Who doesn't love a trip to the dollar store? You walk in with five bucks, and you walk out with a bag full of stuff. (See also: Home Decorating for Under $5)
Of course, the stuff you have in that bag is going to vary in quality from good to "Are you sure you want to take the risk?" So I have compiled a top 10 list of things to buy, and 10 things to steer clear of.
What to Buy
Here are the items you should look out for every time you're at the dollar store.
1. Gift Wrap, Cards, and Party Supplies
What's the most depressing thing about buying gift-wrap? Personally, I hate spending $3-$4 on a roll of paper that is specifically designed to be seen for 10 seconds before it's ripped off and thrown in the trash. That's why I always get it from the dollar store. It's 75% cheaper, it looks just the same, and it's not so painful to see it get annihilated. While you're there, grab balloons, plates, cups, plastic cutlery, greeting cards, and anything else related to a birthday or anniversary. You'll save a ton of money over the years.
2. Glassware, Cups, and Mugs
There's a decent selection of glassware in most dollar stores, and they're perfectly safe for the home. They're not made of inferior glass that will shatter when you breathe on them. The glasses may not be the most current styles, and you may not get exactly the shape you were looking for. But if you're just looking to add a few glasses to your cupboard, your money goes a long way here. The same goes for cups and mugs. Again, don't expect a massive array of the latest styles. But they hold tea and coffee just fine.
3. Reusable Plastic Containers
It's often called Gladware, but that's a brand name. You can find these storage containers made by Betty Crocker, Ziploc, Rubbermaid, Tupperware, and many others. Your selection may not be that great in the dollar store, but you'll get a lot more containers for your cash.
4. Coloring Books, Crayons, and Kids' Crafts
The prices of coloring books range from "how much?!" to "seems reasonable." In the dollar store, however, they're as cheap as chips. And while you're there, stock up on crayons, pencils, erasers, pipe cleaners, colored paper, and glue sticks. (See also: Budget Design Ideas for a Kids’ Playroom)
"No way," I hear you cry! Well, yes way. Fine, dollar store batteries aren't as good as the expensive, name brand batteries. Dollar store batteries are usually older carbon-zinc technology, as opposed to alkaline or lithium. BUT, when you're paying $1 for a pack of 4 AA batteries, and the name-brand variety costs $5-$6, you are getting a better deal. So, they won't last as long, but they're at least 80% cheaper. If you don't mind replacing batteries more often (and checking often too, as some batteries will leak if left in too long) they'll do just fine; especially for those power-draining kids toys.
6. Holiday Decorations
Easter. Halloween. Christmas. Thanksgiving. If you can name a holiday, there are expensive decorations to buy. Luckily, your dollar store has a good stock of bargain decorations, and few people will know the difference. A word of warning though…avoid anything electrical (see the first point in the "Do Not Buy" list below). (See also: Holiday Shopping at the Dollar Store)
7. Most Cleaning Products
Bleach is bleach. Ammonia is ammonia. Glass cleaner is glass cleaner. Don't worry about paying 75% more for the name brand versions; just get down to your dollar store and stock up on the cleaning products you need at bargain prices. You may find some of the products are not as strong as the name brand versions, but just use a little more. At these prices, you can afford to. While you're in that aisle, pick up sponges, dishcloths, towels, and other cleaning products. (See also: The 5 Best All-Purpose Cleaners)
8. Personal Hygiene Items
Go ahead and spend a small fortune on those name brand shampoos, conditioners, shaving creams, deodorants, and toothpastes if you want. Cheap shampoos and conditioners often work as well as more-expensive ones. (See also: Luxury Hair Treatments From Your Kitchen)
Whether for the gym or daily wear, you'll find bargain socks in the dollar store. Just evaluate them as you would any other item of clothing. Some can be very thin and not offer the cushioning you'd like.
10. Movie Theater Candy
Those boxes of candy they sell for an arm and a leg in the cinema are being sold in dollar stores, often at 2-for-1 prices. Stick to the name brands like Raisinets, Skittles, Jujyfruits, Whoppers, and Hot Tamales, and you'll do just fine. Of course, always check expiration dates on any food you buy. (See also: A Quick Guide to Expiration Dates)
10 Things to Avoid
From good value, we move to not so good. Or absolutely no way! Here are 10 things to put on your "avoid at all costs" list.
1. Anything With a Plug
There is no way of knowing if these items have met the minimum safety requirements, because the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) safety seal is often counterfeited. So although those night lights, extension cords, and other electrical "bargains" seem like a good deal, avoid them.
2. Food Storage Bags, Aluminum Foil, and Cling Wrap
You really do get what you pay for with these household staples. It may only be a buck for a box of bags, but look again. How many bags are you really getting? And will they hold a seal like the name brand bags you buy in grocery stores? As for cling wrap, it won't be of the same quality as the varieties you'll find in your supermarket. Expect it to be tricky to get off the roll, thin, and not very "clingy" at all. And the foil will be paper-thin and tear easily.
3. Kitchen Utensils
I speak from personal experience on this one. Way too many times have I been tempted to buy a spatula, can opener, or cooking knife from the dollar store. In my experience, they are not well made — especially when it comes to knives. Buy good quality knives, especially a chef's knife, and don't skimp on the price. If you get a quality knife, it can last you a lifetime.
If you've looked at the prices of vitamins in your local grocery store or health food shop, you wouldn't be faulted for trying to find them cheaper elsewhere. However, the dollar store is not the place to look. Daily Finance cites a 2004 Consumer Reports study that says half of the 18 multivitamins they tested were missing vital ingredients. And the FDA does not have tight controls on vitamins. Bottom line — they probably won't hurt you, but you may be getting short-changed.
When your kids are involved, it's best to err on the side of caution. Many unbranded toys from the dollar store are low quality. What's more, they may not meet current safety regulations. You don't want to risk the safety of your child to save a few bucks. If money is an issue, shop the clearance aisles in retail stores, or look for good, used toys on Craigslist and second hand stores. (See also: 10 Fun, Homemade Toys and Games)
When it comes to your health, it's better to go with the name brand or generic items in the supermarkets and retail stores. Painkillers may be substandard, counterfeited, or lacking ingredients that the label claims they have. And one of the biggest problems is medicines like Ibuprofen have often gone past their expiration dates. Keep a watchful eye before you buy.
7. Oven Mitts
They're cheap, and they look the same as more expensive versions. The difference is in the construction and the padding, and you don't want to mess around with something designed to protect you. Do yourself (and your hands) a favor, and buy the more expensive versions. You'll be glad you did.
The one-liter bottles of soda in dollar stores are not really a bargain. You can usually pick up a two-liter of the same variety for just a few cents more at your local grocery store. And the same goes for cans and smaller bottles of soda, too. It's really not worth it. (See also: Homemade Soda)
Any DIY aficionado will tell you — a $1 screwdriver or hammer is going to break, and quickly. As someone who does a fair bit of DIY myself, I can tell you that tools are worth the investment. Don't go anywhere near the tool section in a dollar store; you are just throwing your money down the drain. And more importantly, poorly made tools can be dangerous. (See also: Cool Tool Gifts for Fixer Uppers)
10. Chewing Gum
There's nothing wrong with it, but it's just not a bargain. Go to a warehouse club like Costco or Sam's Club and you'll pick up a huge pack of gum and save way more money than you would buying gum from the dollar store.