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8 things you shouldn't cheap out on

Frugal goes only so far. Some things are worth the money (even though you may not have to pay retail).

By Donna_Freedman Nov 1, 2012 1:25PM
Logo: Senior woman (Corbis)My dad has been building and remodeling ever since he was old enough to help out his own father, a carpenter. When he wasn't working on our home he was out helping someone else, or tearing down old buildings in order to re-use the wood on projects. (Clearly, the apple doesn't fall far from the frugal tree.)

He's never bought cheap equipment.

"There's an old saying with tools: 'Buy once, cry once,'" Dad said. "Of course, that applies to just about everything in life."

I've heard it another way, too: "Buy it right or buy it twice." In other words, frugality has its limits. Some things are worth the money.

Usually there are ways around paying retail. Among them: cash-back shopping, price comparison websites, clearance sales, online swap sites, thrift stores, yard sales and the Freecycle Network.

If not? Spend the money, for heaven's sake. Some things you just shouldn't cheap out on. The following list isn't comprehensive, but it's a start.

Creature comforts
1. Shoes.
Be kind to your feet or you will regret it. Buy well-made shoes with good support, and don't wear them so long that your soles are scraping the pavement. A lack of support can lead to back issues as well as foot problems like bunions, hammertoe and heel pain. All are painful, and it's cheaper to prevent them than to fix them.

2. Clothing. By all means shop secondhand, but don't buy things only because they're cheap. Select items that are comfortable, durable and, yes, flattering. This is especially true of children's clothing. Jeans with bleach spots and a worn-out "Hannah Montana" T-shirt would be fine for weekend wear, but don't subject your child to ridicule by making her wear them to school.


3. Food. Not everyone can afford an all-organic diet, but get the best food you can afford. Don't subsist on presweetened cereal and frozen dinners just because you had coupons for them. Items like dry beans, lentils, oats, rice, cornmeal, carrots, dried plums, potatoes and winter squash are cheap, and they pack a lot of nutritional punch.

You can further stretch your dietary dollars by checking out ethnic markets, restaurant supply stores, bakery outlets, "scratch and dent" food markets and even dollar stores. Items from bins in the "health food" section of some supermarkets often cost less than what's on the shelves. I bought extra-thick rolled oats for 64 cents a pound last week.

Home, health and more

4. Tools.
A cheap tool makes the job harder, and will probably need replacing. (See "buy it right or buy it twice," above.)

5. Housing.
Like the home shows say: It's better to have a substandard house in a good area than the other way around. (You can fix a house, but you have to wait for a neighborhood to fix itself.) Buy with that in mind, but never buy more than you can afford.

6. Health care coverage. If you can afford insurance, get it. Some people skip coverage because they feel pretty good, but they're fooling themselves. You can't predict accidents or sudden illnesses, and either one could bankrupt you faster than you can say "intensive care unit." (No coverage? See "Can’t afford health insurance? Your options" for tips.)

7. Professional advice.
Don't choose a lawyer, physician, psychotherapist or financial adviser based solely on how much it'll cost you. Even a few minutes of online research could indicate anything from indifferent attitudes to past criminal behavior.

8. Automobiles.
Buy the safest and most reliable car you can afford. Yes, I said "safe" and "reliable." Your wheels do not define you. They merely get you from place to place. Besides, the cooler/more head-turning your car is, the more expensive it will be to insure and maintain -- and the more attractive, maybe, to car thieves and jealous vandals.

What’s your "don't cheap out" item?

More from MSN Money:

Nov 11, 2012 4:45AM

never, ever buy cheap condoms.....


Nov 11, 2012 9:52AM
MSN - Thank you SO much for just posting the information on one page and not making me click 8 times to see it.
Nov 2, 2012 3:38PM
I am in agreement with this article, but especially about housing.

 When my husband and I were younger and he was retiring from the Navy we chose the cheapest, smallest home in a very nice subdivision.

When we bought our home the sales price was all the money in the world. There was even a short period of time that he and I were both unemployed! We went without a lot of things during that period.

Fast forward 17 years and we'll soon own this great home. We were able to provide our son with a comfortable, safe home in a good neighborhood and access to good schools and great teachers.

 Ours was the house that all the kids came to after school which is priceless now that I look back on the fun we had when he was small.

I grew up in an NYC housing project and know all too well the issues surrounding growing up in an unsafe, violent environment. Carrying pepper spray and a switchblade at 12 wasn't what I wanted for my child.

Nov 2, 2012 12:12PM

I don't cheap out on underwear/socks/bras - cheap stuff never lasts and creeeps where it shouldn't or it fails to hold up the "girls" properly !

Nov 11, 2012 7:38AM
Good footwear (shoe & socks) and a good mattress! Both should be considered investments in your health!
Nov 11, 2012 8:25AM
Don't go cheap on a bed either, you spend far too much time asleep to sacrifice quality sleep or comfort.
Nov 11, 2012 7:40AM

"exterior painting" Not only because I am in the business but I see it all the time, I get outbid by thousands on jobs and here are a few risky reasons why:

1 Workers Comp Ins. You have 5 guys running around on oops and they can sue YOUR insurance.

2. General Liability Ins. I seen it before more than a dozen times. Ladder fell on a porsche, industrial light tipped on the wood floor (burnt down the whole house)

3. Many painters are in business for profit so they hire people with no skill, use the cheapest box store latex primer and paint. There is NO SUCH THING as primer and paint in one or one coat coverage.

4. OIL OIL OIL though I hate to fund the Oil Cartels Prep is key in any project and painting is the easy part. I seen latex primers  not make it one year of adhesion especialy on older wooden homes. Many people dont like to use oil as it is not too forgiving when you make a mistake or have an accident, it cost more, smells, difficult to work with and kills your brushes. But I have put my victorian projects to the TEST aginst the slap and go compition. I have gotten 8-10 years with a little maintaining and the compition 1-3 years. If your looking to flip it HAVE AT IT.... but you do the comunity no justice or your buyers and believe me... word gets around and in this day and age reputation is KEY.

Nov 11, 2012 4:55AM

I think furniture is a good thing not to cheap out on.  You use you couch regularly and you can buy something decent and have it looking and sitting good for 10 -15 years or cheap and have it looking ratty in 3-5.


Nov 11, 2012 8:37AM
A good bed. You spend a third of your entire life in it. You will also avoid developing back problems. I'd also add a good pillow to that. You will sleep better and avoid neck problems.
Nov 11, 2012 9:06AM
2 months ago. I bought an expensive pair of New Balance walking/hiking shoes. My foot problems went away and I kick myself for not doing it sooner.  
Nov 5, 2012 2:22PM
I always think about the simple question 'how often am I going to use this?' to help prioritize where my money goes.  So, for housing, this is a pretty simple answer - I use the house all the time so I don't mind spending money on it.  Same for food, some clothing, etc.

Conversely, regarding tools, I often buy a lower-priced tool for something that I know I will only use once a year (Harbor Freight is still the best place to go).  Also, I make sure the tool will pay for itself the first time I use it.  I've done well with less expensive tools, as they are fine for a non-professional.  
Nov 11, 2012 9:08AM

Good shoes and a good bed!

Start with those and work on the rest.

Nov 11, 2012 8:57AM

I love this article, because I thought I was the only one who thought this way on certain items. When I bought my house over ten years ago, it was the most rundown house on the street. (I think the Adams Family lived here) But the rest of the neighborhood was quiet and well kept. A really nice area. Over time I was able to get the house in order, and the way I wanted it to turn out. Not redo a really nice house which would have cost more. Plus, I was able to talk the price down by almost $25,000 dollars because of how long it was on the market and the condition of the home.

When I got married five years ago, we soon realized we needed a mini van. Looked into one that was really cheap to buy, but did research and found they are noted to have transmission problems as well as head gasket problems. Two items that will cost a lot of money to fix. Plus, my wife sees her parents about once a week, to help with doctor visits and other erands. They live over 50 miles away, and I didn't want the call saying the transmission went. Especially with the kids or her parents in the car. I opted for a little more money to buy a more reliable mini van. Still used, but with plenty of life left in it. We have had it just over two years, and the only thing we spent money on was oil changes and two tires. (darn curbs) I always try to buy middle of the road. Cheap, is just that, cheap. It isn't cheap if you have to spend more later for the same item. If there is a particular item you have to have, but don't want to pay top dollar for it, look on Craigslist. Someone may be selling the exact item for a lot less.  

Nov 11, 2012 10:04AM

I try not to cheap out on tires. although I am suffering from sticker shock on the recent prices of tires. Thanks to technology, the price of tires is equivalent to my mortagage. To an unemployed person, this is dire.


Nov 11, 2012 7:41AM
Never buy condoms at a resale shop!!!!
Nov 2, 2012 4:10PM
Signning up on some websites gets you free underwear (victorias secret, sends out coupons like 10 times a year).  Sign up at and get a $5 off coupon (I used mine towards a package of socks) Kohls also sends me $10 off $10 coupons once a month snail mail.  I use them on socks, panties or towards bras.
Nov 11, 2012 8:22AM
I heartily agree on the socks (my friends get tired of me raving about the $18 socks that changed my life).

I'd also add that a bicycle is nothing to skimp on. Cheap bicycles often sit around unridden because they are heavy and a chore to use. Buying a bike that's a real pleasure to ride ultimately gets you more value, as you'll want to ride it more. You'll get health (and possibly fuel-saving) benefits because you want to ride your bike, instead of convincing yourself to ride your bike for those benefits.  

Nov 11, 2012 7:42AM

Footwear is at the top of the list.  Buy a cheap, low-grade pair of shoes and you are guaranteed to have all kinds of foot problems.  Blistered feet become infected feet; wet feet becomes debilitating foot fungus.  For athletic footwear, I'm partial to trail shoes because of tread and traction; the best trail shoes I've ever worn are the New Balance 476.  They're pretty easy to find at a good price; picking up at least two pair at a nice price is a no-brainer.  For boots, I look for Thinsulate and Gore-Tex, with a Vibram sole as a bonus.  I also look for something that is very light on my feet.  My current pair of boots are a pair of Gore-Tex/Thinsulate Redheads from B****; the only pair of shoes I own which are lighter on my feet are my wrestling shoes. The reason why I mention the Vibram sole is quite simple:  Goodyear welt soles can be counted on to fail.  They are multi-layered, meaning they will shear away along the length of the sole.


The other item on the top of my list is a backpack.  Everyone should have a bug-out bag.  If you buy a $5 backpack from a jobber, you will get exactly $5 worth of backpack.  You can count on it to fail; straps will rip away or seams will blow out.  Your gear does you no good strewn all over the ground.  I only recommend tactical packs with plenty of MOLLE attachment points  Only one manufacturer meets my criteria:  5.11 Tactical.  I prefer the Rush 72 because of its greater capacity and greater number of attachment points; I got mine on discount for around $135, which I would consider the bargain of the century.  Condor makes a fantastic shoulder bag attachment which is easily compatible with  5.11 Tactical product; when you can find it in stock, it retails around $20 and adds an insane amount of capacity for a small price.  If you're thinking about a bug-out bag and want to follow my recommendations, I would jump on the Condor attachments the minute I see them in stock or see a definite in-stock date because they usually sell out within 10 days of being in stock.

Nov 11, 2012 9:52AM
Makeup!!!!  I don't buy cheap makeup.  Expensive makeup lasts longer because it takes less of it to get the same coverage, plus you get to try it before you buy it, unlike cheap drugstore makeup, so you can get the right shade every time.  Also, it just looks so much better on your skin!  Cheap makeup makes you look like a hooker, but it that's the look you're going for then have at it.
Nov 11, 2012 9:33AM
I never buy cheap dog food filled with corn and wheat gluten.  Only the best grain free stuff for my Goldens.  The cheaper stuff gives them gas--who can stand two big dogs farting all night long!
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.