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There are over 29,000 dollar stores in the United States, and that number is expected to top 34,000 by 2020. Their popularity is easy to understand. After all, who can’t find something to buy in a store where everything costs just a dollar?
Of course, if you’ve shopped at these retailers you know that being “cheap” doesn’t mean something is a good value. For example, I’ve had dollar store tools literally fall apart the first time I used them.
On the other hand, you can often find high-quality items for 50% less than in other stores. For example, our favorite whole wheat bread costs $3.29 at Safeway, but we pay just (you guessed it) $1.00 for the same brand at the dollar store.
So what should you buy at dollar stores and which items should be avoided? The list below will give you some answers based on what the experts tell Today.com and MoneyTalksNews.com, and based on my own experience as a long-time dollar store shopper.
Things That Are a Good Value at Dollar Stores
An item is a good value if it’s worth the price for the quality and for the amount received. Here are the dollar store items that usually meet these criteria.
1. Small Grooming Items
Hair ties get lost, and even good ones wear out, so why pay more at another store? The same is true for many small grooming items like hair clips and nail files. The quality of dollar store combs varies, so before buying those bend them (if possible) to see how flimsy they are.
2. Vases and Decorative Bowls
Glass, plastic, and metal vases can be found in most dollar stores. They look about the same and function the same as vases that cost three or four times as much at Walmart.
3. Birthday and Greeting Cards
Cards show up on everyone’s list of dollar store items to buy. Why pay several times as much for slightly better paper when it’s the thought that counts?
4. Plastic Storage Containers
Plastic containers are on the list of dollar store items to avoid because they may not be safe for food storage. On the other hand, whether designed for food or not, inexpensive containers are great for organizing and storing cleaning supplies, hardware items and other stuff around the house.
And typically you’ll pay half as much as anywhere else.
Balloons are used once and thrown away, so the level of quality is not terribly important. For a buck you can dress up a birthday party or have a water-balloon fight.
6. Wrapping Paper and Gift Bags
Gift bags are one of the best values at dollar stores. They’re an easy, inexpensive way to present a gift. If you prefer to wrap your gifts, wrapping paper is also a good value, even after accounting for the shortness of the rolls. It just gets thrown away anyhow, so why pay more?
7. Party Decorations and Supplies
Again, why pay more for things that are thrown away after one use. Crepe paper, ribbons, and plastic tablecloths are among the many party decorations found at most dollar stores. Some even carry big mylar balloons that cost $5 elsewhere. You can easily save $20 or more on a party by shopping at the nearest dollar store.
8. Rope and Cordage
Dollar store rope and string is usually low-quality. But it’s still great for many purposes, and cheaper than anything else you’ll find. Perhaps you shouldn’t trust it for tying things on the roof of the car, but if you’re bundling up tree branches in the yard or using it as a cat toy, why pay more?
9. Coloring Books
Kids coloring books for a buck? That’s a good value. But I would avoid the low-quality crayons; you can find better ones cheaper at Walmart during a back-to-school sale.
10. Picture Frames
Different types of picture frames come and go at dollar stores, but I’ve bought nice wooden ones that were priced around $5 each anyplace else I could find them. Apart from appearance, the main thing to look for is a securely-attached bracket or hook for hanging.
11. Dish Towels
Yes, they are low-quality, but at this price you can just throw them out sooner than normal and buy new ones. You’ll still be further ahead. Sometimes they even come in packages of two for a buck. But do a one-dollar test purchase to see if they’re absorbent enough.
This is another low-quality item that’s a decent value. Sure, dollar store plungers may break, but the ones at the hardware store cost $8, so replacing a few cheap ones is not a problem. And in any case, for something that goes in the toilet, I like the idea of more-frequent replacement.
Some cleaning sponges are so poorly made that they’ll shed colored bits of material when you use them. But if you can often find ones that work in dollar stores, and they’re cheaper than anywhere else.
14. Adhesive Tape
The shipping tape is usually functional and much cheaper than at other stores. The duct tape is good for some uses, but is always a low-quality product. Other tapes? It costs just a dollar to test them.
15. Decorative and Craft Items
Every dollar store seems to have bags of glass gems, polished stones, and other decorative craft items. These are typically the exact same products found in other stores for two or three times as much.
The quality is low, but for emergencies or for outdoor patio decor you can stock up cheaply at the dollar store.
There are two types of rug you’ll find. One is made to sell for a dollar, and is of the worst quality. The other type is the frequently-available closeout rugs or carpet samples, and these are of decent quality. They work well for a garage or shed, and I use them when making cat furniture.
If T-shirts could be made to retail for dollar you wouldn’t want them. Fortunately, the ones in dollar stores were probably meant to sell for more and were bought as closeouts. Even if the quality is suspect they make great shirts for painting or doing any dirty work, and they can also be cut up to use as rags.
Our experts say if you can find dollar store socks made with acrylic or spandex they’re usually a good value. The socks for children often come in a package with two pairs, making them an especially good value.
20. Some Frozen Foods
If you don’t trust foods coming from China (I don’t) check the label. But fortunately most frozen foods are domestic, and many dollar stores are starting to carry them. For example, I find wild blueberries from Maine for a third of what they cost anywhere else, and veggie samosas that actually have healthy ingredients.
Headband, dust mask, neck cooler (wet it); bandanas have many uses, and they only sell for a dollar at stores where everything is that price.
22. Basic Cleaners
Specialized cleaners found in dollar stores, like grease removers or those designed to remove calcium, lime and rust, are probably less effective than their more expensive competition, but for basic cleaning go cheap. Whether cleaning counters, floors, windows, or cars, water is doing most of the work anyhow.
23. Flower Pots and Planters
If there is a garden supply store that has flower pots for a dollar, I haven’t seen it. As long as they look good, buy the cheap ones.
24. Plastic Flowers
How do you judge the quality of artificial flowers? Just look at them, and if they look good at the dollar store, buy them. If they wear out or fade faster than others, you’ll still save money after replacing them.
Okay, dollar store silverware can be pretty lightweight. On the other hand, how strong do they need to be? When is the last time you broke a spoon or fork?
Things That Are a Poor Value at Dollar Stores
Some dollar store items are of such low quality that the store owners should be ashamed to sell them. Others are sold in deceptively small amounts, making them actually expensive for what you get. Here are things that usually fit into one or the other category.
1. Medicines and Vitamins
Vitamins and medications show up on many lists of things to avoid at dollar stores. I figure you have to make them for 40 cents to wholesale them for 60 cents to retail them for a dollar, and I don’t trust supplements or medicines made that cheaply. On the other hand, if the store obtains closeouts of known brands with good expiration dates, these products might be okay.
2. Toilet Paper
Several experts have mentioned the low-quality of dollar store toilet paper, and they’re probably right. But even if it was acceptable, the rolls are usually small enough that they’re a poor value even at four rolls for a buck.
The experts may be right about the short life of these cheap batteries. In my experience they go dead extremely fast in a flashlight. But they still make sense for low-power uses like TV remote controls. If they last only half as long as good batteries but cost a fourth as much, I’m saving 50%, right?
Experts point out that the paints and parts used for toys found in dollar stores might not meet safety standards. In my experience these cheap toys break almost immediately, or just don’t work at all.
5. Aluminum Foil and Plastic Wrap
Low quality is a given, but the main thing that makes food wraps a poor value at dollar stores is the shortness of the rolls. For a better value just buy these products on sale at the supermarket.
6. Plastic Food Containers and Implements
Reports suggest that most dollar store items contain toxic substances. That might be okay for a cheap flower pot, but not so much for something in which you put your food. “Crazy straws” were one of the items found to have heavy metal contamination, and you might also want to avoid plastic serving spoons, spatulas, and such.
7. Pet Food
The lack of standards is what experts object to with dollar store pet food. Creating anything to sell for a dollar might involve unhealthy shortcuts, and the size of those pet food bags is another issue. Often they cost as much or more per-pound than larger bags found at the supermarket.
8. Electrical Cords and Devices
Low quality and sometimes dangerous — that’s the expert opinion on extension cords, power strips and other electrical devices found at dollar stores. The last time I bought an extension cord it was also shorter than advertised.
I’m sometimes tempted to buy cheap tools, but the first time I used a dollar store screwdriver the screw didn’t move much and the tip of the driver twisted into a spiral. Tools are one of the worst values in these stores.
10. School Supplies
Notebooks, pens, rulers, and other school supplies are always of low-quality at dollar stores. On top of that, all of these items can be bought for much less if you wait for back-to-school sales at Office Max, Walmart, Target, and other retailers.
What About the Rest?
The lists above cover only a fraction of what dollar stores sell, so what about the other things you’ll find there? With most items the quality and value vary a lot from store to store.
For example, I recently bought dollar store garbage bags that fell apart if they were half-full. But when I bought some at another dollar store they were even better than many name-brand trash bags.
Try to check out potential purchases in the store, as much as possible. If you’re still not sure, remember that you can take a product home to test it for just one dollar.
And don’t be afraid to return things. Even the lowest-priced item should still do what it’s supposed to do or be what it’s supposed to be.
Tell us what you buy at dollar stores, and what you avoid buying there… and keep on frugaling!