After reading my frugal or cheap post yesterday, paidtwice asked an interesting question.

Does shopping at Walmart make me frugal or cheap? And I am not talking about any ethical considerations. I am talking about buying an office chair at Walmart vs a furniture store, buying my sheets at Walmart vs Linens n Things…. what items are worth spending twice as much for (or more?). I don’t know. I don’t know how long different stuff is going to last and what items are worth it.

A little further down in the comments, Jennifer gave a pretty good answer.

Paidtwice-here’s my $.02 about Walmart. In general I have found that anything at Walmart that is *manufactured* by Walmart (Home Trends, Basic Editions, etc) is usually not worth it in the long run. If you are going to ever have to replace an office chair, you bought the wrong one, and I can guarantee a Walmart one is one you will have to replace. Sheets–to me, Walmart ones are scratchy. You can’t get a 600 thread count at Walmart. For things Walmart carries that aren’t manufactured by them, it varies by the brand.

I’d like to expand on this a little bit. What makes a frugal purchase, versus a cheap purchase? First determine your budget. Making sure you don’t blow your budget is very important in shopping frugally. There’s no sense in spending time making sure you get the best buy, if you’re going to pay interest because you have to whip out the credit card.

Begin researching your item. I usually begin by checking out Amazon, Walmart, and Target. I pay special attention to the customer reviews at Amazon. I try to shoot for something that has really good reviews. Once I have a good idea of what I can afford, I’ll often look at other online stores like Linens n Things, JcPenney, and Sears. I make notes of what stores offer what prices.

Check price comparison sites. I like and epinions. Once you have your item narrowed down to a couple of models, you can see what different online stores are asking for the item. I like epinions, because you can check more customer reviews.

Do a search for coupon codes. Once you know what you’re going to buy, and you have narrowed down the two or three least expensive online stores, you can do a google search for “store name + code”. Often you can find codes for 20% off the original price. Dealcatcher, fatwallet, Rather-be-Shopping, and Coupons are all great places to find coupons.

Participate in rebate programs. Sites like Ebates and MyPoints give you cash or points back when you shop through their program. With MyPoints, you can redeem your points for gift cards. It’s not that hard to earn enough points for a $10 gift card. There are a lot of annoying emails, but I just delete them, and I still find the program worth it.

Figure out how much you’ll save using coupons/rebates/online shopping vs. Walmart. Buy from the least expensive source. At this point, you should have enough information to know that you’re getting the best quality you can afford for the lowest price. If you find that the item is less expensive at Walmart, know you’re getting decent quality. If none of the quality items that came up in your search are offered at Walmart, you know that Walmart’s product is probably cheap and not worth buying. I know that sounds like a lot of time and effort, but it is the best way to make sure you’re getting the very best deal. There is another option when you don’t have time to do a lot of research, though.

When all else fails, ask. One of my favorite bargain hunting sites is Fishing For Deals. They have a special forum section called “Fishing for a Deal” where you can ask if anyone has seen a deal on a particular item. You have to join the site to post, but let me tell you, the ladies there can find great deals! So if you’re short on time and want to make a frugal purchase, go to the forums and ask!

There are many other options when looking for a great deal. I’ve focused on buying new items today, but you can also check for secondhand items on Freecycle, Craigslist, or Ebay. I try to have fun with finding bargains. I find that the more time I spend researching a purchase, the better my purchase tends to be. More time gives me an opportunity to consider how badly I need the item. Sometimes I just decide not to buy. But if I do buy, I know my money is well spent.

To go back to paidtwice’s original question, “…what items are worth spending twice as much for (or more?)”, I would have to say get the best quality for what you can afford. I would love to buy the best quality of everything, but my budget won’t allow it. Do your research, set a budget, and stick to it. Maybe you can’t afford 600 thread count sheets. So buy the best sheets available in your price range. And the only way to know what sheets those are, is to do your research. Shopping at Walmart doesn’t determine whether you’re frugal or cheap. Making the best use of your money, according to your priorities, determines frugality.