6 Items You Should Always Buy Generic

Many people assume that purchasing a name-brand item will guarantee quality. But is that really the case? Are generics just cheap imitations of the real thing, or are they less expensive, but equally reliable alternatives? As with many things, the answer to that question is yes and no.

Even though the answer isn’t “cut and dry”, we can still list several things that you should always buy generic:

Over The Counter Medication

It amazes me that you can have a product that sells for 40% less than the exact same product, just because it comes in a different color box or bottle. However, this is the case when it comes to over the counter (OTC) medication.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have requirements in place that ensure that generic OTCs have the exact same active ingredients (in the same doses) as the brand name drugs with which they are competing.

The generic counterpart is no different than the more expensive brand name. As with many other brand versus generic comparisons, we find that most of the difference in price is due to the difference in marketing, advertising, and packaging budgets (among other things).

This is not only true for pain relievers, but also for cold and cough medication, eye drops, pain relief patches, and most other OTC medication. Just be sure to check the active ingredients on both to be sure.

Prescription Medication…Sometimes

Yes, I know that the title of this article says “always buy”, but hear me out. Remember what we said about the FDA and OTC drugs above? Well, the same regulations hold true for prescription drugs as well. The generic version of a prescription drug must have the same active ingredient(s) as the branded counterpart.

However, for some people the branded medication will be more effective for their condition. Actually, there are some people who fair better when taking the generic version of a drug than they do with the brand. I have no idea why that is (because I’m not a pharmacist or a doctor), but after working for a large pharmaceutical company, I know this to be true.

Make sure you talk to your doctor before deciding to opt for the generic version of a drug. Based on your condition, other medications that you are taking, or other factors, he may recommend that you stick with the branded version.


When I first began driving, I remember hearing stories of certain gas stations watering down their gas! The common theory was that any “no-name” gas station, whose price was significantly less than a name brand station directly across the street, added water to their gas in order to make more money per gallon. Therefore, they were able to have lower prices.

When we (my friends and other drivers I knew) didn’t notice a difference in the performance of our cars with either type of gas in the tank, we then believed that the gas was just inferior and that explained why it was cheaper. The big oil companies just took the “good” oil for themselves and left the no-name ones with the “bad” oil! Hey! We were kids, give us a break! 😉

Then a relative got a job working for one of the largest oil refineries in the country. He told me that these huge oil tankers from every oil company would come to fill up with gas. Each company received its gas from the same supply lines; meaning that there is absolutely no difference in the gas as it gets pumped into those trucks.

The other amazing thing that he told me is that (at the time), if a company wanted to say that their gas contained special detergents that was good for your car, they only needed to add one gallon to each oil tanker!

What this means is that you can feel comfortable with buying the cheapest gas in your area. I guess it also means that you definitely should not pay a premium for gas that claims to be full of detergents to clean your fuel line!


Bleach is bleach!

I guess I should write more than that, right? Both name brand and no name bleach solutions are mostly water. What you have to compare is the percentage of the active ingredient (sodium hypochlorite) in the solution. Of course there are other types of bleach for more specific uses, but if you are just buying regular, household chlorine bleach to clean the basic areas of your home, save your money and go generic.

As long as the bottles have the same amount of the active ingredient, they are virtually identical for cleaning purposes.


Being a former musician and emergency sound-man, I’ve had to purchase a number of cables in my life. Add in the fact that I love gadgets and computers, and that number grows and grows! I honestly do not know of too many products for which you can find such a wide variety of prices for essentially the same product!

I’ve purchased computer cables from the local dollar store that work just fine! No need to spend $50 for an Ethernet cable from an electronics chain! The same is true for those insanely expensive Monster cables (yes I purchased one or two in my younger days)!

The less expensive cables are fine, and you will not destroy your expensive electronic devices by using them.


This is another odd one. There are huge markups for basic spices in most grocery stores. You’re just buying salt, pepper, oregano, nutmeg, etc – these are all things that we get from the local dollar store when we run out. I really don’t think that the other companies have a better salt “recipe”!

photo by Suat Eman

Reader Questions

  1. What are some of the items for which you will never buy the generic version?
  2. What items would you add to this list above?


  1. lunaKM says

    On the wires/cables front, don’t ever buy coax cable. Your cable company will come out for free and make as much coax as you need. Their cable is higher quality and who can pass up free?

  2. Alan says

    This depends on where you live but for most people generic water (tap) is just as good as brand name (bottled) water…saves money too.

  3. Julie @ The Family CEO says

    I don’t buy many wires or cables, but I buy generic versions of the rest of the items on your list. I recently read an article that did some taste testing and determined that higher priced olive oils are worth the extra cost, but vinegars are not. I would agree with that.

  4. Lucy says

    Actually, generics are required to be within 12% of the name brand, and they can be minus 12% in one batch and plus 12% in the next, so if you are sensitive (especially with prescription frugs) generic may not be right for you.

    “Taste tests” are a regular feature in my house.

  5. Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter says

    I would also add whole grains and dried beans. You don’t need to buy name brand for these items.

  6. Justin says

    I’m a huge fan of buying generic- I just wish my wife was!

    I think you hit the nail right on the head with OTC medication. You can literally save at least 50% by doing that- things like antibiotic gels, cough medicine, etc. It’s pretty much all the same stuff, but the bottle just looks a little different. (luckily my wife feels that same way).

    Next goal- getting her to agree that generic peanut butter isn’t horrible….

  7. John the coupon save helper says

    Thanks for letting us know! As a Customer I find always nice to get a discount on shopping. I have one more online store to add to the list which provides Online coupons (e-coupons), they are a great way to save even more on the items you purchase. And chances are high that the very websites you shop on offer them if you only take the time to look.

  8. Tracy says

    My husband and I have certainly tried many more generic or store brand food items in the past year. Some we like enough to make a regular purchase. Others, like a generic grape jelly I tried for my PB&J, did not measure up, but it was worth a try.

    The cables are a great tip. What would have cost $60 for 3 different cables at a large chain, cost $12 with shipping for all 3 cables online.

  9. Khaleef Crumbley says

    @ lunaKM, I agree with you…free is best!

    @ Alan, tap water is definitely another item that can be added to the list. Many times the municipal requirements are more strict!

    @ Julie, I love taste tests. They help to prove how much of a role marketing plays in our decision making.

    @ Krantcents, are there any brands that you are loyal to?

    @ Neil, I can understand your apprehension in regards to buying cheap shoes. Have you taken a look at this article? http://notmadeofmoney.com/blog/2011/03/how-the-cost-per-use-method-can-help-you-when-comparison-shopping.html

    @ Lucy, that is very good information. I guess that helps to explain why some people do better with the generics and some do better with the brand.

    @ Miss T, that’s another great addition!

    @ Justin, have you tried doing blind trials of generics vs. brands? that may get her to come around.

  10. Khaleef Crumbley says

    @ Tracy, I agree that there are some cases where the store brand just doesn’t cut it. For me, it’s mayonnaise and American cheese.

    @ Keith, with medication it pays to look at the name of the active ingredient(s). You’re absolutely right about the brand name!

  11. jackson rodgers says

    Definitely OTC and prescription drugs. The ingredients are the same but generic is definitely less costly. I try to use coupons when I shop.

  12. Martha says

    100% WRONG about the herbs and spices!!!!!!!!!! Generic spices have probably sat on the shelves for so long that they have very little taste left. Plus, much of them aren’t really what they say they are. Oregano and Cinnamon are a good examples of this. Greek Oregano is quite different than Mexican Oregano which is what is mostly sold except for the premium oreganos and MOST of what we call cinnamon isn’t even cinnamon. Nope, I’ll pay good money for my herbs and spices and I’ll bet my cooking tastes a lot better than the original writers. But I’m very picky about my cooking and make things from scratch and try to use organic ingredients as well. :)

  13. Jon | Free Money Wisdom says

    Great post! Speaking of generics, I bought aspirin today and realized that the Bayer brand was almost twice as much as the generic Safeway brand, I was like what the heck! To Bayer’s benefit though, they do have a special “coating” that makes swallowing easier. So not worth the extra money!

  14. Mr_Robertson says

    About prescription medication: usually your doctor checks the excipients used by the lab on the “composing” of the medicament itself. that way he can check that your pills won’t interact either with the active compound of them or with any other pill you are taking. So, even when the active compound of a med is the “same” and in the same ammount, the excipients on it could make the diference.

    On the other hand, there are some active compounds that can be made by an inexpensive lab, or under the quality tests that a recognized brand should pass. That applies even when the FDA checks on those labs, becouse they have certain margins on the variation of the quality of the components used. Put a important higlight in here when those compounds are imported from, as an example, India, where you could never be sure of the real efectiveness of that pill.

    Even thou the last, is ok to check, test and use generics in the day by day basis. This becouse many of the “over the counter” pills are proved to dont do interactions with almost anything, so it could be safe to use them.

  15. Joseph Rissler says

    Very true about cables. I remember when HD TVs were getting popular, everyone would go spend hundreds on HDMI cables for “better picture quality”

    Thing is. That’s 100% BS. HDMI is DIGITAL. With a digital signal, you could make your own cable out of pennies and paperclips and get the exact same picture, as long as your connections are made properly. In other words, you either get your entire picture, or no picture at all. There is no in-between. This is the same with just about any cable nowadays.

  16. Dorothy says

    I live in rural South Carolina. There are a couple chain grocery stores in this region where I buy a good deal of my groceries. I’ve found items packaged under the house brand Southern Home from Bi-Lo usually are as good as the name brands, if not better. The house brands from Food Lion have been generally of a slightly lower quality.

    I think it’s always wise to try the house brand. If you like the item, you’ve made a find. If it’s not that great, it’s, what? A jar of peanut butter, or a carton of sour cream. But generally most of the “generics” come from the same factories as the name brand goods.

  17. Rene says

    That I see, here in germany, is:
    Never, never buy cables, like HDMI cable in the TV or hifi department. Just go to the gaming consoles! I needed an HDMI 1.4 for 3D cable, but a HDMI 1.3c for Sonys PS3 did it the same way. It was around 75% cheaper with the same length. Sonys PS3 can play 3D too, so why pay much money for the same function?
    I have another example: I needed a USB cardreader. Don’t buy the ones in the computer department! Go to the photo area! Why have them too, but they cost 50% of the other price. Not so nice looking, but same function and they work very well.

  18. Stan Thomas says

    The only thing is the taste of some OTCs. I get TUMS because they taste good and work great. I know the generics work great too but they taste terrible! And since you only take them when your stomach is already screwed up it’s not a winning combination. One time I almost threw up from them.

  19. TK says

    I regularly buy garlic and onion powders from CVS. They’re often on sale for 88 cents, and they don’t dry out before I’m finished using them.

  20. Vu says

    For prescription drugs, yes, you should try the generic version first to save money. But they are slightly different chemically so if that drug doesn’t work for you, try out another brand or the original that may work better. It’s a misconception that the generic drug is exactly the same except cheaper.

  21. Medicus says

    While buying OTC drugs generic is a great idea (save a ton), it is not true that the FDA requires the EXACT same chemical for generic vs. name brand. The FDA DOES require that generic be within 10% potency of the name brand, but that 10% can be 10% more potent or 10% less potent. The 10% is ALMOST NEVER a safety concern, but it does go a long way in explaining why certain generics work better, and certain generics don’t work as well. Also, some generics consist of metabolic precursors to the name brand drug (your body changes the generic into the name brand), and while in THEORY this is the same as your name brand stuff, reality dictates that differences occur. Bottom line? Your cabinet should contain Acetaminophen NOT Tylenol. But when it comes to prescriptions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

  22. Zech says

    @Martha – I mostly agree with your comments about herbs and spices, but I recommend going one step further and growing your own herbs and grinding your own spices. Fresh herbs makes a huge difference in foods while talking little space in a kitchen, and whole spices can last on shelves much longer than ground spices, while still keeping their potency.

  23. Flexic says

    Back that always-buy-generic-spices truck back up. Even salt isn’t created equal; “table salt” like morton’s is full of anticaking agents like silicon and aluminum, whereas kosher salt is just pure salt. Buying fresh spices from a place like Penzey’s (they have retail stores or penzeys.com) makes a HUGE difference for not much money.

    Now if we are just talking about spices in your average grocery store, the McCormick, Spice Islands or whatever “premium” stuff they carry is equally bad as house brand.

    Once you smell and taste quality spices side-by-side with megamart stuff there is no going back, I’m just an average cook and can’t believe the difference quality spices make.

  24. First Last says

    Years ago, when I worked for a doctors office as a Medical Assistant, we had drug company reps come by to promote their drugs, err, I mean medicine. They would make sure we were stocked up on sample packs of their drugs (to give away).

    I asked why people would use their more expensive name brand, if a generic version was available? He said, by law, generics could be off in dosage by as much as 20%. So a generic 100 mg pill could be as high 120 mg (20% over, thereby overdosing the patient) or as low as 80 mg (20% under, under dosing the patient). Whereas his name brand was exactly 100 mg, just as the doctor ordered (so he alleged).

  25. BT says

    First Last – It is highly unlikely there is any truth to that sales reps claim. The FDA are very strict about drug tolerances and the allowed variance is probably a fraction of a percent, even for generics.

  26. WoJ says

    I do not know how this is in the US, but in Europe the active substance in a drug must be absolutely identical (composition and dosage) in the brand and generic version. This is the law.
    What can be different are the exipients (the substances which “hold” the active part) which are generally neutral. The “generally” may make a difference in some rare cases (you may have a better or worse tolerance to them, even if they are neutral). The price difference comes from the lack of advanced research and clinical trials for generics.

    As for the cables – fully agreed with comments about the digital signal (HDMI cable for instance). It does work or it does not work.

  27. says

    While I think the generic spices are just as good, I often can get brand name spices for Free or almost free w/coupons….especially when I can double/triple. Whereas generic products don’t have coupons most of the time.

    I see so many people at the grocery store buying generic products (mostly food items), not realizing that with a coupon, it’s less expensive to buy the brand name.

    Just found your site…I will be a frequent visitor! :-)