Dollar Store Deals: Which Ones Are Worth It?

Dollar Store Deals: Which Ones Are Worth It?

There's no better challenge than finding out how far your dollar can go.

Which is why we're all over the dollar store.

What was once kitschy is now cool (the New York Times would agree), and more affluent consumers are getting in on the dollar store game. Since the recession, it's been boom time for these stores, which specialize in imported, generic and knockoff consumer goods for prices that make Wal-Mart look like a luxury retailer.

But before you get bargain-hungry and sidle up to a shopping cart, you should know which are the best dollar-store deals—and which offerings can be low-quality, or even dangerous.

Equip yourself with our handy chart below so you can be queen of the dollar-store bargain (really, it's a title).

Deal No Deal It Depends
Everyday Cleaning Supplies
Go for it. Cleaners have similar—though somewhat diluted—ingredients. (Spring for heavy-duty cleaners for tougher jobs.) Also get rubber gloves, sponges and scrub brushes here.** (If green cleaners are more your thing, we have the best for your buck here.)
Vitamins
Stay away. Some multi-vitamins don't have the amount of nutrients claimed on the label; others don't dissolve fast enough to be absorbed by the body.*
Food
Proceed with caution. Dollar stores don't always have the lowest price, especially on generics, and cake and brownie mixes here come in misleadingly smaller packages. Lastly, keep an eye on the expiration dates, since they may be near or past their freshness date.
Greeting Cards
Definitely. You can find a big selection of good-quality cards for every occasion for about 50 cents each, and you can't even tell the difference in quality.
Batteries and Electronics
Definitely not. Electronics and extension cords may have fake UL labels. Cheap batteries may be prone to leakage, or may not power your gadgets as long.*
Seasonal or Holiday Items
Up to you. In this category, a "bargain" may be a matter of taste. Icicle ornaments look beautiful on the tree, but imitation pine wreaths? Scraggly and cheap.
Gift Wrapping Supplies
Savings galore. A 20-foot roll of gift wrap is a buck, a third of the price at other stores. All sizes of gift bags are $1, but up to $5 at other stores. You'll also find huge savings on tissue paper—up to 75% off prices elsewhere.
Toys
No way. Dollar store toys are poorly made and can be dangerous if they break. Baby toys should be avoided because they can be a choking hazard. They also often have unsafe levels of lead and phthalates.*
Basic School/Office Supplies
If you find a deal. Prices are decent, but not guaranteed to be better than Walmart or Target. Find better sales at other stores during back-to-school season in August and September.
Party Supplies
Plumb this treasure trove: Foil balloons are $1 here, but $3 to $8 each at party-supply stores, gift shops and supermarkets. Color-coordinated paper plates, napkins, cups and plastic flatware are also good buys.
Lighters and Other "Fire-Makers"
Don't skimp on safety. Tiki torches and lighters may not be up to safety standards.*(If you're throwing a barbecue, learn how to grill up a storm here.)
Cooking and Dining Accessories
Be discerning. Spoons, spatulas, cheese graters, ice cream scoops are steals at 50% to 90% off big box store prices, and you'll find cheap glasses, plates and flatware. But inspect all of your goods before checking out to make sure your measuring cups aren't missing pieces, and avoid knives, which may be flimsy and dull.
Aluminum Foil
A no-brainer. At 3 cents per square foot, it beats out the prices at grocery and big box stores.*(You can use the foil in this delicious snapper puttanesca recipe.)
Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Other Medications
Better safe than sorry. Aspirin and other medications may be left on the shelf past their expiration dates. Some labels may not say where the medicine was manufactured.*
Candy
Your call. Economy size bags of generic candy are cheaper but can also have a noticeably inferior taste.

*According to Consumer Reports

** According to the Good Housekeeping Institute

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