Is the Dollar Store Really a Bargain?

Before he passed away a few years ago, my uncle Ken (who I still miss greatly) was a fanatic shopper at dollar stores. He did most of his shopping at a pair of local dollar stores, where he would buy virtually all of his household supplies and quite a bit of his food. He was also incredibly generous – he would send me huge care packages when I was at college with a selection of many of his finds (teas, hot chocolate packets, etc.).

Unfortunately, he also had a “pack rat” compulsion – he was always buying more and more and more things to fill (and then eventually over-fill) his home. In the end, the dollar store wasn’t really a bargain for Ken – he eventually had so many tchotchkes and stored bulk goods that not only was he often broke, his home was overloaded with stuff.

Quite often, the stuff was of (at best) moderate quality as well. While he’d often find some incredible bargains, he also would buy a lot of things that I would identify as junk (but I suppose that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure).

After Ken’s passing, he left behind enormous piles of various dollar store purchases, most of which were simply tossed out. It was almost painful to watch all of those things that he had invested his time and energy in simply get handed out and thrown away.

Earlier this year as part of a discussion on haggling, I outlined a similar tale in which a woman who bought “plastic doodads” (her words) in bulk at the dollar store under the belief that she was getting a bargain.

To me, Ken’s story defines what a dollar store is. It’s a place where you can occasionally find tremendous bargains on the things you need, but the cost threshold is so low that quite often you end up buying far too many impulsive things. It’s easy to convince yourself to throw a thing or two into your basket that you don’t really need because, after all, it’s only a dollar, right?

Does this mean I don’t ever go to the dollar store? Of course not. The dollar store can be a good place to find great values on certain things. However, you need to approach it with a plan.

First, look for the staples you already use. Dishwashing detergent. Diapers. Bath soap. Hand towels. Focus on finding the dollar store version of the things you already use.

Second, try the store brands, but don’t expect greatness. I’m always willingg to try a store brand if it means I’ll save significant money, but quite often I’ll find that the quality of the item isn’t up to snuff. Trash bags that rip, aluminum foil that’s too thin, and plastic wrap that doesn’t stick to anyting but itself isn’t worth anything, even if you’re “saving” money by buying it.

Third, avoid the other stuff. Most of the items in a dollar store are there to convince you to make an impulse buy. Ignore all of it. Focus exclusively on the list of things you want to check out – your staples. If it’s not on that list, don’t buy it. Don’t even look at it. If you end up buying something you didn’t intend to buy when you arrived, it’s not a bargain. It’s a loss of your hard-earned money to an impulse to acquire stuff.

Dollar stores can be really useful for finding bargains on certain items. However, they’re prone to impulsive buys and low-quality items that can end up quickly undoing any benefit one might get from shopping there. If you go there, go there with a plan and you can come out a winner.