It's no wonder people complain about the cost of living. Our wallets are being sucked dry at every turn. But you can change your ways and keep more cash in that wallet.

This article started in the laundry aisle of my local supermarket. I couldn't help but notice two young men deep in an intense discussion about fabric whitening products.

They turned out to be Navy recruits trying to decide which of the Vanish products would be best at keeping their uniforms white.

Another customer and I tried to convince them to buy the cheaper Pams whitener or even bleach as an objective choice.

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After a pregnant pause one of the bemused looking recruits responded: "But this is Vanish."

Clearly the brand had some sort of magical powers and no other product was capable of doing the same job. Such was the power of branding.

Shortly after the Vanish incident I was drawn into an online discussion with someone looking to put Rhino carpet down in her house and had been shocked by the quote.

When I suggested an alternative, she said she needed Rhino carpet - and really didn't get that she would be paying a premium for the brand name over and above an equivalent carpet.

In both examples the consumers saw the brand name as a mark of quality, rather than a marketing tool to convince them to pay a premium price for an equivalent product.

Buying brands is great if that's how you want to spend your money. Perhaps you want your friends to see you have a Smeg oven range, not a cheap brand, when they visit.

Maybe you don't want to be seen at the supermarket checkout with a trolley full of Budget brands - although this behaviour is usually associated with insecurity, says Valentyna Melnik, professor of marketing and consumer research at Massey University.

If instead you want to save more, buy a house, pay your mortgage down, travel, go to university or something else but money's tight, doing a bit of navel gazing about why you choose certain brands could make a big difference in your weekly spend.

A few bucks here and there every week, or hundreds of dollars in one go when buying big-ticket items, adds up to thousands over a year.

I asked Melnik what was going on in the Navy recruits' heads that day in New World. She says it has to do with heuristics - mental shortcuts.

Clearly the brand had magical powers and no other product was capable of doing the same job.

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The brand's advertising had created a shortcut in their minds that Vanish was automatically better. The irony is Melnik herself used Vanish in Europe, but switched to Pams in New Zealand because, she believes it's better quality.

There are many different ways of playing with our brains. Brands start with our emotions.

Fashion stores may, for example, use music designed to give the impression they have hip products.

Then there's the social identity marketing trick.

iPhones are a great example. They are a good product, but they also have a certain aura and having the latest iPhone does impress others.

A lot of top-end technology products fit into that category.

A flash new car in the driveway can have the same effect.

Kiwis often look down their noses at unbranded products, or brands that aren't household names that might have been made in the same factories as the premium brands.

Melnik pointed out we're bigger suckers than some overseas nations.

In Switzerland, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, 60 per cent of consumers buy "private" white labelled/generic products. "People in Switzerland are becoming more and more cynical about national brands," she says.

Melnik's colleague, Professor Harold van Heerde, researches marketing and has found Kiwis are willing to spend on average 11 per cent more on brand names than generic equivalents.

Yet blind tests often show the generic product to be just as good.

Of course buying Rhino brand carpet, a Smeg oven and a nice car isn't just a utilitarian choice.

They show to yourself or others you've achieve achieved a certain status in life - or simply make you feel good and that's valid.

But don't also play the "it's impossible to make ends meet in New Zealand" card if you choose branded products.

I'm sure those Navy recruits aren't paid a king's ransom. Vanish, however, may be their only luxury and I wouldn't want to deny them that.