Updated on 11.11.09

Is the Dollar Store Really a Bargain?

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. brad says:

    things i get at the dollar store and never have problems with:

    brooms/small brushes w.dust pan (only lightly use it for a 20 sq ft patio)

    trashbags (i get 13 13gal bags per box, they never rip because we routinely cook at home so that means food stuffs in the trash bag = gets taken out nearly daily = no significant weight to rip the bags)

    fabric softener sheets. just started experimenting with these, i get 50 in a box, no complaints yet.

    daily shower cleaner, fake febreeze, fake comet, fake windex, fake orange cleaner, never have any problems with the effectiveness of these.

    bounty basic paper towels(usually this only gets used to pat of the prepackaged frozen chicken breast of excess water, and i can do 6 breasts with only two sheets, so i dont have to use more to make up for inferior product)

    office products (envelopes, bubble wrap, bubble mailers, tape, etc)

    if you ignore the 8 out of 10 aisles of crap in there, you can find some good deals.

  2. Little House says:

    I shop a the dollar store for basic household items and grocery staples, like canned and dry goods, and I’ve never over shopped or left with items I won’t use. I think the key is to have a plan, like you mentioned. I take a list along and see if those items are available at the dollar store. Whenever an item isn’t available, I continue shopping at my regular grocery store to finish up my shopping list. I save a lot of money on groceries this way.

    However, I can see where a compulsive behavior can lead to purchasing too much at such a low price, as is the case at dollar stores. For people with this sort of problem, a list and plan may be handy, but it is probably difficult for them to do this ahead of time and then stick to it. Perhaps enlisting a shopping buddy would be better for them, then their buddy could help them stick to their list!

  3. Right. I almost think it makes more sense to buy at higher-priced stores. When I bulk up….I end up eating more. Then, I need to spend more time working out. A lose-lose.

    If I buy more smaller quantities, I end up consuming less. I realize it’s a mind problem but I can’t afford to ignore it.

  4. Johanna says:

    I don’t shop in dollar stores much these days because the ones I’ve visited in my area aren’t very good. One of them was even selling things for higher prices than I knew I could get elsewhere. (But I haven’t checked them all – anyone out there in the DC area know of a good Metro-accessible dollar store?)

    But I’ve shopped at good ones in the past, and from my experiences with them, you never know what you’re going to get, because their offerings change all the time, so it’s pretty much impossible to shop with a list. If you’re not at least open to the possibility of making impulse purchases, you’re missing the majority of the good deals.

    I think the key to shopping at the dollar store is the same as the key to shopping at any other store: Know yourself. Know whether you’re the type of person who can make the occasional impulse purchase without your impulses getting totally out of control, or whether you really do need to keep a lid on the impulse purchases entirely. And if you do decide to go for the occasional impulse buy, know what sorts of things you’re likely to use eventually, what you can afford to spend, and what you have storage space for.

  5. Greg says:

    The best time I ever had in a dollar store was when my kids were 2 and 4. We were Christmas shopping and I took them in and told them they could buy anything in the store for their mom. They were incredulous: “Anything???”

    I think they got her a funny pen and a small plastic menorah. The next year my wife stole me idea and I ended up getting a small plunger for Christmas the next year from my daughter, I think.

    The kids loved it.

  6. Emily says:

    I love the dollar store! It’s a great place for greeting cards (50 cents!) and gift bags and wrap as well as school supplies. We also look at books there – my husband has found a number of books that he really likes there. Coloring books are great buy too – they are like $4 at the “regular” store!

    My kids love the dollar store to spend their allowance/ Alot of times they have “extras” of name brand items. For instance, my boys like Tony Hawk finger skateboards – $2.88 at Walmart, only a dollar at the dollar tree!

    You do have to watch and make sure you’re not buying “junk” but there are definetly deals to be found.

  7. Shevy says:

    I almost never go to dollar stores, even though I have a huge one about 3 blocks away. (I mean huge; it’s 2 floors in what used to be a low-end department store.) However, my coworker and I were talking about them just the other day.

    She and another person I know like to go there for cheap stickers that they send to their grandchildren who live elsewhere. I also had a friend who moved to another country and was teaching English as a Second Language there. She came back for a visit and stocked up on tons of cheap pencils, erasers, etc. all with the Canadian flag on them to give out to her students as rewards. And you can get goody bag prizes for birthday parties.

    I’m very wary of most of the other kinds of things you can buy there, especially after there was a whole thing a year or two ago about dangerous toothpaste, made in China, that was on the shelves in many dollar stores. Or the cheap dog food laced with melamine. Or the baby formula. I realize the baby formula wasn’t legal in the US, but we have a huge Pacific Rim population in Vancouver and small amounts of it may have been sold here.

    I certainly wouldn’t buy *anything* to ingest at a dollar store unless it was a North American made brand that I recognized! Even then I’d look carefully for expiration dates and damage. You have to ask yourself why they got such a great deal on it.

  8. I don’t think the problem was the Dollar Store. Your uncle would have probaby found others stuff to fill his home with had it not been for the Dollar Store.

    I often find the Dollar Store has low quality stuff, but I love the Dollar Tree, where everything is $1. Ours has a frozen section, where we get 1 lb frozen mixed berries for $1. You can’t beat that anywhere.

  9. Joanna says:

    SmartBuy, a division of Consumer Reports did a report on Dollar Stores a few months ago. Shevy’s right about the ingestibles. Probably not a good idea due to quality control problems. However, the article stated that they’re a great spot for party supplies. I can attest to that, having found some fabulous bargains for our April ’09 wedding. You need to know what types of things to look for in a dollar store. Of course, that requires you to have checked a few of them out first (perhaps w/o any money on you so you’re not tempted to buy during your “scouting” missions).

    The issue with your uncle, Trent, seems more to do with a personal compulsion than with the stores he shopped in. My mother gets a special kind of thrill out of finding a bargain & can sometimes buy things that are not really needed for the sake of the bargain. She does that, though, w/o ever setting foot in a dollar store. There are bargains to be had everywhere. :-)

    I like what Johanna said… Know yourself. If you can’t be in the store w/o buying, don’t go. Ever.

  10. KC says:

    I still find the most effective method of shopping is to only buy something when I need it – whether its on sale or not. If I have half a bottle of shampoo left or I’m on the next to last bar of soap, etc, I start looking for them on sale in the Sunday paper – if I don’t find them on sale I just pick up what I need at a fair price. This way I don’t have to worry about storage. This also keeps me from obsessively compulsively shopping and hoarding things. I go to the drug store about once a month now. That’s much better than once a week and sometimes during the week.

  11. Daniel says:

    @ Johanna – There are a few in DC. One is right by the Shaw-Howard University stop (Green Line), and a few more are by the New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U Station (Red Line).

    One of the great things about dollar stores, is that yes, you may buy more than you need, but it’s only costing you slightly. Compared to buying new gadgets you’ll never use, this really is a small expense.

  12. Craig says:

    No because most of the stuff is crap and you still have to buy items in bulk so it costs much more than you think. Still may be cheap but you may be better off going elsewhere for better quality.

  13. Beth says:

    I regularly buy gift wrap, tissue and gift bags there. If you put together stockings or gift boxes for charity, you can find some good deals there to help stretch your budget.

  14. Cookie says:

    If you are a hoarder, it doesn’t matter where you buy the items.

    Dollar stores are great for inflated mylar balloons ($3 at the party store) and some other kids party items. It’s just like any other store, go there with a mental price list and you’ll be fine.

  15. Yes for many items, but not for everything. Lots of items are not a dollar, 2 to 5 dollar items are invading the shelves lately.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  16. Michelle says:

    As a librarian in a tiny town with an even tinier programming budget, I have to say that dollar stores around here have saved my budget on programs and cleaning supplies for the library.

    This summer, I found licensed High School Musical and other Disney products (stickers, posters, etc.), as well as some licensed Marvel posters, for $1 that I used as summer reading program prizes. They were a hit!

    I also buy bulk candy (as long as I recognize the name and check the dates) there.

    My dad used to frequent dollar stores. I’m not sure if he still does, but he’s definitely a hoarder and would come home with all kinds of random crap. My mom put the kabosh on that one after cleaning out the entire house one summer.

  17. chacha1 says:

    I went to a dollar store (“99 Cent Store” actually) once in the last 14 years. I felt guilty about shopping for anything there when I was well able to afford a “normal” store. Weird, huh? Just felt like I wanted to pay for everyone else’s baskets, because the other shoppers were either genuinely poor, or ingeniously disguised as such. It was sad and did not make me feel like I had gotten a good “deal” on anything.

  18. Colleen says:

    I loved the dollar store when I was a teacher as the one I frequented (it was a Dollar Tree) stocked not only plenty of party favors and little toys to use as classroom rewards but also a nice selection of teacher-targeted materials. You could get flash cards, bulletin-board borders and accents, stickers, achievement certificates, all kinds of stuff for less than at the local educator stores. It was also a great place to pick up plastic storage bins. I used shoebox-sized ones to organize my classroom library and dishpans to store textbook sets for each cooperative group in my class.

    It’s also a decent place to pop into if you need a snack or drink on the run, as many have cooler cases now.

  19. BD says:

    I love Dollar stores. You can find amazing deals on brand-name toothbrushes and hairbrushes at them. The same Reach Toothbrush that sells for $3.99 at a regular store is only a dollar at a Dollar store. Same for the hairbrush that sells for $6.99 at any regular store…only a dollar at the dollar store.
    Laundry baskets: Just a dollar.
    Party supplies: As others mentioned, a BARGAIN.

    Definitely go into Dollar stores with a shopping list in hand. That rule applies to ANY shopping, dollar stores, grocery stores or any sort of store.

    And I second the notion that your Uncle probably would have done the exact same thing without any dollar stores around. It sounds like a hoarding problem, which exists as long as there is any kind of shopping, discount or other, to be had.

  20. Courtney says:

    I’ve heard many women rave about the $1 pregnancy tests you can buy at the dollar store. Apparently, they are of the same quality as the ones sold at drugstores, but so much cheaper. Haven’t tried them myself, since our brood is complete, but what a great bargain for those in the babymaking phase of life.

  21. Vicky says:

    It depends on the store, I think.

    I’ve gone into ‘The Dollar General’ a lot looking for things, and then found it cheaper at Target or Wal-Mart later.

    The Dollar Tree has everything for $1, but MOST stuff is crap. The dog food is just… well, cardboard. The $1 dog toys fall apart almost before the dog bites into it.

    I have bought cheap photo frames there for around the house – but the quality is so poor!

    I’ve found that Ikea and Wal-Mart take care of pretty much all my supplies with a lot less issue than things at the dollar store.

  22. Jessica says:

    I love dollar stores… I read a blog called Dollar Store Crafts and it gives me great ideas on how to decorate cheaply. I don’t really go there for much else.

    It’s also a really good place to get cheap picture frames. :)

  23. kev says:

    Trent! Wrapping paper!!!!

    When my wife says, “Oh, I need to pick up wrapping paper…” I leap into action and say, “Don’t worry, my dear, I’ll get it!” then I speed to the dollar store and buy all kinds of it, and the coloured tissue paper that goes in gift bags, and the gift bags, and maybe some ribbons and bows.

    The price they charge for this material in other stores is absolutely criminal. The worst is when she picks up a last minute present at the fancy bookstore, and buys the card and wrap while she’s there… almost doubles the cost of the gift!

    Wrapping supplies, to me, is the only reason to go into a dollar store.

  24. I like the dollar stores for party stuff — tablecloths, citronella candles, aluminum pans. Why pay $3-$4 for a pan when you can get it for a buck?

  25. Ms. Clear says:

    Yeah, you definitely have to know what to buy there. Toothbrushes are a good deal, as well as Ziploc bags. I know some won’t believe me, but Dollar Tree pregnancy tests truly do work. No need to pay for EPT!

    I’m about two months along and I took a dollar store test. Got confirmed by a blood test last week. Check peeonastick.com if you don’t believe me.

  26. Jane says:

    I second (or third) the pregnancy tests at the Dollar Store. I found out I was pregnant with my son two years ago and baby #2 three months ago with them, and it worked just the same as the $10 EPT test. I love the dollar ones, because then you can take the test more frequently and not feel like you are going broke. A pregnancy test is not really a complicated process – just testing for the HCG hormone in your urine, so it makes sense that there is a huge mark-up on them and that they could make them for much cheaper.

    Oh, and at our dollar store, you have to ask for them. They have them behind the counter. I guess they had problems with people stealing them.

  27. Marie says:

    Google “Dollar Store toothpaste” Yikes.

    WOrse yet: Google “Dollar Store vitamins”

    Are you really THAT eager to save a little?

  28. Kate says:

    I echo those who say that your uncle would be a hoarder no matter if there were dollar stores or not. Lots of people do the same thing at yard sales.
    Dollar stores are good for me for: those things that go on a swifter mop; wrapping paper and stuff; I’m a librarian and get cute decorations for cheap;
    I agree–no food at dollar stores, even recognizable brands.

  29. Susan says:

    I enjoy going to the Dollar store a couple times a month. There are little things there that are much cheaper than elsewhere. As much as my frugal disposition loves the Dollar store, I love a good thrift store better! My mom and her sister are hoarders. I think it has its roots in some kind of mental illness (depression?). I throw that out as conjecture not as diagnosis. I have to wonder though with piles of stuff through their homes with only paths from one room to the next…

  30. Brittany says:

    I love dollar stores! When I moved in to my apartment, I needed a small trash can for my bathroom… $10 at Target and $8 at Wal-Mart for their cheapest one–a lot for small hunk of plastic. But lo and behold, just 99 cents at my local 99 Cent Store.

    My 99 Cent store also has a HUGE fresh produce section. I can get a five pound bad of potatoes for $1. Eight heads of garlic, two pounds of apple or carrots, three pounds of onions… all for $1 each. Where else can you get those prices? And everything I’ve bought there is good quality, even if occasionally you have to pay attention when grabbing a bag (and I don’t ever buy organic, so the pesticide lecture is moot).

    Wooden spoons, Ziplocs, aluminum foil, headphones, body soap, mixing bowls, flower pots… there are tons of things I’ve bought there that I have no complaints about.

  31. Peter says:

    Trent, I think you’d like the book “Retail Anarchy” as, among many other things, the author writes about the oftentimes false economy of the dollar stores. While, as above comments attest, there are indeed some true bargains to be found inside, most of the contents are not saving you any money at all. The whole book is a nifty and fairly unique, if not a bit acerbic, take on the retail sales industry.

  32. Denise says:

    A long time ago, when I was really broke and desperate, I bought some feminine products at the dollar store. Huge mistake! I had side effects from the chemicals used in them that lasted months and were extremely painful! But, when my daughter was little, we got many of her Christmas presents there. Little kids tend to destroy most things, junk or not.

  33. Kim says:

    Some things are bargains at dollar stores but I second those who say some things are not.

    For instance, locally, my dollar store has tissue paper in boxes for $1 but when you compare them (size/quality/number of pieces) you are getting fewer, smaller tissues at lower quality for the money.

    Have to compare price per unit and quality before deciding if it is a better price. Some people just see, oh, tissue for a dollar when it is a $1.49 at Vons. Yeah, but it is actually cheaper (per tissue) and better quality at $1.49 and sometimes there are sales at Vons which make it even cheaper and then I stock up.

    Price comparisons are your friend.

  34. Lou says:

    I go into a dollar store about twice a year. Silly, but it’s a great place to work off that “need for retail therapy” without breaking the bank – one hour and $10 can do it.

    The time and dollar limit force decision making about those impulse buys, and all the energy and excitement of a shopping trip is there.- and when I walk out of the store I can never remember what I opted not to buy. I’m not much of a shopper, in general, I hate to go into big box stores, but the dollar store is like the 5&10 of my youth.

    NEVER go into a dollar store with more than $10 in my pocket.

  35. Diana says:

    I have to assume that when most people think of “Dollar Stores” they’re thinking of true 99 cent store. They have evolved far beyond that. In my area, there are numerous dollar stores. All the criticisms voiced here have validity; however, to think you can’t save a bundle of money or have to settle for inferior stuff is really overstated and not all that accurate anymore. The 99 cent type stores are more likely to carry a lot of junk, but even they have lots of bargains on certain items. My two favorites here are Dollar General and Family Dollar. By the way, we also have Walmart. I shop at all 3 because some things I use are better values in one store over another, and all are within a few miles of each other. They all carry high quality, name brand, items, and with way lower everyday prices than the grocery stores charge. I would have to say that these particular stores are somewhere inbetween true 99 cent stores and other retail chains. I don’t buy junk items – period! I save lots of money by using the stores regularly and intelligently and save hundreds of dollars per year on things I need. Since moving from here to Northern California, my daughter has really struggled financially without the aforementioned discount stores. They do have a Walmart, but it’s about 35 miles away. If you’re fortunate enough to have these stores, or those of similar quality, you might want to revisit them. If you like certain name brand products and know what they cost at your local retailer’s everyday price, then compare those with the discount stores. You might change your mind, save a substantial amount of money over the next few months, and not have to spend so much time coupon clipping, or running all over town to take advantage of sales. By the way, you do not have to buy in bulk at the stores mentioned.

  36. Generally agree with the post here!

    Dollar stores are good for CERTAIN items, but on most things they’re a disappointment.

    Greeting cards for a dollar are a pretty good deal, but we purchased a couple small spray bottles (for ironing clothes) and both crapped out by the third or fourth use. I don’t care how much you can save, if it breaks quickly, it’s a waste of money.

  37. Rachel says:

    I think you have to have a plan for every store you go into, dollar store, dept. store, even, thrift stores. i have 5 grandchildren, and I like to help out by buying good used clothing for them. I discovered that the Salvation army store has $1 colored tickets on friday. For instance, today all the clothing with a red tag was $1.00. so, I go through the racks only looking at the red tag pieces. It paid off today, I found my grandaughter a beautiful red coat in perfect condition, and from the name brand I know that it is from Dillards $1.00!! My next stop was the discount bread store across the street. If bread is $1 a loaf, I buy 2 loaves, if it is .50 a loaf, I buy 4. But I do agree, you can certainly “dollar yourself to death at the dollar store”.

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