A $1 price tag doesn't make an item a bargain. If you find yourself filling your basket with dollar-store buys that you never use because the quality is poor or the brand is unfamiliar, then you're simply wasting money. Hey, a buck is a buck - and they add up over time.
"One of my biggest tips is trust you're going to use the items you buy, regardless of where you get them," says Brent Shelton of FatWallet.com, a coupons and deals website, "then decide which items you can settle for switching up brands and quality."
We visited Dollar Tree stores in Northern Virginia, where everything sells for $1 or less, for a look at what was on the shelves. We were careful to compare prices and packaging of those items with prices and packaging at other retailers, a key step to successful dollar-store shopping.
"Pay attention to sizes and quantities, as often items get repackaged with [fewer] items per package in the dollar store, or the pricing structure is different for the different-size bottles," say Shelton.
Take a look at some of the worst things to buy at dollar stores, either because the price is high or the quality is low - or, in some cases, both.
Batteries. Deals sites and dollar-store experts have long been warning people off of buying batteries at dollar stores, especially carbon-zinc batteries. They don't last as long as name-brand alkaline batteries, and they can damage devices if they leak. The $1 packets of "heavy duty" batteries I found at Dollar Tree came under the Sunbeam and Panasonic brands and both were stamped with a warning: "Use for low-drain devices," such as remotes and clock radios.
Canned goods. The $1 price tag is the lure. But is it really a value? Not during our price checks. For instance, a 15.5 ounce can of Goya red kidney beans was $1 at Dollar Tree. At a nearby Giant supermarket, the same size can cost 79 cents. Supermarkets frequently mark down prices on canned goods, and supermarket store brands are especially cheap even when they aren't on sale.
Gum. Again, not much of a bargain at Dollar Tree, where a four-pack of Wrigley's Doublemint gum is $1. At five sticks per pack, that works out to 5 cents per stick. (The manufacturer's suggested retail price is 35 cents per pack, or 7 cents per stick.) But at Costco, a bulk package of 20 14-piece packets of Orbit spearmint gum costs $11.49, or about 4 cents per piece. (Read 12 Secrets to Shopping at Costco for more on the warehouse club.)
Hair and skincare products. As a rule, Caroline Thompson, content marketing specialist at deals website BradsDeals.com, steers shoppers away from off-brand makeup, lotion, shampoo and the like. "While some people swear by these dollar-store products to save money, it really depends on the specific item," Thompson says. "Many of these items are filled with chemicals that could be harsh on your skin and dry out your hair. Plus, they may not be allergy-tested."
School supplies. The dollar-or-less lure is tempting, but quality appeared low on some of the products I saw and handled at Dollar Tree. Adds Shelton: "$1 sounds good, but wait for back-to-school sales at the big box stores, where you will get better bulk value and often better quality." In addition, a 2015 report from the Ecology Center, a group that does environmental education, advocacy and testing, found elevated levels of at least one hazardous chemical in 81% of the dollar-store products it tested including some kids' backpacks and pencil cases.
Tools. Here's where a lot of us get testy, and the experts agree. The quality of the tools sold at Dollar Tree is low and the products probably won't last long. "I've always said tools should be bought at a tool store," says Shelton, "if not for quality, safety is a good reason, too." Some Craftsman tools are guaranteed for life. Sears replaced at no charge an old Craftsman hammer I had that lost its head (no injuries were reported) during use. If you can wait, the best time to shop for tools is around Father's Day in June, when retailers offer deep discounts.
Windshield washer fluid. A gallon of off-brand windshield washer fluid at Dollar Tree is $1. A gallon at Giant was twice as much at $1.99. But here's the rub: The container at Dollar Tree says it isn't effective in the winter, when people living in colder climates need it most. The Giant windshield washer promises it's good to 28 degrees below zero.
Bob Niedt is an editor at Kiplinger.