Smart Buying

Dollar Store Deal or No Deal?

We searched out the best and worst dollar-store buys.

When you're trying to save money, the dollar store can seem like a magical place. Abracadabra, everything's a buck or less! But just because something's inexpensive doesn't make it a good buy at such retail establishments.

We went shopping to find out what's a good deal at the dollar store, and what's not:

Party supplies: DEAL

Everything from party invitations to decorations to balloons are worth buying at the dollar store. For instance, foil balloons easily run from $3 to $8 a pop at party-supply stores, gift shops and supermarkets. But you can get them for $1 each -- helium included -- at the dollar store.

Goodie bags, party favors and color-coordinated paper plates, napkins, cups and plastic cutlery are also a good buy.

Cleaning supplies: DEAL

According to the Good Housekeeping Institute, the cleaners you buy at the dollar store work just fine. You probably won't find many name brands, but the ingredients are similar -- though perhaps more diluted. For everyday cleaning, they should do the trick. (For tougher cleaning jobs, you may have to spring for something more heavy-duty.)

You can also get a good deal on rubber gloves, sponges, and scrub brushes too.

Vitamins: NO DEAL

Don't scoop up your vitamins at the dollar store. Consumer Reports found that dollar-store multi-vitamins didn't always have the amount of nutrients claimed on the label. And others didn't dissolve fast enough to be absorbed by the body. You may be better off getting vitamins from a well-known store brand, such as Rite Aid, Walgreens or CVS.

Greeting cards: DEAL

Greeting cards are nice, but are they really worth $4? We think it's the thought or sentiment that counts, not what you spend. Our local dollar store has a big selection of cards for every occasion, at 50-cents each. They're good-quality, too, so the recipient won't even guess that you scrimped.

Basic school supplies: NO DEAL

While the dollar store has decent deals on many school supplies, we didn't find them to be much better than the prices at Walmart.

For pencils, notebooks, highlighters, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, sticky notes and more, it's best to stock up when they go on sale during back-to-school season (August-September). The rest of the year, you can hit either the dollar store or Walmart with confidence.

Seasonal or holiday items, such as valentines, Easter eggs and Christmas tree decorations: DEAL

Whether you need to stuff Easter baskets or valentine boxes, or you simply want to deck the halls for your favorite holiday, you might save a few bucks at the dollar store.

Seasonal paper plates and napkins (i.e. with pumpkins or Santa Claus on them) are also a good deal -- we found packs of 20 for $1. On decorations, bargains can be hit-or-miss and subject to opinion. For example, we found a set of icicle ornaments that looked beautiful on our tree this year, but the imitation pine wreaths looked too cheap and scraggly for our taste.

Pregnancy tests: DEAL

Babies are expensive from the very beginning. The cheapest pregnancy test at our local Walgreens cost $8. But you can get one at the dollar store for a buck. Both are 99% effective, both test for hormone levels with similar sensitivity. And at $1 a pop, you can afford to test and re-test as much as you like if you simply don't believe your eyes.

Aspirin, ibuprofin and other medications: NO DEAL

Consumer Reports warns that aspirin and other medications may be left on the shelf past their expiration dates. It also points out that some labels may not say where the medicine was manufactured.

While there haven't been any safety concerns about dollar-store meds, generic aspirin from your local pharmacy or supermarket is probably a better bet -- and may not cost too much more.

Gift wrapping supplies: DEAL

You can get a 20-foot roll of gift wrap at the dollar store for a buck, while you'll pay at least three times that at big-box and party-supply stores. Gift bags cost up to $5 at other stores, depending on size. But at the dollar store, all sizes are $1. We also found huge savings on tissue paper, up to 75% off prices elsewhere. And don't forget the Scotch tape!

Toys: NO DEAL

It's tempting to buy toys for only $1. But there's definitely a trade-off in quality. Many dollar-store toys are cheaply made and they can be dangerous when they break.

Baby toys should generally be avoided because they will go directly into the mouth, and dollar-store toys may have unsafe levels of lead and phthalates, which are a class of chemicals found in soft plastics.

Canned food and other pantry items: NO DEAL

You may be able to get these cheaper elsewhere. For example, our nearby dollar store sells Green Giant canned vegetables and Goya beans for $1 a can. But we found the exact same items at Walmart for less, and generic brands at even bigger savings. Dollar-store cake and brownie mixes come in smaller packages so watch the unit price.

Also, you should keep an eye on the expiration dates on food at the dollar store. They may be near or past their freshness date.

Batteries and electronics: NO DEAL

Consumer Reports warns that dollar store electronics and extension cords may have fake UL labels and could be unsafe. It's better to spend a little extra for quality and safety.

Also, cheap batteries may be prone to leakage, or may not run your gadgets as long as pricier brands. Many dollar stores sell carbon-zinc batteries which are less efficient than the alkaline variety.

Cooking and dining accessories: DEAL

We found spoons, spatulas, cheese graters, ice cream scoops and more at the dollar store for 50% to 90% off the prices at Target and Walmart. We also spotted wine glasses, dining plates and flatware for less. Almost anything is a good buy in the kitchen department, with the exception of knives, which may be flimsy or dull.

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