Once best known as the lowly place where novelty pencils and off-brand soaps went to die, the ubiquitous dollar store has reinvented itself to appeal to a wider range of bargain-seeking shoppers. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 76 percent of women said they’d checked out a dollar store in the past year. “They have been growing rapidly not only because consumers love the feeling of getting a great deal, but also because the dollar store brands have been increasing their offerings and private label products—helping them to compete with big box stores,” says Sarah Platte, consumer savings expert at PromotionalCodes.com. In other words, the buck business is booming.
Of course, the trick is to remember that just because you’re shopping in a dollar store doesn’t mean every item is truly worth a buck (or more, since some of the stores sell products that actually cost more than a dollar). “It’s important to go in with your eyes open,” says Jeff Yeager, author of a number of books including The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches ($13, amazon.com). So before you go charging down the aisles with your cart and a sense of reckless abandon, arm yourself with expert tips on what’s a real deal and what’s a real dud when it comes to dollar store buys.
2 of 13Tara Donne
Party Supplies: Buy
Once you’ve selected your party theme, the dollar store should be your first stop in bringing it to life. You can save 70 percent on plastic tablecloths and more than 30 percent on party plates, according to Platte. Mylar helium balloons can also be had for a song. Add in the fact that these items already aren’t intended to be durable (after all, how often do you reuse party tablecloths, plates, and balloons?), and you’ve got an official deal on your hands.
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Newsflash: “A Consumer Reports study found that spending more money on expensive shampoo doesn’t actually help your hair,” says Platte. So you can feel good about saving up to 33 percent at the dollar store—where you’ll find brand names like L’Oreal and Pantene on the shelves these days. Note: If you opt for a generic brand of shampoo instead, the smell of the product won’t be as strong as what you might be used to with the big-name brands.
4 of 13Mikkel Vang
Cleaning Products: Buy
You probably won’t find high-end eco-friendly cleaning supplies at your local dollar store, but when it comes to regular household cleaning products, feel free to stock up. Yeager explains that the generic products are made up of similar chemicals as name brands, so quality levels will be comparable. The generic brands may be a bit more diluted, but when you’re saving 50 percent or more, you can afford to use an extra drop or two of product to compensate.
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This isn’t the place to pick up exotic spices when you’re tackling global cuisine, but if you’re looking to stock up on basics like cinnamon or chili powder, you’ll find a solid value (a giant container for a buck is actually comparable to bulk pricing at a bigger store). “Sometimes I have to put a little more spice on to get the flavor I want, but it’s still a good deal,” says Yeager.
6 of 13Mark Lund/Getty Images
Picture Frames: Buy
Whether you’re snagging them for your own home or as a gift, frames are a definite deal at the dollar store. They’re not as high quality as pricier options you’d find elsewhere, but they’re just as attractive, Yeager points out. Platte suggests dressing them up even further by spray-painting them yourself. (In fact, dollar stores are a great place to stock up for DIY craft-type projects in general—think beads and apothecary bottles.)
7 of 13Wendell T. Webber
Greeting Cards: Buy
The paper quality is going to be a bit lower, but you can save $2 to $4 per greeting card, according to Platte. And the selection should cover just about every major occasion.
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Paper Products: Skip
This is one area where you truly get what you pay for. “The quality really is cheap—the napkins shred and the paper towels fall apart,” says Yeager. You can often find better prices on paper products in grocery stores, anyway.
9 of 13James Baigrie
When it comes to knives, the dollar-store offerings tend to be flimsy, dull, and quick to decline in quality. Since that makes it much easier to hurt yourself while slicing and dicing, this is a definitely one item to avoid. After all, compromising your safety is never worth saving a few extra bucks.
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The bottom line? Soda can nearly always be found cheaper elsewhere. There’s no need to get excited over buying one liter for a dollar when you can score two liters on sale for that same dollar at the supermarket. Just stay tuned into the sales at your favorite grocery store and stock up then for a better value. Tip: Soda is most frequently on sale around big sporting events and long weekends, so keep an eye out for sales during those times.
11 of 13Michael J. Hipple/Getty Images
Pet Food: Skip
Dollar stores typically stock knock-off brands of pet food. “They don’t use as high a quality of ingredients, and they may make your pets sick,” says Platte. To help keep Fluffy and Rover completely happy and healthy, don’t skimp on pet food—stick with the name brands at larger stores.
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Plastic Wrap: Skip
Dollar-store plastic wrap doesn’t actually cling, so it doesn’t do the one job it’s meant to do, says Yeager. So not only is there no value in the purchase, there’s really no point in it, either. Definitely look elsewhere for your plastic-wrapping needs.
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Oven Mitts: Skip
This is another item that boils down to safety first. The oven mitts found at dollar stores are usually poorly constructed and are thinner—which puts you at a higher risk of getting burned (literally and figuratively). File this one under not-worth-the-savings, and move on to get thicker, better-constructed mitts at a big box store. Your hands will certainly thank you later.