Shopping Smart

The Hidden Way Store Brands Save You Money (Hint: It’s Not “They’re Cheaper”)

By | Monday, July 16, 2018

If you’ve been reading The Financial Diet for any amount of time, you probably know that switching from name-brand goods at the grocery store and pharmacy to their store-brand counterparts is an easy swap you can make to save hundreds of dollars throughout the year. So when I got serious about getting my financial act together last year, I decided to make the switch from my favorite grocery-store brands for sparkling water, toilet paper, body wash, etc. for the supermarket’s generic line of products.

Most of these generic items come with a discount that’s, on average, only around a dollar or two less than their advertised competitor. But over the course of a single shopping trip, these discounts often add up to $10 or $20. My biggest store-brand saving has come from ditching expensive antihistamine and nasal spray meds for their generic equivalents that sell for literally half the price.

It’s clear that choosing store brands is One Weird Trick™ that can dramatically shrink your supermarket spending. (Coupon-clippers HATE me!) In all seriousness, this one change — combined with others like canceling several monthly subscriptions and debt-snowballing my student and car loans — has helped me increase my monthly net income, in turn helping me grow my total net worth. But store brands haven’t just saved me cash by slashing how much individual items on my shopping list cost (although that’s been the biggest benefit so far). Store brands have also saved me big bucks by helping me avoid decision fatigue, i.e. the way your willpower gets weaker and weaker when you’re faced with choice after choice throughout the day.

The theory goes that having to spend so much time figuring out what you’re going to wear, what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what route you’re going to take to and from work, etc., can use up a lot of your willpower and leave you susceptible to indulging in that chocolate donut or opting for an episode of your favorite TV show over going for a post-dinner walk. But if you can streamline parts of your daily routine, you’ll have more willpower leftover to make healthier and financially smarter choices.

Some folks choose to combat decision fatigue first thing in the morning by sticking to a set work outfit/uniform that varies little from day to day. Former U.S. President Barack Obama famously wore only blue and gray suits when he was in office, because it allowed him to “focus [his] decision-making energy” on less trivial things, like national security and health care. (Yes, he did wear that one tan suit, but his otherwise fixed uniform freed up his mind to deal with congresscritters and foreign dignitaries.)

Others start their day with some decisions already made for them. For example, before I go to bed, I always lay out my clothes for the next morning, put water in the tea kettle, and lay out ingredients and tools for making breakfast. This way, once that alarm hits, I just let autopilot take over and end up with more energy to attack my to-do list once I roll into the office. I also try to deal with decision fatigue while running errands by sticking to the store brand at the supermarket. We’ve all gone on a Target run for “just some chips and salsa” or dropped by a pharmacy for “only deodorant and toothpaste,” only to come home with bags full of cookies we didn’t have on our list, that new shirt we were “meaning to buy anyways,” or a year’s worth of cleaning supplies.

Effective in-store marketing and layout are often the culprits for these budget-busting impulse buys. But exerting so much energy choosing between three different shapes of tortilla chips and a multiplication table’s worth of salsa brands, flavors, and spiciness levels throughout your shopping trip can wear down your willpower to the point that you’re more likely to just say “screw it” and toss whatever catches your eye on an aisle endcap or the chocolate bar at the checkout into your cart.

Store brands protect you from the budget-busting symptoms of decision fatigue because they act as shortcuts for your brain. When you go into the store with the mindset of “I’m going to get the store brand,” you don’t spend ages in the dishwasher detergent aisle wasting time and mental energy waffling between Cascade, Dawn, Finish, etc., because your only real option is going to be Target’s Up & Up (or Walmart’s Great Value, etc.). A quick dash in and out of the aisle means your willpower levels will still be at 100% when you’re tempted to splurge on glossy magazines at the register or a bottle of kombucha that just so happens to be on sale today.

Granted, store brands aren’t always clones of your favorite products. Target-brand fabric freshener makes me sneeze, whereas Febreze never does. And they may not always line up with your values; e.g., there’s rarely a store-brand equivalent of environmentally-friendly paper towels, cleaning sprays, or hand soaps. 

Still, store brands are a great way to make healthy financial choices when buying groceries and home supplies because they act as a mental shortcut that keeps your willpower from withering away. While you expect them to offer amazing discounts on the products you need in your day-to-day life, you might not have realized they also give you the strength to avoid impulse purchases while running errands. I’ll raise a neutral-colored can of citrus-flavored sparkling water to that!

Trevor Huxham works in non-profit fundraising in Phoenix, Arizona, where he is an avid hiker and photographer. Find him online on Instagram, Twitter, or his travel blog.

Image via Unsplash


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