Dollar stores are just about everywhere—national chains like Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar, and all kinds of independents like Ollie’s Bargain Barn and 99 Cents Only, too. What do they hold in common? The promise of good stuff, cheap!
Photo thanks: Dollar General
Thanks to inflation, few things are dollars stores cost only a buck, but even at $1.25, $2 or sometimes even $3, bargains are galore.
At least a couple of times a week, someone will ask me what I miss most about living in Southern California. Because we lived there many years before pulling up roots and relocating to Colorado, you might assume it would be a long list.
But my usual response is “Not much!” and not just to get a laugh. Truth be told, I can only think of three things: Adult kids, good pizza, and my beloved 99 Cents Only Store—the best “dollar” store ever.
The company’s 378 stores derive close to 80% of their sales of $2.9 billion from categories such as fresh produce, non perishable grocery items, and consumables that overlap with those of traditional grocers and discounters.
As for missing great pizza, admittedly, I have not tried every pizza option in our new location, so hope springs eternal. But I cannot find even the hint of a plan to expand 99 Cents Only Stores to Colorado, and that’s a cryin’ shame.
Good thing there are other brands of dollar stores nearby while I wait for 99 Cents Only Stores—my personal gold standard for good stuff cheap—to get smart and open a store in my neighborhood.
Photo thanks: 99 Cents Only Store
Here’s why I love dollar stores in general: It’s easy to match quality with need when what I need does not require much. Let me show you what I mean about need vs. quality with this quick list of things you’d be wise to buy at a dollar store—plus a few to avoid.
Don’t expect Hallmark’s complete line to show up at the dollar store. But you can expect first-quality greeting cards for just about every occasion. This is my go-to source for greeting cards that I know will be opened, enjoyed for the moment, and tossed. Nothing wrong with that, but I sure don’t want to spend $3.99 or more for a disposable card when I can get it for a buck!
Gift Bags, gift wrap
A dollar store is the best place to buy gift bags and wraps for a fraction of the cost of traditional stores. And why not? The gift bags and all that gift wrap will end up in the trash in just the time it takes to rip open the gift. So who needs super, high-end quality for disposable gift wrap?
Dollar store quality is plenty good and cheap to boot. Gift bags, filler, and wrapping paper are my favorite examples of matching quality with need.
Always stop first at the local dollar store for all school supply related items— markers, pens, paper, pads, notebooks, pencils, crayons, and pocket folders. Can’t find everything on your school’s required list? Get what you can then supplement elsewhere as necessary.
When to avoid
If your school’s list of required supplies names a specific brand or type of item, don’t try to sneak in a dollar store inferior version.
Paper plates, cups, disposable tablecloths, plastic cutlery, balloons, and even theater-size boxes of candy—if you need it for a party and don’t need it to last for more than a few hours, the dollar store is the place to find it. You don’t need things destined for the trash to be durable. These supplies include:
- Paper plates, napkins, and cups
- Champagne flutes
- Plastic forks, spoons, and knives
- Plastic tablecloths
- Paper streamers
- Birthday banners
- Latex balloons
- Mylar balloons
- Birthday candles
- Glow sticks, bracelets, necklaces, and wands
- Party hats
- Table centerpieces
- Plastic serving bowls and trays
- Plastic serving ware
Wax paper, parchment, foil
These are hard to compare price-wise because the square footage and quality are different at the dollar stores than the boxes in the regular grocery stores. However, they are still cheaper per inch. I also like the pre-cut pop-up foil sheets, which are colossal frustration savers. Just remember: Match quality with the need you intend to fulfill.
Seasonal decor and favors
Do you want to decorate for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and any other holidays? Do you love to fill Christmas stockings with trinkets, small gadgets, and other fun stuff? You’ll find everything from packages of spider rings, to glow sticks, streamers, wall and door decor, and on and on—all super cheap—at the dollar store.
Travel-sized toiletries aren’t necessarily inexpensive just because they’re smaller. And don’t expect the best selection or cheapest prices at Walmart or even your local pharmacy. But the dollar store? Check it out first and prepare to be amazed.
Hold on. It’s true—most dollar stores sell pregnancy tests for a dollar that would cost upwards of $15 or more in a drugstore. Are they reliable? I suppose they are if they do what they say on the label. And assuming the test kit is sealed and not beyond its expiration date, why not? If you’re worried about a false response, buy a few kits to make sure. At a buck each, you’ll still save a bundle.
When to avoid
You’d be well-advised to avoid any pregnancy test with an expiration date that is nearer than six months.
You can get 130 inches of this tape at the dollar store. This is a shorter tape than the 450-inch roll for $4.79 at Staples, but it is still cheaper per inch.
When to avoid
Buy your double-sided tape elsewhere if your intended use will need to stay double-stuck for an extended time.
Beauty and personal care
Get ready to be blown away by all the shampoo, deodorant, shaving cream, soap, body wash, razors, hair accessories, hair care gear, bandages, and personal care items in the typical dollar store. You may not see a lot of name brands—but then again you might, depending on the day.
When to avoid
As for unknown brands, check the ingredients. It may be junk or you just might find similar products but not the same as the more pricey options you’re used to.
Stocking stuffers, gift bags, gag gifts
If you’re looking for small gifts—like the kind to fill birthday party goodie bags or Christmas stockings—dollar stores are full of suitable trinkets.
From tiny toys to stickers, playing cards, puzzles, souvenir plastic party cups, boxes of crayons and colored pencils, play packs (which come with small coloring books, crayons, and stickers), and candy, you can find everything you need. Just do not assume that toys and novelty items from the dollar store are going to bring of a lifetime of fun and hilarity to your recipients.
When to avoid
Dollar store toys are pretty much disposable. If that toy, doll, or action figure makes it through the day it’s gifted, it could be considered a miracle. But if your need is a moment of fun and joy, go for it. And when that singing bass on a plaque lasts even longer than the party, consider it a bonus.
Containers to get organized
Why pay $3.99 each for plastic shoe boxes with lids to organize the kids’ rooms when you can get them for a buck at the dollar store? Dollar stores are notorious for their containers, bins, boxes, and organizational helpers.
Having a Garage Sale or need to sell a car? Dollar stores are the place to find ready-made plastic signs for posting. Just use a marker to fill in your specific information in the spaces provided and you’re set.
Yep, you’ll find them too, at a dollar store. Probably not a huge selection, but you’re sure to find at least a couple of options that fit and in the magnification strength you need. And when you do, grab a few pairs because you know how easy it is to misplace reading glasses.
Where do you go when you need a picture frame, flower vase, wreath, doormats, or other home decor? Check the dollar store! Reorganizing your pantry and cupboards? Dollar stores are notorious for containers that are ideal to get things organized. Just keep in mind, that you’re not likely to find the quality of perhaps The Container Store. But do you really need that much quality?
Look on the shelves of the cleaning aisle at any dollar store, and you’ll find lots of off-brand bleach, cleansers, dish soap, laundry detergent, stain treatments, toilet cleaners, glass, and mirror cleaners. Baking soda and vinegar, too. And don’t be shocked to find an occasional name brand in the lot. Look for microfiber cloths, sponges and scrub brushes, and other equipment as well.
Kitchen utensils and accessories
I suggest caution when considering cutlery, tongs, spatulas, and so forth from the dollar store. Much of what you’ll find is not worth spending a dollar on. But on occasion, you’ll come across a super bargain on name brand, excellent-quality kitchen utensils, and accessories that will bring great value to your kitchen. Things like measuring spoons and cups, spoon rests, name brand kitchen scissors, peelers, scrubbers, cutting boards; towels, pot holders, and placemats.
I have rubber spatulas, serving spoons, glassware, and measuring cups from 99 Cents Only that I’ve had for many years and they’re still my favorites.
Not every tool in a home or garage needs to be a top-of-the-line, name brand with a life expectancy of many decades. Take a tape measure, duct tape, glue or maybe even a tiny set of screwdrivers for the kitchen. You’ll find all those things at a dollar store—picture hanging kits and handy assortments of screws and nails.
When to avoid
Practice caution when considering a hammer, screwdriver, or socket set. Dollar stores may not have the sturdy quality you typically need to actually get the job done. The last thing you need is a piece of junk sitting in a drawer or garage shelf.
Non-perishables and produce
The main thing I miss about 99 Cents Only is the fresh produce. I would make 99 Cents my first stop on the way to the supermarket. Beyond bananas, I couldn’t predict what I would find in the fresh produce section, so I’d stop there before going on to the supermarket. Oh, the bargains on beautiful, locally grown produce!
Good news! Dollar General currently offers fresh fruits and vegetables in nearly 3,900 stores, with plans to offer produce in more than 5,000 stores by 2024, and in 10,000 within the next few years.
You will find lots of food in the typical dollar store. The array of canned goods and other non-perishables is impressive. Just make sure you know your prices. You don’t want to pay $1.25 for a can of soup that is regularly priced $.69 at the supermarket. It can happen.
Before you load up for your next craft project, check the dollar store. You’re sure to find many items on your list; just be cautious. Know your prices! You might do better at Hobby Lobby with the store’s super discounts. Still, the dollar store deserves your consideration for things like:
- Craft sticks
- Modeling clay
- Googly eyes
- Pipe cleaners
- Washi tape
- Glue (school glue, tacky glue, glue sticks, glue dots, and Mod Podge)
- Storage cases for organizing small craft supplies like beads
Look for great flower pots, especially if you like to decorate clay pots. They make great gifts or awesome decor for windowsills, patios, and porches. You’ll see the same $1 pot at Lowes is $3.97.
From name-brand pet food for dogs, cats, and fish to vet-approved toys, leashes, food dishes, and even an occasional doggie sweater or Halloween costume—the dollar store lets pets live the good life without their owners worrying about the cost. You just might be surprised by what you’ll find.
Be cautious, however, when it comes to dollar store pet food. Pet food is far less regulated than human food. Dollar stores can get away with selling pet food containing subpar ingredients, including a lot of fatty fillers.
When to avoid
The typical dollar store doesn’t have a lot of selection, generally. And much of it is close to its expiration date, off-label, or made offshore. So it’s best to save your pets’ stomachs and buy food elsewhere.
Where does it all come from?
That’s an interesting question, and one I posed to the founder of 99 Cents Only some years ago. The answer? It all depends! Ha.
He got his start buying out inventory when stores would file for bankruptcy. Or a situation where a major retailer’s inventory was passed that company’s policy of useful life (meaning getting ready to expire). Or that store got stuck with huge quantities of last year’s model. Or it simply needs to reduce inventory for one reason or another. Cash is king, which would allow him to garner amazing bargains.
That is still his method, but the chain has grown so large, the challenge now is to buy up large enough quantities (for pennies on the dollar) to stock all 400 or more stores.
In closing …
Let me remind all of us of this vital principle: Even the best deal in the world is not good if it’s something you don’t need or won’t use.
Question: What is your favorite dollar store find?