Black coin purse or wallet, with US one dollar bill.

Things You’d Be Smart to Buy (and Avoid) at a Dollar Store

Dollar stores are just about everywhere—national chains like Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar, and all kinds of independents, too. What do they hold in common? The promise of good stuff, cheap!

Black coin purse or wallet, with US one dollar bill.

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 that 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 two things: Good pizza and my beloved 99 Cents Only Store—the best “dollar” store ever.

food on display in a store

The company’s 460 stores derive close to 80% of their sales of $2.4 billion from categories such as fresh, grocery, and consumables that overlap with those of traditional grocers and discounters.

Admittedly, I have not tried every pizza option in our new location, so hope springs eternal. But I cannot find even a 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—the gold standard when it comes to good stuff cheap—to get smart and open a store in my neighborhood.

Here’s the reason I love dollar stores in general: It’s easy to match quality with need when what I need does not require much quality. Let me show you what I mean about need vs. quality with this quick list of things you’d be smart to buy at a dollar store—plus a few to avoid.

Greeting cards

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 gift wrap for a fraction of the cost of traditional stores. And why not? The gift bags and all that gift wrap are going to 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.

Party supplies

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
  • Noisemakers
  • 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 really like the pre-cut pop-up foil sheets that are huge frustration savers. Just remember: Match quality with the need you intend to fulfill.

Seasonal decor and favors

Want to decorate for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and any number of other holidays? Love to fill  Christmas stockings with trinkets, small gadgets, and other kinds of 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.

Pregnancy tests

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.

You’d be well-advised to avoid any pregnancy test with an expiration date that is nearer than six months.

Double-sided tape

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.

Buy your double-sided tape elsewhere, however, is that your intended use will need to stay double-stuck for an extended period of 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. As for unknown brands, check the ingredients. It may be junk or you just might find products that are similar if 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 small toys to stickers, decks of 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.

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.

Reading glasses

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.

Home decor

Where do you go when you need a  picture frame, a flower vase or wreath, doormats, or another kind of 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, you’re not likely to find the quality of perhaps The Container Store. But do you really need that much quality?

Cleaning supplies

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, too. 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 a great deal of value to your kitchen. Things like measuring spoons and cups, spoon rests, name brand kitchen scissors, peelers, scrubbers, and cutting boards; towels, pot holders, and placemats, too.

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. 

Tools

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, handy assortments of screws and nails, too.

But you should practice caution when considering a hammer, screwdriver, or socket set. Dollar stores may not have the sturdy quality that you typically need for them 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. Not kidding! 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!

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 $.99 for a can of soup that is regularly priced $.69 at the supermarket. It can happen.

Craft supplies

Before you load up for your next craft project, check the dollar store. You’re sure to find lots of the items on your list, just be very cautious. Know your prices! You might do better at Hobby Lobby with a 40% off coupon. Still, the dollar store deserves your consideration for things like:

  • Ribbon
  • Craft sticks
  • Magnets
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes
  • Modeling clay
  • Beads
  • Paper
  • Stickers
  • Googly eyes
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Pom-poms
  • Washi tape
  • Stencils
  • Glue (school glue, tacky glue, glue sticks, glue dots, and Mod Podge)
  • Storage cases for organizing small craft supplies like beads

Clay flower pots

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.

Pet supplies

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.

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 their 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 expired). 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.

A lot of the inventory comes from offshore, especially in China, where dollar store chains can buy easily out an entire manufacturer’s stock and inventory.

In closing …

Let me remind all of us of this important principle: Even the best deal in the world is not a good deal at all if it’s something you don’t need or won’t use.


 

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  1. Katherine says:

    Thank you Mary!! I too love the 99 cent only stores, and trained my children to love them too I can vouch for the accuracy and validity of the pregnancy tests. I used 99 cent store tests for 7 pregnancies and they were correct every time! I also used them between pregnancies when I wasn’t sure, and they were correct then too!

    I love the produce! It’s honestly one of my favorite places to go. I love that they are in Arizona and Nevada, so there is hope they could eventually move into Colorado!

    Reply
  2. Karen Salamin says:

    I don’t shop at the dollar stores often, but when I do I try to remember that many of the “disposable” items (plastic products, etc.) can actually be recycled. That way there is less stuff going into the landfill….

    Reply
  3. Daylin says:

    I’m from California and pretty much grew up on 99Cents Stores. In California, I lucked out having both a DollarTree and 99Cents Store within a few miles of each other (less than 10 miles). So what I couldn’t find at the DollarTree I could down the street and find it at 99Cents!

    Reply
  4. Sue says:

    like you, the 99 cent only store is my favorite! They have a terrific selection of stuff not found at the other dollar stores. Cleaning supplies, holiday dec, stuff for organizing, they have everything you need!

    Reply
  5. Susan O'Neal says:

    I don’t allow myself to look at the $1.00 cards at Dollar Tree. If I only look at the 2 for a dollar aisles I can always fins something suitable, and, even better, attractive “Thank you” and “Thinking of you” blank notes can be had in 8 for a dollar multi packs on the end caps.

    Reply
  6. Ann says:

    Buyer Beware! At our Dollar Tree store, I thought I was buying a large bottle of clear lamp oil, instead I picked up clear liquid potpourri. So I took it back to exchange for the lamp oil. The don’t sell lamp oil. Asking for my money back, the clerk replied, “no exchanges or returns. You can talk to the manager, but that won’t do any good”. I asked to see where in the store or on the receipt does it state that, replied, “it doesn’t”. Good way to make money.

    Reply
  7. Barbara Jackson says:

    I will go to the Dollar Tree or 99 Cents Store to get a serving bowl and utensil to take to potlucks. If one or both go missing (usually tossed in the foray of quick cleanup), I don’t care. These stores are also great for food storage containers to use when giving food to someone who tends to not return good containers. I do wash takeout containers, but sometimes I don’t have the size I need. Like Mary said, compare quality to need.

    Reply
  8. Janine Ransom says:

    Hi Mary! I have to add a word of caution regarding party paper goods. I have found them thin and flimsy, specifically paper plates, napkins and cups. Other party items are fabulous…ice cream cups and those cute cupcake holders!
    I never thought I would eat food from there, but have become an ardent fan of the fresh produce !!

    Reply
  9. Deb R. says:

    This is the BEST deal at Dollar Tree — a four-pack of single-use Super Glue! You know you can never get anything out of that bigger tube after the first use because it glues itself shut and you end up tossing it. These little tubes are perfect.

    Reply
  10. joni Giacoma Chadwell says:

    We are close to two Dollar Tree stores. I have run across their prepackaged Bologna, regular, thick cut and garlic along with their turkey breast, cooked salami, and sausages in the cooler marked down to a QUARTER. Of course they were close to the expiration date so in the freezer they went. Another time they had English muffins and snack cakes slashed to a quarter. There were small containers milk and dozens of medium eggs for 25 cents each another time. I check the dairy case every time I shop there. Happy Shopping!

    Reply
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