Frugal NationFrugal Nation

Do you really get what you pay for?

Sometimes that old saying is dead wrong.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 20, 2012 11:57AM
An MSN Money editor receLogo: Price tag (Hill Street Studios / Blend Images/Getty Images)ntly heard someone say, "You get what you pay for." He wondered how I'd react to that phrase.

His first guess -- rolling eyes and derisive snorts -- was correct.

Sometimes "cheap" means shoddily produced goods that will fall apart after a couple of uses. But cheap can also mean "frugal."

For example: 
  • I paid $3 for my desk at a rummage sale in 2004 and have made a living on it ever since.
  • Seven years ago I pulled a floor lamp out of a Dumpster. It provided light to study by when I was a midlife college student.


  • In 2005, I spent 99 cents on a clock radio at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. It's been waking me up with classical music ever since.
  • A winter coat that cost about $40 lasted more than 25 years.
  • A mesh strainer my daughter got from the dollar store a decade ago is still going strong -- and I use it two to three times a week.
Why overbuy?
How much do you want to pay, really, for something like a mop bucket? You can buy a pricey pail at a housewares shop or a basic model at the dollar store. They both hold water.

Or you can do what I did for three years: Use a scavenged bucket that once held Kirkland laundry soap. It holds water, too. (Post continues below video.)

So does a smaller pail that a tenant left behind when she moved. She left quite a bit of stuff, in fact. As the building manager, I had to clean out her apartment, thereby scoring the bucket, a sturdy vinyl recycling bag (in constant use for the past five years) and a ton of canned goods she couldn't be bothered to take.

I'm taking relatively little when I move to Alaska next week, since I'll be sharing a nicely furnished home with a friend. College students have happily carted off almost all of my furniture and dishes. They got what they need -- and they paid nothing at all.

Buy it right or buy it twice?

Sometimes "you get what you pay for" does ring true. For example, cheaply made clothes tend not to last. A 100% wool sweater from Eddie Bauer will remain in your closet a lot longer than an acrylic model from a discount department store.

But you may not need to pay Eddie Bauer prices. Name-brand stuff shows up all the time in thrift shops and at yard sales. One such sweater that I wore for years cost me a quarter.

When my sister and her fiancé combined households, she gave me a plastic pitcher. It was from the five-and-dime; she was too busy paying off her student loans to overspend on things she needed for her first apartment.

That was back in 1980. I make iced tea in it three times a week, because I see no reason to replace something that still works.

If you're lucky, there's a Freecycle Network chapter in your area. I've seen lovely furniture, art, toys and other high-quality items offered for free to whoever wants to pick it up.

Quality is key: Look for the best-made items. Buy it right or buy it twice. Just don't overpay. Your own $3 desk may be waiting somewhere.

Where and when did you get your favorite free or "cheap" treasure?

More from MSN Money:

Sep 20, 2012 4:38PM
How right you are.  We use to overspend on everything and not use coupons.  Since losing my job, we've been cutting so many corners our world is a bubble, but we're learning how to do more with less as well.  Good advice, I bought a leather coat from Wilsons for $220 dollars wore it for years.  I found one I liked better at the local Salvation Army for $15.00.  I'll wear the $15 over the $220 any day.  It pays to look around.
Sep 21, 2012 10:21AM

thrift stores enable my wife and i to buy things pretty much at 10% of their typical retail value. 


been going to them for years.  it truly adds up to decent buys and LOTS of saved money. 

Oct 16, 2012 8:34AM

I know that sometimes being "fugal" is not to be cheap, but I spent a year looking for the right set of pots. My wife (gf at time) complained to my mom about how long it took me to just buy a set of pots and I got told I had to stop making snap decisions about such things. We have been using those pots for over 10 years now, bought finally on sale for $90 at a outlet store. I expect baring disasters we will be using these pots for the next 20 years

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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.