Thursday, March 22, 2018

Trent’s Frugal Picks: 12 Low-Cost Options I Seriously Like

Quite often, I’ll get messages from readers asking for a good “bang for the buck” or low cost recommendation for a particular type of product. Often, it’s hard for me to give a strict recommendation, as I’m usually just using a store brand or something I happened to find on sale once and I can’t say based on my experience that this is really good value; I just know that it does the job for the price.

Having said that, there are some products for which I have actually tried lots of variations at lots of different price points and discovered that they provide a lot of value for their low price. Here are twelve of those specific recommendations. If you’re looking for an item of that type, consider the items listed below to be my personal recommendation for a very good value for the price.

The prices listed are the normal prices on these items. I’ll buy them at normal prices, but if they’re ever on sale below that level, I’ll stock up.

Automobiles: Toyota

My starting spot for any automobile purchase is to carefully examine the Toyota model in the type of car I would be purchasing. There are several reasons for this, the big one being that Toyota is consistently #1 in terms of reliability among all car brands, even higher-cost brands like Lexus and BMW and Infiniti. Toyotas tend to hold their value and tend to last a very long time, so they’re the brand I look to first when shopping around.

In my own experience, Toyotas in particular (and Hondas to a somewhat lesser extent, but far better than most other companies) are simply reliable vehicles, and that’s my primary concern when buying a car. A reliable vehicle simply means that, on average, it’s going to work when I want it to for more miles than other vehicles assuming I keep up with the regular maintenance, and that’s really all you can ask for. Our experience with Toyota reliability in terms of bang for the buck is unparalleled, and the Consumer Reports data matches up well with our own observations.

I have had positive experiences, or have close friends with positive experiences, with automobiles made by Honda, Kia, and Subaru as well, brands which also rank well on the Consumer Reports data shared above. Those are the brands I look to next if I can’t find a late model used Toyota available in the model that I’m looking for.

Batteries: IKEA ALKALISK alkaline battery ($1.99 per 10 pack for AA), available at IKEA

These are tremendously good batteries for $0.20 a pop, almost unbelievably good. They seem to last and last and last in almost any device that you put them in, and although they’re not rechargeable, it is rather easy these days to recycle them if you’re environmentally conscious, as many stores and recycling centers have places to deposit batteries for recycling. I’ll often buy these as the batteries I use in items that might leave our home, such as grabbing a few batteries for someone’s device that they might take home with them or for a gift-related occasion.

If you do wish to use recyclable batteries, I give a nod to Sanyo eneloop rechargeable batteries. They’re not the cheapest, but they hold charge so well that they’re almost indistinguishable from single-use batteries, and if you just leave the charger in a wall outlet, the process for swapping them out is easy. Just pull a few fully-charged batteries out of a drawer, put them in the device that needs batteries, then put any used-up batteries right into the charger until the light turns green, and when you notice a green light, toss those batteries in the “battery” drawer. The initial cost is high, but the cost per use after that is nice and low.

Dishwasher Detergent: Kirkland Signature Premium Dishwasher Pacs ($0.10 per load, from Costco) or Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean Automatic Dishwasher Pacs ($0.10 per load, from Sam’s Club)

We are Sam’s Club members (because there isn’t a Costco reasonably close to our house, so the choice is kind of made for us), and my hands-down preferred dishwashing soap is the large tub of Member’s Mark Ultimate Automatic Dishwasher Pacs. At a little less than $0.10 per load, these are about the cheapest pacs I’ve found anywhere and they do a stellar job, better than virtually anything else I’ve tried.

The only ones I’ve tried that are comparable are the ones from Costco (specifically, Kirkland Signature Premium Dishwasher Pacs) that I’ve used when visiting friends, which are basically identical in terms of function and cost. They’re just as good as the Member’s Mark ones, as far as I can tell, and come in right at $0.10 per load.

Honestly, I’ve tried and I can’t make decent homemade dishwashing soap that cheap. I can make some batches that are notably cheaper per load, but they do not work as well. I’ve also made homemade batches that work just as well, but they’re not any cheaper per load.

This is one of those cases where the best deal really is found at a warehouse club, whether you’re a Sam’s Club member or a Costco member. This is an automatic buy for me from Sam’s Club whenever I visit, because it just doesn’t get better or cheaper per dishwasher load.

Disposable Razors: Dorco

I’m not going to get into the debate over disposable razors versus double-edged safety razors versus straight edged razors versus just growing a beard. There are advantages and disadvantages of both, mostly oriented around safety and time and other factors. I am personally partial to a Merkur double-edged safety razor when I have time to shave well and really want to look and smell good, but I use a cartridge/disposable razor for my daily quick shave when I’m just going to be at home working or doing only light things outside the house.

Dorco is the best “bang for the buck” option I’ve found in terms of quality disposable razors. They’re the cartridge manufacturer for Dollar Shave Club, but it’s cheaper if you just buy a pile of cartridges straight from them instead of subscribing to the shave club, because you can decide for yourself when to get more and you can make a big bulk purchase. They offer razors designed for men and women with several different variations.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to get a lot of uses out of a single cartridge. My favorite tactic is to shave in the shower using a wet shaving technique with a bit of soap (my face is very wet and mostly under the water when I shave). When I’m done, I rinse out the razor, then run the razor in reverse direction up my arm with a bit of soap on it, literally the opposite of how I would move it if I were shaving, which is a simple way to gently re-hone the blade, and after the shower I take a few seconds to dry it off with my towel. This enables me to get dozens of uses out of a single cartridge. By now, I can feel when it’s time to replace the cartridge, as it starts to get a little rougher when shaving, though it doesn’t nick me or anything – it just feels rougher on the skin.

So, this is the system I use. Most days, I use a cartridge razor and quickly wet-shave in the shower, honing the razor on my arm and then drying it off as described above. On special occasions, I’ll take my time and shave with a safety razor, which gets a bit closer shave and definitely has a nice smell without being very costly, either.

Dry Pasta: Barilla, Ronzoni, or store brand, whichever is cheapest

I’ve tried lots of different kinds of pastas over the years, including even making it myself (honestly, I like homemade the best, but unless you have an automatic pasta maker, it’s pretty time intensive). What I’ve found is this: if you cook it according to package directions, add a healthy dash of salt to the water, leave it just a little underdone, and accompany it with some sort of tasty sauce or other ingredients, almost every dry store-bought pasta is perfectly good. The cheapest store brand dry pasta is about 80% as good as any other brand – they’re all really pretty close.

So, I honestly often choose Barilla, because it’s a low-cost type of pasta and there’s a Barilla factory not too far from where I live, so I like to believe it’s a form of “buying local,” at least for me. Usually, Barilla’s price is at least comparable with the store brand.

For people not in my area, I encourage you to just choose the least expensive option, which in my experience is usually either Barilla, Ronzoni, or store brand, depending on the store and the situation. All of them are perfectly good pasta, though none are as good as homemade.

Laundry Soap: 1 cup of washing soda, 1 cup of borax, and 1 cup of soap flakes (48 loads, roughly $0.03 per load)

My preferred laundry soap – which costs about 10% as much as buying Tide at the store – is simply a cup of washing soda powder, a cup of borax, and a cup of soap flakes in a plastic container, tossed around until thoroughly mixed, with a measuring teaspoon in there. Whenever a load of laundry needs to be done, just toss in a teaspoon of that powder mix and it’ll get nice and clean.

While the prices aren’t as good as what I can find locally, you can buy washing soda, borax, and soap flakes on Amazon. Together, these ingredients add up to a cost of about $0.05 per laundry load by my quick back-of-the-envelope math. You can cut that price by buying bars of soap and grating them.

This mix does a stellar job cleaning laundry, leaving it comparable to smell and coloration to most detergents I’ve used. The only time I’ve found a use for detergent is when you’re dealing with an actual stain, in which case I rub a few drops of detergent straight into the stain, which takes care of the problem. For normal dirty laundry, this laundry soap mix does the job perfectly and far cheaper than anything I’ve found on store shelves.

Pasta Sauce: The least expensive without high fructose corn syrup, usually Classico, or tomato sauce and diced tomatoes mixed with herbs

There are really two routes to go when it comes to pasta sauce. One route is to make it yourself, which I’ll do sometimes by adding herbs to a can of tomato sauce and a can of diced tomatoes. This is usually the cheapest route, but not always, as the total cost hovers somewhere a little north of $2.50 (assuming I’m using dried herbs at home or fresh ones out of our garden). You can also do this easily with your own tomatoes from your garden, which takes more work but tastes amazing. I don’t really have a strict recipe other than mixing a can of sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, and some herbs and other ingredients together until it tastes good – usually dashes of basil and oregano and ground black pepper.

The other route is to buy a prepared pasta sauce, but so many of the low cost pasta sauces add high fructose corn syrup to the sauce, and that’s just something I strive to avoid. The health cost of just adding a bunch of needless sugar or corn syrup to your diet isn’t worth the little bit of savings one might get from a cheap pasta sauce, so I glance at the inexpensive ones and buy one that doesn’t have HFCS or added sugar in it. Often, the one that ends up in the cart is Classico brand, as many of the less expensive options (like store brand, Ragu, and many of Prego’s offerings) include high fructose corn syrup or sugar as an ingredient. The modern American diet already has too much sugar in it which is leading to a diabetes epidemic; why have a bunch more in a food item that doesn’t even need it to taste delicious?

Pens: Uniball Signo 207 ($0.50 each, Amazon)

All I really want from a pen is that it doesn’t leak, it writes when I pick it up so I can actually use all of the ink in the pen, and it doesn’t leave big ink globs all over the paper. A lot of super-cheap pens do at least one of these things, and many do more than one of these things.

The Uniball Signo 207 doesn’t; it’s the cheapest pen I’ve found that doesn’t leak ink everywhere, writes virtually every time when I pick it up, and doesn’t leave big ink globs on the paper. For me, that’s worth paying $0.60 for a pen that’ll write for several weeks.

The worst problem I’ve ever found with these pens is that every once in a while, you’ll get one that skips when you write, and you can fix that by simply taking another one that works and swapping the heads on them, which takes about five seconds.

There are similar pens that you can sometimes find for this price, like the Pilot G2, but this one is consistently the lowest priced “good” pen out there, and thus I use it all the time.

Shampoo: Whatever’s on sale

For me, the solution to inexpensive hair care is to keep a short, simple cut that simply doesn’t require much care. I keep my hair quite short so that I never have to use much shampoo or conditioner to clean it and there are minimal ill effects from using the “wrong” shampoo or conditioner.

So, my solution is to simply buy whatever’s cheap or on sale, put it in a pump bottle, and use a single pump to wash my hair. I often end up buying brands like Pert or Suave or whatever the store brand is.

When my hair was longer, I frequently had dandruff issues if I used the wrong shampoo. Now that it’s short, I just use very little shampoo or conditioner on it – in fact, sometimes I don’t even use any at all – and it seems to never matter what shampoo or conditioner I use. Nothing really causes dandruff, and I think it’s because I don’t use much hair care product. Because my hair is short, oil levels in the hair tend to be a minimal issue, too.

The secret is just keeping it short by getting it cut regularly, which I usually do myself.

Toilet Paper: White Cloud Ultra ($6.27 for 12 rolls of 231 sheets per roll, or roughly a cent per five sheets)

For me, the threshold of good toilet paper is that it doesn’t disintegrate and doesn’t feel like sandpaper. Once we pass that threshold, I go for cheap, and the best bargain I’ve found that clearly passes that threshold is White Cloud Ultra.

It’s cheaper per sheet than a lot of store brand scratchy toilet paper, but it’s soft and absorbent and doesn’t fall apart at a single touch like cheap toilet paper often does. It’s everything I need, and it’s cheap enough that even sale prices on other toilet papers that aren’t scratchy don’t come close to this price.

Warehouse Clubs: The most convenient one for you

As I mentioned earlier, Sarah and I are Sam’s Club members, simply because there isn’t a Costco or BJ’s close enough to our home to warrant a membership. I can drive about 15 minutes to one Sam’s Club and about 20 minutes to another one, while the nearest Costco is an hour away.

Having said that, I’ve shopped at Costco and BJ’s in the past and… honestly… the differences between the three warehouse clubs in terms of the shopping experience and prices is pretty minimal, enough so that if I lived near all three of them, I’d probably choose one out of pure convenience and use that for most bulk buys.

What if they were exactly equal in terms of convenience? I’d slightly lean toward Costco because of their employment practices, but factors like large crowds at one versus small crowds at another would be enough to sway me in a different direction, as I prefer not to wait in checkout lanes or have to wait to go down crowded aisles.

All warehouse clubs, in the end, offer the same thing: they offer strong prices on bulk buys of many product types, though the prices aren’t constantly better than your local discount grocery store. You have to shop at both and watch the prices.

Wines: Charles Shaw Blend Cabernet Sauvignon (red, $2.99 per bottle) or Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio (white, $2.99 per bottle), both available from Trader Joe’s

Colloquially known as “two-buck Chuck” or “three-buck Chuck,” the Charles Shaw store brand of wine from Trader Joe’s is what I call good to very good wine at a spectacularly low price, with the blend cabernet being the best red wine option and the pinot grigio being the best white option to my taste buds. I would have no hesitation serving these wines at dinner parties if there were no other options (meaning a guest didn’t bring a bottle), and I’m happy to have them on hand for family meals, as Sarah and I will often enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. With these bottles, it reduces the cost of a glass of wine well below a dollar.

Now, are these the best wines in the world? Absolutely not. Are they pretty good wines that are very consistent and pair well with lots of meals? Absolutely.

If there is interest, I might make this into a semi-regular feature on The Simple Dollar. If there’s a particular product type you’d like me to look at, please follow me on Facebook and send a quick message, which is the most effective way to reach me.

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