When I was in grade ten, I did a science experiment for school. I was testing how much longer an expensive brand-name battery lasted, compared to a generic no-name battery.
I hooked up a little light to a battery, and I timed how long the light lasted before the battery ran out. I set up a little circuit, bought every brand of AA battery in the store, and with a notepad and pencil to document my findings I began.
The things is, at the end of my experiment, I was really confused. Because there was no difference. The batteries I spent $10 on lasted the same amount of time as the $6 ones.
Surely there was something magical in more expensive batteries? Was there extra testing? Better quality metal? I paid a third extra for them – what was the difference? What was I paying extra for?
Well, it turns out, nothing.
The thing is that humans often think more expensive things are of better quality. Even if they are not.
And learning about this trick means you can catch yourself in the grocery store and save yourself three grand a year.
Expensive = better (according to our brain)
There are countless studies in the world of psychology that show that we, as humans, think that something that costs more is of better quality. There’s a great experiment where people are given two glasses of wine, and they are told one is cheap and one is expensive. They are asked which one is nicer. People often like the one that was more expensive more. The catch? They were both the exact same, cheap wine.
Another study explored a different angle to this: they served coffee to people in a styrofoam cup, or in a silver tea set. Same coffee – but people loved the taste of the one in the silver tea set. The perception of something being expensive goes a long way to use thinking something is better quality.
This is caused by the placebo effect – where we believe something is the real deal, and it changes how our brain perceives it.
So it’s easy to see why we might think that in a grocery store that if we buy the branded product, we’re always getting a better quality product. But it’s actually not always true.
Don’t let advertising fool you
Generic products are the “no-name” products. Instead of buying Bird’s Eye frozen peas – you’re just buying unbranded frozen peas.
But the reality is that a lot of the time, the brand name products we buy are from exactly the same factory as the generic products. Branded products are the same as no-name products in a lot of cases – they just put a fancy label on the front, and charge three times the price.
There are plenty of products that are literally identical if you buy the unbranded version.
If you’re buying raw staples, there is no difference in products like flour, sugar, oats, pepper, paper towels, olive oil, milk, cheese, frozen veggies.
I dare you to try cornflakes in a blind taste test with your flatmates to see if you can taste the difference.
In fact, all medicine, like neurofen or panadol, are literally the exact same ingredients. Read the ingredients on the label – if it’s the same ingredients, it’s the same product. And, in countries like Australia, the sale of medicine is regulated, so it’s not like you’re getting a knock-off that doesn’t work. It must be the same product.
Even cables, like HDMI cables and phone chargers are identical – so buying the $2 cable will work just as effectively as the $25 cable. And, as I’ve said, batteries. Totally the same.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course. Some foods are protected by a trade secret, for example, Coca Cola. So through this, you might find a generic Milo won’t taste the same. A generic Golden Gaytime might not be a good time. Your post-it notes might not be as sticky. Your Kleenex tissues might not be as soft.
So, pick and choose your battles down the grocery aisle. But do some experimenting and see what actually works for you. You might find there are some products that really don’t seem the same to you. But there will be plenty where the generic version is just as good.
If you’re buying simple, raw ingredients, like oats and sugar, you’d be surprised at how many of the branded products you buy are actually identical to the generic ones.
The cost breakdown
Choice did a study of different supermarkets and determined that if you’re doing an average grocery shop in Australia, and you’re happy to bust the misconception that branded products being higher quality, then you will save 40% on your grocery bill.
They created an ‘average shopping basket’ and bought the products at all leading supermarkets. Buying generic products instead of brand name products was 40% cheaper.
And, if you’re lucky enough to live near an ALDI – it’s even cheaper. They calculated their basket was $60 cheaper. If you’re buying these groceries each week and saving $60 on your basket, by my math, that’s $3808 saved over a year.
That’s an epic amount of savings – just by switching the products you buy from the branded to the unbranded.
Be a rebel against society
I’m just going to say it: buying generic items can make you feel like you’re poor. The packaging is so ugly. And big business wants you to think that buying brand name products is what makes you successful in life. But in fact, it just makes them money.
I believe being a good friend, colleague and partner is actually what makes you a success in this world. Not what brand of porridge you buy.
I see buying no-brand products as incredibly empowering. You’re actively making a choice in your daily routine to rebel against the false messages society tells you about what success is, and you’re creating a strong financial foundation for yourself and the people you care about in your life.
If buying generic products for a year means you’ve got several thousand saved by Christmas – then I’d say you’re the real winner.
That saved money will be a lifesaver in your future: whether it’s for an emergency, and investment or to set aside some quality time at the beach.
And, if all else fails and you really just can’t look at those no-brand labels, redesign your pantry and store all your food in gorgeous jars. Rip off those labels and let your food stand proud, free of judgement! Labels are so 1999 in the end, right?
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Be a rebel. Switch to the generic version of a few products when you do the groceries this week. See which ones you would make the switch to permanently.