Which low-cost refrigerators are the best? That can be hard to discern even from reviews. Consumers often post comments after owning a refrigerator for only a short period, and there is often disparity between testing-site recommendations and user feedback. Refrigerators also are revamped or renamed frequently, so by the time a model has accumulated a respectable number of reviews or undergone formal testing, it already may be near the end of its run.
Still, reviews on several sites pointed us to cheap refrigerators that perform well in home use. We looked at expert sources including Consumer Reports, The Sweethome, Reviewed.com, and CNET, where reviewers test the products and are more comparative and systematic than consumers in their analyses.
User reviews are worth considering, however, as they provide a snapshot of real-world conditions, and also because budget models rarely attract the attention of expert testers. A good example of this is the Amana ABB1921BRW — a basic bottom-freezer fridge that buyers commend but experts ignore. We found that consumers are particularly satisfied with models that are reliable, regulate temperature consistently, and provide adequate storage space. One area of discontent with low-cost refrigerators is noise; a notable number of reviews grumble about annoying dings or odd sounds.
Experts recommend purchasing a fridge with capacity of 4 to 6 cubic feet of fresh storage for each adult in the household. Budget, top-freezer models typically provide total capacity (refrigerator plus freezer) of 14 to 22 cubic feet. The handle-less LG LTCS24223W offers a market-leading 23.8 cubic feet, well beyond most other top-freezer models. At the other end of the spectrum among top-freezer refrigerators is the Whirlpool WRT314TFDW (starting at $495), with only a modest 14.3 cubic feet. This compact refrigerator is an efficient fit for a garage and might also appeal to consumers looking for an apartment-size refrigerator.
Bottom-freezer refrigerators, including bottom-freezer French door refrigerators, run larger, generally boasting 18 to 25 cubic feet. In the Cheapism price range, however, the offerings among bottom-freezer refrigerators cluster at the lower end. Our top picks, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW and Amana ABB1921BRW, offer 18.7 and 18 cubic feet of storage, respectively. Most buyers consider this sufficient, saying the convenient design helps maximize the available storage.
Side-by-sides offer a little more capacity for the money: Our top pick, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP, boasts 25.5 cubic feet while the runner-up Whirlpool WRS322FDAW has 21.2 cubic feet. But consider how usable the space is. Some comments we found dismiss the side-by-side Kenmore 50022 for too much freezer space devoted to the ice maker while Reviewed.com deems the cavity and freezer shelves too narrow.
For the most part, reviews indicate that buyers are happy with the storage space in budget-priced refrigerators. The 20.2-cubic-foot LG LTCS20220W finds favor with users for spacious shelving, as does its larger sibling, the LG LTCS24223W. The latter also has a dedicated deli drawer, a feature reviewers on Home Depot particularly like. Consumers are thrilled with the three drawers in our top-ranked bottom-freezer model, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW; one or two drawers is more typical in this price range.
Door storage can also increase, or decrease, a refrigerator's appeal. Space for gallon-size jugs in the door is a popular design feature on Amana ABB1921BRW because it frees up the wide shelves for other items. On the Insignia NS-RTM18WH7, the deep in-door bins for quick-access storage attract complaints in some reviews at Best Buy, which describe them as flimsy and prone to breaking.
Like the Kenmore 50022, the side-by-side Whirlpool WRS322FDAW draws some complaints for limited freezer space due an ice maker that hogs real estate in a section that is already narrower by design.
Frills aren't expected in this price range — don't look for fancy add-ons like a wine rack, quick-freeze drawer, or LCD display — so reviewers are often pleasantly surprised by little extras such as upgraded lighting or shelving. Some entry-level models feature wire shelves instead of glass, but even the cheapest model we researched, the Whirlpool WRT314TFDW, confines wire shelving to the freezer compartment. Glass is preferable because it's more stable and limits spillage.
Interior lighting in the refrigerator section is standard, but some models go one better with lighting in the freezer, as well. Of the models we recommend, the side-by-side Frigidaire FFSS2614QP provides incandescent lighting in both compartments, and the LG LTCS20220W and Whirlpool WRS322FDAW come with LED lights in both spots. Users seem to prefer brighter LED lighting over incandescent, according to reviews, and LED bulbs last longer.
The models in the lower half of our price range often lack ice makers, although most can be fitted with compatible ice makers at a later time. Refrigerators priced closer to $1,000 typically come with ice makers, and some even have in-door ice and water dispensers. That's the case with all the side-by-sides on our list. This "bonus" isn't without its headaches, however. Not only can the ice maker take up significant space, but some owners of the Whirlpool WRS322FDAW complain that ice is more likely to end up on the kitchen floor than in a cup. More concerning, consumer and appliance experts report that refrigerators with ice makers tend to have more problems than those without. Still, many reviewers like this convenience and are willing to pay a little more for it in a refrigerator made by one of the top brands.
The primary function of any refrigerator/freezer combo is keeping fresh food cold and frozen food colder. Indeed, most consumers seem pleased with the climate control of the inexpensive models on our list. Our favorite side-by-side and top-freezer models, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP and LG LTCS20220W, respectively, draw high marks for overall performance but only ho-hum assessments for temperature uniformity. We found no expert temperature tests for our preferred bottom-freezer model, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW, but reviews on Home Depot express few complaints in this regard. The more expensive French door Samsung RF18HFENBWW rated highest in expert tests of the models we researched for this performance factor.
Notably, one side-by-side we researched, the Kenmore 50022, receives less-than-glowing scores from the experts. Testers at Reviewed.com found too much temperature fluctuation, freezer temperatures that run a tad high, and a loss of humidity in the crisper drawers. One top-freezer model that's also consigned to the bottom of our list, the Frigidaire FGTR1845QP, draws fire for excessive ice buildup in the freezer, as noted in user reviews posted on retailer AJ Madison's site. An expert from CNET also faults the model for drawers and door storage that tend to run warm.
Budget-priced refrigerators often are dinged for noise. The sound is merely the compressor cycling on, but loud or unusual noise may signal a problem such as a poorly functioning compressor, insufficient insulation, or an overactive ice maker. Although more than one user chides the noise police — noting that a refrigerator is a machine, after all — two of our top picks, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP and Whirlpool WRB119WFBW, are subject to more than a few noise complaints. Close to 70 reviews on Best Buy knock the Frigidaire for this irritant, with several mentioning clicking or knocking sounds from the ice maker and others reporting that the hum of the compressor is too noticeable. One owner of the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW grouses in a review on Home Depot that this side-by-side has turned his home into an "industrial environment."
Unless noise complaints are especially frequent, take them with a grain of salt — what is loud and jarring to one reviewer is a quiet drone to another. Buyers who are particularly concerned about noise can look for models that have been vetted by experts for quiet operation. Our No. 1 top-freezer pick, the LG LTCS20220W, fares quite well in this dimension, according to testers. Two models that stand in the higher reaches of our price range, the Samsung RF18HFENBWW and LG LTCS24223W, also score excellent marks for humming along softly.
An energy-efficient refrigerator is environmentally friendly and can lead to significant cost savings over time. Refrigerators with Energy Star certification — those that generate energy savings of at least 20 percent over the minimum federal standard — often cost slightly more up front but yield savings in the monthly utility bill that should eventually offset the higher price. Additionally, consumers may be eligible for rebates from the local energy company just for buying an Energy Star appliance.
Among the best low-cost models we researched with Energy Star certification are the top-freezer LG LTCS20220W and LG LTCS24223W and side-by-side Whirlpool WRB119WFBW. The Insignia NS-RTM18WH7 also comes with an Energy Star, but that may be one of the few things that recommends it.
The warranty coverage period on most cheap refrigerators, even those from top brands, is surprisingly short — many come with limited warranties of just one year on parts and labor. Some manufacturers offer longer warranties on the sealed systems within these appliances (compressors, evaporators, condensers, etc.). Both the LG models we researched and the more expensive French door Samsung unit have warranties that cover the compressor for up to a decade. Whirlpool guarantees the compressor and all parts of the sealed refrigeration system on the WRB119WFBW model for up to five years.
Consumers worried about purchasing a model with the standard one-year warranty should breathe a bit easier knowing that the average lifespan of a refrigerator from one of the top brands is about 10 to 14 years. While some models, like the Insignia NS-RTM18WH7, seem to have bins and plastic parts more prone to breakage, reports of full meltdowns are fairly rare. There are also several steps consumers can take to help to maximize the life of a refrigerator.