Dollar Stores — Friend or Foe?

by Katy on March 15, 2010 · 31 comments

When I first started going to “The Dollar Tree” store in 1998, I was in heaven. I was so used to saying “No” to my preschool age son, it was nice to actually tell him he could pick out anything he wanted. Heck, pick out three while you’re at it!

An awareness of plastics, manufacturing practices and an unwillingness to clutter my house up has ended this open door policy, but there’s still value to be found at these ubiquitous dollar stores. No, I’m not buying loads of plasticy crap, but I do hit the dollar store every few months to stock up on a few essentials. For me, this means:

  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Bar soap
  • Tortillas
  • And whatever else they happen to have that is both a good deal and an actual need.

I am going to hit The Dollar Tree today, because I read on the blog Frugal Living NW, that the author bought Glen Muir organic marinara sauce there a few days back, and I’m trying to move away from BPA lined canned foods. I will also look for the delicious frozen blueberries that I bought last time that were the piece de resistance of some rather tasty homemade parfaits. (Seriously, my younger son had been nagging for school lunches, and we realized the only thing he wanted was parfaits. We bought the ingredients for parfaits, and he’s been a happy camper ever since.)

I’m pretty good about putting on my blinders for impulse items, and will keep it short and sweet.

Have you heard of The 99 Cent Chef, the blogger who makes all his meals from ingredients found at dollar stores?

Do you shop at dollar stores? Do you have any scores to share in the comments section?

Gotta go!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Update: My Dollar Tree did not have any frozen blueberries or Muir Glen pasta sauce, although they did have Muir Glen tomato soup. I’m not a tomato soup fan, so I didn’t buy any. However, I did buy:

  • A two pack of name brand Scotch tape.
  • 3 packets of tortillas
  • 2 bags of frozen strawberries
  • 2 containers of nice feta cheese
  • 2 bags of jelly beans
  • 2 packets of seeds that were 25¢ apiece (spinach and “spinach mustard”)
  • 2 three-packs of soap
  • 2 bottles of shampoo and conditioner
  • 2 boxes of nice looking crackers

They had darling Beatrix Potter milk chocolate bunnies that tempted me sorely. However, they were on the small size, plus were extensively overpackaged. I may still go back for them though.

Wallet or soapbox? Ever the dilemma!

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Jinger March 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

I sometimes go for photo paper, padded envelopes etc, but if Dollar Tree in Austin has Muir Glen tomatoes, I’ll go tomorrow!


Jeanine March 15, 2010 at 11:56 am

Yes. I needed some plastic dividers for several binders for work. At our wholesale office store, they were 5 dividers for 5 dollars. At Walmart, they were 5 dividers for 3 dollars. At The Dollar Tree, they were 5 dividers for 1 dollar, and since my company ordered them in bulk, they were more like 5 dividers for .75!!!

The best part? The tabs on the ends use white board markers, so they can be used over and over again.

The bestest part? The money I saved my office and the company got rerouted back to me to use for my residents!


Shannon March 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I have pretty much kept out of dollar stores for years, but now I might have to go check it out 😉


Julius March 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Hmm. I have a few thoughts here. I’m in the UK, mind, so it’s a ‘pound shop’, and of course a pound is a bit more than a dollar.

Firstly, I feel a bit uncomfortable in said shop, I’m just a bit of a snob really 🙂

And secondly, I don’t make enough of an effort to keep track of prices in the regular supermarkets, so I often worry that for any given product, a pound may be *more* than the normal price. Checking these prices against each other is just too much effort, so on balance I’ll just stay with normal shops.


Random Thoughts of a Jersey Mom March 15, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I don’t know if there’s a dollar store around where I live. If I find one, I’ll check out the prices & things they carry to see if there’s anything in there I need.


Hiptobeme March 15, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I love dollare stores! I especially love the wo for a dollar items such as stickers, jello and puddings. talk about making the kid happy on two bits. I do have to remember to reighn myself in though. I also love kitchen gadgets. I <3 kitchen gadgets!!


Hiptobeme March 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I love dollare stores! I especially love the two for a dollar items such as stickers, jello and puddings. Talk about making the kid happy on two bits. I do have to remember to reign myself in though as I also love kitchen gadgets. I <3 kitchen gadgets!! One dollar?? Well, alright!


Hiptobeme March 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I love dollar stores! I especially love the two for a dollar items such as stickers, jello and puddings. Talk about making the kid happy on two bits. I do have to remember to reign myself in though as I also love kitchen gadgets. I <3 kitchen gadgets!! One dollar?? Well, alright!


magdalena March 15, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I never buy food in a dollar store. Here, it seems to be strange off-brand things made in places I’ve never heard of. Envelopes, coin wrappers, small stationery, yes – but not food.


Marie-Josée March 15, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Katy, this is a bit of a can of worms, and I was waiting for you to broach the subject of food before asking you, so here goes: I was wondering if you and your readers are aware that sewage sludge is used as a fertilizer on non-organic farmland in the US and some Canadian provinces? I was considering slacking on the organic food a while back, because of the cost, and then read about this on the Huffington Post and was really appalled. This practice has been linked to livestock death, such as cows eating hay sprayed with the sludge dying of tallium and arsenic poisoning. I have read that the sludge is contaminated by the 100,000 + chemicals we now use, including dioxin and PCB’s…

I avoid the dollar store, except to buy some incontinence pads for Granny who refuses to pay the full price. To me, the dollar store epitomizes the consumer culture with its cheap goods fabricated without consideration for the workers, the planet and our own health. I have consistently heard reports of lead contamination in toys and art supplies bought at the dollar store, yet friends and family who are aware of this, keep buying going back to buy these items for their children.


Katy March 15, 2010 at 6:12 pm


I am VERY careful about bringing cheap toys into the house, as my younger son did have lead poisoning when he was a preschooler. We never did find the source of the lead, and it could have easily have been one of the zillions of toys he had contact with. Lead paint is not only found on cheap toys, but also higher end toys. Remember how the wooden “Thomas The Tank” trains were recalled for lead paint issues. *Sigh*

Sewage sludge?! Blegh!

We do not eat an organic diet, as I know we should. I do buy some organic food, but we are far from 100%. However, we hardly eat any pre-packaged foods and pretty much never eat fast food.

Eating organically would skyrocket our food bills, which I’m just not ready for. Maybe after we have our debt paid off, (husband’s student loans plus house related debt.)

I am aware of the importance of eating and farming organically, but it’s simply not financially feasible for us.

You did see that I bought spinach seeds though, right? Right?

Thanks for bringing this up, as it’s definitely an issue to discuss.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Tracy Balazy March 15, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I would have given in and bought the chocolate bunnies! My discount-store weakness is Big Lots, which also carries a lot of food items. I found the PG Tips tea you talk about the other day at Big Lots for $2.50, is that a good price? I don’t recall how many bags were in the box.


Katy March 15, 2010 at 6:17 pm

That was a good deal. I’m not sure how many bags were in the box, but the tea was so much stronger than my beloved “Red Rose,” that I was able to use the bags twice.



ksmedgirl March 15, 2010 at 6:23 pm

When I gave up buying anything unnecessary (my version of the compact) I gave up the dollar stores & Big Lots. My weakness was house decorating knick knacks. (oh, and I also gave up the magazine subscriptions focused on house decor). VERY rarely, I will go in to a dollar store to buy envelopes or bar soap. I also find that these are huge pitfalls for my kids, as they see all this “stuff” they suddenly need. As an aside, what started me on my serious frugal kick was a missions trip to Kenya. The poverty (and even the small amount of stuff the “better off” folks had) impacted me like nothing else ever has.


susan March 15, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I used to be a Dollar Store junky – it got bad. Now I only go very occasionally for party supplies, hard back books (have bought hundreds there), glass containers for homemade soy candles and wrapping supplies. This Christmas we adopted 14 veterans from a local shelter and was able to spend $20 each at dollar store on grooming items and toiletries – things they couldn’t buy with food stamps. Each one received 2 huge bags of stuff – it was very satisfying and our gift fund went much further than anywhere else we could have shopped.


Donna Besst March 15, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I am a teacher so I usually go to the dollar store to buy treats for my kiddies. They have a nice selection of holiday stuff that I use for monthly prize box and table points. I do limit myself to $20 whenever I go. Two weeks ago I bought each child an Easter treat..pencil, eraser, 3 pieces of stickers wrapped up in a cute spring bag..all for a whopping $15. They will be yippy, skippy and I did not go broke rewarding my kiddies. BTW..I saved the $5 from my $20 weekly cash for three weeks..Happy children and it felt very frugal to me as well.


SimplyJo March 16, 2010 at 1:29 am

We have an amazing store (opinion) in the UK called Home Bargains. Its not a ‘pound shop’ or ‘dollar store’. It sells very well known branded goods for approx. (rough estimate) a third of its value. It is fantastic for kids presents, parties etc because it’s quality product but still very reasonable to buy. They sell food, beverages, homewares allsorts. What is so very magical about the place is whenever you wander round you always find the thing you have been looking for – it is very strange! Beware!! it is very easy to buy stuff you never knew you wanted so those ole blinkers come in very handy!


Bellen March 16, 2010 at 5:15 am

Just stopped at Dollar Tree yesterday – me for 3 Easter cards and 1 First Communion card @ 2/$1, hubby for plastic gloves to use when painting outdoor projects. Also found $.99 cent a pkg seeds on sale for 4/$1, the seeds are packaged for 2010 – bought 2 radish, 1 marigold and 1 sunflower.

Our store does not have any frozen or refridgerated foods – we do buy name brand foods that we need when we see them altho it is rare.


Linda March 16, 2010 at 6:01 am

The only time I go to Dollar Tree is at Christmastime. I go for wrapping paper and Christmas cards and gift tags. I decided that last year was the last year I was sending cards though, so next year it will just be for wrapping paper. BTW, for Birthdays, I use reusable gift bags and newspaper comic pages to wrap gifts in.


Meredith March 16, 2010 at 9:03 am

Great topic! I spend a lot of time wringing my hands over the thrift of the dollar store purchase vs. the ethical impact of shopping there. Generally, I say that if it’s something that I cannot purchase used, and is going to be made in China anyway, then why not pay less at the dollar store? But I’ve noticed two things recently. One, some items aren’t worth buying at dollar stores (at least not the ones where I live) as they break and just need replacing faster. I’ve bought nail clippers and flashlights there that are done within a month, so there’s no real savings. Two, I’ve had some success at my local thrift store lately even with items like stationary, notebooks, binders, staplers and kid’s art supplies. The Value Village near us often packages these things together, so you do have to take a collection, but it’s still worth it. I recently bought birthday party invitations there for less than what I would’ve paid at the dollar store.


Rebecca March 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

the only thing I rely on the dollar store for is balloons, esp the helium kind. 1$ each and they make my kids very, verrrrry happy, esp my 2 autistic kids. They are a special and cheap treat that can last up to several weeks. Perfect for winter boredom.


lorene March 16, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Bought prizes for a singles game night — perfect! Flower seeds, bulbs, Beatriz Potter chocolate bunny, gardening gloves, wind chimes — what a deal! I’m looking for Muir Glen when I go next to get containers for centerpieces for my mother’s 90th birthday party.


Katy March 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I went and looked at the chocolate bunnies at a locally owned chocolatier and at Safeway. I think I will go back for the Beatrix Potter bunnies.

Cute + real solid chocolate + cheap = dealmaker.



karen March 16, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I never, ever buy *any* food stuff from any dollar store, and am also extremely cautious with the toys and other things I pick up — mostly just colouring books and the occasional picture frame or wrapping paper. I have several reasons:

1) much of the stuff comes from China, where they are known to poison their fellow countrykids with forbidden and industrial metals, fillers and dyes (my father-in-law reads the local Chinese language papers and, living in Vancouver, BC, we get much more information in our English papers as well). And this is in the foods!

2) after the scandals involving lead in paints on the kids toys and jewelery, the lead was replaced by other heavy metals (some kind of magnesium, I believe, being one that is especially damaging when adults are exposed). I believe there exist no laws against the use of such metals as yet.

3) counterfeit items of name brand products have been discovered in dollarstore warehouses and store shelves.

When my children, 3, 5 and 7, get candies and toys from birthday parties, teachers and Halloween, I go through them with a fine-tooth comb for the ones that ostensibly could be from a dollarstore. They bring them to me now. In a way it sucks for them, but they know that if it is appropriate, I replace suspect goods with something they like as much, if not more.

I, too, live on a tight budget. I am an older (43) stay-at-home mom, my husband got a handle on his career late, and we live in an expensive city. And yet, we eat mainly organics. We eat way less meats because what I buy is raised right and we don’t need nearly as much of it, and I know my farmers and my prices. I belong to a CSA that provides the best fresh produce. I preserve for the import season. I avoid the grocery stores for the most part and buy what we need on sale. We skip cable access.

We don’t live as though we are poor — I have decent clothes and my kids are well presented. My friends who make way more would never know we get by on less. It’s not impossible, and it is a choice.


Katy March 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm


Did you look at the list of what I bought? None of it was crappy, plastic-y stuff. And the food that I bought was equivalent to what I would have bought at the grocery store. Tortillas, frozen fruit, (grown in Idaho, which is close) soap, shampoo, scotch tape, seeds for my garden and jelly beans for Easter.

This is how I choose to live my life. We make different choices, which is how the world should be.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


karen March 21, 2010 at 12:34 am


I wasn’t criticizing your purchases, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I was answering your question about if people like dollar stores or not, and also entering the discussion that quite a few of your responding people were in, especially because they appear to buy food and toys.
I am really freaked out about the stuff that is coming unchecked through customs and am not sure if people, moms and teachers especially, are aware of how much stuff is not safe, just not safe.
My apologies if I came across as critical about you … my intent was to enter the discussion, and to provide another point of view. I too consider myself a very conscious critical consumer, and was interested in what you had to say.
Just one further note (mostly for other, less informed readers) if you Google dollarstore, lead and china, you will get pages and pages of warnings and recalls.



Lindy March 16, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I also love the Dollar Tree. I don’t shop there on a regular basis but keep a list of odd ball things I need and then go there once in a great while. So much cheaper! I noticed some things you can buy for a dollar are $3 to $5 at the big box stores.

I also went a couple of weeks ago to buy decorations for a going away party. I don’t normally buy decoration’s for parties but since this was a pretty sentimental party I wanted to buy a little something to have it look festive. I was going to go to Party World but thought I would check out the Dollar Tree. So glad I did! I only spent $15 for decorations and also got plastic forks and spoons. I almost hate admitting buying those kind of things at your blog, but hey, I don’t have silverware for dozens of people. Sometimes you just have to buy plastic! 🙂


Katy March 16, 2010 at 3:03 pm


I have a stash of plastic silverwear, which I wash and re-use. I also got a set of tacky 1980’s stainless steel silverwear at a “stuff swap” that I use in place of plastic. That way, I can send it in school and work lunches without worrying whether I’ll see it again.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Lisa P. March 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm

I like the Dollar Tree ~but only the Dollar Tree – I’m a Dollar Tree snob… no generic dollar stores for me LOL. I’m a Snoopy collector and sometimes I find cool little goodies. (Dishes, placemats and frisbees lately). I also check out the rack of sunglasses – the less I pay the less likely I am to lose or break them – Murphy’s law I guess. Finally I flip through the dvds – an old movie for a buck? How bad can it be? 🙂

I’m also a couponer and am usually able to get most shampoo etc. for less than $1 & walgreens often has cpns for .39 for plastic cutlery ~ it cleans up fine in the dishwasher so for those items I shop for these items at traditional drug stores.

I do have a “thing” about buying food there though but I’m leary to buy boxed items (crackers, cereals, cookies) or anything else a “pest” could crawl into (frozen foods and canned goods are fine) whether at the dollar tree or any non-grocery store. I once heard that grocery stores keep the temp down to keep the pests down – I don’t know if it’s true (or still true) but it’s one of my many “hangups” LOL

Hmm, I think I need to pay them a visit now though … it’s been a while 🙂


tammy March 17, 2010 at 6:02 am

My objection to Dollar Tree is the China made products- not sure I trust them. I do purchase soap and shampoo there because I can get name brands for half the price of usual places.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl March 17, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I’ve actually NEVER been to a dollar store. So, I guess that answers the question! lol


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