology. Safety isn’t the only thing to consider when you’re deciding what products to use outside of your house.

11. Transportation

couple choosing to buy a car

When you buy a car, the total cost of the vehicle is going to be more than what’s on the sticker. How much more that car will cost you depends on its fuel efficiency, insurance, and maintenance. Older 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 gas, repairs, and insurance.

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, driver airbags weren’t required until 1998. Some older models have them, but a good number don’t.

Don’t feel you have to buy a new car to get the most bang for your buck, though. A used car that’s a few years old is often the best of both worlds. You get the safety features and fuel economy you’re looking for and a price that’s right. Used cars not only have a lower sticker price than new ones, they also typically have fewer fees and taxes when you buy them.

What about a bike? That’s an expense you can save on, right? Well, not so fast. While you don’t have to spend thousands to get a high-end, designer bicycle, it does pay to invest a bit of money into your two-wheeled transport.

Cheap bikes are often called “bike-shaped objects” or BSOs. 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. For example, the brakes might be made of plastic, which can break easily. The frame is typically made of a metal that rusts easily or that’s very heavy, making it difficult to maneuver the bike. The wheels are often on crooked, or there’s not enough tension in the spokes.

That said, you can find an affordable bike that is still of high quality. In Philly, where I live, there’s a program called Neighborhood Bike Works. It operates a bike shop that sells used, refurbished bikes for a low price. The program also offers repair workshops to help you learn how to care for and repair your bicycle.

Consensus: 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.

12. Luggage

buying luggage

Whether it’s a suitcase or a backpack, you ask a lot of your luggage. It has to carry your gear from point A to point B and get to its destination in one piece. If you check your bag, odds are someone’s going to throw it at least once during its journey. Once you arrive at your destination, you need to wheel the luggage behind you or carry it on your shoulder.

Imagine if a strap breaks, a wheel snaps, or your luggage bursts open at any point during the process. Talk about a nightmare. At best, you’ll have to awkwardly carry the piece the rest of the way. At worst, you’ll be scrambling to gather up your clothing and other belongings from the sidewalk or airport walkway.

When picking out quality luggage, keep an eye out for these features:

  • Metal Zippers. A flimsy plastic zipper can break easily. A metal zipper is more durable. Look for a case with two zipper pulls, so that you aren’t left with a broken bag if something happens to one of the pulls.
  • Skateboard Wheels. Skateboard wheels are typically made of polyurethane, a durable composite material. If it’s good enough to handle the rigors of skateboarding, it’s good enough for your suitcase. Try to avoid luggage with hard plastic wheels, as the plastic can break easily.
  • Soft- vs. Hard-Sided. Don’t assume that hard-sided cases are going to be more durable than soft-sided ones. A hard case can be dented easily if it’s made of a thin, flimsy material. A soft-sided case has many benefits, including a more durable exterior.

Consensus: As long as you can find a suitcase with a sturdy zipper, trusty wheels, and a thick, durable outer shell, there’s no need to pay designer prices for it.

13. Camping Gear

camping gear tents

If you’ve ever had to sleep in two inches of water because your tent leaked, then you probably already know the value of buying high-quality camping gear. Weather-resistance is just one feature to look for in a tent and other camping gear. You also want to consider how easy it is to set the tent up and how much space you have once it’s up. All of this gear should be included in your essential camping checklist.

Cheaper tents are often tricky to set up and tend to be tiny. You’ll pay more for a larger tent, but you’ll also get a more comfortable night’s sleep. Being able to set up a tent with ease is essential if you plan on making a regular habit of camping.

How can you tell if a tent will be waterproof? Look at the seams. They should be sealed or taped down, so that water doesn’t leak in through the stitches. The floor seams should be elevated off the ground, so that water can’t seep in from the soil. Some brands weld the floor seams shut instead of using stitches, which adds further protection against water.

For even more protection against rain and dew, look for a tent with a rain fly. To make attaching the rain fly a snap, the tent should have guyline loops that let you attach the rain fly with ease and keep any fabric from flapping or flying away in rough conditions.

Consensus: A cheap tent can make you never want to go camping again. If you spend $20 on a tent and use it once, you’ve effectively spent more on that camping trip than if you buy a $100 tent and go camping every weekend over the course of a summer. Spend on a tent that has all the features you need to stay dry and comfortable, no matter what type of weather Mother Nature throws your way.

Final Word

Although higher-quality items typically do cost more than their bargain basement cousins, don’t assume that a higher price tag means an item is going to be better. You can find plenty of high-quality, affordable items at secondhand or consignment stores. Knowing what to look for makes it easier to spot quality products. Always closely inspect every item before you purchase it to make sure it will survive whatever you put it through.

Most importantly, don’t equate designer with quality. In the case of “designer labels,” you’re often paying for the name or packaging, not the integrity of the product.

What influences your purchases? How do you know if an object is worth spending on or if you’re better off picking out something cheaper?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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