Follow TV Tropes


You Get What You Pay For

Go To

"How can I take over the world when I'm on a budget?!"
Dr. Fred (who, indeed, utterly fails to take over anything), Maniac Mansion

While saving money and going for cheaper alternatives is a good idea in several circumstances, it can backfire almost as often. This trope deals with the situations where it does backfire.

Depending on the work, this trope comes in two variants: in more comedic works, this is the result of a certain character being a cheapskate and deciding to go with a cheaper solution to his problem, which usually leads to Hilarity Ensuing. In more dramatic works, this is the result of a Corrupt Corporate Executive deciding to cut corners in areas where doing so leads to disastrous results (many times of the "loss of human life and or health" variety).

If the situation involves a good or service that was received for free, this may involve some degree of Complaining About Things You Haven't Paid For.

The bane of any Doom It Yourself enthusiast, especially when it comes to the dreaded Do-It-Yourself Plumbing Project. Cutting Corners is just another way of invoking this aesop.


    open/close all folders 
    Anime & Manga 
  • Tazuna the bridgemaker deliberately downplays the risk his village is facing because he doesn't have enough to pay for high-grades ninjas for protection. The result is rather than skilled and experienced fighters who would treat his situation with the risk it deserves, he gets Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke, three ninja apprentices, Kakashi their teacher, and they are woefully underprepared when Zabuza arrives, all of them nearly dying in the ordeal.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Marvel Cinematic Universe/Man of Steel crossover Avenger of Steel, Jessica Jones basically adopts this philosophy at least once; when she's hired to find out if her client's girlfriend is working as a stripper, she soon confirms that the girl is just working as a bartender at a strip club, but Jessica doesn't bother to mention that the girl is cheating as she wasn't hired to tell her client that.
  • In What You Knead, Tazuna deliberately omits critical details about the dangers his village is facing, in order to keep the cost of paying Konoha for protection down. Since they aren't aware of the risks, they give the assignment to the inexperienced Team Seven. When the truth comes out, Kakashi is furious, coldly outlining how Tazuna put everyone involved at risk with his lies and may have doomed his village with the deception.
    • Tazuna also has the audacity to complain and mistreat his protectors, disrespecting them due to their youth. This does nothing to endear the crotchety old man to Team Seven, and underscores his failure to acknowledge that the only reason he's dealing with a genin team in the first place is because of how he lied about his circumstances.

    Film - Animated 
  • In Jetsons: The Movie, Mr. Spacely orders his secretary to book him the cheapest flight possible to his mining asteroid. He ends up on a rickety, smoke-belching old spaceship, sandwiched between two giant donut-gobbling slug aliens.

    Film - Live Action 
  • In A Sound of Thunder, the boss of the safari company shutting down a key component of the time machine to save power contributed to the catastrophe at hand.
  • Cannonball Run 2 has Jill and Marcie use their charms to convince men to give them their cars for free. We see three of them break down. Jill quotes the trope name after the third such incident.
  • In Scarface (1983), Tony Montana is complaining about how he has to pay a higher percentage to his banker to launder his money than when he was bringing in half as much. The banker explains that it simply costs more to launder more. He also says that the reason he's so expensive is because he's trustworthy. Manny finds a cheaper option and Tony agrees, even going himself to watch over the exchange. It turns out to be an undercover sting and is caught on camera with millions in undeclared income.
  • In Star Wars's Expanded Universe it's noted that the Rebels' fighters are quite more expensive than their Imperial counterparts, with the lion share of the price coming from the Rebel fighters having Deflector Shields and hyperdrives. Precisely because of said shields, Rebel fighters tend to come out on top against the faster and more manouverable Imperial fighters as they can take multiple hits while the enemy ones will go down with one good hit or a couple glancing ones. The Rebels offset the cost by preserving their more limited (and expensively trained) pilots, while the Empire uses mass conscription tactics.

  • In A Brother's Price, due to men's Gender Rarity Value, women who want children have three options: They can either swap their brother (if they have one) for a husband, they can pay the eponymous "brother's price" to marry another family's brother, or they can go to a so-called crib, which is a bit like a brothel, but more focused on conceiving children. A brother's price can range from two-thousand to five-thousand, depending on whether the man is a commoner or royalty. The men in a crib cost ten per night, but there is the risk of catching an STD, which is incurable. Considering that a woman might have to try for a dozen times or more to conceive a child, and a husband will sleep with all the sisters in a family, the "cheap" option is actually the more expensive one, as explained in the Discworld example of this trope. A family is mentioned where one sister went to a crib before she and her sisters married. The whole family (newborn children included) died from the ensuing STD.
  • The "Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socio-economic unfairness", as outlined in the Discworld novel Men at Armsnote :
    A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars... A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
  • In Darksaber, Durga the hutt plans on building a weapon that's the Death Star's main cannon, minus the rest of the station. He cuts corners on every aspect of the construction, though; An easily-distracted Hive Mind workforce, substandard parts... It's no surprise to Bevel Lemelisk that it doesn't work when first fired.
  • "I Like Monkeys": The man bought 200 monkeys for five cents a piece, even though they would typically cost a couple thousand dollars a piece. This works about as well as you'd expect since they all quickly drop dead.
  • Despite Hammond's insistence that he "spared no expense," a large part of the series of failures in Jurassic Park were the result of extensive cost-cutting (He spared no expense on the stuff that the tourists would see, and skimped outrageously on the behind-the-scenes stuff necessary to make the park actually run), meaning it was only a matter of time before the park failed catastrophically even if he didn't have to worry about a disgruntled Nedry sabotaging the computers, who only did so because Hammond shortchanged him. Similarly, Muldoon's requests for military grade weapons to control the animals in an emergency were constantly diluted by Hammond on grounds of cost. As such, once the T-rex breaks free they only have one weapon on the island capable of subduing it... and that's in the jeep that Nedry stole.
  • The Murderbot Diaries's main character is a robot who was manufactured by a company that buys and maintains its property as cheaply as possible. It’s considered a reasonable theory that a glitch in Murderbot's governor module led it to kill fifty-seven people, and equipment rented from them fails regularly, even though the story is about a survey team on a largely-uncharted planet where the equipment can be vital to not dying.

    Live Action TV 
  • Cowboy Bebop (2021). In "Binary Two Step", a Wrench Wench hired to fix the Bebop tries to convince Jet to pay for proper parts. He's convinced she's just trying to scam him, especially after finding a cheaper part on the Black Market, which she then has to modify literally on the fly because it's the wrong model and won't fit.
  • In an episode of The King of Queens, Doug decides to give Carrie eye surgery for her birthday so that she no longer needs glasses. However, she ends up going through a much longer than usual adjusting period almost completely blind. Turns out that Doug decided to not go to the surgeon Carrie's boss recommended but another one due to the fact that the latter had coupons. Carrie is understandably upset and forces Doug to take her to the other one.
  • On The Red Green Show, this is the general attitude of Possum Lodge toward the idea of hippie "free love".
  • In the Only Fools and Horses episode "Who's a Pretty Boy?" Denzil hires Del and Rodney to paint his kitchen because they're so much cheaper than a professional painter. Hilarity Ensues.
  • On an episode of 30 Rock, Jack makes Liz get LASIK eye surgery, but being that it's Dr. Spaceman, it's decidedly third rate (it's called LASIG instead). Later in the episode, Jack makes her cry and the tears literally pour down her face. When Jack asks what's happening, Liz sobs, "This is how I cry now! Ever since you made me get that off-brand eye surgery!"
  • A Running Gag in Fawlty Towers, where Basil Fawlty insists on hiring the incompetent handyman O'Reily specifically because he is much cheaper than his wife's choice, the pricier but actually competent Stubbs. When Basil hires O'Reily under Sybils nose to install a door, Stubbs later points out that the door is in a load-bearing wall, and O'Reily used a wood frame support instead of a concrete one, essentially turning the hotel into an even bigger deathtrap than normal.
  • During BattleBots 2018, two surprisingly experienced teams (The Robotic Death Company and Team RioBotz) who you'd think would know better found themselves on the receiving end of shocking defeats when they used crucial parts that were made in China by a company that apparently did beautiful metal work for a really economical price, but unfortunately used cheap crap material to do so (and, to be fair to the teams, lied about it). Gigabyte was humiliated in its fight against reigning champion Tombstone when the securing bolt that held its spinning shell in place shattered and the shell flew off and bounced around the battlebox like a spinning top, while Minotaur's failure wasn't quite as dramatic, with their side armour panel giving way under the force of their opponent's weapon... in the middle of the Grand Final battle!
  • Brought up at the climax of Chernobyl when Legasov is testifying at Dyatlov's trial about the events that led to the Chernobyl #4 reactor exploding. When he explains that the boron control rods meant to reduce reactivity in an overheating reactor have tips that are made of graphite, which has the opposite effect, the judge interrupts to ask him why? After a pause to gather his courage (since his explanation will be publicly criticising the Soviet Union itself), Legasov bluntly lays it out for him and everyone in the room.
    Legasov: "Why?" <long pause> For the same reason our reactors do not have containment buildings around them like those in the West, for the same reason we don't use properly-enriched fuel in our cores. For the same reason we are the only nation that builds water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient. It's cheaper.
    • Even the judge makes an Oh, Crap! face when that comes out, knowing he can get in trouble for even letting that be said aloud in his courtroom.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In one of the later arcs in Calvin and Hobbes, a pair of aliens buy the Earth from Calvin (believing him to be the supreme potentate) for fifty alien leaves, which are implied to be worthless on their planet. A few months later, they come back to Calvin to complain about the Earth's tilted axis (aka winter), to which Calvin replies "let the buyer beware".

    Tabletop Games 
  • Deadlands Reloaded has rules for inferior "el cheapo" gear.
  • Dark Heresy and related games have Craftsmanship rules laying out four qualities of gear: Poor, Common, Good, and Best. Poor-quality items can be obtained more cheaply and are easier to find, but weapons are less accurate and more prone to jamming, armor is less protective, and other gear doesn't work as well. Conversely, the more expensive and rare Good- and Best-quality items are more accurate, immune to jamming, more protective, and generally work better as well as being visually more impressive.
  • Bleeding Edge has a variety of equipment grades, there's the usual Scrounged, Inferior, Superior, and Luxury grades in rising order of cost and bonuses/penalties. But there's also "Bootleg" grade gear that is slightly pricier illegal copies of military gear, "Cracked" gear that is untraceable and even more expensive, "Decoys" that are dirt cheap but don't work at all, and finally Undetectable gear that is extremely expensive.
  • The fluff in BattleTech provides the example of QuickScell, whose products are generally Honest John's Dealership, Shur Fine Guns and The Alleged Car all at once. Accounts of their wares, such as the Hetzer self-propelled anti-armor gun, are replete with complaints of equipment not installed, delivered defective or just plain missing. It got so bad that the Federated Suns, before taking possession of a QuickScell vehicle, performs a complete inspection and if any faults are found, repair them, charging the time, parts and labor to QuickScell.

    Video Games 
  • In Psychonauts, during the Brain Tumbler experiment Raz will tell Sasha about seeing "very weird things". Sasha exclaims "Ack! Why did I have to buy the CHEAP Brain Tumbler?". Turns out cheapness has nothing to do with it, as the "interference" is from Coach Oleander accidentally broadcasting his thoughts to the entire camp via the camp's loudspeakers.
  • In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Gabriel Roman expresses his frustration in dealing with Eddie Raja:
    Roman: Remind me again why we hired this superstitious idiot?
    Navarro: You wanted someone cheap.
    Roman: Ah, yes. Well, you get what you pay for, I suppose.
  • In the beginning of Day of the Tentacle, the Chron-O-John fails because Dr. Fred used a synthetic diamond instead of a natural one.
  • In Doom³, in one section of the Lost Mission, a construction supervisor got in a feud with a coworker due to demands that he use more up to standard windows and seals for an area of the base on Mars, where the atmosphere is hostile to humans. Instead, the supervisor uses a cheaply made variant of the windows under the justification of saving money and is so blind to the potential drop of quality and so confident that they will hold up that he even boasts that he will take a rocket launcher to them if need be. And of course, when the Player reaches that section, a Revenant exploits this by simply shooting at the windows with rockets of its own, easily shattering them and exposing the player to the outside atmosphere, forcing them into a race against time to close the emergency shutters.
  • In The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Willy and friends get a free pizza with a coupon. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with their choice of topping, and it gives Willy a bad case of gas that gets him in trouble with the school bully sitting at a nearby table. The girl sums up the situation with "you get exactly what you pay for..."
  • Max Payne 3 has Max explaining the concept (in his trademark sarcastic after-commentary) "to" a guy who threw a grenade too early in the intro sequence:
    Max: So in the end I guess I had become what they wanted me to be: some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys. Well, that's what they had paid for, so in the end, that's what they got. Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism: you buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for. And these chumps had paid for some angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong.
  • In Deponia's 2nd part, Chaos on Deponia, Rufus is sent to get a datasette to reinstall Goals memory. Unfortunately, he chooses the cheaper version, because he gets a lollipop extra.
  • In the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Dead Money, much of the Sierra Madre's decaying structure is because several of the builders employed by the owner went with cheaper options... and pocketed the difference. The nuclear apocalypse merely sped up the process a bit.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, if you get the free room in the Stock Pot Inn by claiming to be the guest who rented it, Tatl will complain about its poor quality, but then concedes that she can't really complain since they did just get the room for free.
  • Grand Theft Auto V: Cheaper heist members aren't as skilled as their more expensive peers. They typically make the heist harder, lose a portion of the loot, and/or die. However, if they survive the heist, they gain experience and can end up just as skilled as the expensive heist members while still costing less.

    Visual Novels 
  • Parodied in Daughter for Dessert with Mortelli when the protagonist reveals that the stolen toaster had a gold-quartz heating element.
    Mortelli: Now that I’ve been eating toast cooked with gold, I don’t think I can go back!
  • In Melody, when picking a perfume to give to Amy for her birthday, the protagonist takes note of how much better the more expensive perfume smells.

  • What gets the ball rolling in Erfworld is a spell to summon "the perfect warlord" that ends up being a Summon Everyman Hero spell because the overlord running the show refused to purchase the spell support plan. Possibly subverted: later events suggest that, while Parson is hardly the warlord that Stanley wanted, he is the warlord that Stanley needs.
  • In one Im Not Your Friend strip, this is subverted. Rachel buys an overpriced piece of cardboard that promptly crumbles to dust.
  • In Kid Radd, a couple of flunkies were given ten grand to buy the very best assassin to kill Kid Radd while he's in jail. The flunkies decided to get a discount ninja for twenty bucks and keep the rest. The ninja couldn't hit a broad side of a barn.
  • Schlock Mercenary:
    • This pops up now and again. Trying to cheap out doesn't always pay off in a violent universe.
      Captain Tagon: Commodore, if you wanted us to prop up the faction of your choice you should have put that in the contract.
      UNS Commodore: You might have found our choice... objectionable.
      Captain Tagon: Then we would have asked for more money.
      UNS Commodore: Mercenaries...
      Captain Tagon: You get what you pay for.
    • In the beginning of the "Hand To Mouth" arc, a wealthy merchant's planet is embroiled in civil war, and the military is too busy defending key locations to guard his store.
      Officer: Spend some money and hire help.
      Duke: But all the affordable mercenaries are gone!
      Officer: Actually, most of them are dead. You get what you pay for.
      Duke: Fine. I'll hire the best mercenaries in the galaxy!
      Lemony Narrator: Nope. Go ahead and guess who he hires instead.
    • The rest of the arc becomes an inversion; the Duke overpays the Toughs (The "half-down" was worth three months' payroll) and when he gets killed before the Toughs can arrive, they see no reason to stick around.
  • Something*Positive: A Sleazy Politician is using Mike's Pythagorean persona to attract voters, using out-of-work actors instead of the actual "real-life superheroes". Except he couldn't even be bothered to pay the guy enough to get an actual copy of the costume.
    Politician: What the hell? I gave you money to make a costume like Pythagorean's!
    Actor: And I told you that for ten bucks all I could afford is dry-cleaning my show costume.
  • Tower of God: On the Floor of Test, food costs money for the examinees. The currency is points earned from the exams, so people generally buy the bad food.
  • Twisted Tropes: Wile E. Coyote buys ACME Rocket Skates, a literal rocket tied to a shoe on wheels, instead of the superior Skrockets because it's on sale. After the transition he puts a long negative review on Amazon.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • In an episode spoofing the story of Moses, Lisa and Milhouse escape a badly designed Death Trap, a room with moving walls covered in spikes where the spikes line up to the opposing walls, causing them to stop the whole trap. Lisa notes, "Slave labor. You get what you paid for."
    • Also happens in "30 Minutes Over Tokyo", when the Simpsons, in a fit of super-frugality to save money for a vacation, goes grocery shopping at a 33 Cents store. Homer immediately gets poisoned by a can of plankton from Mexico that expired three years before.
  • Kim Possible:
    • In one episode Dr. Drakken angrily complains about the shortcomings of his henchmen; Shego scoffs at him for being too cheap to hire better ones from Jack Hench.
    • Cheapskate villain Frugal Lucre is even less intimidating than most of the show's villains because of his low-budget operations. For instance, his version of a Shark Pool was a kiddie wading pool full of snapping turtles, all of which retreated into their shells before Kim and Ron had to actually do anything about them.
  • David Van Driessen hired Beavis and Butt-Head to clean his house as a means of teaching them about the value of hard work. They end up destroying his irreplaceable collection of 8-track tapes, but they turn out to be unwittingly giving Van Driessen Laser-Guided Karma when he only pays them a dollar each.
  • In the Justice League episode "Injustice For All" Lex Luthor gathers a group of villains and says he will pay them after defeating the Justice League. When he berates them for failing in their first attempt, the Shade tells Luthor you get what you pay for. In the end Ultra-Humanite betrays the team- since Batman guaranteed double, then triple, what Luthor offered. And came through with a way to further twist the knife into Luthor: a major donation to Public Broadcasting in the Ultra-Humanite's name with recognition given at the end of an opera that drives Luthor nuts.
  • On Rugrats, Stu makes a mechanical dragon for a medieval festival but can't control it. The owner sees the resulting chaos and is told he can't fire Stu, because he's a volunteer. This is his response.
  • In one Goof Troop episode, Peg hires a professional handyman to fix up a house and gives Pete a bunch of money to pay the handyman while she's away, but because Pete spent the money on a new boat he instead hires Goofy to do the job and has to keep the handyman from doing any work so he doesn't have to pay him. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja: In "McSatchle", Viceroy builds a robot with an armor made of McSatchles because they're indestructible. However, Viceroy's boss Hannibal McFist had decided to cut costs by making lower quality zippers and it allowed the Ninja to defeat the robot.
  • The whole plot of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Slice of Life" is kicked off because Cranky hired Derpy to print the wedding invitations at half the price the other printers would charge, resulting in everyone turning up a day early due to a misprinted date. Derpy later admits the only way she could do it so cheaply was by hiring somepony who didn't know how to work a printing press.