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Dollar Store Diaries: 5 Things NOT to Buy at the Discount Store

By David Bakke

For anyone living a truly frugal life, the local dollar store is more than just a blip on the radar. For starters, they seem to carry every necessity imaginable. In fact, I recently heard of a dollar store in Texas that now sells beer and wine – a surprising addition for a store known for its off-brands and knickknacks. Still, it’s safe to say that the dollar store is a great place to shop and to save money.

Though I still frequent mine quite a bit, the excitement of thinking I could buy all of my essentials there eventually wore off, and I came to realize that there are, in fact, some things that you simply should not purchase at a discount store.

I’ve listed five items that you should NOT buy at the dollar store below.

1. Small, Packaged Items
The first thing you need to realize is that dollar stores are in business to make money, so don’t expect the deals to be so good that the store is selling products for a loss. Be wary of items that they sell in small sizes, like dish washing liquids, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, shampoo, and lotion. Dollar stores sell in such small quantities because it’s easy to trick consumers into thinking the product is cheap based on the price tag, though when you consider the price per ounce of the product, even the $1 cost is astronomically high. Also, since many dollar store products don’t display prices per ounce, like most grocery stores do, it’s not easy to check to see if the product is fairly priced.

2. Towels and Other Fabric Products
Hand towels or other fabric items at the dollar store are often bad deals simply because they’re low-quality products. I’ve purchased towels at my local discount store, and the quality has always been sub-par. It felt like the towels were falling apart in my hands from the first moment I used them, and I got very little “life” out of them. While brand name items may cost a few more dollars, they’ll last far longer, especially after everyday use and washing.

3. Food Products
While I don’t have research stating that food items from dollar stores are unsafe in any way, shape, or form, I’d proceed with caution before purchasing any perishables at a discount store. At the very least, check expiration dates and dented packaging. Most of the brands are unfamiliar off-brands, which is a reason for caution but not necessarily complete avoidance. While it’s possible that you can save money by purchasing some of these items, I prefer to save money grocery shopping by seeking out sales and utilizing discount grocery coupons (i.e. extreme couponing).

For more insights in this category, check out our experiment with dollar store dining food items.

4. Toys
Toys generally warrant a “maybe” from me when deciding whether or not to buy them from a dollar store. I have a four year-old son who, if he had his way, would have a new toy every single day. So, in a strictly financial sense, shopping at a dollar store could save money. However, my personal experience has taught me that the quality of dollar store toys is pretty low. Many times, the toys simply don’t work – right out of the box.

Furthermore, I imagine that dollar stores know they have the upper hand, because in reality, if you spend a dollar on a toy and it doesn’t work, would you bother to return it? I certainly never have. So while shopping at a dollar store for toys can satisfy your little one’s desire for a new toy each day, the quality just isn’t there.

5. Music
Most discount stores have a featured rack with plenty of CD’s – and maybe even some cassette tapes. You may find a diamond in the rough every now and then, but usually there’s a reason why these albums got pushed to the discount rack. In a pinch, you can find some new tunes to get you through a long car ride, and it may be worth a dollar just to hear something you haven’t heard before. While it’s nice to get an entire CD for the cost of one track on iTunes, don’t expect to discover the next up-and-coming artist at the dollar store.

Also, be sure to check out the free music listening and sharing websites. Free is better than even $1 after all.

Final Word

There are still great discounts to be found at the dollar store. It just takes some trial and error to find the best deals. I just purchased a 2011 calendar for a buck, I always find good packing supplies, and I buy the majority of my greeting cards for a dollar. But like all good things, there are pitfalls, and these danger items can cause trouble when you take frugal shopping a little too far.

Have you tried any of these items, or are there additional products that you think shouldn’t be bought at a discount store? Add to the Dollar Store Diaries in the comments below.

(photo credit: stevensnodgrass)

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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  • http://www.moneybeagle.com Money Beagle

    A lot of ‘bottled’ cleaning supplies aren’t actually bad deals but I’ve learned my lesson to stay away from anything like a mop or dustpan as the quality is simply so low on those things that they’re not even really fit to use even in the garage or basement.

    The best deal we have found is tissue paper. A Hallmark store will sell you like five sheets for two or three dollars, where you can get a huge package of it for a dollar, and let’s face it, white tissue paper is white tissue paper.

    • David Bakke

      Money Beagle

      Great point on the TP!!

      Thanks for commenting…

  • debi

    I have found one time that buying shampoo, conditioner, dish soap, laundry detergent and fabric softener at dollar stores. When we fly to florida we rent a house and need to supply our own household items. With the weight limits on suitcases we can’t bring them with us so we stop at a dollar store. While the price per ounce may be more that at a discount store, $1 is cheaper than $3 or more since we leave the items behind after the week vacation.

  • http://www.moneycrashers.com David/moneycrashers

    Debi

    Great tip–I can definitely see how in that instance, shopping at a dollar store would make sense.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Jenn

    I recently bought many gradutation party supplies at a dollar store. I also loaded up on Thank You notes. Buying 10 notes for a dollar was way better than 10 for $3.99 at Target. The quality may be below the Target ones but when you are sending out over 100 it was a no brainer.

  • David Bakke

    Jenn

    Great point.

    Yes, there are things that are definitely worth buying there, I just wanted to point out some of the ones I didn’t have much luck with.

    Thanks for commenting

    David

  • Fayzie090

    My 99cent store has recently started selling fresh produce. It is the best, no kidding, honeydew melons for 99cents that are delicious, fresh salad makings, cream cheese, Wt Watchers desserts, bagels and english muffins from our local bakery etc. Very pleased and will be checking in oftern.

    • Davidbakke

      That’s awesome! I’ll have to check mine out to see if they’re doing the same…

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