How do you balance cost and quality? Is the more expensive option actually better for your budget?

Shopping Carts
KJ: We’ve all bought something at some point because, hey, it’s cheap! Why not spend the $1 or $5 on [insert product]? What could you possibly lose? Well, as the adage goes, you get what you pay for [sometimes]. It’s not always best to just go with the cheapest option just because it is cheaper. But, it’s also not always the best to just go with the most expensive option. It seems that products in today’s world have a more limited shelf-life than they used to, so knowing a product’s shelf life before you make a purchase can work wonders for your long-term family budget.

This is often a discussion we have in our household particularly as it relates to all of our major purchases like appliances, but it also applies to everyday items like nice clothes, paint for the walls, and household goods. Knowing the answer to the following questions for each purchase you make though – no matter how big or small – will help set you up for maximizing how far your household’s budget will go.

AJ: When Kirby and I first started dating and were shopping for college necessities he absolutely insisted that he needed only one of each of the following items: a cup, a plate, a bowl, a fork, a spoon, a knife. WHAT?! I thought he was completely crazy! The longer we’ve lived together, though, I’ve come to appreciate Kirby’s philosophy. I’m a never-run-out, come to my house in case of emergency or natural disaster kind of shopper. I own two of most every pair of pants I’ve bought in the last ten years, I never buy one of anything, and I can always find something else I want. Thus, we comparative shop. We balance Kirby’s desire for practicality with my desire not to have to run to the store multiple times a week and shop smarter.

What is the average life span for the product?
Basics, people. If a major appliance comes with a one-year warranty, think twice. Read reviews, do research, price compare. Are there significant maintenance or return experiences from other customers? Our research seldom leads us to the cheapest out-of-pocket option today, and in fact, it often leads us to one of the higher end options. For instance, if you have a product that costs $200, yet you have to replace it every 3 years, then wouldn’t you prefer to pay $500 now for a more reliable product that lasts 6 years? Not only do you get an option that is often more durable and reliable, it often coincides with a more stable brand (especially when you factor in warranties or any other product guarantees – they’re only as good as the company backing that guarantee!). While the math is seldom as simple, it’s an exercise worth calculating when making almost any purchase. Being proactive about your major purchases means building in flexibility and the power to choose. Waiting until something pricey breaks to competitive shop means you’re forced to take whatever is available, often at the expense of either quality or price.

What is the price per ounce, gallon, unit of measure?
You have to start with the most fundamental detail – is this stuff physically going to rot before I can use or consume it? This is one of the easiest to calculate when it comes to the grocery store. Most grocery store companies now let you price compare instantly as you shop the aisles and can quickly see the cost per unit. Don’t just assume though that the lowest cost per unit is the best value for you. We’ve run into this a number of times in the last several years where a product seemed like a better choice for the budget, but it ended up costing more in the long-run. If something is half the cost, but you end up throwing away more than half of it because it expired sooner, is that really any savings to your family? Surprisingly, you could have bought the more spendy product with a higher quality and more durable shelf life. We’ve run into this with sour cream where the cheaper options just don’t last as long, so we actually end up spending more each month.

Now, I’m not advocating that all higher end products are worth the cost, but it’s definitely worth considering their long-term impact on your budget and not just the “whatever is cheapest now” option.

AJ: This concept becomes especially relevant for those of us buying in bulk. Not only are products often of an entirely different level of quality at super stores, but they’re also not always cheaper by ounce. The easiest way for me to keep track of what is really a good deal versus what is really just a whole lot more is to know what I pay per pound, per ounce or per unit on average. This applies to supplements we take, paper products, meats, produce, etc. It can’t always be about cost, but tracking can make a huge difference.

Is it cheap for a reason?
Not much to say here other than some products are just cheap for a reason. They aren’t durable, they are low quality, they break instantly, etc. Hey, that’s fine for some things – like a cheap gimmick item or one-use type products, but for most everyday products, it just doesn’t make sense.

AJ: Cheap is often about as good as “light” is delicious. Unless you’re talking about birthday candles and cotton balls cheap usually isn’t worth the paper your money is printed on.

The more spendy category can be difficult at first
When you first start saving and budgeting it can be quite difficult to shell any more out of pocket than the lowest of quality and cost. I can’t even think of spending an extra $100 NOW…I don’t have that in my bank account! But once you get yourself on better financial footing, you’ll find that you may actually be able to absorb the difference in your regular monthly budget. If not, maybe you’re able to trim a little bit over a few months to make it work.

Sometimes it’s hard to see past the end of your nose
In today’s world, we’re so used to having instant gratification on almost everything that it’s difficult to truly plan for any period of time past tomorrow. Teaching yourself discipline and really thinking about the long-term for you, your family, and your cash flow, will take you far. Few goals are just a month away, so reframing how you look at a purchase can make very meaningful differences on your family’s bottom line!

    What tips do you have when evaluating a purchase for your family?
    Share with us your experiences where cheap-for-the-sake-of-cheap worked well and where other times it didn’t quite work to your favor.

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