Thriftstyle Dollars: When the Dollar Store makes sense

I’ve talked a lot about buying things at Dollar Stores already, but haven’t really gone in depth on them yet. So here’s your chance to read everything you need to know about these seemingly magical stores.

The other night I was laying awake in bed when a thought came into my mind: if Dollar Stores are so wonderful and cheap, how do they make money? I did a little googling and came across this article from The New York Times. Its an interesting read, although it explains more about the business side of Dollar Stores than how to use them to your advantage in saving some money. But that is what I am here for, lovely thriftstylers.

So…how do you know when shopping at a Dollar Store makes sense?

Well, there are a few things to think about.


Sure, Dollar Stores are cheap, but if you’re running all over the city to get to one, the savings might be outweighed by the cost of gas and/or time spent traveling. This is one of the reasons I don’t always go to Trader Joe’s (because Jewel is right around the corner). One of my ex’s moms used to drive all over her town to get the “best deal” on all the groceries and other things she had to buy. For her, this might make sense (because she didn’t have much else to do with her time and legitimately enjoyed this process), but I don’t have the time or the desire for this kind of thing. I hate shopping, for the most part. Its tedious and time-consuming. I’m a “get in, get what I need, get the hell out” kind of girl. There happens to be a Dollar Store walking-distance to my current (and also my soon-to-be) home, so for me its convenient to shop there. But if its not directly convenient for you, it either might not be the best option, or you might want to make it part of another activity that happens to bring you closer to it (for instance I have to drive out to my parents’ house sometimes or out to the suburbs to perform – at those times I’ll remember to go to the stores nearby that I don’t often go to).

Per-item or Per-serving Cost

“Everything costs a dollar!” might sound like a steal, but you have to do a little digging beneath the surface to determine the true value. For things that are packaged together, the dollar price might not be better than other stores when the amount of items you get – or the serving size, in the case of food – are taken into account. Think about it this way: if you get 15 plates for $1 at the Dollar Store but 30 plates for $1.50 elsewhere (these prices and amounts are obviously made up for this example) it would be more cost-effective to purchase the plates elsewhere, depending on how many you need. With some food and candy, you’ll get a better price elsewhere – don’t let the $1 price fool you! Do a little price analysis before you buy.

Don’t be a sucker!

I’ve said it a bunch already and I’ll likely say it a bunch more: MAKE A LIST!! It doesn’t have to be super specific, but writing down a general list of categories (cleaning supplies, decorations, DIY supplies, etc.) will help you stick to a certain path and prevent you from wandering away from that path to check out the “hot deal of the day.” Most of the crap at the Dollar Store is exactly that: crap. Crap you don’t need. Crap you’ll be wasting money on. Its not beneficial to shop at the Dollar Store if you spend a ton of money on this crap and then not use it for anything other than cluttering up your home. So make yourself a list and stick to what you know you need and will use.

Quality – what are you really buying?

If you read the NY Times article, you’ll see that Dollar Stores sometimes cut a lot of corners so they can still make a profit while keeping prices low. Some Dollar Stores cut corners by renting cheaper locations. Some do it by buying cheaper merchandise. A lot of the stuff they buy (and then sell to you) is reject merchandise from other stores, stuff nearing its expiration or items that might sacrifice a few important ingredients to keep the cost of production low. If you’re looking for something specific, it helps to turn the products around and read the ingredients list, making sure that the one you’re looking for is listed. If its not, you obviously shouldn’t buy it. Also check the expiration date and the general look of the packaging: if its close to or past its expiration date or the package looks beat up, its probably not a good buy. Some people are more adventurous than others, but I would likely stay away from most food products (excluding candy and packaged snack items like chips, cookies, fruit snacks, etc.), medications and vitamins.

Also be wary of safety concerns for some items. Dollar Store toys might be cheaply made, use poor quality materials, or have small parts so watch out. And I would stay away from more electrical items like batteries, extension cords, and Christmas lights. Its better to be safe than sorry, folks.

Finally, while the ingredients you need might be listed, the quality of some things is always going to be better at a higher price. For instance, its easy to say “soap is just soap no matter where you buy or how much it costs.” But the truth of the matter is my more expensive TIGI Catwalk Curlesque shampoo and conditioner make my hair look and feel 100 times better than the cheaper TRESemmé products I used to buy. Trust me guys, its okay to not buy Dollar Store shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, etc. if you know its going to make your skin and hair freak out and, in turn, make you miserable. Saving money doesn’t always have to be a sacrifice.

In my oh-so-humble opinion…

Here are the things that are actually deals at Dollar Stores:

  • Small on-the-go hand lotion to stick in your purse
  • Nail polish, especially if you like to change the color often (expensive nail polish chips just as much as the cheap stuff, in my experience)
  • Shampoo, body wash, lotion, etc. – IF it all really is “just soap” to you (some people don’t care and I applaud them for it) then go ahead and buy to your heart’s content!
  • Kitchen items (ziploc bags, tinfoil, glasses, plates, spoons, spatulas, ice cream scoops, dish towels, oven mitts, and on and on) – There is so much stuff to take advantage of in the kitchen department. You don’t need a $10 designer spatula. So get smart and get to the Dollar Store.
  • Party supplies (invitations, decorations, party favors, goody bags, balloons, serving ware – everything!) – I HATE buying expensive, goofy items at regular party stores (talk about a waste of money) so make sure to check out the Dollar Store for your next get-together.
  • Greeting Cards, wrapping paper, etc. – Along with buying expensive party supplies, I HATE the cost of wrapping paper, bags, tissue paper, and greeting cards. If its the thought that counts, why am I spending $5 on Mother’s and Father’s Day cards? Go ahead and stock up on cards for all the major holidays at MUCH lower costs at the good ol’ Dollar Store.
  • Cleaning supplies (wipes, paper towels, sponges, rubber gloves, soaps, etc.) – If you don’t care about buying name-brand or being uber green, Dollar Stores are the way to go. These cleaners work just as well as the ones you’d buy elsewhere at a MUCH cheaper price.
  • Seasonal/Holiday items – I am not big on buying a lot of this kind of crap but some people are (::cough:: my mom ::cough::). But if you love certain holidays and want to be cute at work or with friends or decorate your home from top-to-bottom, buy your decorations, toys, cards, etc. at the Dollar Store.
  • Some food, candy, beverages – Again check out the per-serving costs, the expiration dates and the wear-and-tear of the packaging. But if you’re hosting a party, you will definitely get a deal in the snack department (chips, cookies, nuts, candy, soda, etc.).

So that’s my advice. Obviously you should check things out for yourselves as your needs/wants are different than mine – and the situation is different at every Dollar Store. But its definitely worth checking out, especially if you live/work near one.


Domino’s Pizza: Cheap pizza alternative for low-key get togethers

I know, I know. Domino’s is gross. But its really not anymore. Those commercials don’t lie, the taste has gotten a lot better. Trust me, I would know after being fed nothing but Domino’s at Wash U – St. Louis has a SERIOUS decent pizza shortage – and one of my jobs during grad school. As a Chicagoan, I’m a pretty discerning pizza-lover, but I also don’t need to eat crazy expensive pizza all the time. If you’re having a game night or other casual, low-key get together I recommend ordering some Domino’s. We did it after the Pride Parade. We did it last night while playing Risk. A few pizzas winds up being a couple bucks per person and everyone winds up full. Think about it.


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