10 Things You Should Never Buy at the Dollar Store (and 10 You Should)

By Paul Michael on 8 January 2014 40 comments

Who doesn't love a trip to the dollar store? You walk in with five bucks, and you walk out with a bag full of stuff. (See also: Home Decorating for Under $5)

Of course, the stuff you have in that bag is going to vary in quality from good to "Are you sure you want to take the risk?" So I have compiled a top 10 list of things to buy, and 10 things to steer clear of.

What to Buy

Here are the items you should look out for every time you're at the dollar store.

1. Gift Wrap, Cards, and Party Supplies

What's the most depressing thing about buying gift-wrap? Personally, I hate spending $3-$4 on a roll of paper that is specifically designed to be seen for 10 seconds before it's ripped off and thrown in the trash. That's why I always get it from the dollar store. It's 75% cheaper, it looks just the same, and it's not so painful to see it get annihilated. While you're there, grab balloons, plates, cups, plastic cutlery, greeting cards, and anything else related to a birthday or anniversary. You'll save a ton of money over the years.

2. Glassware, Cups, and Mugs

There's a decent selection of glassware in most dollar stores, and they're perfectly safe for the home. They're not made of inferior glass that will shatter when you breathe on them. The glasses may not be the most current styles, and you may not get exactly the shape you were looking for. But if you're just looking to add a few glasses to your cupboard, your money goes a long way here. The same goes for cups and mugs. Again, don't expect a massive array of the latest styles. But they hold tea and coffee just fine.

3. Reusable Plastic Containers

It's often called Gladware, but that's a brand name. You can find these storage containers made by Betty Crocker, Ziploc, Rubbermaid, Tupperware, and many others. Your selection may not be that great in the dollar store, but you'll get a lot more containers for your cash.

4. Coloring Books, Crayons, and Kids' Crafts

The prices of coloring books range from "how much?!" to "seems reasonable." In the dollar store, however, they're as cheap as chips. And while you're there, stock up on crayons, pencils, erasers, pipe cleaners, colored paper, and glue sticks. (See also: Budget Design Ideas for a Kids’ Playroom)

5. Batteries

"No way," I hear you cry! Well, yes way. Fine, dollar store batteries aren't as good as the expensive, name brand batteries. Dollar store batteries are usually older carbon-zinc technology, as opposed to alkaline or lithium. BUT, when you're paying $1 for a pack of 4 AA batteries, and the name-brand variety costs $5-$6, you are getting a better deal. So, they won't last as long, but they're at least 80% cheaper. If you don't mind replacing batteries more often (and checking often too, as some batteries will leak if left in too long) they'll do just fine; especially for those power-draining kids toys.

6. Holiday Decorations

Easter. Halloween. Christmas. Thanksgiving. If you can name a holiday, there are expensive decorations to buy. Luckily, your dollar store has a good stock of bargain decorations, and few people will know the difference. A word of warning though…avoid anything electrical (see the first point in the "Do Not Buy" list below). (See also: Holiday Shopping at the Dollar Store)

7. Most Cleaning Products

Bleach is bleach. Ammonia is ammonia. Glass cleaner is glass cleaner. Don't worry about paying 75% more for the name brand versions; just get down to your dollar store and stock up on the cleaning products you need at bargain prices. You may find some of the products are not as strong as the name brand versions, but just use a little more. At these prices, you can afford to. While you're in that aisle, pick up sponges, dishcloths, towels, and other cleaning products. (See also: The 5 Best All-Purpose Cleaners)

8. Personal Hygiene Items

Go ahead and spend a small fortune on those name brand shampoos, conditioners, shaving creams, deodorants, and toothpastes if you want. Cheap shampoos and conditioners often work as well as more-expensive ones. (See also: Luxury Hair Treatments From Your Kitchen)

9. Socks

Whether for the gym or daily wear, you'll find bargain socks in the dollar store. Just evaluate them as you would any other item of clothing. Some can be very thin and not offer the cushioning you'd like.

10. Movie Theater Candy

Those boxes of candy they sell for an arm and a leg in the cinema are being sold in dollar stores, often at 2-for-1 prices. Stick to the name brands like Raisinets, Skittles, Jujyfruits, Whoppers, and Hot Tamales, and you'll do just fine. Of course, always check expiration dates on any food you buy. (See also: A Quick Guide to Expiration Dates)

10 Things to Avoid

From good value, we move to not so good. Or absolutely no way! Here are 10 things to put on your "avoid at all costs" list.

1. Anything With a Plug

There is no way of knowing if these items have met the minimum safety requirements, because the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) safety seal is often counterfeited. So although those night lights, extension cords, and other electrical "bargains" seem like a good deal, avoid them.

2. Food Storage Bags, Aluminum Foil, and Cling Wrap

You really do get what you pay for with these household staples. It may only be a buck for a box of bags, but look again. How many bags are you really getting? And will they hold a seal like the name brand bags you buy in grocery stores? As for cling wrap, it won't be of the same quality as the varieties you'll find in your supermarket. Expect it to be tricky to get off the roll, thin, and not very "clingy" at all. And the foil will be paper-thin and tear easily.

3. Kitchen Utensils

I speak from personal experience on this one. Way too many times have I been tempted to buy a spatula, can opener, or cooking knife from the dollar store. In my experience, they are not well made — especially when it comes to knives. Buy good quality knives, especially a chef's knife, and don't skimp on the price. If you get a quality knife, it can last you a lifetime.

4. Vitamins

If you've looked at the prices of vitamins in your local grocery store or health food shop, you wouldn't be faulted for trying to find them cheaper elsewhere. However, the dollar store is not the place to look. Daily Finance cites a 2004 Consumer Reports study that says half of the 18 multivitamins they tested were missing vital ingredients. And the FDA does not have tight controls on vitamins. Bottom line — they probably won't hurt you, but you may be getting short-changed.

5. Toys

When your kids are involved, it's best to err on the side of caution. Many unbranded toys from the dollar store are low quality. What's more, they may not meet current safety regulations. You don't want to risk the safety of your child to save a few bucks. If money is an issue, shop the clearance aisles in retail stores, or look for good, used toys on Craigslist and second hand stores. (See also: 10 Fun, Homemade Toys and Games)

6. Medicines

When it comes to your health, it's better to go with the name brand or generic items in the supermarkets and retail stores. Painkillers may be substandard, counterfeited, or lacking ingredients that the label claims they have. And one of the biggest problems is medicines like Ibuprofen have often gone past their expiration dates. Keep a watchful eye before you buy.

7. Oven Mitts

They're cheap, and they look the same as more expensive versions. The difference is in the construction and the padding, and you don't want to mess around with something designed to protect you. Do yourself (and your hands) a favor, and buy the more expensive versions. You'll be glad you did.

8. Soda

The one-liter bottles of soda in dollar stores are not really a bargain. You can usually pick up a two-liter of the same variety for just a few cents more at your local grocery store. And the same goes for cans and smaller bottles of soda, too. It's really not worth it. (See also: Homemade Soda)

9. Tools

Any DIY aficionado will tell you — a $1 screwdriver or hammer is going to break, and quickly. As someone who does a fair bit of DIY myself, I can tell you that tools are worth the investment. Don't go anywhere near the tool section in a dollar store; you are just throwing your money down the drain. And more importantly, poorly made tools can be dangerous. (See also: Cool Tool Gifts for Fixer Uppers)

10. Chewing Gum

There's nothing wrong with it, but it's just not a bargain. Go to a warehouse club like Costco or Sam's Club and you'll pick up a huge pack of gum and save way more money than you would buying gum from the dollar store.

So, that's my list. 10 to try, 10 to avoid. Do you agree? Have you got other things you would add to either list? Let us know.

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Guest's picture
Guest

I love the dollar store, and agree with most of the article, but I have to disagree with buying drinking glasses and mugs there. You will get more for your money at a discount department store. A quick search yields a couple results of a 12-pack of glass tumblers at less than $11.

Guest's picture
Guest

I also would never ever buy pet foods or pet supplies.

Guest's picture
just me

after buying 3 horribly rotton cans of dog food, I wont either

Guest's picture
Guest E

Living in California, I have seen required lead warnings on glassware (maybe from the etching?). No thanks. Cheaper at Ikea, anyway.

Guest's picture
Guest

Candles are a great buy at the dollar store too. saves a ton of money and some times they have a bag of 100 tea lights!

Guest's picture
Guest

Pregnancy tests are actually WAY cheaper at our dollar tree store and they work!

Guest's picture
catastrophegirl

i buy the urinary tract infection test kits. my cat is prone to UTIs and the vet can never get a sample so i use them to check at home. it's not a perfect test but she said it's good enough to let us know when he needs a round of antibiotics. but she did say she wouldn't trust them if she didn't know he already has a tendency to infections

Guest's picture
Guest

I buy plastic sandwich bags and aluminum foil as well as my trash bags and I've been satisfied with them. The bags don't tear and I don't count how many sandwich bags there are because it takes a long time for two people to go through them.

Guest's picture

Our dollar store carries a lot of 2-3 liter soda bottles, so they can be a good deal, depending on the store you go to. Even name brands such as Coke and Pepsi.

Their toys are sometimes good too. We sometimes find toys at our dollar store that are the same as sold elsewhere. Hot Wheels cars are one example, although you can usually get them for the same price elsewhere. There are lots of toys there I wouldn't buy either, so I know where you're coming from on that one. We've sometimes lucked into toys that sell for about $10 in other stores.

Guest's picture
SLS

I buy zip-bags and aluminum foil at the dollar store and love them. The foil is name brand and the brand of bags I use from there are great.

Sometimes you have to experiment and find the better brands there.

I would add to the do not buy list: mini clip-on book lights. They seem like a great deal, but rarely work for more than a few minutes before conking out.

Guest's picture
Chris@PromotionalCodes.com

Great list, Paul!

I’ve gone to the dollar store plenty of times for wrapping paper. Also found fun little pieces to add to my Christmas Village. I never thought to go there for Tupperware though. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it next time.

I have to agree with shopping for glassware at Ikea. I’m sure the dollar store has great deals, but I prefer Ikea’s selection. 6-pack of tumblers for $2.99? Yes, please. I went there for my mugs and dishes too, not to mention furniture. That place is addictive…

Guest's picture
Guest

I buy a lot of my cooking utensils at the Dollar Store. Mostly things like salad tongs, plastic stir spoons, measuring cups, etc. I admit I've bought knives too, but mostly when I've been in a situation where I'm going to take the knife somewhere. I figure it's a dollar knife, if I forget to bring it home, no big deal, but I still have some of those dollar knives in my drawer and they work just fine. But for measuring cups, measuring spoons, etc, why spend more?

Glasses and mugs are good if you only need a couple. Otherwise, I have a tumbler set that cost me 8.99 for 12 that I bought at Walmart.

Guest's picture
Guest

Since I am hair stylist I immediately don't want to believe anything in this article because you said Dollar Store shampoo works the same as salon shampoos. Thats absolutely ridiculous. It may work for certain hair types, but try to wash my hair with that crap and see if you can make it straight and not frizzy. You cant.

Guest's picture

Make sure to double check how much wrapping paper you get in the $1 roll. Also, if you waste half the paper while you are wrapping because it keeps tearing that's also no good. I found that out when my dollar store wrapping paper was only about 1 millimeter thicker than tissue paper and kept popping holes in the corners as I was wrapping. Most of the more expensive roll is a better value. I just getu wrapping paper when it's on clearance right after the holidays.

I love all the other suggestions/warnings. Thank you for a great article.

Guest's picture

You hit the nail on the head. That is almost exactly the list of items I will buy at Dollar stores. Like every type of retail outlet, they have their place as a shopping destination and I am thankful for their existence every time I have to plan an event.

Guest's picture
Cassie

Personally I avoid buying anything I ingest at the dollar store. I've done it before and the things I bought, candy included, tasted..... off. Given how many counterfeit products I've seen in the dollar stores I figure I best stick to local farmers, store generics and things I recognize.

That being said, I'm all about the paper products there. That and (relating to the tools) picture hanging supplies, small nails, vases and garden twine are all super cheap there.

Guest's picture
ben_marko

Has anyone ever tested the over the counter drugs at dollar stores? I've gotten ibuprofen there and it worked fine. I've bought kitchen utensils and knives there, they weren't the best, but they also worked fine (and still do). I still have my oven mitt from Dollar Tree from four years ago and it looks and works fine.

How much research was done on this article?

Guest's picture
Guest

I've used the aspirin and the knives, and they worked for me. The knives are great, and I use them every day. Little research was done by this author.

Guest's picture
indigo starfire

if you are shopping at a 99¢ chain store (purple carts) a lot of the items are name brand feom other retailer liquidations. same with Dollar Tree but in regards to the garden variety independently owned places, i would wholeheartedly agree with this list with the exception of hair care productssuch as shampoo and conditioner. and i would add body washes and lotions and fragrances as well. unless it is a brand you recognize and trust (keeping in mind to beware of counterfeits) most of the stuff available there in that category is indeed crap harsh chemicals and inferior quality.

Guest's picture

Interesting. There's definitely some items I wouldn't buy there though I heart the dollar store.

Guest's picture
May

I have had some good luck with headphones. The kids broke my really expensive ones in no time flat so I bought a set for everyone and if they get lost or broken --- no problem. Some of their kitchen gadgets can be ok and household cleaners.
A friend of mine bought some candles that almost caused a house fire at the dollar store ---so buyer beware.

Guest's picture
Guest

i have bought kitchen stuff and uses it for camping and i get clothes pins for bags of chips. the long lighters for candles.picture frames are good too.greeting cards are great.containers are good for kids little toys or little girls hair stuff.

Guest's picture
Adam

Good article. And totally agreed. The LA's Totally awesome they sell is fabulous.....cleans darn near everything......though I've now been told it's bad for the environment.....and my health.....eeek! the 2-butoxyethanol stuff in it......

I love their greeting card section.....they are simple, and to the point, with plenty of space where I can add my own personal touch ;) And for only a buck. lol.

YES. Totally avoid their kitchen gadgets haha. I did buy an ice cream scoop from the dollar tree.....and wow, it lasted maybe 4 uses......went too deep into the Edy's ice cream and the plastic handle broke......mind you, this had a metal head on it.....but yep, the handle cracked on it......so will be replacing that from something from Walmart or Bed Bath and Beyond......

Guest's picture
Guest

But then again I work at a department store chain in the mid-west that carries a name-brand line of kitchen gadgets (brand is best known for its excellent stand-mixers), and the ice cream scoop is so poorly designed and made that I am sure it would break the first time someone used it for anything stiffer than Cool-whip!

I look for office-supply type products: I love some pens I just got @ 10 for $1--the ink runs out faster than more expensive pens, but they still come out better because pens are ridiculously expensive, and they feel good in my hand. You have to watch how much paper you are getting in notebooks and things, but there are some good buys. I got some notebooks once that I liked so well, I called the paper company to ask where to get more!

Also I check out the aisle with cell phone accessories. The clear screen covers are good, and I can find cases I like for my phone. Why spend $15 or more? Also the rubber tipped styluses are great. I wouldn't buy the chargers or adapters tho.

I also buy box cutters there, and I always look for non-aerosol hairspray. Kitchen towels can be a good deal. I use some square candle jars I got at dollar tree (they happen to be name-brand) as cell phone holders. Avoid potpourri etc.; I bought "cinnamon-scented" diffusers at a dollar-type store and the cinnamon smelled like the red mouthwash at the dentist's office!

Guest's picture
Best Dollar Store Dealz

I buy aluminum foil and zipper seal bags. My store does carry a lot of the big brand names though. I have been satisfied with the generic brands too though.

Guest's picture
Daniel Stobie

You missed noting Automotive fluids of any kind, oil especially. Never compromise the quality of fluids needed in your car.

Guest's picture
Guest

Good advice, Daniel. I wouldn't want to chance it.

Guest's picture
Anna

DOG TOYS and dog treats NEVER buy at the dollar store... The toys are really not safe for dogs -- they are made with cheap materials and they(Chinese suppliers) don't care if it's harmful to your pet.

That said I love dollar stores but since Dollarama took out their craft section and turned into a $1-$3 store, I hardly ever go.

Guest's picture
sandy

I've found great sandwich bags here!! Just stay away from the foil though..

Guest's picture
Guest

Actually, you are way off base on a lot of these for the dollar store I shop at. I have gotten decent kitchen knives, decent tools, even decent viatmins. Out dollar tree even sells 3 liter sodas now.

Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of junk. The thing is to LOOK at the item before you buy it.

The store I shop is headed by a corp office and they look at sales to see what sells and what doesn't for EACH STORE. So they drop items that don;t sell and find other better replacements. (So says the manager. lol)

Bottom line in shopping: Look before you leap! You can tell what you're buying before you leave the store if you just check it out first. Be it Dollar Store, Good Will or Walmart. Even online, you can read reviews first.

Shop smart!

Guest's picture
Guest

I disagree with things to avoid list. I've bought all of those things and I they've worked fine. It's just a matter of being choosy and knowledgable about whatever you buy depending on your needs.

Guest's picture
Guest

You miss the point of why someone like me shops at the dollartree. It is because i only have a dollar! I can get gum for a dollar, I don't have 8 dollars to buy a huge pack at Sam's club. I can buy 3 ounces of cashews for a dollar, i can't afford fifteen dollars for a big jar at sam's club. It would be great to be wealthy like you, i would not need to go to the dollartree at all!

Guest's picture
Guest

I buy everything, or nearly everything at Dollar Tree. I disagree with most of the 10 things not to buy. I buy wraps and foils and they work just fine. I buy kitchen utensils and have never had a problem and they last awhile. I use dollar store oven mitts and potholders without issue. Same with toys. I am not paying a lot for toys when they'll get broken in a week anyway. Dollar tree has some cute toys for kids. The quality of the items at the dollar store has greatly improved over the last several years. They have also expanded their product selections. Always a lot to choose from. Why shop anywhere else and pay 4x the price for the same items? Also, sometimes shopping clearance isn't saving too much when you can go to the dollar store and buy the same thing for $1.00.

Guest's picture
Guest

Dollar Trees is the way to go, if you on a fix income, because some of that stuff we spent a lot a money on some if we do not use it by the expiration date , it a waste just check the date before you buy. It is no harm to buy at the Dollar stores, especially when you just need something at the moment, and do not have enough money.

Guest's picture
Guest

the dollar store version of zyrtec is not only significantly cheaper than all the other generics but it works the same.

this article was based on fear not product testing.

Guest's picture
Guest

I disagree with the personal hygiene products. I've bought body wash from Dollar Tree several times and 1) It has always had a faint "odd" smell to it, and 2) It's very runny so you end up going through it a lot faster. I find bargain brands like Suave on sale for $2-$3 without the weird smell and it lasts much longer.

Guest's picture
Guest

Things that are awesome that were not mentioned:

- zip ties - for light use
- shower curtain rings - make a Pinterest scarf organizer!
- measuring cups and spoons - I have the Betty Crocker red ones and they've lasted years and years
- plastic storage bins - so many sizes and colors!
- gardening gloves - for light planting, weeding, etc
- gardening trowels, cultivator, shears - really good quality

Things that suck that were not mentioned:

- gardening soil - awful quality
- plastic plates/serving dishes for camping - grilled food melted the pattern off one, not dishwasher safe, so why bother
- solar lights - I came home with a dud and they were all dead the next year
- hanging shower rack - so flimsy and fits next to nothing
- rugs/mats - super thin and they come apart

Guest's picture
Dulcis Imperatrix

#11. Pregnancy Tests!! (Trust me on this one).

Guest's picture
Guest

I cannot agree. we were poisoned by some of the glassware at Dollar Tree and since then learned that 81% of the products they sell that were tested ARE POISONOUS.

Guest's picture
Guest

I would rethink the list. I would never buy glassware, plasticware, and now add toxic crayons to the list. There is no telling how much lead, or other heavy metals are in the glass or how much bpa is in the plasticware. I'm just creeped out at the thought of what might be in almost any foreign product that you could buy there other than hangers and clothes pins. Cadmium childrens' jewelry, melamine baby formula and cough syrup, and now toxic crayons are proof enough that people over there either just don't give a damn, or are waging some form of strange economic warfare where they try to bankrupt us by poisoning an entire generation of children.

Guest's picture
Guest

I completely disagree with including soda on the "Things to Avoid" list. I buy 3-liter bottles of (offbrand) soda for $1. I don't know of any other stores that sell 3-liters of soda, and if they do, I doubt it has a price of $1.