Still buying into the idea that you get what you pay for? Let's discuss what this phrase means and why I think it's totally bogus.

desk with peach-colored notepads and a candle, with text overlay "You get what you pay for: examples why this is not true"As I sit in a beautiful backyard nook we’ve created — the cascading grapevines bred to thrive in the harsh realities of Texas dirt, and a pot of vibrant, magenta-colored petunias a background to my thoughts — I am reminded of one of my financial pet peeves.

I personally hate it when people say, “you get what you paid for.”

And the reason why I was thinking about that phrase while sitting in my garden out back? Well, I was staring at a perfect example of why it's NOT true that you get what you paid for (or at least not all of the time).

You see, I purchased that petunia plant for $1.00 off the clearance rack at our local Lowe’s store. It was still in bloom at the time, but someone had marked it unworthy of further watering and effort (probably because it had peaked and would be a bother to sell).

That was two months ago. Ever since bringing it home and planting it in our little oasis, that $1.00 plant has managed to produce a continual flow of piercingly gorgeous flowers for us. All for a buck.

Would you say that I got what I paid for? Absolutely not. Because of frugal living, I got way more than I paid for (and you can, too).

What Does “You Get What You Pay for” Mean?

Over the last several years I have seen this phrase being irresponsibly thrown around in two different ways: as justification for spending more on a particular purchase despite not having the funds to do so, and as an “I-told-you-so” spit of wisdom when someone else likes to rain on your parade after a frugal fail (and yes, I’ve had a few frugal fails).

In a nutshell, it's something people love to:

a) tell others when they see that they chose the lower-quality, lower-costing item and it breaks on them

b) use to justify why they spend a lot more money on a specific purchase

Call it inefficiencies in the market or really whatever you want, but there are multiple opportunities where you can either overpay or underpay for something.

Meaning that you pay very little for something, and it is super valuable and worth it. Or you pay a ton for something, and it sucks.

Proving that the phrase “you get what you paid for” is many times incorrect is not that difficult to do.

Do You Really Get What You Pay for?

I want to put this out there — something you're already aware of — and set the record straight:

Expensive does not automatically deliver higher quality.

I’m sure we all have examples in our own lives or have heard stories from angered family members and friends who have overpaid for something that turned out to be of poor quality. This leaves an especially sour taste in our mouths after we find a cheaper alternative somewhere else with the same, or better, quality.

Nobody likes to feel duped.

Magazines like Consumer Reports are littered with these scenarios where they test-drive a range of products in any given category and usually end up finding that several lower-costing items out-compete higher-costing items (note: you will only be able to view the “buying guides” through that link unless you have a subscription; also try out Cheapism.com).

In my own life, I’ve seen this during our home-buying process when we looked at 19 different houses. The 19th home was far superior in quality and location to all the others, and we are so happy that we held out because it was also nearly $30,000 cheaper.

Another example is when I conducted research for my article on disposable clothing last year. I was drawn to a peacock-colored shirt on the rack at Express, I store I admittedly had not been to for over ten years. It fit well, I loved the color, and I purchased it.

Just three washes later, a small but noticeable hole like the kind you might find in a cheaply made Target shirt appeared. Except that the Target shirt would probably have only cost $8 instead of the $30 I had shelled out.

Boy did I feel duped.

Sometimes, You Get Way More than You Pay for

The more enticing market inefficiency is underpaying for items and services while still reaping the same great quality.

There are opportunities everywhere — clearances, foreclosures, promotions, coupons, liquidations — that allow for the frugal decadent lifestyle our household and many others enjoy.

You Get Way More Than What You Pay for Examples:

  • Generic prescriptions that are federally regulated to include almost the exact same ingredients at a fraction of the cost of brand name prescriptions
  • Seasonal price drops such as purchasing homeowner’s insurance during non-hurricane season versus hurricane season
  • Finding people with time constraints who need to liquidate something quickly (i.e. people on Craigslist who are selling close-to-new appliances at severely discounted prices because they were only in an area on business for a year or so on the company’s dime)
  • People breaking into their field who are willing to offer you a much lower price for their services in exchange for reviews/experience (this worked beautifully for our wedding photos, which were taken by two college photography students for a total of $250)
  • etc.

Sometimes, You Get Way Less than You Paid For

Sometimes marketers and salesmen increase the price of something merely to feed off of our perceptions of the phrase “you get what you pay for”.

An example of when you get much less than what you paid for:

If you learn to identify these market inefficiencies, then you can avoid paying full price for almost every purchase that you make. In the meantime, sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy a $12 bottle of champagne (without the label, of course); it turns out that it is better tasting than a $150 bottle of  Dom Perignon.

One Last Reason People Think You Get What You Pay For

I have one final story to share with you that will show you why people think “you get what you pay for”: they confuse cost with value.

My grandmother — father's mother — passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was around five years old.

And even though from time-to-time I think about her and wonder about the kind of relationship we would have had if she had lived through my teens and twenties, truth be told, I only have three specific memories of her.

One is of the two of us in the barn together. She's keeping me occupied by having me strip the hardened kernels of field corn and individually feed them to cows (great keep-Amanda-busy-and-out-of-Dad's-hair-task, Mom-mom!). The second is this beautiful image I have of her in the flower garden she kept on the left side of our porch. She's wearing a skirt, glasses, and the sun is beaming behind her so that there's an angelic, white light radiating from her body. And the third is of me jumping up on her lap — this was around the time she died — and being told to get down because she was too weak to take it.

And then there's the thing that I honestly will always remember the most about her: the money lesson she taught me after she had passed away.

Mom-Mom's Good China

Our farm was the home base for the Grossman's when I was growing up. My uncles, aunt, pop-pop, and my siblings were all raised there. So for the holidays it was assumed that everyone would come back to gather and eat the meal of whichever Grossman wife was living there at the time.

While the food changed from woman to woman — my mother was all about creamed mushrooms, my stepmother was all about creamed onions — one tradition that remained the same was using my Mom-mom's good china during the meal.

It was housed in our buffet, an antique wooden structure made from the old pews at the church up on the hill many, many years ago. Normally it held Dad's spare change, some papers, laundry that needed to go downstairs. But on the holidays, it morphed into this magical food buffet complete with decorations reflecting through its antiquated mirror.

Her china was special. It marked an occasion, and elevated our Easters, Thanksgivings, and Christmases in a way that ordinary plates could not.

And in my mind they were not only a sentimental treasure, but also capable of being this century's next best find on Auction Hunters.

The Plates are ‘Actually Worthless'

One holiday we had a guest whose wealth and finery well outweighed our own. My stepmother asked this guest if she thought the plates were worth something.

The woman held a plate up and inspected both sides. While we all waited around, hot with anticipation, she finally said, “No. These were those plates given away for free in the bank promotions of the good old days. You showed up on certain days and collected all of them. They're actually worthless.”

From a Great Disappointment Comes a Great Lesson

I was 14-year-old-headstrong mad, which means there was a bit of being shattered as well.

I was also disappointed. I thought those dishes were really worth something, like 1914-Baltimore-News-Babe-Ruth-Rookie-Card worth something (hey, a girl can dream, right?).

It took me a few days of mulling over the news to make a solid realization that's stuck with me ever since. I didn't care that those plates had cost my grandmother nothing but time and gas to go pick up. To me, those plates were much more valuable than any Pfaltzgraff or Waterford crystal plate money could buy.

Their value was completely and utterly disconnected from their cost (which apparently had been exactly zero dollars).

Who knows if that woman was correct about my grandmother's beautiful china; we would need an appraiser or to do some research with the exact pattern to make that sort of conclusion. Though of course if everyone and their mothers were receiving these plates for free, then it's likely they've flooded the antique market and have no real ‘value' besides being able to eat off of them.

Years later what sticks with me is that though value and cost surely overlap sometimes, they actually have nothing to do with each other. And my highly sentimental example is not the only one to show this concept of value and cost being two completely different things.

Just look at this guy, who will actually pay people to send in their debt relief junk mail. It's worthless to you, and you likely just toss it in recycling (I know I do). But he's willing to pay you a price of $5 for it because it's got value to him.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and to each his own.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.
13 replies
  1. Joy Beer
    Joy Beer says:

    Wow. I think those plates are PRICELESS. In 200 years, I’d find plates for the “common” but decent woman from a “bank promotion” way more interesting than the coddled plates of an established luxury purveyor. In fact, 200 minutes ago I’d care more. I love this story, and the mental image of her building her collection, and pulling them out for the special times. I cannot tell you how much I just completely Love. This. Story. And well told.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Vanderslice (@MoonGlowPR)
    Jennifer Vanderslice (@MoonGlowPR) says:

    Ah yes…as I’m cleaning out my parent’s home while it’s being sold, I understand completely. For me, it’s the pendulum clock that hangs on the wall in the front hallway. My parent’s bought it around 1969 with S&H Green Stamps. It’s priceless to me.

    /J

    Reply
  3. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    I object to the comment about target shirts being poor quality. Target makes pretty awesome clothes and with sales and coupons you can get them at great prices!

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Hello Gwen,

      I have found that their clothes are trendy and quite fun, but don’t seem to last more than a year without getting a hole or something breaking. How long have you gotten your Target clothes to last?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

      Reply

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