A dollar just doesn’t go as far as it used to — even at the dollar store.
Inflation is hitting all retailers, and the discount stores that have historically kept their prices under a buck are struggling to hold the line. Dollar Tree, one of the country’s largest dollar store chains, announced in November that it would hike its minimum price for items to $1.25.
While competitors Dollar General and 99 Cents Only Stores still have items priced at a dollar, they also sell products priced higher, as does Family Dollar, which is owned by Dollar Tree. Even so, shopping experts say it’s possible to find deals at dollar stores during these inflationary times, although they may not be as plentiful as in the past.
“They still have items that are good buys. You just have to know which things to look for,” says Marilyn Anderson, author of How to Live Like a Millionaire When You’re a Million Short.
Here are some tips to stretch your dollars further.
1. Stick with disposable items
Dollar stores are often a reliable source for inexpensive disposable goods that you can stock up on and have around when needed. Think: paper plates, napkins, cups and utensils. Single-use holiday items such as gift wrap, gift bags, greetings cards and party invitations are also good seasonal buys.
“Many of the things that you buy at the dollar store are still going to be cheaper than they would be elsewhere,” says Lisa Thompson, savings expert for Coupons.com.
2. Beware breakables
The dollar store is typically not the best place to purchase items that are fragile or have multiple components. That means shying away from many electronics and most things made of glass. Cheap doesn’t translate to a bargain if your purchase doesn’t last.
“I wouldn’t go to the dollar store for anything that needs to work well for a long time,” says shopping expert and editor Kristin McGrath of RetailMeNot, a coupons and deals company. “You might want to steer clear of scissors or a stapler, or anything you need to use often or for a long time, anything made with moving parts.”
3. Check expiration dates
If you’re picking up items such as food, batteries or over-the-counter medicines and supplements, look at the expiration date before throwing them into your basket. While the products likely won’t be expired, they may be closer to the date than you’d like. Tossing out an expired item is a waste of money even if you only paid a buck for it.
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4. Be willing to experiment
Dollar stores may carry unfamiliar brands. With prices so low, it might be worth trying out, say, a new type of soap you’ve never heard of before. If you end up liking it, you’ll save some money versus a name brand.
5. Calculate the unit cost
Dollar stores often carry name-brand items in smaller packaging, so it’s possible you’ll still get a better deal spending a little more for a larger size elsewhere. “Just because it’s a cheaper price point, doesn’t mean it’s the best price available,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with DealNews, a website dedicated to finding deals.
To determine the unit cost, divide the price by the unit of measure. If liquid laundry detergent costs $9 for 48 fluid ounces at a dollar store, for example, then the unit cost is about 19 cents per ounce. A 64-ounce bottle priced at $11 at a big-box retailer works out to a unit cost of about 17 cents, so you actually get more for your money buying the larger size.
6. Use coupons
When it comes to coupons, most dollar store chains either offer their own coupons or accept manufacturer coupons — or likely both. Check the discount retailer’s website for digital coupons or download their app, if available, to your smartphone. Get additional savings by using cash-back apps like Coupons.com or Ibotta, which credit coupons to your account when you upload your receipts.
Note that dollar stores have rules that limit “stacking,” or combining, multiple coupons. Dollar Tree, for example, will accept only one manufacturer coupon per item, and it won’t give cash back if the face value of the coupon is higher than the item’s price.
7. Make a list
As inflation continues to drive up prices on goods at traditional retailers, just about everything can feel like a bargain at dollar stores. The lower price points can, in turn, make it tempting to add a few extra things to your cart.
“It’s easy to go overboard and buy a lot more than you intended,” says Kimberly Palmer, a spokesperson with the personal finance website NerdWallet.
By going into the dollar store with a game plan, you’ll prevent the impulse buys that can add up and cancel out other savings.
Beth Braverman is a contributing writer who has covered shopping and personal finance for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in Consumer Reports, CNNMoney.com, CNBC.com and dozens of other publications.