By Jennifer Steil
A bottle of chili powder for a buck is a great buy. But a roll of paper towels? Not so much. Here's how to spot the real bargains
Jin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesWho doesn't love a great deal at the dollar store? It sounds promising -- but does it deliver? The answer is yes and no, say consumer savings experts. If you're a savvy shopper and avoid shoddy merchandise or products that are still overpriced at a dollar, there are definitely deals to be had. A word of warning: not everything at every dollar store costs a dollar, says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert at kinoliinc.com. The Dollar Tree charges a dollar for every item but Dollar General offers pricier stuff, too. That's where you need to be careful. Impulse buying could get you into trouble even at dollar stores, says consumer savings expert Regina Novickis. While the values may be terrific, it's easy to get caught up in a shopping frenzy and leave with more than you need. "Just because it's a dollar, doesn't mean it's a deal," says Farnoosh Torabi, Yahoo! Finance contributor and host of Financially Fit. "If it's not something you need or even want, forget about it. Come to the dollar store with a mission." Read on to find out how to get the most for your buck.
BUY THIS: Cleaning Products
The ingredients in most cleaning products are essentially the same; you won't find much difference between Clorox and a generic brand, says Jackie Warrick, Chief Savings Officer and President at CouponCabin.com. Even if the product is slightly diluted and you need to use a bit more, you're still only spending $1 on each item. Sponges are usually a good deal too.
SKIP THAT: Toys
It's no secret that most kids are rough on their toys. "Toys at dollar stores typically lack in quality, so you're likely to have a broken toy that needs to be replaced often," says Warick. Invest in higher quality toys that will last to reduce the damage to your wallet in the long run. Another word of warning: toys purchased at dollar stores may be unsafe and the parts and paints used in them may not meet typical regulatory standards. Kids' coloring books are the exception. These are $1 or 50 percent cheaper at dollar stores than at retailers like Target.
BUY THIS: Shampoo
Off-brand shampoos, toothpastes, shaving cream, deodorant, and other bath items are usually just as good as the name brands, and you can save big. You can save up to $2 a bottle on shampoo alone. Expensive shampoos don't make hair more luxurious than cheap store-brand shampoos, says Consumer Reports. The only noticeable difference is how more expensive shampoos smell, says Novickis.
SKIP THAT: Batteries
Batteries purchased at dollar stores often wear out quickly, experts say. Ultimately, you end up spending more by having to replace the batteries more often. If you do buy batteries, be discriminating, says Torabi. "Make sure they're actually made with lithium as opposed to carbon zinc. A lot of generic batteries are made with carbon zinc -- it's not as superior of an ingredient. They don't last as long maybe due to leakage." Leaking batteries can also damage your electronics.
BUY THIS: Greeting Cards
Cards are often priced two for a dollar, so they're a real steal. Greeting card store prices can run up to $5 per card, so you are looking at a $2 to $4 savings, says Woroch. The quality of the paper stock may not be premium, but it's your handwritten message inside that really matters anyway.
SKIP THAT: Medications and Vitamins
Medications and vitamins at dollar stores may be unregulated and mislabeled, says Warrick. That's because they don't meet the same rigorous testing and standards that products at regular stores do, she adds. Consumer Reports found that multi-vitamins sold at dollar stores didn't always have the amount of nutrients claimed on the label. Stick to well-known brands when it comes to your vitamins, or go to your local drug store.
BUY THIS: Spices
You may not find the most exotic selection at dollar stores, says Jeff Yeager, author of The Cheapskate Next Door. "But a buck each for large-sized containers of such kitchen basics as cinnamon, parsley, basil, chili powder, and pepper? It can't be beat." Be sure to check expiration dates.
SKIP THAT: Paper Products
Paper towels, toilet paper, and tissues tend to be of the flimsy, single-ply variety. Plus, you can usually find them cheaper at your grocery store. "A roll of paper towels for a dollar is not a bargain at all," says Yeager.
BUY THIS: Bottled and Packaged Foods
You can get great deals on pickles, olives, salsa, and other bottled, tinned, packaged, and long-lasting items. "Olives are olives," says Yeager. "They just don't go bad." But make sure to check the expiration date. Some dollar stores even carry perishables such as produce, dairy, and meat products. Many will be close to their expiration dates, but if you plan to eat something on the day of purchase, go for it.
SKIP THAT: Drinks
A liter of soda for a dollar is not a bargain when you can get two liters for a dollar at your local grocery store, says Yeager. Drinks in general are not priced competitively at dollar stores. Other experts agree. Instead, buy in bulk at a warehouse store.
BUY THIS: Picture Frames
Dollar stores carry a wide selection of frames, which make great gifts when paired with a family photo. Inspect the frames carefully before purchasing, to make sure they don't have stray streaks of glue on them. To spruce them up a bit, choose a fun color to paint them.
SKIP THAT: Plastic and Aluminum Wraps
Off-brand cling film from dollar stores doesn't tend to cling, said Yeager. You're better off buying this at a supermarket, unless you can find a brand-name plastic wrap at dollar stores. And while dollar store aluminum foil tends to work pretty well, it's cheaper to buy it in bulk. You can get three higher quality, 100-foot rolls of foil for $10.14 at Costco. Dollar stores sell 25-foot rolls for a dollar each, meaning you'd need $4 for 100 feet -- or $12 for 300 feet.
SKIP THAT: School Supplies
Dollar stores have decent deals, but you aren't really saving much over what you can find at larger chain stores, says Novickis. It's best to stock up on these items at Target or Walmart during back-to-school season, when items are deeply discounted.
BUY THIS: Movie Theater or Halloween Candy
Movie theater concessions are so overpriced that it's easy to spend more on popcorn and candy than on the tickets themselves. Which is why movie night at home is a great idea. Many dollar stores will have 2 for $1 promotions, says Novickis. So it's a great place to stock up for Halloween and movie night.
SKIP THAT: Baking Soda
Shop warehouse stores such as Costco or Sam's Club for this item, says Novickis. On average, when you buy a bundle of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda at a warehouse store, you'll only end up paying 85 cents per box. They don't spoil, so it's fine to stock up. Plus you can use it for cleaning, too.
BUY THIS: Seasonal Stuff
Stocking stuffers and home decorations will cost you 30 to 70 percent less at dollar stores than at party supply or drug stores, says Woroch. One of the best ways to save on quality items is to shop at the end of a season (all stores will discount Halloween décor and candy after Halloween is over), says Novickis. But since most people don't plan their holidays quite that far in advance, the dollar store is a great place to save money on these items year-round.
SKIP THAT: Pet Food
To ensure the safety of your pet's food, shop at national chains that tend to have good safety procedures in place, says Novickis. Knock-off food just isn't worth the risk. And deals can be found on cases of name brand foods at the national chains that are better than the deals you'll find at a dollar store, he says. For example, a case of 24 cans of Fancy Feast is around $12 at Target (50 cents a can). Plus, Target sometimes runs promotions that will give buyers a free $5 Target gift card for every two cases bought. Apply that $5 toward a future purchase and each can comes out to 43 cents, a much better deal.
BUY THIS: Grooming Items
Hair elastics, headbands, barrettes, and other grooming products are generally a great deal at dollar stores. Sometimes you can even find brand name products, such as Ivory soap, Lady Speed Stick deodorant, or Gillette shaving cream. And pregnancy tests, which often retail for $15, are great value.
SKIP THAT: Power Cords and Strips
Dollar store versions of power cords, power strips, or extension cords are often shoddily made and can damage electronics, says Woroch. Steer clear of any computer cables or USB cables, which can fall apart easily and can damage your computer. Instead, buy from a hardware store or specialty computer store.
BUY THIS: Food Storage Containers
These plastic tubs will generally cost you 30 percent less at dollar stores than at discount retailers like Walmart and Target, says Woroch. You can pick up whole sets of containers, and use some of the smaller ones for nonfood items such as nails, screws, or thumbtacks. You can also find specialty storage items, like a tortilla holder.
SKIP THAT: Oven Mitts Though priced 30 to 40 percent less than at most other stores, dollar store mitts are poorly constructed and offer less protection for your hands when pulling hot pans out of the oven, which could lead to burns, says Woroch. In this case, you get what you pay for. Look for thick, well-made, and longer-lasting oven mitts elsewhere.
SKIP THAT: Cotton Swabs
Generic brand cotton swabs at dollar stores cost nearly $2 less than the leading brand, Q-Tips, says Woroch. But other experts caution that most dollar store cotton swabs are so flimsy that they bend in half when you try to use them, or have too little cotton on the ends.
SKIP THAT: Knives
Knives at dollar stores tend to be dull -- and will quickly get even duller, say Woroch and Warrick. The blades of cheap knives are also thinner and bend more easily, making it difficult to do precision slicing and easy to hurt yourself. Spend a bit more for quality knives elsewhere.
BUY THIS: Socks Dollar stores offer great deals on packages of socks for both men and women, says Woroch. Soft socks made from acrylic and spandex cost at least $2.50 per pair in department stores and $12 from Sears, so dollar stores offer considerable savings.
SKIP THAT: Calculators Dollar store calculators are more likely to break and die on you, says Woroch. They also display fewer numbers and may lack many of the functions of higher quality calculators. It's better to spend a little more for something that will last your child through their school years, she says.
BUY THIS: Some -- Not All -- Makeup
Makeup application sponges are $1 to $2.79 cheaper at dollar stores than at Target and Walmart, says Woroch. Lipstick for a dollar is also a particularly good bargain. A Revlon lipstick, for example, usually costs $7.99 at a drug store. Make sure the tube is sealed and in good condition. Eye shadows and liners are also usually good buys, but skip the foundation unless you can find a brand you already use. Cheap foundations can cause skin problems, and most expire after a year.
SKIP THAT: Chewing Gum
You'll find much better prices on brands that are on sale at your local grocery store, says Woroch. Better yet, buy in bulk at Costco to save even more. Even Amazon often has cheaper gum. It currently sells Orbit sugarless gum for $10.61 for 12 packs.
BUY THIS: Dishtowels
These cost at least $1 less at dollar stores than at grocery and other kitchen supply stores, says Woroch. But give the towels a good feel before you buy them. Some may be too thin to be truly absorbent.
One last tip: Remember your coupons. Many dollar stores will honor manufacturer's coupon discounts on top of the already low prices. Double up and save even more.
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By Jennifer Steil