10 products to never buy generic

Many major companies -- Safeway, Trader Joe's and Target, among them -- sell generic, or what they prefer to call "private label," products that are typically cheaper than the brand name products they aim to replace. If ketchup is ketchup to you and your family, then the cheaper generic brand is a good buy. But if Heinz is your favorite and you don't mind paying for it, the generic versions aren't going to do the job at your dinner table.

That's the trouble with some generic products, as I pointed out in an earlier WalletPop post -- taste can make or break a generic product. And while personal taste will always factor into whether you buy a generic product, here are 10 products that we think you should never buy generic. The branded products are much better.

1. Diapers.
You'll go through hundreds and hundreds of diapers with a baby, and your first impulse is to save as much money as you can with a generic brand. But this is one area where you don't want to skimp. A leaky or messy diaper will leave you and your baby in a foul mood, and a diaper rash is no fun for anyone. Generic and brand name diapers have about the same amount of absorbency, but the generics don't fit as well. The best way to save on diapers is to go with all cloth, but that's a messy place to which you may not want to go.

2. Condiments.
This category comes with the caveat that you might want to test the generic brands to see how they taste to you. But we doubt you'll be satisfied with them. As Jason Gurwin, CEO of Pushpins, an online coupon site, told me, for his customers generic condiments don't often add up to the name brands. A.1. Steak Sauce is better than any generic steak sauce will ever be, Gurwin said.

I have a bottle of Trader Joe's organic ketchup in my refrigerator, and being the cheapskate I am, can't wait until it's gone or expired so I can open the bottle of Heinz waiting in the pantry. Some people love the private label stuff, but not me. One sign that a restaurant is about to go out of business -- it switches from Heinz ketchup to any other kind as a way to save money.

3. Paper products.
Toilet paper and paper towels are two things you don't want to fall apart while using them. Generic brands usually have fewer fibers, which means less absorbency. They'll cost less than brand names, but you'll end up using more of the cheaper towels or toilet paper. That's what we found in our Paper Towel Smack-down savings experiment.

4. MP3 players.
If you're too cheap to buy a real MP3 player -- such as an iPod, Zune or anything else that costs more than $10 -- then don't expect to get more than a few days' use from the cheaper knock-off. The generic players are in the bargain bin for a reason -- they suck and nobody wants to buy them. They have all of the joy and look of holding a paperclip in your hand, and less functionality. The headphones will be lousy and have to be replaced, the charge won't last long, the interface will be as modern as Pong, the software will be older than your first computer, and the sound will be like an aluminum can.

5. Garbage bags.
Like diapers, toilet paper and paper towels, you don't want to skimp on garbage bags because you don't want to have to deal with the mess when they break open. Carrying the trash out is a big enough pain, but to have to pick it all up again because you saved a few bucks on generic garbage bags that are thinner and don't hold as much as the name brand is a bigger and messier waste of time.

General rules when buying branded trash bags include buying stretchable bags made with patented materials, buying industrial strength bags instead of ones made just for the home, and solid black bags that are usually stronger.

6. Paint.
One way generic products are made cheaper is by watering them down or making them thinner. Generic paint for your home is a bad idea. It's often thinner and will take more coats to cover an area. It may also chip and fade sooner than brand-name paint. And as far as home improvements go, paint is inexpensive, and is worth the cost for a quality brand. It's the labor that's expensive.

7. Cheese.
Life is too short to eat weak cheese. And in this case, we're talking about processed cheese, such as in every kid's favorites -- macaroni and cheese, and processed cheese slices. Nutritional value aside, the generic brands of these cheesy items taste like cardboard. Kraft makes the best macaroni and cheese and processed cheese slices, and there's no reason to go anywhere else.

For a grilled cheese sandwich -- again, forget the healthiness of it -- Kraft can't be beat. And its macaroni and cheese is the best comfort food around. You don't want to eat it every day, but live a little and spend the extra dime on the branded box.

8. Apple knockoffs.
We're not talking about legitimate companies that make licensed Apple products. We're talking about Apple product knock offs that should be pretty apparent from looking at them that they're not the real deal.

And probably just as bad are Apple resellers that sell their own things, such as power adapters, that are supposed to work well with Apple products but don't. Apple is suing three such companies, including this one that sells unlabeled power adapters. When you're spending however much on an Apple computer, iPod or other Apple gadget, why risk having it damaged by a knockoff?

9. Beer.
The generic beer with "Beer" in black block letters on a white can isn't for sale anymore, although you can find it on eBay. Beer often doesn't translate well to generics. We say "often" because Consumer Reports recently found Costco's Kirkland Signature beers to be tasty enough to have at a party, although anyone who has been to a college party with beer knows that taste isn't a high priority. As with cheese and other eating or drinking items, with beer often the best choice is a brand.

We're tempted to add generic soda to this category, but that would contradict an earlier post about how soda is so much better with the brand taste. Again, personal taste is a major factor in such areas, so we'll leave it up to you to decide if generic soda is a no-no for you that doesn't have the same taste as Coke or Pepsi.

10. Spaghetti sauce.
A marinara sauce for pasta is so easy to make, buying a generic brand is about equal to pouring ketchup on spaghetti. But we understand if you don't have three hours at home for the sauce to simmer. Go ahead and spend a little more on the name brand pasta sauce. It tastes much better than any generic brand, and for a cheap meal like spaghetti, makes it worth eating. If you have the time to saute a few mushrooms and add them in, all the better.
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