Dollar stores are, for the most part, thriving whereas thousands and thousands of big-name retail stores are losing business or closing. Discount chains like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar are not only cheaper than most other retailers, but they’re sometimes more convenient considering two of the major chains have some 30,000 stores across America’s rural, suburban, and urban communities, CNN Business reported. Though dollar stores were once seen as “dumping grounds for liquidated and off-brand merchandise,” according to The Washington Post, nowadays these dollar store chains stock major brands, like Coca-Cola and General Mills, at discounted prices.
But are these prices too good to be true? Should you really be buying meat for $1.50 a dollar store? Or what about over-the-counter drugs and pregnancy tests? Well, The List did some digging and discovered things you should and things you absolutely shouldn’t buy on your next trip to the dollar store.
You should buy paper goods and party supplies at dollar stores
If you’re an avid discount shopper, you know dollar stores sell just about anything from food to household cleaning products. That said, if you go to the dollar store for anything, you should put paper products and party essentials at the top of your shopping list — even employees say so. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” Dollar Tree manager Brenda told Mental Floss.
However, you should still be mindful of what paper products you’re putting in your shopping cart, according to The Washington Post. Considering “many items are custom-made in smaller sizes by manufacturers for dollar stores, shoppers need to compare the price against weight, length and size,” senior retail analyst Meaghan Brophy told the publication. And, as far as party essentials go, you should definitely go for the gift bags and Hallmark greeting cards, which are typically two for $1, on your next dollar store trip, WaPo reported.
You shouldn't buy steak from dollar stores
Regardless of how much money you may save, buying meat from your go-to dollar store chain is not the best idea. You might not think about Dollar General when it comes to buying your meat, anyway, but with a visit to one of its stores or on its website, you may be surprised to find a 3.5-ounce Great American ribeye steak costs less than $2. Yes, it seems like a great deal, but is it too cheap? Especially when, as of this writing, Walmart is selling a ribeye steak for $8.97 per pound?
It is important to note that Dollar General’s ribeyes are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the packaging label, so it can’t be that bad, but one Dollar General online reviewer did say the meat was gray and ended up tossing it in the trash. Eek. Another reviewer, however, actually praised the quality, saying, for the price, it makes for a good steak sandwich. The Penny Hoarder contributor Joshua Pramis took one for the team and tried dollar store meat and said this: “I’d sooner hit up the McDonald’s dollar menu for a cheap red-meat fix.”
You should buy electronics at dollar stores if you're in a pinch
Dollar stores may not be the first place tech-savvy consumers think of when it comes to buying electronics, but if you’re in a pinch and need earbuds for a plane ride or don’t want to spend too much on a tech accessory, dollar stores may be the way to go, according to USA Today – though keep realistic expectations when it comes to “quality and longevity.” Some of the marked-down items you could find on a trip to a dollar store includes smartphone car mounts, phone cases, selfie sticks, and small speakers for as low as a buck. Do keep in mind that not all stores have the same products in stock at any given time.
USA Today also scouted a super budget-friendly alternative to a Fitbit for you athletic types. Dollar stores sell multicolored pedometers for just $3, and not only does it track your steps, but it also tracks your distance and how many calories you burned. While that’s a steal, you may want to avoid other tech products, like power strips. “Dollar store versions of extension cords, power strips and the like can be poorly made and therefore unsafe,” money-saving expert Andrea Woroch told Reader’s Digest.
You shouldn't buy batteries at dollar stores
Just because a product is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth your dollar. That’s the case with batteries, according to Kiplinger. Dollar stores tend to sell carbon-zinc batteries, which are more prone to leaking and don’t last nearly as long as, say, their alkaline cousins. Though it may seem like a bargain initially, you may end up needing to replace the batteries more often, thus paying more in the long run.
While dollars stores, like Dollar General, do sell brandname alkaline batteries like Energizer, the price is about the same as those sold at Walgreens — and they may not be as good. Batteries lose charge over time, so that dollar store pack you think is a good deal may have actually spent years on a Target shelf. “[Dollar stores] are not ordering new batteries and pricing them well — they’re taking old stuff off other stores’ shelves,” online shopping expert Brent Shelton told Reader’s Digest.
You should buy pregnancy tests at dollar stores
It turns out you can rely on dollar store pregnancy tests. According to USA Today, pregnancy tests are regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration prior to hitting store shelves so if a dollar store has them in stock, you’ll know their legit. “I would only caution that it needs to be sold legally,” FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo told USA Today. That said, the publication also revealed that brandname options are more sensitive and therefore may produce a quicker response.
Choosing where to purchase a test ultimately comes down to how much you’re willing to spend. It is cheaper to buy a pregnancy test at places like Dollar General, where it can cost as little as $1 and, at the most, $6.95, as of this writing, with the cheapest being the store’s brand. For $6.50, you can pick up a brandname First Response pregnancy test at Dollar General whereas a two-pack of the same tests at CVS costs over $20, averaging out to be about $10.40 per test.
You shouldn't buy over-the-counter drugs at dollar stores
You probably should avoid buying over-the-counter drugs at any dollar store chain. Why? A months-long undercover investigation by the New York State Office of the Attorney General found that the Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar were all selling expired over-the-counter drugs. As a result, all chains were required to pay $1.2 million in damages in 2019, according to the NY Attorney General’s office. “New York consumers have a right to expect that products on store shelves are safe, fresh and suitable for their advertised use,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a press release.
That same year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to Dollar Tree for receiving “adulterated drugs from manufacturers that received FDA warning letters in 2018.” The previous FDA warnings to Dollar Tree’s contract manufacturers included violations such as “not testing raw materials or finished drugs for pathogens and quality,” according to the press release from the FDA. The warning letter to Dollar Tree outlined violations found in the production of Dollar Tree’s Assured Brand over-the-counter drugs and other drugs sold at Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores.
You should buy cosmetics at dollar stores
We all know how expensive makeup can be, but what if we told you it didn’t have to be that way? Dollar General, for example, offers cheaper alternatives. In 2019, the chain rolled out its very own makeup line. Named Believe Beauty, the line features $5-and-under eye shadows, lipstick, nail polishes, and foundations. According to CNN Business, YouTube beauty vloggers love the label, including YouTuber Taylor Horn, who told the publication that cosmetic brands like Believe Beauty provide high-quality makeup “that your everyday consumer can afford.”
Walk down any dollar store beauty aisle and you may also discover products from major makeup brands like E.L.F., Wet n’ Wild and Maybelline New York. In fact, Maybelline partnered with Dollar General in 2019 to make its brand accessible to everyone, no matter your zip code, according to Allure. So if Ulta or Target are far from home, you can visit Dollar General and do some serious makeup shopping, including Maybelline’s Great Lash mascara ($5) and its Instant Age Rewind concealer ($8).
You shouldn't buy food at dollar stores without checking expiration dates
You can buy groceries at your nearby dollar store, but should you? Dollar General sells everything from bread to milk to eggs, although most of its grocery options, like that of Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, are processed and packaged goods, CNN Business reported.
Before you buy any groceries at any dollar store, though, you may want to look at the expiration date first, Cincinnati’s WCPO 9 News advised. In the TV report, Shaquanna Hines said that her daughter purchased a bag of trail mix from a dollar store that ended up being nearly six months past its expiration date. “When she opened them, she realized they were stale; they tasted weird,” Hines said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food products are marked with a Sell-By, Use-By, Best if Used By/Before, or Freeze-By date. However, this shouldn’t necessarily discourage you from buying food from your local dollar store as long as you look at those dates. College student Amanda Olivero discovered that it’s cheaper for her to buy groceries at a dollar store, though not all options are the healthiest. In an essay for Spoon University, Olivero managed to purchase five days worth of groceries for just $35.
You should buy travel toiletries at dollar stores
The last thing you want to do before any big trip is spend a lot of money on travel toiletries. Let’s be honest, you’d rather spend your hard-earned cash on excursions and souvenirs for your family and friends. Which is why TripSavvy says yes when it comes to buying toiletries at the Dollar Tree. The store sells $1 cosmetic jars, travel-sized bottles, refillable water bottles, disposable toothbrushes and baby wipes, among other things.
In an article for The Penny Hoarder, freelance travel journalist Benét J. Wilson touted dollar store essentials like hand sanitizer and lotion as absolute must-haves for any trip. “As a germophobe, I won’t fly without my 2.8-ounce scented hand sanitizers, which come in a pack of three. I also take Purell wipes, which do double duty as a face refresher and a cloth to wipe down germ-ridden airplane surfaces,” Wilson wrote.
You shouldn't buy just any toy found at dollar stores
Every dollar store has at least one toy aisle. It may be a haven for your kids if they accompany you on your shopping run. However, be careful with what toys you let them pull off the store shelves. In 2019, a doll sold at a Dollar Tree in New York was recalled after it was found to have “246 times the level of a chemical substance than federally allowed,” according to the The Virginian-Pilot. The substance? Phthalates, aka “known endocrine disruptors,” which are typically used in production of plastic materials and can be especially harmful to infants and toddlers. “This toy poses an unacceptable risk to our kids and should not be on store shelves,” New York State Secretary of State Rossana Rosado said in a statement.
If you do purchase toys from the dollar store, the New York Department of State’s Division of Consumer Protection recommends you do the following: Carefully read the labels, throw away or fix broken toys, and make sure fabric toys are labeled as either “flame-resistant” or “flame-retardant.”
You should buy (certain) household cleaners and personal products from dollar stores
In the past, it was best to avoid discount household cleaners and personal products from dollar stores, but according to a 2019 Mind the Store “report card” (via Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families), times have changed — at least slightly. The report concluded that both the Dollar Tree and Dollar General have made strides to eliminate toxic chemicals in their products, although they’ve still got a decent way to go. Dollar General scored a D, which is far from amazing; in the same report Target scored an A. But as Safer Chemicals noted, the chain has made improvements, especially with its launch of a safer policy “banning eight toxic chemicals in private-label beauty, personal care, and household cleaning products.”
Meanwhile, Dollar Tree scored a D+ — also not amazing, but an improvement from its previous score, a D, thanks to the chain’s implementation of a safer chemicals policy. This means there are definitely products that you can feel safe buying at the dollar store, but you’ll want to watch out for anything that contains formaldehyde, bisphenol A (BPA), Bisphenol S (BPS) and methylene chloride, among others, according to Safer Chemicals.
You shouldn't buy just any baby food at dollar stores
Baby food can be expensive so it’s only reasonable to look to save some money. However, you may want to think twice before buying from your local dollar store — or other stores for that matter. The nonprofit organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures purchased and tested baby food from 15 different retailers — including dollar stores Family Dollar and Dollar Tree as well as other retailers like superstores and grocery stores — and found that 95 percent of the baby foods they tested “[contained] toxic chemicals that lower babies’ IQ.”
The study, which looked at a variety of baby food, including apple juice, formula, cereal and rice puffs by some of the major baby food brands (including Gerber, Similac, and Enfamil), found different types of chemicals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. The report stated that these chemicals are generally found in all human food and are typically caused by environmental pollution. However, babies are more “sensitive to the toxic impacts.”
What should you do? “Parents can protect their babies today by choosing nutritious and affordable alternatives to the most contaminated foods,” pediatrician Philip Landrigan told The Arizona Republic.
You should buy books at dollar stores
Ever get tired of paying an astronomical amount on books at your local bookstore? Try making a habit of visiting Dollar Tree for all your reading needs, according to Book Riot. At a dollar a piece, you can grow your book collection fast and if you don’t end up liking a book, you can always pass it along to a fellow book worm. But how does Dollar Tree sell acclaimed novels for dirt cheap?
Book Riot discovered that most of the novels found at Dollar Tree were once collecting dust at the publisher’s warehouse. Also known as “remainders,” these books weren’t requested for resale for a number of reasons, including having an overstock. Visit Dollar Tree’s website and you’ll find dozens of books from the Chicken Soup for the Soul collection and even children’s books — all for $1 each. Next time you’re in a dollar store, check out the book section, you just might find a treasure.
You shouldn't buy canned goods at dollar stores
If you’re going to a dollar store to score a deal on canned goods, you might want to skip the trip. The Dollar General, for example, sells brandname goods like Green Giant and Bush’s Best — but don’t be fooled by the price tag. “At Dollar Tree, you might find cans of soup or veggies selling for $1, though you’d find the same items priced lower at the supermarket or on Amazon,” Doug Whiteman, Money Wise‘s personal finance editor, told Reviewed.
Not only is it not much of a deal, but it could end up being hazardous to your health. According to a press release from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, toxins have been found in the canned food sold in dollar stores. Tracy Gregoire with the Learning Disabilities Association of America said in the release that their testing on Dollar General food products revealed “BPA in canned food.”
According to Healthline, BPA (bisphenol A) is “an industrial chemical” that’s utilized to create epoxy resins, which are “spread on the inner lining of canned food containers to keep the metal from corroding and breaking” and has been linked to a number of health problems.
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