I’ve always been a dollar-store shopper, but I never bought food there.
Then our local dollar store started carrying the exact same brand of whole wheat bread I normally buy for $2.49. It might be two days closer to the expiration date, but not past it. So now I save $1.49 on every loaf of bread.
But you have to be careful. I once bought a screwdriver at a dollar store and it fell to pieces the first time I used it.
So what should you buy at dollar stores, and what should you avoid?
Buy These Dollar Store Items
Why pay more when you don’t have to?
1. Greeting Cards
Everyone seems to agree on this one. Why pay several dollars for a card when you can get it for a buck?
Socks in dollar stores are often of decent quality, and the kids’ socks sometimes come two pairs to a package, making them much cheaper than most other stores.
The experts say to look for socks made with acrylic or spandex for comfort.
You can include decorative bowls, too. The dollar-store versions are about the same as the cheapest vases in other stores, which will typically run you $3 or more.
I’ve found decent vases made of glass and plastic in dollar stores.
4. Gift Bags and Wrapping Paper
Gift bags cost more everyplace else, and they’re going to be thrown away anyhow. I wouldn’t buy them anywhere else.
Wrapping paper is usually a good deal too, but the rolls are short.
5. Party Supplies
Once again, we’re talking about disposable items. Why pay twice as much for streamers and plastic tablecloths, or five times as much for Mylar balloons?
A trip to the dollar store can easily save you $20 if you’re planning a party.
6. Grooming Items
Hair ties and bobby pins eventually get lost, so why pay more for them?
Some name-brand shampoos show up in dollar stores too, for half of what they normally sell for.
But if you buy combs, avoid the flimsy ones in packages of 10 or more — I bent one the first time I used it.
7. Some Food
I don’t trust generic imported food yet, but now I’ll buy well-known brands I’ve seen elsewhere, and that bread saves me some serious cash.
Still, make careful comparisons; many canned foods actually cost less at regular grocery stores.
8. Picture Frames
My wife and I have pictures on our walls in wooden frames we bought at a dollar store. The same frames cost $5 or more in any other store where we’ve seen them.
Just check to be sure the bracket or hook for hanging is securely attached.
9. Storage Containers
You’ll find buy food storage containers on the “don’t buy” list below, but for storing cleaning supplies, hardware items and many other things, I use plastic tubs and containers from the dollar store.
They cost at least twice as much in most other stores.
10. Some Kitchenware
Yeah, dollar store silverware is flimsy, but still, how would I break a fork or a spoon?
Drinking glasses are a good deal too.
What Else Should You Buy at the Dollar Store?
Considering only things that save me at least 50% and have worked just fine, here are some other things I buy at the dollar store:
11. Rope and twine, for uses that don’t require high-quality tying
12. Kids’ coloring books, but not the low-quality crayons
13. Bags of balloons, good for water balloons and party decorations
14. Bandanas, for various uses
15. Candles, for emergencies
16. Dish towels, in two-packs. They wear out quickly, but it’s still worth it
17. Plungers: Throw them away when they break; you get seven for the price of one.
18. Cleaning supplies: Some are OK, and they’re much cheaper.
19. Sponges, for cleaning other than dishes
20. Duct tape: It’s low-quality, but perfect for some uses.
Don’t Buy These Dollar Store Items
Here’s when it’s not worth the savings.
With some exceptions, most dollar store toys are low quality and will break quickly, if they work at all.
Some experts also say that parts and paints used for dollar store toys might not meet standards for safety.
The experts say the battery life is so short that you’re better off getting batteries elsewhere.
They’re mostly right, but I’ll buy batteries at a dollar store for uses where I don’t need much power, like remote controls. I figure they last half as long but cost a fourth as much, so it still makes sense.
3. Medications and Vitamins
These show up on many “don’t buy” lists for dollars stores. I wouldn’t trust any supplements or drugs that are made for this market.
One exception is aspirin from a known brand, but often the containers are so small that you might be paying more per pill than you would at the drug store.
4. Paper Products
It is tempting to pick up that four-roll package of toilet paper or those paper towels for a dollar, but look again.
Usually the rolls are much smaller than normal, and the experts point out that the quality is about as low as it can be.
5. Plastic and Aluminum Wraps
These are usually low-quality, and again, they’re made to sell cheap by making the rolls very short.
6. School Supplies
The low quality of pens, paper, binders and such is one reason to avoid getting school supplies at a dollar store.
The other reason is that if you wait for back-to-school sales, you can save a lot more money at Walmart, Target and other stores.
7. Pet Food
Experts warn about the lack of standards with dollar-store pet food.
Then there is the size issue. Those small packages may cost more per ounce than the bigger bags you buy elsewhere.
8. Power Cords
Extension cords and power strips found in dollar stores are low quality and are sometimes dangerous, according to the experts.
Most tools found in dollar stores are barely functional, in my experience.
10. Food Containers
Low quality is a problem with these food containers, but safety is also an issue, according to a recent report on the hazardous chemicals in dollar store items.
I’m not too worried about the chemicals in the dollar-store tubs that organize my stuff in the garage, but I stay away from putting food in dollar-store plastic.
One last bit of advice: Be sure you’re in a dollar store.
Dollar Tree keeps everything at a dollar, but other stores that use “dollar” in their names may have higher-priced items.
Your Turn: What do you buy in dollar stores, and what do you avoid?
Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror, and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).