15 Best Things to Buy at Dollar Stores (Dollar Tree Included)
You might be surprised by some of the items you can and should purchase for just a buck.
Perhaps you have a built-in bias, conception, or what-have-you concerning dollar stores, where everything costs $1 or less. You get what you pay for, right? Nothing but brand-name knock offs or cheap stuff built to not last, you figure.
And, for many products sold at dollar stores, you’re not wrong, as we told you in 18 Worst Things to Buy at Dollar Stores.
But there’s also lots of good behind those dollar signs. Analysts note the Dollar Trees of the retail world are widening their selection -- and, with it, their swath of customers. Alongside those with tight budgets, you’ll also find doctors and lawyers and their significant others (as well as ever more millennials) bargain-hunting in the aisles of dollar stores.
The NPD Group, which studies consumer spending for the retail industry, found that 19% of the money spent at dollar stores recently came from households with annual income exceeding $100,000. “Considering that nearly one in five dollars spent there is contributed by the affluent, dollar stores’ value proposition clearly resonates across economic segments,” says NPD’s Andy Mantis.
Another consumer spending tracker, Checkout Tracking, found millennials with annual incomes of $100,000 or more made purchases at these stores nearly 13 times a year and spent more than $135.
We spoke with shopping experts and prowled stores in central Virginia to identify some of the best buys at dollar stores. Take note, however, that our price comparisons aren’t always oranges-to-oranges. Brands and package sizes vary among products stocked by Dollar Tree -- manufacturers do this deliberately -- and those carried by other retailers. Here’s what we found.
If you, like me, get sticker shock when shopping for greeting cards in the supermarket aisles, Dollar Tree, where every greeting card is $1 or less, is the place to stock up. These aren’t cheap knockoffs, either. They’re mostly from one of two Hallmark card lines, Expressions by Hallmark or Heartline by Hallmark. At a nearby Kroger supermarket, American Greetings cards started at $3.69 to $4.99 per card. At Target and Walmart stores, prices are right in line with that, though you may find a handful of cards at lower prices; not, however, consistently $1.
“Given all the different occasions and situations you can buy a greeting card for, it's no surprise the costs can add up quickly,” says Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with Dealnews. “One card at a standard big box store can set you back $5 or more, depending on how fancy it is. ... The message inside is what matters, so opt for stocking up at your local dollar store -- that way, you'll have them on hand whenever an occasion arises.”
Bonus: The Dollar Tree Hallmark cards don’t have the price on the back, if your card recipient is nosey.
Pregnancy test kits from the dollar store? You might have your doubts. I did.
Indeed, “paying a buck to see if you might be pregnant seems a risky proposition,” says Kyle James, founder of the shopping deals website RatherBeShopping. “But the tests have been done, and they’re just as good as the $10-$15 variety you’ll find at major drugstores.”
We checked those prices. In the pharmacy aisles at Kroger, the least-expensive pregnancy test, the Kroger One-Step, was selling for $7.29 (there were more-expensive brands nearby). At Dollar Tree, the Assured pregnancy test kits, promising “over 99% accuracy,” are $1.
We’ve noted in the past that candy sometimes isn’t a good deal at dollar stores, especially if you’re going to buy large quantities for the holidays (warehouse clubs have better values). But there are exceptions to that rule, especially when pandemic restrictions at entertainment venues ease even more (I’m looking at you, A Quiet Place Part II).
Says James, “My family always hits the dollar store for candy on the way to the movies. With movie tickets darn near $12 a head, paying $3 for a bag of Red Vines makes NO sense. Always hit up the dollar store for sweet candy bargains, and smuggle them into the flick.”
Ramhold is also on board with candy from the dollar store, too, but not just for the movies.
“Not all candy is created equal, but many dollar stores carry brand-name treats at discounted prices,” says Ramhold. “This is especially true around holidays, when you can find themed candies for much less than the holiday aisle at other stores. Whether you need to create party favors, prepare for trick-or-treating, or stuff some stockings, the dollar store can be an excellent place to buy a ton of sweets for less.”
I recently moved and found our new space had lots of room for pictures. And we didn’t have enough frames. Now, mind you, some precious art you may want professionally framed, which can cost hundreds of dollars if it’s a large centerpiece. Others may be pictures on nightstands decorating little-used rooms. You don’t have to get all expensive-y in some places.
A picture frame is a “decorative item that can be surprisingly expensive, depending on the size and material of the frame,” says Ramhold. Even if you don’t want a plain black plastic frame "consider checking your local dollar store before heading to a big box store or a craft store to find something to display your pictures in," says Ramhold. "Some dollar stores will have metallic scroll designs or rustic wood frames that will suit a variety of decorating styles, and you’ll pay far less there than you would at a craft store.”
All sizes of frames at Dollar Tree are $1. At Walmart, for example, 8x10-inch picture and document frames started at $1.93 and went to $17.27.
As the 2021 planting and gardening season picks up steam, you’re probably spending a lot of time at big box stores including Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart. But did you know you could cut some corners and save some dough-re-me at the dollar stores to score plant supplies?
“If you’re re-potting plants or bringing plants in for the winter, plant supplies like clay pots, glass marbles and dishes can be a good dollar store purchase,” says smart shopping expert Trae Bodge of TrueTrae. “Make sure to check closely for damages before checking out.”
One example: Garden Collection pre-molded coco plant liners for $1 at Dollar Tree. Lowe’s sells them for $1.98.
You might call it “Scotch tape,” and that’s precisely what you’ll find at dollar stores: Transparent tape bearing the Scotch brand, not some cheesy off-brand.
But buy with caution here, even if it is a name brand.
“Items like packing tape, masking tape and Scotch tape can be a great deal, but compare how much is on the roll with what you’ve seen at other stores,” says Bodge. “I’ve noticed that sometimes there can be less tape on dollar store rolls.”
A two-roll pack of Scotch transparent tape, totaling 500 inches, is $1 at Dollar Tree -- or .002 cents per inch. A two-roll pack of Scotch transparent tape, totaling 1,200 inches, was $6.49 at Staples -- or .005 cents per inch, more than twice as costly as the dollar store.
Gift and Party Supplies
We routinely check in at the holidays to let you know gift and party supplies are almost always a good buy at dollar stores. That holds true for the rest of the year, when you’re gifting or partying for most any event.
“Items like decorative bags, tissue paper, ribbon, and wrapping paper are worth a look,” says Bodge. “Like with tape, check the quantity first to make sure you’re getting enough for the occasion. One of my favorite items to purchase at a dollar store are Mylar balloons. I’ve found them to be far cheaper than the pharmacy or party store.”
Indeed. A variety of Mylar, helium-filled balloons were pre-filled and ready to go with others waiting for you to choose them at Dollar Tree, all for $1. A nearby Kroger was selling them for $3.99. Tissue paper was $2.99 at Kroger, and a box of 25 thank-you cards was $8.99. Similar items sell for $1 at Dollar Tree.
Picnic Supplies (and Our Condiments to the Chef)
There’s more to score a bargain on at dollar stores for family picnics and maybe neighborhood parties as COVID restrictions lift.
“Whether you need a small amount of paper plates and cups, or even themed decorations, the dollar store is an ideal place to shop for these items,” says Ramhold. “You typically only need them for one gathering, and those flimsy tablecloths will usually only last one party anyway, depending on how rowdy your guests are. Why pay more for those items when you can get the same quality for a lower cost? And the savings on party supplies can be put toward the things that everyone is really interested in -- food and drinks.”
Speaking of food and picnics, tread with caution buying food items at the dollar store, but you almost can’t go wrong -- check expiration dates and container sizes -- with condiments and disposable dinnerware.
For example, Dollar Tree sells an 8-ounce bottle of French’s yellow mustard for $1. It was $1.29 at Kroger. A 20-ounce bottle of Hunt’s tomato ketchup was $1 at Dollar Tree. It was $1.39 at Kroger.
As for plastic, disposable dinnerware, Dollar Tree had a 48-piece set (knives, forks and spoons) for $1. Kroger was selling a 24-count set of Home Sense plastic forks -- just the forks -- for $1.29. Similarly, Dollar Tree sells a package of 150 napkins for $1. Kroger was selling a 160-count package of napkins for $4.99.
School and Home Office Supplies
With remote learning putting even more of an onus on parents in the last year, seeking out and scoring school supplies at bargain prices has become even more of an imperative. Don’t overlook dollar stores when stocking up.
“Composition books, poster board, foam core are good items to buy at the dollar store, but I would avoid pens, markers and anything mechanical, like staplers, because I wouldn’t expect them to be of the highest quality,” says Bodge. “For that reason, I would also avoid scissors.”
We did some price comparisons. Poster boards at Dollar Tree ranged from 50 cents to 79 cents each. At Staples, poster boards started at $2.24 and went to $14.79. A package of 200 line-ruled index cards is $1 at Dollar Tree, whereas a package of 300 line-ruled index cards was $6.99 at Staples. A package of Mead 40-count large or 80-count small security envelopes at Dollar Tree is $1. A 50-count package of large security envelopes at Staples was $3.99. A small stapler at Dollar Tree was $1. A small Tru Red brand stapler at Staples was $8.99.
But one word of caution: Some shopping experts aren't entirely into buying school supplies at dollar stores. If you need a large amount, they say, you're better off buying school supplies at warehouse clubs,
Picking up name-brand toiletries at the dollar store is a no-brainer, our shopping experts note, especially the smaller versions made for traveling and other purposes.
Says Ramhold, “These tiny versions of brand-name full-size products shouldn't cost as much as they do in some stores. If you're getting ready to travel, see if your dollar store has the items you're looking for. Often they're $1 each, whereas you might pay close to $2 or more for products at other stores.”
They can also come in handy at home. “If you entertain weekend guests, these can also be a great thing to keep in your guest bathroom, so they don't have to worry about bringing toiletries (or they're covered if they forget),'' says Ramhold.
Other toiletries are good dollar store buys. “Personal care items, like coated elastics and hair combs, are worth a look at the dollar store, but favor recognizable brands and inspect them for quality,” says Bodge. “Toothbrushes are a great deal at the dollar store if you can find a name-brand option.”
Cleaning products, especially the disposable kind, are a must-buy at dollar stores, with a caveat: “I would avoid liquid cleaners, as the efficacy tends to decrease over time (and you don’t know how long the products have been sitting around),” says Bodge.
Otherwise, you’re good to go with items such as powdered cleaners and steel wool and other cleaning pads, the experts say. A three-pack of Brillo Basics heavy-duty scour pads are, well, $1 at Dollar Tree. A similar three-pack of Kroger Home Sense heavy-duty scour pads was twice that on my recent visit, at $1.99.
If you still want a go at liquid toilet bowl cleaners, you can’t beat the price at dollar stores. A 24-ounce bottle of The Works liquid toilet bowl cleaner was $1. A 24-ounce bottle of Clorox toilet bowl cleaner was $2.29 at Kroger.
You can never have enough vases, especially in the spring, when those gorgeous flowers you planted last fall are in bloom. But why overpay?
“This is likely an item you don't think about needing until you receive flowers, or want to create a centerpiece,” says Ramhold. “Make no mistake -- shopping for these pieces of glassware at mainstream stores can set you back a pretty penny. A plain glass one could be anywhere from $5 to $10, which doesn't sound like much but can add up when you need to buy more than one. And if you want something with more character? You'll definitely be paying a premium. On the other hand, you can find those plain glass vases at dollar stores for $1 each; and if you want something more interesting looking, you'll find different colors, shapes, and sizes for the same price. This is especially handy if you want to create centerpieces for a larger party, or even just want to create your own display for your home year-round.”
Probably not something you think about often -- until you want a pony. And who doesn’t want a pony?
“Anyone who uses hair accessories like ponytail holders and bobby pins likely knows that they can disappear frequently,” says Ramhold. “You can typically get more bang for your buck by buying at the dollar store, and, as these aren't usually seen and just serve utilitarian purposes, there's no reason to spend more at other stores. Additionally, if you do end up losing them, you'll likely feel okay if they didn't cost a pretty penny in the first place.”
Here’s a Q tip: Cotton swabs are a can’t-go-wrong bargain at dollar stores, our experts say.
“These are especially popular as part of beauty routines, as well as detailed cleaning jobs, and the brands you find at the dollar store often perform just as well as name brands,” says Ramhold. “You might even find name brands at certain [dollar] stores for less. Ordinarily, it's a good idea to buy these in bulk at a warehouse store just because of the price, but if you aren't a member of a warehouse club, or don't need that many, or just don't have a place to store them, shopping at a dollar store is definitely a solid alternative.”
Bodge offers this tip, though: “If you need cotton balls or swabs, make sure they are 100% cotton before purchasing.” Some manufacturers use synthetic materials in swabs.
If you’re like me, you have one, maybe two, pairs of prescription reading glasses strategically located (me: one in the home office, and the other in my pocket for everywhere else). I also have a boatload of “readers” stashed in our cars, garage and other places.
Like hair accessories, reading glasses were made to be lost, so why pay more than you have to? A pair of Gry -- yes, they left out the vowel, Vanna -- Matters reading glasses at Staples was $29.99 when I checked. Instead, for $1, you can pick up a pair (or two or three) at Dollar Tree. Like with Costco, Target and other retailers, the readers at the dollar store come in various strengths.