The Ultimate Affordable Watch Buying Guide

This guide will help you maximize your budget and get great value for your money.

Buying a watch can be a bit overwhelming. Typing watches into Amazon gets 30,000 results. 

It’s great to have so many options, but there is such a thing as too much choice, and it makes consumers anxious. 

You’re not alone in wondering how to navigate through the sheer volume of watches and their range of prices.  

When I wanted to buy my first watch years ago, all the options overwhelmed me too. 

So much so that after looking online for a watch, I decided to wait to buy one. I felt like I needed to learn more so I could make an educated decision.

Since then, I’ve spent countless hours learning about watches. 

I’ve distilled everything I’ve learned into this guide. That way, you don’t feel overwhelmed while shopping, or worse yet, end up with buyer’s remorse. 

Let’s get started!

Watch Basics You Need to Know First

If you want to buy a great watch, you need to understand a bit of watch jargon. 

Don’t worry… this isn’t going to be a deep dive into complex watch mechanics. 

Consider this a basic mini crash course. 

With this knowledge, you’ll be able to know what watch descriptions and specs are telling you and what it all means. 

Okay, let’s start with the most fundamental aspect of a watch, its movement.

Watch Movements

A watch’s movement is a little engine inside it that keeps the hands moving around the watch’s dial or face. 

There are two main types of movements, mechanical and quartz. 

There are also two types of mechanical movements, manual and automatic. 

Mechanical Movements

Mechanical movements have been developed over hundreds of years.  

They consist of a series of springs, gears, and other components that together move the watch’s hands. 

When you think about an antique clock’s inner workings, most likely, what you’re picturing is a mechanical movement. 

These movements don’t have batteries inside them, and they must be wound up to work.

A manual mechanical movement is wound by hand by turning the knob, called the crown, on the side of the watch case. 

An automatic mechanical movement, on the other hand, gets wound while you wear it. 

A small piece inside, called a rotor, spins when you move your wrist and winds it up throughout the day. In general, these are more convenient. 

Pros Of Mechanical Movements

  • No need to change a battery
  • They are made with a high level of craftsmanship
  • They have a sweeping second hand, rather than a hard tick every second
  • They are interactive, especially a manual wind watch

Cons of Mechanical Movements

  • They are not as accurate as quartz watches, varying between +/-4 and +/-12 seconds a day
  • They’re sensitive to physical shocks and magnetism
  • They are more expensive than quartz
  • You have to service them around every 5 to 8 years

Quartz Movements

A quartz movement is much less complex than a mechanical one. 

These movements have a battery that sends electricity to a small quartz crystal. 

The electricity makes the crystal vibrate rapidly. This vibration is converted to an electrical pulse that moves the second hand. 

Quartz movements have been adapted to use solar energy and kinetic energy, too.

A Citizen Eco-drive watch is a solar-driven quartz movement. Seiko has pioneered a kinetic, or automatic, quartz watch that charges a capacitor while you wear it. 

Pros of a Quartz Watch

  • Very accurate
  • Able to withstand jolts and magnetism
  • Inexpensive

Cons of a Quartz Watch

  • You have to replace the battery in most models about every 2 or 3 years
  • Less interesting and lack the charm and heritage of mechanical movements
  • They are easy to manufacture, resulting in a ton of cheap, low-quality watches flooding the market

Watch Crystals

A watch’s crystal is the clear covering that protects the dial. There are three types of watch crystals used in watches: plastic, mineral, and sapphire.

Plastic crystals include plexiglass, acrylic, and hesalite. These crystals are the least scratch-resistant of the options available. 

They do have their advantages, though. They are less likely to shatter, and you can buff out very light scratches easily. 

Mineral crystals are a step above plastic for scratch resistance. They include some proprietary glasses, like Seiko’s Hardlex. 

Mineral crystals come in many low to mid-range watches and are very common. Unfortunately, you can’t polish out minor scratches in a mineral crystal, and they can shatter. 

Sapphire Crystals are the best option for scratch resistance. They’re almost as hard as diamond. 

These crystals are highly reflective, though. Because of this, they usually come with anti-reflective treatments to cut down glare when looking at the watch outside on a sunny day. 

Water Resistance

The water resistance rating in watch specs is a bit misleading. 

If you see a water-resistant watch rated 30 meters, you would think you can take it swimming as long as you don’t go deeper than 98 feet. 

Nope, you could actually ruin the watch in a kiddie pool. Let’s look at why this is.

The first thing you should know is that a watch’s water resistance rating is given in meters, bars, or ATM (atmospheric pressure). A bar and ATM is equal to 10 meters or 32.8 feet. 

Typically, you’ll see water resistance ratings of 30, 50, 100, and 200 meters. 

Manufacturers test this resistance in static environments. That means they are not tested on someone doing the backstroke. 

When you swim or do most water activities, you move your arms in the water. This creates pressure and vacuums around the watch. These forces aren’t part of the testing they do. 

So, what does the rating actually translate to in real life? See below:

  • No Water Resistance: Don’t let it get wet at all
  • 30 Meters/3 Bar/3 ATM: Splash resistant, no swimming
  • 50 Meters/5 Bar/5 ATM: Light swimming possible, but not recommended
  • 100 Meters/10 Bar/10 ATM: Fine for swimming, but not deep-sea diving
  • 200 Meter/20 Bar/20 ATM: Fine for diving

Watch Complications

A watch complication is an extra feature or piece of information a watch provides apart from the time. 

There are a lot of different complications available, and some watches pack many into a single model. There are a few common ones you’ll see in watches at almost all price ranges. 

The most common watch complication is the date. These show the date in a small window, called an aperture, on the dial. This can also include the day and the date in some watches. Some even feature the month of the year. 

A chronograph is another common complication you’ll see. These have two or three sub-dials on the main dial and one or two buttons, called pushers, on the case. This is basically a stopwatch function built into the watch. 

These can be combined with a tachymeter. A tachymeter is a scale around the bezel, or rim around the watch dial, that can calculate speed or distance traveled. 

Some other complications you might encounter are GMT watches for telling time in different timezones, tourbillons, and moon phase complications. 

Main Watch Styles

There are a few main popular watch styles. Once you know these, you’ll be able to visually categorize the majority of watches made for men and women. 

Most watches fall into the dress, sports, and casual styles. Sports watches include tool watches, which are made to be used for specific activities. 

These distinctions are not black and white, and there is overlap. You can wear some sport watches, for example, with formal or casual attire. 

Dress Watches

Dress watches are made for more formal wear or business attire. These are elegant and classic timepieces featuring simple designs. 

Typically, they will have thin cases of stainless steel, gold, or platinum and be worn with leather straps or metal bracelets. 

The dials on these watches are modest, and they usually don’t have many complications. 

They will usually have roman numeral numbers on the dial or no numbers at all.

Sport Watches

Sports watches are durable, water-resistant enough to swim, and are easy to read. You can wear them during recreational activities. 

In this category are some specialized watches and styles known as tool watches. These include dive watches, pilot watches, racing watches, and field watches. 

The Dive Watch 

The dive watch was developed as a tool for deep-sea divers. 

These watches have large bezels that you can use to time a dive. They also have water-resistance of at least 100 meters, with most having double that. 

They feature illuminated indices (the hour markers), screw-down crowns to keep water out, and metal bracelets or rubber straps. 

The Pilot Watch

Pilot watches were developed for airplane pilots. These watches tend to be large, have contrasting dial and indices, and are easy to read. 

They typically feature a triangle at the 12 mark, large crowns, and good lumination on the hands and indices. 

They sometimes have a chronograph and other complications for helping pilots make calculations. 

The Racing Watch

A racing watch is inspired by motorsports. They tend to be on the larger side and have chronographs. Many have a tachymeter scale bezel, too. 

With a tachymeter, you can figure out the speed of something or distance traveled. Check out this post on how to use a tachymeter.

They’re usually a little flashy, with designs incorporating racing motifs. They also tend to have rally straps: leather or rubber straps with perforations. 

The Field Watch

These watches were born out of necessity in wartime. They’re on the smaller side, have contrasting, easy-to-read dials, and usually have the hours marked in military time. 

They’re generally water-resistant to at least 50 meters. Most also have a hacking feature, which stops the second hand when you pull the crown out to set a precise time. 

They almost always come on fabric NATO or leather straps. 

Casual Watches

Casual watches are a bit of an ambiguous style and kind of a catch-all. A casual watch is a watch that is worn with casual attire. 

They would look out of place with a suit or formal gown. These are everyday watches and may not have water resistance over 30 meters, complications, or luminous hands. 

Your Desires and Needs

Now that you have a good idea of some of your options, the next step is to find something that fits your lifestyle and covers your needs. 

This is especially true if you are looking for one watch that can cover almost every occasion. 

There are many reasons you might want a watch.

Perhaps you’re looking for a fashion accessory that is in line with a current trend. 

If that’s the case, you might not be concerned with the mechanics, specs, or brand. You would be okay with a low-cost, casual watch with quartz movement. 

Fashion brands like Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, and Fossil make on-trend, fashion-forward watches. 

Just keep in mind that they can be overpriced for what you get. If you’re not hung up on the name, you can find similar designs with better value for the money. 

Of course, if you like the name and the look, buy the watch that you want!

If fashion isn’t what you’re after, but you’re still concerned with image, you may want an elegant dress or sports watch. 

You might want to stand out in business meetings or at the country club but not drop thousands on a luxury watch. 

Don’t worry. There are a lot of great options for well under $1,000. Many are made by Swiss, German, and Japanese brands with heritage and quality that’ll impress. 

Maybe you have a physical or dirty job. If so, your primary concern will be finding a robust, water-resistant watch. 

In that case, you’ll want a watch designed to be shock-resistant and durable, like G-shock or the Victorinox I.N.O.X. 

You’ll most likely want to opt for a quartz watch, too, because they’re less delicate than mechanical ones. 

If you like the idea of having a precise piece of engineering on your wrist and the history and heritage that it carries, a mechanical watch from an established brand is what you’re after. 

Luckily, there are plenty of affordable mechanical options for you to choose from.

Getting the Most for Your Money

Okay, now you’re educated on watch terminology and know what you need or want. So, let’s talk about your budget and how to identify a quality watch in your price range. 

The last thing you want to do is blow your rent money on an overpriced watch just to find out you could have gotten better value for your money.

Your Budget

You should set a firm budget for your new watch. I definitely don’t recommend going into debt to buy a watch.

If you can’t afford a Rolex unless you max out your credit cards, sell your car, stiff your landlord, and eat ramen for every meal for months, don’t do it! 

There are a ton of great options available for under $1,000, $500, or even the $200. 

A lot of quality brands offer affordable quartz, mechanical, and smartwatches options. 

You can still get a Swiss-made watch for under $200. You can get an automatic watch with a reputable Japanese movement for under $150. 

Explore this website for a bit, and you’ll see there are many options that won’t break the bank. 

Also, If you really want to maximize your value for the money you have, take a good look at the specs of the watch you’re eying up. 

In some cases, the brands doing the most marketing or using a fashion designer’s name on the dial are made from low-quality materials. 

Let’s take a look at what to keep an eye out for in the specs. 

Signs of Quality in a Watch

There are some common specs that most manufacturers provide on their websites or product listing. 

These are the case material, the type of crystal, and the type of movement. 

A sapphire crystal is a good sign that a watchmaker is not cutting corners. This is one of the main places that some watch manufacturers skimp on materials. 

It’s not a deal-breaker to buy a watch with mineral or plastic crystals, especially in lower-cost options. 

If you can afford the step up to sapphire, though, it would be worth it in the long run. 

The case, and if possible, the bracelet should be made from stainless steel, titanium, or precious metals like gold or platinum. 

Most watch manufacturers do use stainless steel, but it’s good to check. 

Many don’t list the type of stainless steel they use, but 304L is the most common. Manufacturers may use 316L, which is a better grade that’s more resistant to corrosion. 

You should also consider what type of movement is being used to determine if the watch is of good quality. 

This is a bit tricker, though, because, in most cases, the listing will say quartz or automatic and not much else. 

Sometimes they will say the manufacturer or whether it’s a Swiss or Japanese movement. Look for a Japanese, German, or Swiss movement, if possible.

A brand’s reputation should also be considered.

Many established watch manufacturers have been around for over 100 years. Their track record on quality is established. 

I would opt for a brand with a heritage over a brand I’ve never heard of or one that happens to be dominating my social media feed. 

Also, you’ll see that classic brands tend to offer similar specs at lower prices than the startups with big marketing budgets. 

Sizing and Straps

One final point to cover before pulling the trigger on your next watch is how to choose a size that works for your wrist. 

I’ll also touch on how straps and bracelets should factor into your buying decision. 

Watch Sizing

Watches come in many different case sizes (measured in millimeters). How they look on you will depend on the size of your wrist. 

You might find a watch you like based on looks, but when you get it, it’s enormous on your wrist, uncomfortable, and gets in the way. 

The opposite can happen too. Maybe you didn’t realize the watch you bought was so small and looks tiny on you. 

So, before you buy, you should measure your wrist to see what sizes will work for you.

I wrote a post about watch sizes and how to measure your wrist that covers everything you need to know to find a size that’ll look good on you.

Straps and Bracelets

Something that many first-time watch buyers don’t realize is that watch straps and bracelets aren’t permanent. 

There is a huge selection of straps and bracelets available to buy for your new watch. 

In fact, it’s a big part of the fun of watch ownership to be able to switch out a strap and get a totally different look.

If you like a watch but don’t like the strap, don’t let it stop you from buying it. You can always pick up a different strap. 

The same is true for a bracelet. If you want a leather strap, but the watch comes with a bracelet, you can buy a leather strap and switch between them when you want a different look.

Next Steps

Now you have a pretty thorough idea of everything you need to keep in mind when looking for a watch. 

You have a basic understanding of watch terminology and some of the popular styles. You also know what to look for to get the best value for your money. 

The next step is to really nail down your budget. 

As you can probably tell, you don’t need to spend a lot to get a great watch; you just need to be a savvy shopper. 

When you’ve set a threshold for your spending, you can narrow down your options quite a bit. 

Before you jump in and buy, though, I recommend looking at the other articles in the Watch 101 category

Getting a bit more knowledge about the types of watches and the types of watch complications will help you narrow things down even more. 

Once you have your budget and know what you’re looking for in a watch, the rest is easy!