When it comes to bargain shopping, the dollar store may sound like a one-stop shop for inexpensive food. But is it? With a store-wide price tag of just $1, it’s easy to keep filling your cart with food item after food item, sure that you’re totally saving your grocery budget (and likely earning a spot in some Hall of Fame for thrifty shoppers). But the truth is a much different story. You may not be saving much at all — and if you’re buying certain items, you may actually be spending more than you need to. You might also be purchasing foods that just don’t taste good. Purchasing otherwise expensive food products for merely a buck doesn’t come without a catch. There are a few things to consider before you make your purchase. If you’re a concerned thrifty shopper, here are some products you should skip buying from the dollar store. As of October 2018, you can get a much better deal at other stores.
Some items at the dollar store give you more bang for your buck, but chips are not one of them. To make up for a cheaper price, the net weight of a bag of chips is often much smaller. For example, a writer for Clark.com investigated the matter and determined that Aldi’s brand of chips does cost a little more at $1.49 per bag, but they’re double the weight, so a much better value. By checking the net weight and doing a little math, you can determine what stores have the better deal.
Not all dollar store products are priced competitively, and soda is a huge offender. A single liter of soda could cost you more at the dollar store than a two-liter would at your average grocery chain. In fact, you’ll be paying nearly double the price you would at your local store, since most major chains often run sales that advertise two-liters for only $1. Even the regular pricing at most grocery stores isn’t much higher than $1. If you’re a soda drinker, it’s best to shop around. Those little bottles might be cute, but they’re definitely not going to save you any money.
With cereal prices expected to increase up to 1.25 percent by the end of 2018, and as much as another 3.5 percent in 2019 according to the USDA, buying a box for $1 sounds like a deal that’s too good to pass up. However, if you see a name brand cereal at the dollar store, its’ likely they’re back to their old tricks as far as size goes, selling you a smaller box that’s actually more expensive per ounce.
So if the name brand cereals are a no-go, surely the generic brands from the dollar store are fine, right? Wrong. Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert, told Reader’s Digest that generic brands at the dollar store are likely there because other stores had a hard time moving the product. "Unless you have access to food reviews for these off-brand items, it’s likely one reason this food is on the dollar store shelf is because the taste is subpar to other brands in the grocery store," he explained. Smaller boxes with less flavor? Not exactly a bargain.
Have you ever noticed how gum is conveniently placed by the checkout counter for a last minute impulse buy? With that impulse buy only costing $1, it may seem like a good deal. Unfortunately, you may actually be getting ripped off. Packs of gum at the dollar store are often smaller than what you would buy at the average grocery chain. When Kiplinger did the math, they found that dollar tree gum tends to cost about a penny more per stick then at warehouse clubs like Sam’s Club and Costco. While one cent doesn’t sound like much, it adds up when you think about how many sticks are in the pack.
Not all condiments are a steal at dollar store chains. When it comes to ketchup, you can get a better deal at Aldi than you can find at the dollar store. When Clark.com did the research, they found that Aldi sells a 24-ounce ketchup bottle for 89 cents. Mustard is even cheaper at Aldi, at just 79 cents for 20 ounces. They reported that the Aldi sizes were the same (or even larger) than dollar store prices, meaning where you buy your condiments should be a no-brainer. The brands may not be the same, but when you’re talking about saving money, it doesn’t always matter.
If you’ve been loading up on $1 boxes of baking soda, we’re sorry to tell you that you’ve been wasting your money. Baking soda can be found at various chain stores for less than that. Your best bet is to shop at warehouse stores like Sam’s Club where a box of the popular brand Arm & Hammer will only cost you about 50 cents a pound (for a 15-pound bag). Boxes of the off-brand at the dollar store weigh about a pound, meaning you’re paying double at the dollar store. And if you don’t need a lifetime supply? A store like Target will sell the same size box as the dollar store for a cheaper price — and they’re selling the name brand. It’s all about price comparison, not about spending only a buck.
Spending money on quality spices at the grocery store can easily put a dent in your budget. According to Business Insider, name-brand spices can be marked up as much as 97 percent. While those high markups make the dollar store sound like a good idea, dollar store spices aren’t always the better bang for your buck. To make up for lower prices, the net weight of a spice container is often lowered to less than what you would get at the grocery store, meaning you can usually get nearly double the amount someplace else for a very similar price. If you really want to save on spices, buy in bulk.
Another option is to buy the off-brand spices at your local grocery store — Consumer Reports did a blind taste test and said the cheaper prices don’t usually reflect a difference in taste.
What can we say about dollar store cheese? Well, it’s at least going to be yellow or white, so it has that going for it. As for the other qualities commonly associated with cheese — that’s up for debate. According to one review of cheese from Dollar Tree, out of the first eight ingredients on the package of cheese, none were dairy. Even Velveeta’s cheese-like products can’t say that. To be fair, that cheese you think you’re getting likely isn’t even labeled as cheese. Perhaps it’s called something like "American Slices" or "American Shreds" and while it may look like cheese, it’s merely a poor-tasting impostor.
Online reviews not only give it a poor taste rating, but point out the very un-cheese-like quality of its inability to melt. That’s right, dollar store cheese is more likely to spark than it is to melt, according to more than one online reviewer. Call us weird, but that’s not something we want in our grilled cheese. As for other cheese options like dollar store nacho cheese, those reportedly had a chemical burn aftertaste. Yuck.
If you run out of milk and your grocery store is closed, then swinging by the dollar store to grab a jug might seem like a good option. Hold up before you make your way back to the refrigerated food section, because that milk may not be the wisest choice. Reader’s Digest warns against buying any perishable foods at the dollar store with freshness and quality being "questionable."
The bigger issue with buying milk from a dollar store, however, is probably going to be cost. Yes, the store’s whole theme is selling stuff on the cheap, but you could actually be paying more for your milk. Some dollar stores have been accused of taking advantage of customers and charging more for products than traditional grocery stores. Cartons of milk at a dollar store south of San Francisco were found to be "only 16 ounces — which prorates to $8 per gallon." This equates to it being more expensive than the top-of-the line milk at Whole Foods. On what planet does it make sense to pay more for dollar store milk than you would at Whole Foods?
We already warned you against buying steak from dollar stores, but what about those premade frozen burgers? Surprise, they’re anything but juicy and delicious. One YouTube reviewer decided to put a dollar store burger to the test and noted a heavy bun to meat ratio with a "not so great" taste upon first bite. As for the burger patty itself, the adjectives "odd," "salty," and "crumbly" were used. Not exactly the sort of mouth-watering description one hopes for with a burger review. On the plus side, the cheese did appear to melt. So at least there’s a little comfort that you’re not getting the garbage phony cheese from above.
Taste isn’t everything though, right? Dollar store burgers are going to be incredibly cheap, but with that low price point also comes some questionable packaging in regards to health. Taste of Home noted that some dollar store packaged foods in plastic wrap — which could include burgers — might contain the presence of "phthalates and BPS." These chemicals have been shown to have links to everything from prostate cancer to male reproductive development problems. Sounds like a pretty bad trade off for a crappy burger if you ask us.
One dollar a can? That sounds like an easy way to pinch pennies, but really, it’s not. Grocery stores often sell canned foods — especially vegetables — for a smaller price. At Walmart, you can buy four cans of corn or green beans for less than $3, which is a huge savings. At Target, you can buy a single can of petite diced tomatoes for 79 cents. In this case, you may actually spending a lot more if you’re buying your canned goods from the dollar store. While some canned goods, like fruit and soups, may be a bargain, it’s best to know the prices at your other local stores before you start tossing cans into your cart.
If there is one food item that sounds like a sketchy dollar store purchase, it’s steak. A quality steak is going to cost around $20 per pound. With average prices like that, one has to wonder what the dollar store steak is really made from. According to one news station who tested it out, dollar store steak is USA beef, but it’s the utility cut (or low-grade beef) that’s often served in institutions like school cafeterias. And anyone who has eaten in a school cafeteria will probably tell you the food is not the créme de la créme. So while the price may be right, the quality is definitely lacking.