Has anyone else seen the documentary Stink! on Netflix? Although its monosyllabic and exclamatory title makes it sound like it’d be a whole lot of fun, I can assure you, it’s anything but.
If you haven’t seen it, I’ll save you 91 minutes.
Essentially, it delves into all the toxic shit in your household cleaning products, clothes, and even health & beauty items—ingredients that the EU banned that are still allowed in the U.S. because nobody regulates them (the FDA just deals with food and drugs, per its name, it explains).
I sat there in front of the TV, foot tapping, side-eyeing my new slew of 99¢ body wash and generic, orange-scented dish soap. Turns out the cheap fragrances they use in the products (hence the aptly named “Stink!” title) are known carcinogens and mutagens that mess with your genes over time and can upset your hormone levels causing all kinds of chaos in your body.
Worse, manufacturers don't have to disclose the ingredients. They can simply slap "fragrance" on all of it and call it a day, making it impossible to know what chemicals you're really dealing with.
Great, I thought, as I looked down at the sweatshirt I was wearing that had been recently washed with $4.99 knockoff Gain detergent. What’s extra money in an IRA if you’re dead from mutated genes?!
I kid, of course—a fatalistic attitude is literally the stupidest mindset with which to approach money—but it raises an interesting discussion about frugality vs. quality in your purchases.
Is it worth it to buy the super cheap, low-quality version of something if it’s (a) unhealthy, (b) doesn’t work properly, or (c) will break soon and require you to replace it? In theory, no. But it’s hard to know ahead of time where it’s worth it and where it isn’t—where you’re paying for quality, or where you’re paying for a brand name and the marketing department’s salaries.
It’s hard to reconcile wanting to get an incredible deal that satisfies your love of saving money (like my 99¢ jug of body wash or free SoulCycle disposal razors) with buying stuff that’s actually GOOD for you.
In some cases, the bare minimum gets the job done. When I look around my kitchen and bathroom, I see things that fall into this category, but not many—paper towels being a standout item where, no matter how cheap or expensive I buy, they work exactly the same way and I can’t tell a difference (toilet paper, however, is a different story).
But in other cases, I do notice a difference.
The cheap body wash smells really good (which is, after watching Stink!, almost concerning), but is almost water-thin in consistency. Once you get over it not being thick and luxurious, it’s honestly fine. It does the job. It doesn’t leave a fragrance on your skin or leave you soft and supple like other products do, but hey, it was less than a dollar.
Then you’ve got your main offenders: the household cleaning products.
These are the products I’ve historically spent more on because the higher quality, natural products’ packaging is cuter (I was a sucker, OK?!) and I got freaked out by washing my dishes and counters and other things that touch my food with soaps and sprays that burned my nose when I inhaled (Windex is HORRIBLE; the ingredients are appalling).
I purchased the HONEST Company’s (Jessica Alba’s brand) multi-surface sprays in the tangerine and lavender scents, the Mrs. Meyers dish soaps in lavender and rosemary, the Mrs. Meyers hand soap in lavender and honeysuckle, the lavender laundry detergent from ECOS, and the Method dishwasher pods.
To be real with you, this stuff was definitely overpriced. You think Jessica Alba is concerned with our budgets? No. She’s got trainers and drivers to pay. She’s going to charge $5.99 for a bottle of glorified flower water and laugh at us poors trying to do something good for our health.
Mrs. Meyers is pretty pricey too, something I didn’t realize until I saw how little laundry detergent you got for $15.99. I’m sorry, but when there’s a $4 alternative on the bottom shelf, I can’t bring myself to spend that much.
Where’s the line? What's the balance?
Here’s my two cents: something that’s dirt, dirt cheap is probably that cheap for a reason. Unless it’s on clearance, it’s probably because the ingredients in it aren’t very high-quality.
Do you need a frankincense & myrrh-scented hand soap with flecks of real gold and fairy dust? No. But is it maybe worth an extra dollar or two to wash your hands with something that isn’t loaded with chemicals and artificial smells? Up to you.
I found a site called EWG’s Healthy Living that ranks consumer products for categories like:
It breaks down each ingredient, the amount of information known about said ingredient, and the level and nature of any concern. To determine a good balance, I searched for the cheaper “natural” brands that I see in that aisle and compared grades with price.
And if you’re really trying to satisfy both your health-conscious and financially independent sides, you can use the DIY household cleaning recipes found here. I'm going to try making my own products (scented with essential oils instead of fragrances).
High upstart costs, but I imagine it'll be relatively cheap to maintain and make it all in bulk. That's the good news—in some ways, sustainability and frugality go hand in hand. Using a dish towel that you wash once weekly to clean up spills in your kitchen instead of roll after roll of paper towels (cheap or not) will be far less expensive and wasteful in the long run.
I’m not here to tell you what’s worth your money and what’s not (although I can pretty safely assure you a $20 laundry detergent is not). I’m here to commiserate with you, fellow budget-conscious health nut: the quality vs. frugality struggle is a real one, especially when there are health and environmental implications to consider.
I hate spending money, but when Sam Cat gets on the counter and eats scraps of food off it, I’m pretty damn happy I cleaned it with an all-natural, non-toxic cleaner instead of Windex or Lysol.
Be conscious of the price you’re paying and what that money is going toward—quality or branding. When in doubt, select a product that has a price point somewhere in the middle, and do your research (sometimes as simple as turning around the bottle).
At the end of the day, trust your gut. As a conscious and frugal consumer inundated with price points and products constantly, you likely have an accurate pulse on what's overpriced.
It’s not silly to pay more for a healthier option, as long as you’re not just paying for trendy “green” labeling.
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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