After years of assuming the worst of dollar stores, I visited a Dollar Tree and found items I actually buy and can save on.

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My son just graduated from preschool. I know, not a big deal for some, but we still were throwing a party and needed decorations. Normally I would have headed to Party City and spent $50 on decorations and balloons, but a friend suggested going to Dollar Tree first to see what they had.

Following my friend to the store, I recalled one of my last trips to a “dollar store,” which had been at least 10 years ago. They had a sad array of off-brand toys that in my mind were likely to poison a kid if they were to eat it and an ever sadder array of “food” items. The store was messy, had bad lighting and made me want to wash my hands upon leaving. There was no way a store like that would have anything I needed for a graduation party, or so I thought.

A change of heart: How shopping at dollar stores can save you money

We walked in and my mouth literally went agape. Seriously? THIS was a “dollar store?” I said to her: “I can’t believe what I am seeing. This place actually has stuff I need and want!”

“Yes,” she said. “This one is really good. I pick up little toys for the kids here all the time.”

Over in the party section, there was a full aisle of graduation decorations. It was the same stuff I’d find at a Party City or a Michael’s, but for $1 instead of $8 a piece. We got table toppers, posters, hanging mobiles, streamers, tablecloths, plates, napkins, and cups for under $20! I was amazed.

We continued looking around the store for additional items we might need. “I get all my storage containers here,” my friend said. And here I was buying my big plastic containers at Target and Walmart when I could have had them for $1! She grabbed some craft items and small toys for an upcoming plane trip she was taking with her kids, and I kept walking in awe of all the useful and sometimes name-brand items I was seeing at the bargain basement pricing of $1.

This is exactly what a dollar store wants you to do. They get you in the door and then as you look around you find all this extra stuff you didn’t want or need but wind up buying because — it’s $1.

Tips when shopping at a dollar store

  • Make sure you are going to a true “dollar store.” Dollar Tree and the 99 Cent Store are the main ones. These stores only sell items for $1 (or 99 cents). Stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar have dollar in their names, but their stuff is often more than a dollar and you can wind up spending as much if not more than you would have at Walmart or a similar big-box retailer.
  • Comparison shop. This doesn’t have to be too in depth, but take a basic inventory of the things you buy at other stores, then run those prices by what’s sold at Dollar Tree. Know that not everything is cheaper at the dollar store. Sometimes the things for a dollar actually cost less at big box stores. Other times the item will be name brand, but be in a smaller size than what’s sold commercially.
  • Check dollar stores first for party supplies. I was seriously blown away by their selection and pricing. They even had a huge selection of mylar balloons that they inflated with helium for you.

Price comparison between Party City and the Dollar Tree

Here is a side-by-side comparison of three graduation-themed items purchased at Dollar Tree and what similar items cost at Party City:

Item                                                  Party City Price            Dollar Tree

Plates- 18 count:                                    $5.47                                     $1

Balloon:                                                   $2.99 each                            $1

Cut-outs:                                                 $3.99                                     $1

Total:                                                       $12.45                                   $3

Understand that not all dollar stores are the same. We went to a 99-Cent Store a few days later to see if they had balloons, and their inventory was completely different and not the same vibe as the Dollar Tree. This is part of how dollar stores are able to only charge $1. They often get in the overstock of items that haven’t sold or goods from previous seasons. You may need to do some mapping to see which store fits your needs best.

No matter what, it’s important to know how much things cost. Being your own “The Price Is Right” contestant may not get you to the Showcase Showdown, but it could save you a few bucks along the way.

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Meet the Author

Jessica Patel

Jessica Patel

Author

Jessica Patel is an award-winning editor and writer living in Los Angeles. She previously served as deputy editorial director of T Brand Studio at The New York Times and as Senior Editor and Analyst of Bankrate.com.

Budgeting & Saving, News

save money, Very Personal Finance

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Article last modified on July 20, 2018. Published by Debt.com, LLC . Mobile users may also access the AMP Version: I’ve Discovered the Dollar Store, and It’s Changed My Life - AMP.