Shopping at the Dollar Store: the Best Tips for Finding Bargains and Saving Money

UPDATE: Tips from Others on Hubbers

Updated March 9, 2008

If you would like to submit your own additions to this hub, I would welcome further tips. Let's make our dollar store experience as efficient and productive as possible!

Tips from MarioByDesign

  1. Birthday cards are 2/$1.00, much cheaper than the $1.50 each you'll find at the grocery store.
  2. 100% cotton balls can be found at the dollar store, while they're $1.77 at WalMart.

Tips from Dafla:

  1. You can return things from the dollar store fairly painlessly, so don't let what you bought and didn't like become a waste of money.
  2. Look at the unit price of items to make sure you're not just paying less for less product.
  3. Finally, she also suggests "Big Lots for...food" and "Dollar General for toiletries."

Thanks so much for all the comments. Keep them coming!

What Items Are at the Dollar Store?

The first thing we need to do is understand how items end up at a dollar store. Snopes.com states that most items are at dollar stores because they are one of these:

  1. Items purchased wholesale in great quantities.
  2. Overstocked merchandise.
  3. Old merchandise.
  4. Smaller, less well-known brands.
  5. Foreign brands.

Let's look at a specific example: The Dollar Tree. How does it keep its prices low? According to its company website, through

"1) Purchasing power (we buy in huge quantities),

2) Purchasing manufacturers' over-runs, and

3) Constantly scrutinizing ways we can cut or avoid costs."

Of these reasons, two of them can help us make better-informed shopping decisions. These are the fundamental rules for shopping at dollar stores:

  1. Save your most basic and common purchases for the Dollar Store. (e.g. shampoo, pens)
  2. Make it a point to consider items that weren't as popular as the makers originally expected. (e.g. seasonal dishes, unusual colors/scents/styles of popular products)

Simply put, think about why items show up at the dollar store, and how you can use this knowledge to your best advantage.

The Dollar Store Phenomenon

What Is Truly a Bargain?

In short, the best bang for our buck is going to be items that there are no significant differences from the versions you would find in a normal store, like Target. Keep your eyes out for:

  1. Items with physical defects that don't hurt what's inside. Dents on bottles or cans, misprinted labels where the color is all wrong, anything that doesn't look nice enough to be in a more expensive store. We're not going to be taking pictures of a jar of baby food, so why pay more for the label on it to be glossy and flawless?
  2. Items that you are constantly going through, but the quality doesn't really matter. E.g. plastic zipper bags, gift tissue paper, or pens and pencils. You don't need to worry much about quality with items like these, because they're disposable. There's no reason to pay a lot for something that gets thrown away (or lost, in the case of pens) quickly.
  3. Items you can buy in bulk, and not need to drive back to the store to get them in a long time. Take advantage of good deals! Every dollar store does not have the same goods all the time. They can't predict when a higher-end seller is going to offer them flawed goods. If you see a bargain, like an eight-pack of paper towels for a dollar, take it!
  4. Generic brands of common necessities. Be very aware when you're just paying for the brand-name of an item. Except in a few cases, (discussed later) you should be fine buying generic. Toothpaste is a great example of consumer loyalty. Ditch your devotion to Crest, Colgate, Rembrandt, whatever, and save your money.

With all that said, be aware of why the products you see are in the stores. Never buy a product if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Some people don't buy foreign brands, (except for Canadian) and that's okay. Do what will make you feel best about saving money, and only be frugal to the point that is best for you.

Seasonal items, like these Valentine's teddy bears, are common finds at dollar stores.
Seasonal items, like these Valentine's teddy bears, are common finds at dollar stores.

What Are You Best Off Staying Away From?

It's different for everybody, but there is a point where even a great discount is not worth the cost in inconvenience or ineffectiveness. Some items I will never purchase at the dollar store, and instead stick with the name brands. These items include:

  1. Items where the quality truly does matter. Sure, it might feel silly to pay $3 for a box of Kleenex, but if you're going to wince in pain every time you wipe your nose with the cheap stuff, it's worth it to splurge on the name brand. (another example are dish towels - thin and abrasive - ow!)
  2. Items that are composed of concentrated materials to be effective. Often, a supplier will just dilute the substance to make it cheaper, and count on us not to realize the difference in effectiveness. I paid a dollar for a Drano knockoff once, but it was about as effective as pouring bleach down the drain. (other examples include dish soap and laundry detergent)
  3. Certain food items. They usually aren't past the expiration date, but they might be close. Check all dates, always, and don't buy unless you're planning to use it all up within a reasonable amount of time.

Some recent issues with items being sold in dollar stores have happened with vitamins (missing one or more of the ingredients stated) and toys with small parts that were not labeled as such. Be a careful shopper, just as you would with anything else you purchase.

Name-brand candy can be a good bargain at dollar stores.
Name-brand candy can be a good bargain at dollar stores.

Ultimate Best Buys

These inexpensive items that are our the absolute best buys from the dollar store.

  • Candy, and often name brand is available.
  • Paper products, like paper towels and paper plates.
  • Household cleaners.
  • Office supplies like pens and paper.
  • Gift supplies, including tissue paper and wrapping paper.
  • Personal hygiene products, like soap, deodorant, and shampoo.
  • Dry cooking materials, such as flour or baking soda.

But remember: you haven't saved money or gotten a bargain at the dollar store unless a) it's something you were going to buy anyway and b) you got the use out of it you needed to. Even though it's only a dollar, no impulsive buys: every dollar adds up!

Real Life Application: Preparing Gifts

Presents can be a huge drain on your income, because we all feel an obligation to give our loved ones gifts. However, no longer does that have to be expensive. Here are a few ways to keep costs down.

  1. Make it fun to be frugal. GetRichSlowy suggests setting limits on the prices of gifts. This can be a Christmastime tradition, or an all-year long present rule. As an added bonus, it also encourages thoughtfulness, and makes people think long and hard about what we should give each other.
  2. Get the kids presents from the dollar store. As long as you stay away from toys with small parts, one-dollar presents are a great idea. You can even take the children there and let them pick out their own gifts.
  3. If neither of the above suggestions work, at least you can save money by buying your wrapping paper, gift bags, and cards at the dollar store. They tear right through them anyway - no need to spend a lot of money on the trimmings.

The joy in gift-giving has much more to do with attitude and togetherness than exactly how much you spent on a present. Focus on ways to cut costs in the pursuit of having the freedom to do the things that make you happy.

Using Wesabe for More Tips on Saving Money

Go Forth and Save

I sincerely hope this article helped you in some small way. I learned a lot about dollar stores myself in my research for writing this. My goal here was to help you save money on the things we need to buy anyway, not to encourage you to spend more. Look for more personal finance articles by me in the future!

BrittanyC

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Comments 18 comments

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Great HUB. You're right it pays to be a smart shopper.

regards Zsuzsy


Bob Ewing profile image

Bob Ewing 8 years ago from New Brunswick

I use the local dollar store frequently. This is an excellent hub with soild info, thanks.


dafla 8 years ago

Great hub! Definitely adding this one to the frugal hubs list. I'm a dollar store junky! I've even bought dishes there! Can't say I haven't gotten things that didn't work or weren't worth the money, but in reality, I've taken things back, with receipt, and always got a polite refund. Yes, you CAN return things to the dollar store!

I also love Big Lots for markdowns on food items, and Dollar General for toiletries as well.

I'll add the tip to always look at unit price. Sometimes shampoo at the dollar store might be cheaper, but have a few ounces less. By keeping track of the per unit, in this case per ounce, cost, you won't get cheated.


sminut13 profile image

sminut13 8 years ago from singapore

great tips. very informative.


sunstreeks profile image

sunstreeks 8 years ago from Western Washington

wow excellent hub!!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Super work! This is truly a helpful hub.


MarloByDesign profile image

MarloByDesign 8 years ago from United States

I love buying birthday cards at the dollar store - they are always 2/$1.00 near me. Why pay $2.50 for a card ($5.00 for two), when I can save $4.00 and get 2/$1.00 (50 cents each)!

I also get my 100% cotton balls at the dollar store, and the same ones are $1.77 at Wal-Mart! Wal-Mart is getting more and more expensive - I always check out the dollar store first.

Great hub.


Rarejewel 8 years ago

Great Job! I will definitely try some of the tips.


nancydodds1 profile image

nancydodds1 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Nice hub. You had done good work. Congrates i got more information from your hub. Thanks for sharing.


StrangeLittleBird 7 years ago

Thanks for the hub - it really is about value per dollar spent with some items well worth a dollar, some worth exactly one dollars and others not even worth $1. It pays to compare and to make wise choices


Melissa Uhles profile image

Melissa Uhles 7 years ago from pdx

I loved this, esp. that you included items to steer clear of. I've long been loyal to the dollar store, I may have to stop in today!


StrangeLittleBird 7 years ago

You are right about impulse buys - that happened to me several times. It pays to be judicious even when an item is only a buck!


Brupie profile image

Brupie 5 years ago

Thanks for the hub. Since the economy went down the tubes companies like the Family Dollar Store have done extremely well. I wrote a hub about it myself see http://hubpages.com/money/Chasing-Mispriced-Stocks...


Anjelica Rae profile image

Anjelica Rae 5 years ago

This is excellent. I love bargain hunting and am glad to see what is and is not a deal at the dollar store!


Mary C 5 years ago

Instead of buying expensive bath washes I buy the cheap shampoos at the dollar store and use that.Works great and I can get 3-5 bottles for the price of one brand name body wash. Some smell better than the brand! Just a tip,if you have dry skin get the one with moisterizer


4 years ago

i like it very much but i want to purchase a total clearence shop meterials like jewellery


bensen32 profile image

bensen32 2 years ago from Round Lake Park

There are a few things that I get at the dollar store every week cause they are much cheaper. To me birthday cards are a no brainer, people usually throw them out anyways why pay $3 or $4 when you can get them for a $1 or less.


Matty Fernandez profile image

Matty Fernandez 8 months ago from Passaic, NJ

I actually was very skeptical about laundry detergent, but it turns out that quality is pretty similar to the ones I buy for $2.50. I washed 5 loads with one dollar store laundry detergent, one fabric softener, and Gain sheets. I did my laundry for $4. I saved about $9, compared to buying at another store/brand.

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