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When to scrimp and when to splurge on everyday products

From toilet paper to tissues, Consumer Reports reveals which products are worth a premium and when you can get the best for less

Published: July 2014

Years of testing has taught us that price and quality don’t always go hand in hand. But how do you know when it’s worth paying more for staples such as coffee, paper towels, and dishwasher detergents? We compared the Ratings in 10 product categories, consisting of relatively inexpensive goods typically sold at supermarkets, mass merchants, sometimes even drugstores. Forty percent of the time, a cheaper product was the smarter choice. Here’s the inside scoop on when you can scrimp and when it's worth a splurge.

—Tod Marks

Items to scrimp on

No need to overspend on toilet paper.

Toilet paper

No one likes flimsy and scratchy bathroom tissue. And the great news is that you don’t have to pay a lot to get an outstanding combination of strength and performance. White Cloud 3-ply Ultra (sold at Walmart, shown) was the clear winner in Consumer Reports’ tests. At a quarter per 100 sheets, it was a bargain.

Dishwasher detergent

Finish Powerball Tabs, at 18 cents per load, did an outstanding job on dishes as well as pots without spotting or leaving mineral deposits.

Dark chocolate bars

Trader Joe’s 72% Cacao, at 60 cents per serving, was excellent (complex flavors and distinct roasted notes) and a bargain to boot. By contrast, Godiva 72% Cacao, which was equally sublime, cost more than twice as much.

Bacon

Costco’s Kirkland Signature, 47 cents per serving, was everything a bacon should be: It crisped up nicely and consistently, had balanced fat and meat flavors complemented by wood smoke, and a hint of sweetness. It was the only bacon to earn an excellent score.

Learn how to be a smarter supermarket shopper. And see how your grocer stacks up in our supermarket Ratings.

Items to splurge on

It's worth spending more for sunscreen.

Vanilla ice cream

Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs (both at $1.03 per serving) towered over the cheaper competition in terms of flavor and texture. Edy’s/Dryer’s, Turkey Hill, Friendly’s, Blue Bell, and Blue Bunny didn’t come close.

Coffee

There was a bottleneck of fairly similar brands near the top of the rankings of coffee blends. Starbucks House Blend earned the highest score, narrowly, in blind tastings, at $11.37 per pound. Inexpensive stalwarts including Folger’s and Maxwell House were low rated.

Sunscreen

Using any sunscreen is better than none, but the product is only part of the equation. You need to rely on clothing and hats to protect your skin, too, and judiciously reapply an ounce (2 tablespoons to cover your face and body) every 2 hours. The lotion we tested that offered optimal UVA and UVB protection was Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 (shown). At $1.38 per ounce, it’s a modest splurge.

Paper towels

Bounty Duratowel, at $4.04 per 100 square feet, proved outstanding. It offered excellent absorbency, wet strength, and scrubability. For tough jobs or repeated use, no other towel came close.

AA batteries

Lithium batteries performed much better than alkalines, especially in cameras, which tend to drain a charge quickly. Alkalines cost far less, and some perform almost as well as lithiums in low-drain devices such as flashlights and remotes. Among the lithiums, Energizer Ultimate, at $5.50 per pair, was the standout. Once dead, both types can generally be tossed in the trash.

Facial tissue

Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong lived up to its name. The tissues were the only ones judged excellent at resistance to tearing and stretching. That strength comes in handy if you’re battling a cold or allergies. And they were soft, too, though slightly less so than a few others that compromised on toughness. Puffs Ultra Strong, at $1.69 per 100 sheets, outperformed less expensive tissues from store brands such as Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, and Walgreens, as well as those from Scotties and several Kleenex versions.

   

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