Hard to ignore as they are, I breezed past dollar stores for years, assuming they were full of mustache combs and pencil erasers. But a few curious trends re-piqued my interest.
While only 12% of dollar store shoppers classify as “young adults,” those young adults spend twice as much there as older generations, according to Fortune. Plus, 29% of young shoppers at dollar stores come from households earning $100,000+ annually, according to Forbes.
That tells me that our generation spends a lot at dollar stores, and even after ascending income brackets, we keep coming back… for something.
So, which items should you be buying at the dollar store versus Target, Costco, or Kroger? Which items should you emphatically avoid, that actually pose a safety risk?
Let’s dive into dollar stores.
One of my favorite comedians, Brian Regan, has a priceless bit about the greeting card industry. “The guy selling those must wake up laughing… They’re buying a crease!”
A greeting card shouldn’t cost $3.99. The dollar store doesn’t even think they should cost a dollar. In fact, greeting cards at Dollar Tree and Dollar General are two for $1. That’s a whopping 87.5% off regular retail. And the dollar store greeting cards are just fine; they’re normal-sized, include cute graphics and sayings, and come with an envelope.
I love that dollar stores have 50 cent greeting cards because it means anyone, on any budget, can send out cards every week to friends or recipients of More Love Letters.
The dollar store is a great place to load up on little trinkets to sprinkle around the house during holiday season. Jack-o-lanterns, Christmas ornaments, and more can be purchased piecemeal in lieu of a $14.99 “six-pack” at big box stores.
Virtually every type of essential household cleaner can be purchased at your local Dollar Tree or Dollar General, just with a generic label (or sometimes no label at all). Bleach, glass cleaner, all-purpose spray, distilled white vinegar, drain cleaner, and more are all available in regular-sized bottles and are just as effective as their $4.99 counterparts at Target.
I like to keep every room stocked with dollar store cleaners so I never have to leave a room to clean it. Soon, whipping out the glass cleaner becomes automatic, and I never have to worry about plowing through bottles since they’re so cheap.
Metal and bamboo kitchen utensils
Some say you should avoid plastic utensils from the dollar store, since they may contain harmful chemicals or melt easily. Even though I don’t have the chemical engineering degree to confirm these assertions, I say why bother when the dollar store also sells them in metal and bamboo?
My friend Shawn enjoys the finer things in life but still uses the dollar store kitchenware he purchased in college. “My dollar store tongs, spatula, forks, and knives… they’ve all held up for 10 years. Why replace them?”
While it’s certainly more cost-effective to buy most office supplies in bulk online, sometimes you just need a single red sharpie, or a handful of binder clips, or just a cheap folder to keep your tax files organized.
The dollar store is an excellent place to load up on small quantities of office supplies without overspending on an eight- or 64-pack you don’t need. Many of the supplies are even brand-name, like Sharpie and Five Star, so you don’t have to skimp on quality.
USA Today did an entire story on the phenomenon of dollar store pregnancy tests in 2019, concluding that “women asking the big question can rest assured that tests from both the drugstore and the dollar store are a safe bet.”
How can a $1 pregnancy test be as reliable as a $15.99 one from the drug store? Because all tests are highly regulated by the FDA. They all meet a high standard for reliability, the only difference being that some expensive name brands can detect pregnancy a few days earlier.
Sunglasses and reading glasses
It’s an un-fun feeling, being caught without your sunglasses on a bright afternoon. That’s why I stocked up on cheap dollar store sunglasses and stashed them everywhere; in my luggage, in my backpack, and especially in the car. They’re not particularly fancy, and they probably won’t last too long, but at least they’ll restore my ability to see on a bright, sunny day.
I was more surprised to see that the dollar store carries reading glasses. The Cleveland Clinic approves of cheap reading glasses, so if you know your prescription, you can grab a few spares for emergency use after you sit on your expensive pair.
Let’s be honest; party supplies weren’t too fancy to begin with, so you shouldn’t overpay for them at the grocery store. Plus, buying supplies cheap means you can buy much more and truly impress the birthday girl or boy without breaking the bank.
Paper plates, streamers, wrapping paper, tissue paper, gift bags even those big balloons with phrases and emojis on them can all be found at the dollar store. And rest assured, they’ll all have the durability to last through the evening, debaucherous as it may become.
Simple baskets and bins for storing shoes, utensils, board games, and other knick-knacks are hugely helpful for keeping a space clean and organized. However, filling a living space with them becomes expensive quickly when big box stores charge $10, $15, even $25 a pop.
Thankfully, dollar stores often have entire rows dedicated to plastic, mesh, and wicker storage containers of all sizes. Buy a few for each room and you’ll impress yourself with how tidy your space can become for around $10.
Speaking of debauchery, if you’re concerned about your tipsy revelers tipping over some of your more expensive glassware, buy a spare set from the dollar store.
You can fill your bar and cabinets with mugs, martini glasses, and shot glasses from the dollar store while spending a small fraction of regular retail. It’s all simply blown sand, after all; why pay more?
Which items should you not buy at dollar stores?
If you suspected that not everything in dollar stores is a good deal (or even safe), you were right. Some of the stuff they sell truly is junk and should be avoided. In lieu of items that just aren’t worth the money, I’ve zeroed in on five items that actually pose a risk to your health.
With the exception of name-brand candy, pretty much everything edible inside the dollar store should be avoided. At best, dollar store food is overpriced. Aldi sells higher-quality condiments, canned goods, and large bags of chips in more cost-effective quantities. You’ll find some name brand foods at dollar stores, like Pace salsa, but they’ll come in such small amounts that it’s actually more cost-effective to buy them at the grocery store.
This shouldn’t take much convincing, but please avoid dollar store meat and frozen meals. Most are preservative-filled, void of nutrition, and have no place in the human body.
You should know that dollar stores aren’t free from controversy. There’s a growing sentiment that they’re perpetuating food deserts in low-income neighborhoods by preventing supermarkets from moving in and selling fresh, healthy food.
Forget the dollar store junk and continue supporting your local vendor of fresh produce instead.
Given how expensive pet supplies seem at other stores, you may be tempted to buy a toy, treats, or even a small bag of pet food at the dollar store. Don’t.
Dollar store pet supplies don’t meet the same rigorous standards of quality as the name-brand stuff. Toys can be broken and choked on. Food may contain harmful chemicals or preservatives deeply harmful to your pet.
Think of it this way; would your furry best friend shop for your food at the dollar store?
Dollar store batteries hang right by the checkout line and are hard to ignore. I mean, an eight-pack of AAAs for a buck? Even if they only last a few months, they’d still be more cost-effective than their $11.99 equivalent at Target, right?
The danger of using cheap batteries is that they can corrode inside your electronics and destroy them. Leaky batteries are extremely toxic as well, requiring a careful application of vinegar to neutralize before safely disposing of.
You’re much better off buying a megapack of safe, reliable batteries from Costco.
Dollar stores often feature a prominent smartphone accessory section filled with items you’d normally see at gas stations for $9.99. Wall chargers, USB-C cords, and cheap earbuds may all be tempting, especially when the same generic items are so overpriced elsewhere.
But as with cheap batteries, cheap phone accessories pose a real hazard. Knockoff iPhone chargers, for example, are known to break your phone. There was even a 2019 study published by the American College of Emergency Physicians confirming that “Electric currents generated by mobile phone chargers, particularly from lower-cost generic manufacturers, are causing serious injuries” from burns and electrocution.
Buy from reputable sellers on Amazon instead.
If you’re spending a lot on your beauty routine, it’s probably worth it. The dollar store sure isn’t offering a shortcut.
The dollar store beauty aisle is filled with products that could wreak havoc on your skin. Many contain harmful chemicals, hidden allergens, or simply surprise ingredients that cause a breakout. Many items may be counterfeits, or just expired.
I know it’s not cheap, but your skin will thank you for skipping the dollar store on the way to Sephora.
What should you do with all your savings?
As you begin purchasing certain items at the dollar store, you’ll start saving $15, $50, maybe even $100 dollars a month. Why not toss it into a high-yield savings account, like CIT Bank Savings Builder, and watch your dollar store savings multiply?
Alternatively, you can begin thinking of the dollar store as the “$2 store” by using an account that automatically rounds up your purchase to the nearest dollar and deposits the difference into savings.
I’m a fan of the Chime Debit Visa Card from Chime for this reason; rounding your debits to whole numbers keeps your statements nice and tidy, and it’s comforting to know I’m depositing into my savings multiple times per day.Chime Disclosure - Chime is a financial technology company, not a bank. Banking services provided by, and debit card issued by, The Bancorp Bank or Stride Bank, N.A.; Members FDIC.
By consistently picking up certain items at your local dollar store, you can save hundreds per year without sacrificing quality. Supplies for your office, kitchen, and upcoming party are excellent purchases, as are around-the-house knick-knacks like glassware, decor, and storage bins.
But many items do not meet the safety standards of their pricier competitors and should be purchased elsewhere. Batteries, beauty products, phone accessories, food, and pet supplies should never enter your little green cart at the Dollar Tree.