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When to Make Private-Label Purchases

Ylan Mui

Every summer, Washington is flooded with interns trying to live on a budget in one of the country's most expensive cities. Cheap beer and ramen noodles seem to be staples of the intern diet.

One of our interns, Emma Carew, shared her strategies for saving money when she goes grocery shopping. She purchases store brands for many items, but there are some splurges she thinks are worth keeping.

Many supermarkets are trying to improve their so-called "private label" offerings. Giant Food created a brand called Nature's Promise, while Safeway developed O Organics. According to market research firm Mintel, about 1,800 new private label foods have hit store shelves so far this year.

That accounted for 27 percent of all food products introduced this year. In 2005, private label foods made up only 13% of new food product launches.

Here is Emma's take on the issue:

One habit I’ve adopted as a college student is something my mother always did: buy store brands. If that sounds like familiar advice, maybe that’s because it works.
Some items are a no-brainer. Boxed pasta, for instance – I always get the store brand (unless something else is on sale). It’s usually between 50 cents to a dollar cheaper. The drawbacks? Not as many fun shapes and fewer whole wheat or multigrain varieties.
Flour, sugar and coffee? Since you rarely (we hope) consume these in the form you purchase them, you’ll never miss the name on the label.

And spices like “dried parsley flakes”? That’s not worth buying at all -- store brand or otherwise. Take your two bucks and buy a live plant -- either from your local farmers’ market or even your local grocery produce section. Pop it in some dirt, water, and give it some sun. I started a 4-herb window garden for less than $10 and had fresh herbs all year.

But even my shopping cart, filled mostly with store brand or no-name brand staples like cream cheese and eggs, bread, coffee, will be dotted with a few items I’m willing to splurge on.

String cheese - for some reason, the store brand can never get it quite as stringy! I’ve found the store brands usually are just cheese shaped logs that don’t pull apart too well.

Paper towels – it does you no good to pay less if you have to use half a roll every time something spills. Spring for the good stuff here too.

Real butter -- margarine and yogurt spreads will probably be cheaper, but nothing bakes the same as real sweet cream butter.

Salad dressing -- any cost savings here won’t make up for poor consistency and artificial flavorings that go along with some store brands. Get something in a nice glass jar from the fridge in the produce section. Make up for the added cost by recycling the jar when you’re done!

In short, stop wasting money on everything brand name. But, as we’re looking to live frugally, not desperately, what are your must-have brands or grocery items you won’t give up? Let me know at carewe[at] or share your thoughts in our comments.

By Ylan Mui  |  July 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Bargains , Cheap & Green , Ylan Q. Mui  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Saving Money on Back to School
Next: Let Students Pamper You


OK, I gotta say, I'm a little surprised that someone who goes to the trouble of growing her own herbs buys store-made salad dressing. :-) A decent balsamic makes up for a lot.

But the point is really good, and is how I've shopped forever: you just have to pick what matters to you, and not throw money away where you can't tell the difference. For example, my husband adores the name brand OJ (the "fresh" kind with all the pulp in it; he will drink one of two brands). It's ridiculously expensive. When we got married, I tried every other (cheaper) brand, but he could tell the difference every time. So I get him his OJ.

Posted by: laura33 | July 24, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

Funny - I just came to comment on the same thing as pp. Make your own vinegrette - so easy and cheaper and better then story bought.

I will also second her husband's preference for brand name OJ - it really is better.

always check before buying the dtore brand that it really is less - I was buying small trash bags for the bathroom and the glad brand were actually less then the store brand. (Neither were on sale.)

Posted by: a1icia | July 24, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

"...must-have brands or grocery items you won’t give up?"

Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix (the powdered kind in the box)

Posted by: robjdisc | July 24, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

This post really got my mind churning - thanks for a great topic!

Other items to add to the brand-name-only list:

- TP
- Ketchup

I kill most plants just by looking at them, but will try to grow my own herbs. It WOULD be nice, but my black thumb might make it near impossible.

Thanks again!

Posted by: ilovefood13 | July 24, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I always buy name brand sour cream. Store brand ends up looking almost soupy, whereas the name brand has that nice, thick, dollop-y quality you want in sour cream. Also pasta sauce. I can really tell a difference there.

Posted by: colomom | July 24, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I don't buy store-brand beans. Progresso is my brand, the Giant brand isn't cooked enough.

You can also save by shopping on price for spices. I wanted Cardamon and Giant was a lot, oddly Whole Foods had a better price on that particular one.

Posted by: RedBird27 | July 24, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

One area where I find absolutely no difference is in over-the-counter medications. You can usually get a bottle of store brand ibuprophen for half the cost of Advil or Motrin, same goes for aspirin, acetominophen (Tylenol), as well as cold remedies like Robitussin.

I always buy Cheerios, however, I can really taste the difference between them and store brands, but my husband is happy with any store brand of shredded wheat (maybe because no matter what they still taste like cardboard?)

Posted by: NoMad3 | July 24, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Although I agree that it's worth it to buy name-brand paper towels, the truth is that they are almost entirely superfluous. Get yourself a sponge and some rags. Just about the only time I use a paper towel is to clean up cat barf. A roll of Viva paper towels lasts months in our house.

Posted by: small_world | July 25, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

I always buy brand name canned tomato products, paste, sauce, whole tomatoes. I've tried different store brands but none seem to be as good. I save my money by waiting for a sale then stocking up.
Hubby only likes Nabisco Premium Saltines, I indulge for the sake of marital harmony.

Posted by: tbva | July 26, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Triscuits. The store brand taste like oily cardboard.

Posted by: gettingdizzy1 | July 29, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Hellmann's/Best Foods mayo.

Posted by: di89 | July 30, 2009 10:27 PM | Report abuse

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