How to Beat the "Pink Tax" When You Shop

Getting that pink bike could mean a big markup
••• Stewart Cohen/Pam Ostrow/Getty Images

The "Pink Tax" can't be found in any federal or state tax code, and you won't have to grapple with it when you do your taxes. But this "tax" still costs women nearly $1,400 a year, according to research conducted by the State of California.

If you aren’t familiar, the pink tax is a term for the fact that products and services marketed to women routinely carry higher price tags than similar products for men. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) conducted a survey that looked at nearly 800 products with clearly defined female and male versions. On average, women’s products cost 7 percent more.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. It actually dates back to the 19th century, when tariffs for certain women’s products were higher, says Michael Cone, a trade lawyer who specializes in this pricing phenomenon. He explains that this was also a time when women were discouraged (sometimes prohibited) from pursuing careers and, instead, encouraged to focus on keeping up their homes—which involved doing the shopping.

Marketers saw an opportunity. “The women are the ones buying—let’s start marketing directly to them and add a premium on that,” says Cone.

Fast forward to when women comprise 47 percent of the workforce, and nearly 40 percent of women outearn their male spouses, and the markup on women's items is still in full effect. And since there’s no federal law prohibiting the markup, the only way to avoid it is to use your consumer smarts. “I think we can educate [the public] and the marketers will follow based on where the money is going,” says Christine Whelan, director of the Money, Relationships & Equality initiative at the University of Wisconsin–Madison"If women stop buying products that they don’t see a value in, because they’re higher-priced and pink, marketers will stop making them or [produce] fewer of them.”

Using DCA’s data, here’s a breakdown of how the pink tax affects your wallet—and how you can use this information to save.

Personal Care Products: 13 percent more.

The worst offenders are shampoos and conditioners, razors and razor cartridges, lotions, body washes, shaving creams and deodorants. For your razors and refill cartridges, walk over to the men’s aisle and start shopping there. “A razor is a razor, regardless if it’s in the blue plastic or pink plastic,” says Whelan. The research looked at razor products with similar features (i.e. the number of blades) and the average price for women’s razors is $8.90, compared with $7.99 for men. Even worse, women’s average price for refills is $17.30, compared with $15.61 for men.

Hair care products (which cost women 48 percent more), washes, lotions, creams, and deodorants can be trickier to buy. As the labels attest, they serve different purposes with different active ingredients (i.e. one shampoo offers volume and another offers shine) and also come in different scents and sizes. If you’re looking for the most savings on all of the above, then go for whichever generic or store brand is cheaper, says Whelan. In some cases, women's products might be cheaper than men's products. It also helps to compare the unit (or per-ounce) pricing, says Jenn Steele, director of product marketing at Indix, a firm that gathers data on consumer products. She suggests shopping with your smartphone calculator in hand if the store's price tags don't offer unit pricing information.

This is particularly true when it comes to deodorant, where different sizes make price comparisons difficult. And with deodorant, the price difference can often come down to smell, so go fragrance-free—or check the cheaper men's deodorant for scents you might like.

Home Healthcare Products: 8 percent more

The research found average price differences on a variety of healthcare products. Women’s supports and braces cost an average of $4.74 more, canes $2.33 more, and urinals $2.00 more. Women pay more for some medicines, too—a cost you may be able to avoid. “In some products, the medicine in them is portioned out for women’s body sizes,” says Whelan. “Laxatives, for one, are one you need to be careful with. Women weigh less than men, on average, and you don’t want to take more medicine than you need.” With medicine and supplements, look at the active ingredients and the amounts in them. You may be able to buy a cheaper men’s version and cut the dosage.

Clothing: 8 percent more

Clothes are hard, says Whelan. “I’m not going to argue a white t-shirt is a white t-shirt because they’re cut differently.” To find savings opportunities, she suggests thinking about the basics you don’t care about, like socks, pajamas, or certain workout gear. With dry cleaning—which one survey found cost women an average $2 more per shirt—both Whelan and Steele say there are many pieces of women’s clothing that say, “Dry Clean Only" that can, in fact, be hand-washed. Google the material and see what your options are.

And if you’re the type of consumer who takes clothes in bulk to the dry cleaner a few times a year, ask for a bulk discount.

Toys: 7 percent more

Many stores have an aisle that’s clearly for girls. (It's easy to spot because it’s pink.) “I never go down that aisle,” says Steele. The numbers bear out that strategy: When the DCA priced the same scooters in different colors, it found that the pink scooter cost $49.99, while the red scooter cost just $24.99.

Steele says the easiest way to comparison shop is online. “On Amazon, you can flip the colors and see the prices change,” she says. And when shopping for newborns and babies, stay away from the pinks and blues entirely to save money, she says—your infant won't care what color her bib is.

And even for older children, don't dismiss the possibility of buying gender-neutral toys, which Whelan says she does for her girls. When they ask for the more expensive girls’ product, she explains that the boys’ product is cheaper and that a less pricey option would be to buy it and decorate it at home.

With Kelly Hultgren