With finances being tight for many these days, people are giving dollar stores another look. Selling everything from party essentials to craft supplies to kitchenware, they attract shoppers of all ages and income levels looking for a bargain.
While buying something useful for a buck might seem too good to be true, worthwhile deals abound. However, shopping at the dollar store can be hit or miss. For as many money-saving deals as there are, there are some terrible ones too. So there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to dollar store shopping.
Things You Should Always Buy at the Dollar Store
If you typically think of the dollar store as a repository of cheap junk, it’s definitely time to give it a second look. While there are plenty of things you should leave on the shelves, many of their products are comparable quality to higher-end stores but sell for significantly less. So if you’re looking for disposable products like gift wrap or party supplies or even a few durable ones like dishes and glassware, dollar stores can help you stretch a tight budget.
Gift & Party Supplies
The best deals at dollar stores are on goods meant for one-time use — like party plates, napkins, cups, gift wraps, bags, and cards. You don’t need things destined for the trash to be durable, and these typically cost significantly more at big-box and party stores. So checking out the dollar store first can save a lot of cash.
Cards are hands-down the No. 1 thing I always buy at the dollar store. These days, the typical greeting card retails for an average of $5. And I’ve even seen some that are upward of $10 — making the card potentially as expensive as the gift itself. On the other hand, the dollar store sells them for no more than $1 and many at 2 for $1. It’s also possible to find multipacks of thank you cards and party invitations. Plus, just because they’re dollar stores doesn’t mean they don’t carry name brands, so you may not even have to sacrifice quality. For example, Dollar Tree carries Hallmark.
2. Gift Bags & Wrapping Paper
Gift bags are another product I never buy anywhere but the dollar store. Why pay from $3 to $10 just to wrap the gift when you can spend only $1 and save the rest of your budget for the gift itself? Plus, dollar stores carry them in various designs and sizes, so you’re likely to find even large bags or those designed for a specific occasion, like weddings and baby showers.
Buying wrapping paper at the dollar store also saves a significant amount of money. However, while you won’t notice a difference in the quality of dollar store gift bags, dollar store gift wrap is typically thinner than pricier paper and there’s less on a roll. But when you’re spending money on something someone’s just going to tear up and trash anyway or need just enough for a single gift, it’s still a bargain.
Also be sure to stock up on tissue paper, gift tags, boxes, and bows — especially during the holiday season, when dollar stores carry these wrapping supplies in abundance.
3. Party Supplies
Whatever type of party you’re hosting — from a backyard barbecue to a kids birthday party — the dollar store carries plenty of supplies to help you decorate for the party and serve food. These include:
- Paper plates, napkins, and cups
- Champagne flutes
- Plastic forks, spoons, and knives
- Plastic tablecloths
- Paper streamers
- Birthday banners
- Latex balloons
- Mylar balloons
- Birthday candles
- Glow sticks, bracelets, necklaces, and wands
- Party hats
- Table centerpieces
- Plastic serving bowls and trays
- Plastic serving-ware
While the selection is nowhere near as extensive as a party store, it’s possible to find supplies with licensed characters like Disney characters or superheroes. So even if you’re throwing a kids birthday party and your child wants a specific character, it’s worth checking out the dollar store before heading to the party store — especially since a typical supply run at a party store could set you back $40 to $100 for a single party.
Specifically, Mylar balloons are one thing to always buy from the dollar store. While they don’t carry the giant-size ones, where else can you buy a Mylar balloon plus helium fill for only $1?
4. Goodie Bag Fillers, Stocking Stuffers, & Party Favors
If you’re looking for small gifts — like the kind to fill birthday party goodie bags or Christmas stockings — dollar stores are full of suitable trinkets. From small toys to stickers, decks of cards, puzzles, souvenir plastic party cups, boxes of crayons and colored pencils, play packs (which come with small coloring books, crayons, and stickers), and candy, you can find everything you need.
Additionally, if you’re throwing an adult party — like a baby shower, bridal shower, or graduation party — you can fashion many dollar store products into suitable favors. For example, wrap a dollar store candle in a piece of tulle for a bridal shower favor. Buy a small succulent for each guest and attach a homemade tag that reads, “Watch Me Grow,” for a baby shower favor. Or fill dollar store glass jars with candy for a graduation party favor.
As with party supplies, many seasonal items aren’t intended for long-term use. Additionally, things like decorations — which are only meant to look at — don’t need to be the highest quality. They just need to reflect the look you’re going for.
5. Holiday Supplies
If you’re into holiday decorating and celebration, dollar stores are a goldmine. They typically carry decor and supplies for just about every holiday:
- Halloween: Pumpkins, leaves, spiderwebs, window-clings, treat bags, costume pieces, and scarecrows
- Thanksgiving: Pilgrim hats, cloth napkins and tablecloths, wall hangings, leaf garlands, and fall-themed florals
- Christmas: Ornaments, stockings, Santa hats, tinsel, garlands, wreaths, and DIY kits for making Christmas gifts
- New Year’s Eve: Hats, glasses, noisemakers, plastic Champagne flutes, confetti, streamers, and balloons
- Valentine’s Day: Valentines, craft kits, classroom favors, card boxes, candy boxes, heart-shaped wall decor, and roses
- St. Patrick’s Day: Tinsel shamrocks, hats, and decorated “beer” mugs
- Mardi Gras: Feather boas, beaded necklaces, and hats
- Easter: Plastic eggs, candy eggs and bunnies, Easter grass, florals, and wall hangings
- Fourth of July: Flags, bunting, table decor, fireworks, sparklers, and glow wands, necklaces, and bracelets
And while it’s true you can find a lot of gaudy or cheesy-looking stuff at dollar stores, it’s also possible to find decor that weaves in seamlessly with classier-looking decorations. Just stay away from the lights, which have a poor track record for safety.
6. Seasonal Apparel & Accessories
While dollar stores aren’t good places to find high-quality clothing items, seasonal accessories you like to stock up on — like sunglasses or knit gloves — are worthwhile buys. That’s especially true for anything you routinely misplace. For example, I spent a lot of money on sunglasses until I realized how often I left them in restaurants or accidently sat on a pair I left in the car seat. Now I only ever buy inexpensive ones. That way, if one pair gets lost or broken, it’s not a huge loss. Plus, at such a low price, I can stash a few pairs in my car and my handbag, so I’m never without a pair when I need one. Just be sure any sunglasses you buy from the dollar store provide UV protection.
Other seasonal accessories to stock up on include knit scarves, hats, gloves, flip flops, and sun hats.
7. Gardening Accessories & Seeds
While you won’t find any high-quality gardening tools or large pots, the dollar store carries several useful garden supplies. These include gardening gloves and small planters — especially terra cotta pots, which retail for $10 or more at home improvement stores. Dollars stores also typically carry seed packets, usually several for $1. At other stores, seed packets can cost upward of $3 apiece, especially in season. And it’s my favorite place to find garden decor — like garden stakes, wind chimes, and solar lights.
8. Beach & Pool Gear
If you’re headed to the beach this summer, stock up first at the dollar store. Beach pails and shovels don’t always make it home from the trip, so why spend more? Plus, many dollar stores stock additional gear for building the ultimate sandcastle, including wall and tower molds.
Likewise, dollar stores often carry floats and games for a fun day at the pool. These include beach balls, inner tubes, pool noodles, dive toys, water blasters, and water balloons. One word of caution: Avoid buying anything that’s used as a safety device like arm floaties, as they aren’t the kind of thing you want to risk springing a leak.
While there’s definitely some kitchen gear to avoid, it’s possible to stock your kitchen with glasses, mugs, dishes, and bowls from the dollar store. In fact, with many of these, you won’t even notice a difference in quality.
9. Mugs & Glasses
We loaded up on glasses from Walmart, but I wish I’d checked the dollar store first. Dollar Tree carries the same exact glasses I paid three times as much for. Likewise, you can find decent-quality ceramic mugs. And while some dollar stores sell decorated mugs, the dollar store is the perfect place to stock up on plain white mugs for craft projects. Plus, since they typically sell them by the mug, you can buy only as many as you need.
All our white ceramic dinner plates are from Dollar Tree, and they’ve held up amazingly well over the years. Plus, they’re the same size, thickness, and look of similar plates I’ve seen at Bed Bath & Beyond that retail for 10 times as much. As with mugs, the dollar store is also the perfect place to buy plates and bowls — including clear glass ones — for craft projects.
11. Foil Pans
Before your next picnic, potluck, or family get-together, make a trip to the dollar store to stock up on foil pans. They cost significantly less at the dollar store than the grocery store. And for something disposable, why pay more than $1? While dollar store pans are sometimes flimsier than those from the grocery, you can double up and still save significantly. Also keep in mind that their big pans might not come with lids. But they still work for make-ahead freezer meals if you cover them with aluminum foil. Additionally, they often have smaller pans, including loaf pans and small circular pans perfect for reheating things in the oven or carrying home leftovers after family holiday dinners.
In addition to kitchenware, dollar stores also carry decor, cleaning, and organization supplies you can use all over the house. As with other categories, to keep costs low, there are often fewer size options. And in some cases, they’re lower-quality. So you won’t be able to outfit your entire home with dollar store products. But they do carry some useful products that can help you save in a few critical areas.
12. Baskets & Bins
If you’re organizing on a budget and doing a small area like a junk drawer or kitchen cabinet, check out the dollar store for containers. Many carry small plastic trays and baskets you can tuck into a drawer to organize everything from silverware to jewelry to paperclips. You can also find larger plastic bins to organize refrigerators and pantries or contain miscellaneous household staples like light bulbs and batteries. We even have a dollar store basket corralling our first-aid supplies. Additionally, some dollar stores carry collapsible fabric bins — the same type big-box stores carry for four to five times as much — and over-the-door shoe organizers.
13. Picture Frames
Dollar stores often carry a variety of picture frames in different colors and finishes. As with other dollar store products, you won’t find anything extra-large, but you can easily grab a frame for standard photo and document sizes, including collage frames.
Additionally, dollar store frames are useful for crafting. Make a handmade gift by gluing on glass tiles for a mosaic effect or decoupaging or painting them. Tuck a special photo inside, and you’ll have a heartwarming homemade photo gift.
14. Candles & Candleholders
There’s no need to spend a lot on candles — especially those used primarily as decor. You can find a variety of candles — from tea lights to votives to pillar candles — at most dollar stores. They even carry large jar candles with long burn times and battery-operated LED tea lights and votives.
They may also have candleholders, such as glass pillar holders, wooden pedestal holders, and a variety of glass votive holders.
15. Some Cleaning Supplies
Cleaning products are pricey, especially if you buy name brands. And although you can find smaller sizes of name-brand cleaners at the dollar store, it’s better to avoid those unless you need a travel-friendly size. You can save more money buying name brands in bulk because you’ll pay less per ounce. But you won’t find bulk supplies at the dollar store. You need to go to a big-box store or warehouse club for those. Also steer clear of dollar store laundry products, as they generally don’t clean effectively.
But when it comes to other off-brand cleaners, bleach is bleach and ammonia is ammonia. Although some dollar store shoppers have reported the cleaners aren’t as strong, at $1 per bottle, you can use a little more and still save significantly over name brands. Plus, many shoppers swear by the LA’s Totally Awesome brand of household cleaners sold at many dollar store chains, such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree, claiming they clean just as effectively as (if not better than) name brands.
Additionally, dollar stores carry cleaning helpers like buckets, rubber gloves, sponges, squeegees, dust mitts, and microfiber cloths. Buying them for $1 saves significant money over purchasing them elsewhere. You can also find plastic spray bottles, useful for making DIY cleaners. But avoid buying anything you need to be sturdy and durable, like brooms or mops, as the quality won’t hold up over time.
Dollar stores are typically the place to stock up on basic craft supplies like beads, glue, pom-poms, and pipe cleaners. Additionally, you may be able to find the things you need for specific craft projects, such as plain aprons to paint for a grandparent gift or fillable globes to use in homemade Christmas ornaments.
16. General Craft Supplies
The dollar store lets you stock up on many basic craft supplies at a very low cost. Some of the things you can find there include:
- Craft sticks
- Modeling clay
- Googly eyes
- Pipe cleaners
- Washi tape
- Glue — including school glue, tacky glue, glue sticks, glue dots, and Mod Podge
- Storage cases for organizing small craft supplies like beads
17. Craft Kits
In addition to stand-alone supplies, dollar stores carry craft kits — with all supplies included — like those for making a complete bracelet or necklace or a scratch-art piece. You can also find seasonal craft kits. Just a few of the kits I’ve found at Dollar Tree include a Valentine’s Day kit for making “love bugs” from pom-poms and pipe cleaners, a color-your-own Christmas stocking kit, and a paint-your-own Easter bunny window catcher kit.
18. Glass Jars
If you make your own at-home spa products like bath salts, scrubs, or lotions, stop by the dollar store to pick up glass jars to package them in. They don’t have anything particularly large, but you will find Mason jars and small glass hinge-top containers. These are an especially good buy, as they cost significantly more anywhere else.
If you need a plain white T-shirt for tie-dying or a T-shirt of any color for doing your own iron-on transfers, pick one up from the dollar store. The quality is comparable to a plain T-shirt at a big-box or craft store, but you can’t find one there for only a dollar.
From fake flowers to vases and filler, some dollar stores carry floral products in abundance. In fact, relying on dollar store products was one way I managed to throw a dream wedding for myself and my husband on an extremely nominal budget. In addition to other decor, I DIY’d all our table centerpieces using dollar store glass vases filled with fabric roses and glass gems.
Additionally, some dollar stores carry river rock filler, floral foam, floral tape, and wreath forms — including foam, wire, and grapevine forms.
Office & School Supplies
You can find just about anything you need for your home office or your kids’ homework at the dollar store. Additionally, you can save money on mailing supplies like envelopes, packing material, and craft paper.
21. General Office & School Supplies
You’ll almost always save money over dollar store finds by shopping back-to-school sales for all your home office and school supply needs. During these annual sales, you can score notebooks for 25 cents or less and bulk supplies of pens, pencils, and glue that easily outdo per-unit pricing on the smaller packages available at dollar stores.
But when it’s not sale time, head to the dollar store to stock up on the essentials, including:
- Pens and pencils
- Sticky notes
- Index cards
- Basic calculators
- Staplers and staples
- Permanent markers
- Paper clips
- Poster board
- Foam board
22. Teaching Supplies
The dollar store also has a great selection of teacher supplies. It’s well known that most teachers spend their own money stocking their classrooms. In fact, a 2018 federal Department of Education survey found that 94% of public school teachers in the United States have paid for school supplies out of their own pockets. And it’s no small amount. The survey found teachers spend an annual average of $500 to $1,000 on classroom supplies. That means shopping at the dollar store can save teachers a lot of cash.
In addition to stocking up on basic supplies for their students like pens, pencils, sticky notes, and calculators, dollar stores carry supplies for making bulletin boards, dry-erase markers for writing on whiteboards, and pockets and signs for interchangeable classroom calendars. Additionally, they stock a range of flash cards useful for helping kids with basic math or their ABCs.
23. Mailing Supplies
Skip the office supply store — and definitely the mailers for sale at the post office — and head to the dollar store to stock up on mailing supplies. Inexpensive buys include envelopes, padded mailers, packing material, and brown craft paper. Just be sure to leave the cheap tape on the shelf.
If you have kids, you already know how expensive they can be. Fortunately, a few dollar store products can help you save.
24. Children’s Activity & Coloring Books
While there’s not much selection for adult reading, the dollar store carries a range of books for kids. These include board and picture books. But the best dollar store buys are kids coloring and activity books. They typically stock a variety of these featuring licensed characters, including superheroes, “Paw Patrol,” “PJ Masks,” My Little Pony, and Barbie.
In addition to books designed for entertainment, they also stock several learning-focused books, including those that teach ABCs, shapes, colors, basic math, and handwriting skills. These are especially useful for any parents home-schooling their preschool or younger elementary children.
For older elementary and early readers, check out the questions-and-answers books, which teach kids about history, animals, space, and the world around them.
Is your kid a puzzle lover? Stock up at the dollar store, where you can find everything from basic 24-piece puzzles to adult-focused 500-piece puzzles, all for $1. Puzzles for kids include licensed characters like Spiderman, “Star Wars,” and “Frozen.” Plus, they carry mini-puzzles packaged in metal tins, perfect for tucking in stockings or birthday party goodie bags.
26. Card Games
Like puzzles, decks of playing cards are a dollar store staple. So if your family enjoys card games or you’re looking for a fun stocking stuffer, the dollar store is the place to stock up. Plus, in addition to traditional decks of cards, they carry decks that feature licensed characters like the Avengers, Shopkins, or Mickey Mouse. And you can often find game-specific decks like go fish, old maid, or crazy eights.
27. Small Games
Although you won’t score any board games for $1, it’s not unusual to find small games like Jenga or wooden pegboard games. Additionally, you can find dice and dice games, including giant dice.
28. Small Toys
What kid wouldn’t want to buy five toys at the dollar store when the same amount doesn’t even buy them half a toy at a big-box store?
Keep in mind, though, that toys at the dollar store can be hit or miss. The quality is poor, so never buy a child under 3 anything that could potentially break and become a choking hazard. Also keep in mind these toys don’t last forever, no matter the child’s age. But as long as you go in with that understanding, some of the better buys include:
- Building Blocks. As many parents know, Legos are crazy expensive. Although the knock-off bricks available at the dollar store are of noticeably lower quality, they work just as well. Your kids can build with them and create massive building block cities the same as with the real stuff. Plus, they typically fit with the Lego bricks they already have.
- Play Dough. No need to spend a lot on the name-brand stuff. The nontoxic play dough at the dollar store is an indistinguishable and cheaper alternative. Plus, it’s well-reviewed and comes in sets. So, although you can buy a single small tub for about $1 at Walmart, you can get four for $1 at the dollar store. They also carry play dough shapers and sets of slime.
- Dolls and Doll Accessories. Find knock-off Barbies, doll clothes, doll furniture — including unfinished wood furniture — and accessories like shoes, purses, and tea sets.
- Plastic Figures. These include sets of small soldiers and paratroopers, figures with parachutes, animals, and knock-off action figures.
- Licensed Figures. Dollar stores don’t carry any large action figures. But you can find small (about the size of a board game playing piece) licensed character toys like “Paw Patrol,” My Little Pony, “Finding Nemo,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and DC Superheroes.
- Sports Toys. Find rubber balls, foam footballs, paddle ball sets, rackets, Nerf-like dart blasters, knock-off Frisbees, jump ropes, and water toys.
Personal Care & Apparel
In general, avoid most toiletries and personal care items at dollar stores for quality and safety reasons. (See “Things to Never Buy” below.) But there are a few good buys in this category.
29. Name-Brand Makeup
It’s typically the off-brand stuff you have to worry about, so there’s no need to avoid the name-brand products for quality and safety. And dollar stores carry a collection of name-brand drugstore cosmetics like E.l.f., L.A. Colors, and Wet n Wild in everything from eye shadow to nail polish. Just be sure to check expiration dates. Consumer Affairs reports that the New York attorney general’s office filed a suit in 2019 against Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar for stocking their shelves with expired merchandise.
30. Name-Brand Travel-Size Toiletries & Cleaning Supplies
Although name-brand products at the dollar store don’t generally suffer from quality issues, they aren’t the best way to save money. To keep them at $1, manufacturers shrink the packages to minimal sizes. The most cost-effective way to buy name-brand products is to go in the opposite direction and buy in bulk from a big box store or warehouse club. Always check the per-unit price of any product, as that tells you if you’re really saving.
However, if you’re headed out on a vacation where you know you’ll be doing laundry or cleaning — such as staying at a cabin or Airbnb for a week — the dollar store is the place to find just enough Tide, Cascade dish tabs, or Dawn dish liquid for your trip.
You can also pick up some name-brand travel-size toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, soap, and shampoo — and even a family-pack of Colgate toothbrushes.
31. Hair Accessories
From headbands to bobby pins, the dollar store carries a range of hair accessories for a fraction of the price of drugstores and big-box stores. Plus, when you pay almost $3 less for a pack of hair elastics, you don’t feel so bad when they all mysteriously disappear. Steer clear of the combs and brushes, though. Unless you have very fine, straight hair that never tangles, they’re prone to break.
The socks are of relatively decent quality, which makes buying them at the dollar store an economical way to stock up. Plus, they come in all kinds of patterns and colors suitable for both kids and adults. And kids socks generally come in packs of two, so they’re significantly cheaper than most other stores. Look for pairs made of acrylic or spandex for the comfiest.
33. Reading Glasses & Accessories
As with sunglasses, it’s equally tough to keep tabs on reading glasses. They end up all over the house or in the car. But when you can buy a pair for $1, it’s easy to stock up on several. That way, you always have one exactly when and where you need it. In addition to glasses, dollar stores often carry eyeglass repair kits and cords.
34. Tote Bags
Go green by skipping the plastic grocery bags and stocking up on dollar store totes instead. They carry a variety of options, from woven fabric bags to nonwoven plastic totes. Many even feature licensed characters. For example, I’ve picked up bags featuring “Star Wars,” “Frozen,” and Wonder Woman. One dollar store hack: Grow an inexpensive vegetable garden by using the bags as planters.
Emergency Gear and Medical Staples
Load up on emergency kit staples with dollar store supplies. It’s an inexpensive and effective way to keep your home kits stocked.
There aren’t many fantastic electronics buys at the dollar store. However, their small LED flashlights work as well as those bought anywhere else. Plus, they’re the perfect size to stash in a handbag or junk drawer for grabbing when you need a quick assist in a dark space. Larger flashlights from the dollar store aren’t the best quality. But they can provide light if the power goes out. So while you don’t want to pack them for a camping trip or use them for any daily purpose, you can save money buying them for stocking home or car emergency kits you may never (hopefully) use.
36. First-Aid Supplies
Stay prepared for minor emergencies with the dollar store’s selection of off-brand bandages, gauze, medical tape, antibacterial cream, hydrogen peroxide, ice packs, and other first-aid supplies. They work just as well as supplies from big-box stores at half the price or less. Although you want to avoid most oral medications from the dollar store, travel-size packs of unexpired name-brand drugs like Advil are a safe find and the perfect size to keep on hand in a purse or first-aid kit.
37. Pregnancy Tests
Whether you’re family-planning or just like to have a few around in case of “emergency,” at-home pregnancy tests are expensive — often running $6 to $10 for a two-pack at the drugstore. And while you might be skeptical of tests from the dollar store, there’s no need to worry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates home pregnancy tests, so they’re required to be the real deal. They may not work as easily or quickly as name-brand tests and you won’t find any digital ones, but they’re just as accurate as pricier tests, according to USA Today.
Things You Should Never Buy at the Dollar Store
Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. And while there are plenty of excellent buys at the dollar store, there are also plenty of terrible ones. Terrible buys range from those that won’t save you money to items of poor quality and even products that can be dangerous.
You should skip the majority of personal care products at the dollar store. Most are terrible quality. And if they don’t work effectively, you aren’t really getting a deal. Moreover, many contain harmful chemicals that are dangerous to your health.
1. Off-Brand Makeup
While name-brand makeup is generally OK, off-brand makeup is more likely to contain harsh chemical ingredients and forgo allergy testing. Cosmetics in general aren’t well regulated by the FDA, which doesn’t require any ingredients other than color additives to have FDA approval before they go on the market. Unfortunately, that means numerous cosmetics enter the market containing harsh or dangerous ingredients, as evidenced by a 2017 FDA finding following testing of cheap makeup sold at Claire’s. And while it’s possible name-brand makeup could also contain harsh or even toxic ingredients, the branding means they have a higher stake in getting their products right.
In addition to ingredients, the term “hypoallergenic” isn’t regulated by the FDA, which means anyone can put the label on their product whether it’s truly hypoallergenic or not. And many shoppers report stores stocked with expired makeup, as reported by Consumer Affairs. So if you’re determined to try them, always be sure to check expiration dates.
It’s possible to find many imitation high-end perfumes at the dollar store, but you’re far better off saving your money for the real thing. According to ex-aromatherapist and Slate contributor Tatiana Estevez, cheap knock-off perfumes smell artificial because they replicate only the top notes of a fragrance. Expensive perfumes are layered with middle and base notes so they smell less sweet and have more longevity. Even worse, according to the FBI, knock-off perfumes have been found to contain harmful chemicals that can cause skin rashes.
Raman Madan, a board-certified dermatologist, tells Good Housekeeping that sunscreen ingredients degrade over time, which means you have to be very careful about expiration dates. So if the date is short-lived, expired, or missing altogether — which is likely at the dollar store — definitely leave it on the shelf.
Additionally, Kanade Shinkai, a dermatologist with the University of California San Francisco, tells NPR that many sunscreens (including those you can buy at drug and big-box stores) contain questionable ingredients. Your best bet for safe sunscreen is a physical — not chemical — one. According to the FDA, the only sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe are titanium oxide and zinc oxide, the two ingredients commonly found in physical sunscreens. So you’re better off skipping sunscreen with other ingredients — no matter where you buy it.
A 12-pack of razors for $1 may seem like a great deal. But cheap razors are typically flimsy and low-quality. If you use them to shave, you can end up with nicks and irritated skin. And nicked skin can lead to infections and scarring. So save yourself a world of hurt and spend a little more on name-brand three-blade razors or invest in an electric one. Your skin will thank you.
5. Vitamins, Supplements, & Medications
The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the same way they regulate food and medical drugs. Though the FDA has the power to pull them from the shelves if the regulatory body discovers they’re mislabeled, it doesn’t review them for safety and legitimacy before they hit the supplements market. For that reason, it’s best to be wary of any kind of health product sold at the dollar store and steer toward proven and trusted brands instead. To save money, shop for supplements at big-box stores, and always look for those labeled with the NSF International, U.S. Pharmacopeia, UL, or ConsumerLab.com seals. According to WebMD, these organizations verify the supplement actually contains the ingredients it claims to and that it doesn’t have any potentially harmful ingredients.
And when it comes to medications, with the sole exception of those travel-size packs of name-brand drugs, you should strictly avoid dollar store medications. In 2019, the FDA issued a warning letter to Dollar Tree for stocking potentially unsafe drugs imported from other countries, where they weren’t subject to FDA regulations. Also in 2019, the New York attorney general’s office filed suit against Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar in part for stocking expired over-the-counter drugs. Frugality should never come at the expense of your health.
In 2012, the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that advocates for a safe and healthy environment, found high levels of lead in cheap costume jewelry — like that sold at dollar stores. Fortunately, things have changed a bit since then. Lead in consumer products is highly regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and any product found to contain dangerous levels is quickly recalled. And according to National Geographic, in 2019, Dollar Tree signed onto the Chemical Footprint Project, a program to help them phase out — among other things — all dangerous heavy metals in their products.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns parents against giving cheap jewelry to children, who are prone to stick it in their mouths. According to the CDC, lead is especially problematic in products imported from other countries with less oversight. So it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Additionally, the vast majority of cheap jewelry contains nickel and chromium, which trigger allergic reactions in many people.
In general, dollar store electronics have a terrible track record for safety. So except for flashlights and battery-operated tea lights, it’s best to steer clear of all of them, including radios, watches, electrical toys, and nightlights — pretty much anything that requires a battery or a plug. It’s difficult to manufacture an electrical product at a low enough cost to profit from a $1 price tag. So most often, that means resorting to cheap imports from countries with less oversight. To find the latest recalls, search the CPSC recall database or go directly to a store’s website, where you can find their own list, such as the recall page on Family Dollar. And especially watch out for these products, which can be tempting to buy, especially when you need one in a pinch.
Dollar store batteries typically run on zinc chloride. They’re not the alkaline type most name-brand batteries are. At best, they’ll give you a shorter battery life, not really saving you money in the long run. In fact, many are stamped with the warning, “Use for low-drain devices.”
At worst, they can leak, according to Reader’s Digest, causing serious damage to your devices. That’s because the inner casing on discount batteries is often of lower quality. So if you care about the device you’re putting them in, avoid dollar store batteries.
8. Cords & Chargers
Extension cords, power strips, and USB chargers found in dollar stores are low-quality. And since you’re dealing with electricity, that means they can also be dangerous. Anytime something electrical is made with subpar materials, it can lead to an electrical fire. Additionally, according to a 2019 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, cheap chargers can also cause severe burns and even electrocutions.
The cords can also damage or short out your devices. That includes damaging the internal battery in tablets and smartphones, according to Digital Trends, causing them to weaken and eventually lose their ability to hold a charge. So as with batteries, if you care about your device, don’t rely on a cheap charger that could permanently damage it.
Dollar store earbuds come in an assortment of fun colors and patterns, making them a tempting buy. But as with other electronics, the quality is subpar. In the case of headphones, that means a hollow, tinny, crackling sound and sometimes, sound in only one ear. I have personal experience with this one. And while you may luck out and find a pair that works, if you intend to hang onto them for prolonged use, invest in a better pair. And that doesn’t have to mean splurging on hyper-expensive AirPods. An inexpensive pair can do the trick. For example, the True Wireless stereo earbuds from OKG California have a nearly 5-star rating on Amazon (from hundreds of reviewers) and cost less than $20.
10. String Lights
It’s also tempting to pick up a set of string lights for $1, especially during the holidays. But this is another potentially dangerous electrical purchase to steer clear of. A search of the CPSC Recall list quickly reveals discount store lights have a poor track record for safety, with many of the listings citing “fire hazard” as the reason for the recall. In fact, my husband recently purchased a set of battery-operated fairy lights from Dollar Tree, and they’re so poorly wired they flickered on and off without him ever touching the power switch.
Fortunately, it’s possible to find string lights almost as cheap at big-box stores — especially during the holidays — and they’re far more likely to be safe. That’s because many of the lights sold at dollar stores are off brands manufactured in foreign markets and designed to look like the real thing, down to the fake UL sticker. For tips on spotting a fake, visit Thayer Lighting. Or to check if a product has a UL certificate, search for the certificate number (located on the real or counterfeit UL sticker) using UL’s free app — UL Product iQ
Skip anything that needs to be relatively durable (like kitchen tools), protects your hands from burns (like oven mitts), or resistant to tearing (like garbage bags) at the dollar store.
11. Kitchen Tools
I once bought a can opener from Dollar Tree only to have it break after three uses. And if you have to keep replacing your can opener every three days, it’s far more cost-effective to put down $10 on one that will last years.
And while broken tools are a minor inconvenience, the poor quality of other kitchen supplies can be downright dangerous. For example, dollar store oven mitts aren’t as heat-resistant or thickly quilted as those available elsewhere, which leaves you more prone to burns. And a flimsy knife makes you more likely to cut yourself. Many home cooks don’t realize that, counterintuitively, a sharper knife generally makes you less likely to slice your fingers because you don’t have to work as hard. Cheap knives also lack the proper balance and weight distribution between the handle and blade. And if the balance is off, the knife can slip.
Also be careful with any dollar store kitchen utensils made from plastic. As plastic is exposed to heat, it releases toxic chemicals that leach into your food. According to a 2019 report from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the toxins are polyamide oligomers, which are composed of simple plastic building blocks that are unintentionally created during plastic production. These chemicals have been linked to infertility, cancer, high cholesterol, liver disease, and thyroid disease.
Although Dollar Tree pledged to phase out all harmful chemicals used in their plastics, according to the National Geographic report, Harvard Health found that even products rated as BPA- or phthalate-free can still contain harmful chemicals. So, it’s best to err on the side of caution and always buy heat-resistant silicone or metal utensils for cooking.
12. Plastic Food Storage Containers
While you don’t need to worry too much about a plastic container meant to store paper clips, as with plastic utensils, steer clear of anything intended to come into contact with your food. Aside from the dangers of plastics, it’s often more economical in the long run to invest in glass for food storage. Though it may cost a bit more upfront, glass lasts indefinitely. On the other hand, plastic tends to wear out over time, requiring you to toss old containers and replace them with new ones.
13. Garbage Bags
The quality of dollar store garbage bags is terrible. Even with the name-brand bags, the plastic tends to be thinner and weaker, making it more prone to breakage — including the ones that say, “No-tear.” Plus, the quantities are minimal. As with other household staples, you save more money buying garbage bags in bulk from a big-box store or warehouse club. That’s because the price per bag is typically lower the more you buy. And as something you’ll always need more of, it’s impossible to buy too many of them.
14. Wraps & Baggies
The quality of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and baggies sold at dollar stores is generally fine, especially since you can find name brands like Saran Wrap, Reynolds Wrap, and Glad. But they aren’t great deals. They come in very small quantities, and as with garbage bags, you save more by buying them in larger quantities at big-box stores like Walmart. You spend less per square foot of wrap or per bag when you buy more.
While you can confidently stock up on a few basic home essentials at the dollar store, there are also plenty to be wary of. As tempting as it may be to save money on home staples, some things aren’t worth scrimping on.
15. Towels & Washcloths
Avoid towels and washcloths from the dollar store. The quality is inferior. The materials are excessively thin, meaning the towels aren’t absorbent and the washcloths don’t hold up over time. Additionally, most are cheap cotton and polyester blends. And polyester isn’t as absorbent as cotton.
16. Laundry Detergent
It won’t help your budget to grab a name-brand laundry detergent in a tiny size. It’s another product you save the most money on by buying in bulk at big-box stores or warehouse clubs. But that doesn’t mean you should grab the off-brand detergent either. Unfortunately, dollar store detergent is inferior quality. It’s far less concentrated, which means you have to use more to get your clothes clean. And that means you won’t save money on your laundry.
17. Toilet Paper & Paper Towels
Toilet paper is crazy-expensive for something you flush down the toilet. So it’s unquestionably tempting to buy it from the dollar store. However, there are two huge problems with dollar store toilet paper. First, you don’t actually get much for $1. They come in four-packs, but the rolls are much smaller than what you’d find at other stores. Dollar store rolls typically have only 150 to 240 sheets per roll, whereas typical name-brand — or even store-brand — toilet paper usually has 300 to 500 sheets per roll. Second, the quality is as low as it can be. And for something you use on delicate areas, it’s definitely worth paying more for better quality.
The same goes for paper towels — few sheets and low quality. And when it comes to low-quality paper towels, you end up using more sheets to get the same job done. And that’s a big problem when you didn’t have that much to start with. To save the most on toilet paper and paper towels, shop Target, Walmart, or a warehouse club. Additionally, the Subscribe & Save feature on Amazon helps you save on things you regularly buy, making it perfect for household staples. Depending on how many subscriptions you have, you can save as much as 5% to 15% by signing up for regular deliveries. And if you decide you need less or leave on vacation, the feature allows you to pause shipments whenever you want.
As with kitchen tools, most household tools — including hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, and hand-held gardening tools — are also so low-quality they’re barely functional. Worse, they fall apart quickly. That means you must spend far more on replacements in the long run. And if you’re swinging a hammer only to have the head break off, it’s not hard to imagine injuring a finger or toe. For anything you plan to use more than once, you’re almost always better off buying something higher-quality. So head to Lowe’s or Home Depot instead. Look for Craftsman or Kobalt tools, as they guarantee their hand tools for life. That means if the hammer’s head falls off, whether it’s one year old or 100, they’ll replace it for free. And a $10 hammer that lasts forever is definitely worth the extra money.
While you absolutely should fill your cart with all the gift-wrapping and mailing supplies you can use, never buy tape from the dollar store. The quality is so substandard it won’t hold together a box long enough to get it to the post office or a gift long enough for it to be torn open. That’s another lesson I’ve learned from personal experience. Both the packing tape and off-brand transparent tape are so thin they’re barely workable.
Dollar Tree also sells off-brand duct tape, which is equally subpar. But, if you’re using it for crafting, that may not matter as much. I recently bought several rolls in a variety of colors, at less than a third of the cost of name-brand duct tape. It’s far thinner and tears off the roll less easily than the good stuff. But since my son and I were using it to decorate a DIY cardboard playhouse — not to hold it together — it did the job just as well as the pricier stuff.
Food isn’t necessarily bad at the dollar store, but in most cases, it’s not the best way to spend your money. Prices are often better elsewhere. To sell it for $1, dollar store food comes in smaller packages. However, you’ll almost always save more money on your groceries buying larger sizes at the supermarket, especially if you clip coupons or use rebate apps like Ibotta (read out Ibotta review). Always compare the per-unit price when you’re shopping. If it’s something your family uses a lot and can consume before its expiration date, like peanut butter or cereal, the biggest jar or box generally saves the most money overall. But some deals are worse than others.
20. Canned Goods & Boxed Foods
In the case of canned goods and boxed foods like cereal and cake mix, it’s less about product size than just getting a bad deal. While the $1 price tag seems alluring, the truth is many canned goods sell for less at regional grocery stores, especially if you opt for the store brand. For example, a can of black beans costs 99 cents at 99 Cents Only. But you can get one for around 79 cents at your local grocery store. Likewise, I found canned tomatoes for 59 cents at my local grocery, which means you could almost buy two of them for the same price as one can at the dollar store. And you can almost always score a better deal on both canned goods and boxed foods at Walmart. For example, Walmart sells their cake mixes for 88 cents. And while you can buy 3 ounces of name-brand cereal for $1 at Dollar Tree and 12 ounces of the same for $3 at Dollar General, you can buy a 24-ounce family-size box for $3.64 at Walmart.
And if you’re shopping at a dollar-only store, like 99 Cents Only, also skip the soda. You’re stuck with off brands, which may not be the flavor you want. You can find name brands at comparable prices at Walmart or on sale at your local grocery store. That said, you can find deals on name-brand soda at discount stores like Family Dollar and Dollar General. Just remember to compare prices with other stores to find the best deals. Just because it’s a discount store doesn’t mean the grocery store can’t beat their price.
22. Candy & Gum
If you’re already at the dollar store and have a craving for candy, especially a movie theater-style box or bag of candy, go ahead and put it in your cart. But don’t make a special trip, as you can find these for $1 at big-box stores as well. And skip the checkout lane candy bars and gum altogether, as these are cheaper at grocery stores.
23. Pet Food
Pet food is far less regulated than human food. So dollar stores get away with selling pet food containing subpar ingredients, including a lot of fatty fillers. Additionally, the dollar store doesn’t have a lot of selection. And much of it is close to its expiration date, off-label, or made offshore. So it’s best to save your pet’s stomach and buy their food elsewhere.
Additionally, as with other grocery store products, it definitely saves to buy pet food in bulk. Also, when you compare the per-unit price across stores, you can see the biggest bag saves the most money. So that smaller dollar store bag of pet food costs more per ounce than the economy-size bag at a big-box store.
Tips for Shopping at Dollar Stores
First, know that not all so-called dollar stores sell everything for a dollar. For example, everything you find at Dollar Tree is $1 (or less), but the same is not true of Family Dollar and Dollar General. Both are discount stores where you’ll find most items for less than $10 — including many for $1. But because they operate similarly to true dollar stores, these tips apply to their dollar buys as well.
But even those that aren’t true dollar stores often sell their non-dollar products at steeper discounts than big box stores like Walmart and Target. Good buys typically include food and personal care items. But it’s necessary to compare prices among stores in your area to know for sure.
Second, while national chains like Dollar Tree feature the same general products at all their stores, local and regional dollar stores carry different selections. Additionally, there is variance among what you can find from one chain to another. For example, you won’t necessarily find the same things at 99 Cents Only as Dollar Tree.
However, no matter where you shop, when it comes to scoping out a bargain, the same general guidelines apply. Ask yourself these questions to decide if a discount find is a good buy:
- Can You Find It Cheaper Somewhere Else? Just because something’s only $1, doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. For example, you can save more money on household staples like paper towels, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper by shopping warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s. And canned goods often retail for less than $1 at Walmart, Aldi, and even your local grocery store. On the other hand, you can save serious cash buying party supplies, wrapping materials, and foil pans at the dollar store, which retail for significantly more at other stores.
- Is It Disposable? If you plan to use it once and then toss it — like plastic party utensils — there’s no need to spend more than $1 shopping at a higher-end store. With a few exceptions, anything meant for one-time use that sells for more than $1 elsewhere is a good buy at a dollar store. On the other hand, you can save more in the long run investing in products you need to last — like hammers, brooms, and kitchen tools.
- Does the Quality Matter? In cases in which the quality doesn’t matter — like thinner-than-average wrapping paper — spending more for higher quality isn’t worth the extra money. But other times, spending more on higher-quality goods actually saves you money. For example, even though a dollar store hammer is only $1, that cheap-quality tool is likely to fall apart after one or two uses, necessitating replacement again and again — equating to no savings at all.
- What’s the Expiration Date? And speaking of dangers, dollar stores have a bad record for stocking their shelves with expired merchandise, from makeup to sunscreen, medications, and food. If it’s a product that should have an expiration date and doesn’t, definitely skip it. And if there is a date and the product is past it, don’t buy it.
- Is It Certified as Safe by the Appropriate Organization? Anything you plan to ingest should be certified by the FDA or other appropriate organization, such as NSF International or UL (Underwriters Laboratory). Though note that some foreign manufacturers fake these. Visit Consumer Reports for information on how to tell if a label is legitimate.
As a regular Dollar Tree shopper, I’ve learned it saves as much money to know what to leave on the shelf as what to put in the cart. Some things definitely aren’t a bargain — whether that’s because they’re not worth the $1 price tag or end up costing you more in the long run.
One more tip: Go in with a list and budget in mind. It’s tempting to throw whatever you find into your cart because it’s “only” a dollar. But even single dollars add up. I’ve often found myself spending $20 to $30 on stuff we didn’t need just because it was cheap. And unnecessary expenditures never save money.
Are you a fan of the dollar store? What are some of your best and worst buys?