Learn what to buy and avoid at the discount store.
by Ellie Kay, Army spouse
I promised the kids a real treat. The only problem was we didn’t have any money. It was early in our marriage when we often had more month than paycheck, and we were living on one military income. Planning special outings for five kids required creativity in order to stay within budget. Then I thought of a way to let them have fun that would only cost me $5 plus tax – a trip to the dollar store!
Fast-forward a few years, add a post-recession economy and now the Kay family is joined by a huge contingent of those who are after a deal. In fact, the Dollar Stores chain shows a quarterly growth of 8 percent and a revenue of $7.87 billion this past year. But buyer beware: When it comes to the wide variety of products, there are plenty of deals to be found at the dollar store – but there are more than a few duds as well. Here’s a guide to help you find the best value for your dollar.
Deal: Cleaning Supplies
If you’re not looking for brand names that you recognize, then you will be able to find some real deals on dollar store cleaning products. Most of these labels are developed just for this kind of discount store and they have the same ingredients as the brand names, but they also may be a little bit diluted. Unless you have a heavy duty job, most of these cleansers will more than accomplish what the average household needs in terms of cleaning. Don’t look for these to take out wine stains on the carpet or serious mildew on the tub; you’ll need to buy those specific kinds of cleansers outside the dollar store. A dollar store 32-ounce bottle of drain declogger was an 89 percent savings off of a 17-ounce, $4.99 bottle of Drano. While Murphy’s Oil Soap is $3.49 for 16 ounces, the dollar store off-brand was 71 percent less. A 50-ounce box of Tide is $5.49, while a 100 ounce box of dollar store suds saved me 91 percent!
Dud: Electrical Products
Extension cords, multi-plug adapters and other electrical products that were tested by Consumer Reports had some unsatisfactory results. While many of other types of products (cleansers, toiletries) passed with flying colors, some did not. If you need anything electrical, don’t scrimp on safety issues and risk a fire hazard; it’s just not worth it.
Deal: Gift Wrap and Cards
I think wrapping paper at the dollar store is actually a very good deal. Making a present look pretty doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, as it’s all in the way you wrap and decorate it! You can find gift bags, tissues, ribbons and cards in larger quantities that make these some of the best buys around. If you want to be creative, you can even buy other forms of “wrap” such as a placemat or bandana and decorate it with glittery jewelry or hair clips!
Once again, Consumer Reports found that the standards for some of the items on this shelf are not up to par. Vitamins are not regulated, so the labels may not be completely accurate. It’s better to buy a brand name to make sure you really are getting your vitamins each day.
It’s hard to go wrong with a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar or Planter’s peanuts and Wise potato chips. If you watch the ounces on these to make sure you’re not getting more packaging than product, you’ll find some super deals. These are the same brand names at the grocery store or local Jiffy Mart, but you’ll save a lot. I bought microwave popcorn at the dollar store for 72 percent off grocery store prices and saved 41 percent on a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi. My kids always love it when I come home with sparkling cider (a 45 percent savings over Costco), and we drink it out of dollar-store champagne glasses!
Dud: Off-Brand Toothpaste
Unfortunately, this is a commonly purchased item at dollar stores but one that has suffered under the heavy hand of national recalls. You also need to watch expiration dates, because some of these products expire while sitting on the shelf!
Deal: Shampoo and Bubble Bath
I love my bubble baths, and I can save big bucks by picking up my favorite lavender-scented bubbly at the dollar store. You can spend $20 on expensive salon store shampoo or $1 on the equivalent – and in both cases the product will end up going down the drain! There are only minor differences in concentration and ingredients and these aren’t worth paying 20 times more. If you’re going to splurge on something, then make it the conditioner, where you’ll see greater differences in the brand. By buying the off-brand shampoo instead of the Dove equivalent, I saved 72 percent, and my bubble bath was a whopping 85 percent off the Vaseline bubble bath at the grocery store.
Dud: Lunch Containers and Toys
If you’ve ever purchased something to store that salad in, then you understand that these tend to be so cheap they don’t seal well and keep the air out. But there’s another, greater concern as well. There have been lead paint discoveries in some of the children’s products, which means that they can be extremely unsafe as well. Toys are not always labeled correctly and can be poorly made. For research on these safety issues, go to ethicalshopping.com.
So have fun at the dollar store, but make sure that your deal doesn’t become a dud. If you’re going to buy my birthday present there, then make it Hershey’s chocolate!