Are dollar stores actually cheaper and worth shopping at, versus somewhere like Walmart? Yes, but only if you do it right.
Are dollar stores actually cheaper?
As a teenager who adored shopping at her local dollar store, (or even an early-20s college student) I would’ve looked at you a bit sideways for such an oddball question.
After all, doesn’t a store that has “dollar” in the title automatically mean it’s cheaper?
But times have changed. With different-sized branded products, varying dollar store prices, and all the different dollar stores to choose from (Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar, family dollar stores, etc.) it’s not entirely clear if you’re getting a deal or if dollar stores are even worth it.
I’ve researched, purchased for, and created 15 Dollar Tree articles on my two sites in recent months. Since starting down this Dollar Tree rabbit hole, I’ve tried shelf-stable milk for the first time, I’ve cooked whole dinners from there, and I’ve even dragged my spouse on a hilariously fun Dollar Store date night.
So yeah, I’ve got quite a few things to say about whether dollar stores are actually worth it or not.
And I’m about to spill the $1.25-beans.
Are Dollar Stores Actually Cheaper? Dollar Tree Vs. Other Stores
My family and I used to shop all the time at the Dollar Store (it was the Dollar General in our town) when I was a kid…and then I just, kinda, stopped in my 20s.
Maybe I thought it was uncool.
Maybe I thought I could get better quality elsewhere.
I don’t exactly remember why – but lately? I’ve been totally into dollar stores again.
But not just ANY dollar store.
The Dollar Tree.
I stopped shopping at the Dollar General decades ago. In fact, I hadn’t set foot in one for over a decade until a few weeks ago. And I was SHOCKED at the prices there.
Yep. I refuse to shop at Dollar Generals.
But does that mean I’ve stopped shopping at dollar stores altogether? Oh no.
Keep reading to learn how I shop in dollar stores as an adult bargain shopper to get the most bank for my buck.
Pro Tip: Please, please, oh please tell me that you know you can scan in your Dollar Store receipts for cashback?!? Truth be told – I didn’t know this either, until about a year ago. Just use ibotta and Fetch – and scan the same Dollar Tree receipt into each for cashback earnings. See example earnings I got, below.
Dollar Tree Wins: When it’s One Time Use (vs. Multiple Use)
Picture this: you’re all ready to go camping. The only problem is, you need one more thing: aluminum foil pans for meal times.
Sure, you could go to Walmart, or TJ Maxx, or order it off of Amazon.
But you only need to use it one time.
Your best bet to save money? Is to find one at the Dollar Tree (or a set of two) for a sweet $1.25.
When you only need something to function one time, then it’s typically best to source it from the Dollar Tree. Off-brand is totally fine.
That’s because quality doesn’t matter nearly as much when it only needs to last one time.
I’ve done this lots over the years, such as:
- Party Supplies: Party supplies that get recycled and thrown out afterward (tablecloths, dessert paper plates, gift bags, tissue paper, etc.).
- Travel Supplies on Location: Supplies you need while traveling that you can’t take back with you on the airplane. For example, you want to cook breakfast at your Airbnb to save lots of money one morning, but find that there is no spatula in sight. Find a Dollar Tree, fork over the $1.25, and leave the spatula behind when you leave. It’s still wayyyyy cheaper than taking the family out to breakfast (and so what if it’s thin metal – you’re only using it once).
- Journal for an Event: Whenever I’ve gone to a women’s retreat at my church, or book a biz retreat or a conference, there’s always a dedicated journal just for that particular event. Buying a $1.25 journal makes sense in this case – I don’t need the journal to be my daily notebook. It just needs to work for notes I’m taking for that day or several days.
- Novelty Socks for Themed School Days: Does your kid have a whacky sock day? GREAT – get a $1.25 pair of crazy socks from Dollar Tree (they have quite the selection of whacky socks).
Psst: check out my grandmother and I doing an at-home painting tutorial with supplies purchased JUST from the Dollar Tree. What a wonderful bonding experience that would’ve cost three times the amount if I had purchased all the items even at a big box store.
Now let’s talk about multiple use things. You know – stuff that has to last during daily use and misuse.
I would think twice before buying these items from Dollar Tree (unless I found them in full-size and by a good brand):
- Clothes I wear weekly or daily
- Batteries (in a pinch? Sure. But they don’t seem to last as long as others)
- A DVD for a specific movie my child will watch over, over, and over again (like a comfort blanket)
Dollar Tree Wins: When it’s One of THESE Products (Direct Cost Comparison Coming ‘atcha)
Did you want a head-on cost comparison between a basket of products from Dollar Tree vs. Walmart?
Great – that’s what you’re gonna get.
However, PLEASE stick around and read the other sections. Strange as it may sound, figuring out if shopping at dollar stores is worth it is more than just looking only at the cost comparison.
Oh yeah – and sometimes? Dollar Tree has the EXACT same product, same brand, same size…and just clearly wins. Let me show you some clear winners you should go snag.
But guess what? Whether or not Dollar Tree is giving you the best deal is NOT only dependent on a cost-per-unit comparison.
I know, sounds crazy coming from a personal finance blogger. But let me show you what I mean with specific examples – your wallet will thank me.
Dollar Tree Wins: When You’re Not Committed (Just Sampling)
Want to know why I have the same pieces of makeup from 8 years ago in my drawer (besides the fact that I’ve probably used it twice)?
It’s because it’s SO hard for me to shell out $5 – $8 for a tube or container of makeup when I don’t know if I’ll like it.
Seriously – have you ever been burned by paying $5 for a new food or makeup or anything else, and really disliking the product?
That’s where the Dollar Tree and those smaller-sized branded products come in.
Instead, you can shell out $1.25 and get to “sample” smaller sizes of something before truly committing to the brand, or the product line, or whatever else you think might make your life better in some way.
- New type of cleaning supply (and you need to make sure it works or is okay for people with skin sensitivities in your home)
- New type of makeup
- New snack food
This way, you’re using those smaller package sizes to your advantage!
Dollar Tree Wins: When it’s the Same Quality No Matter the Brand
Some products are going to be the same quality, no matter what brand, because everyone knows how to make them right (name-brand products, private brands/labels, Dollar Tree product, etc.).
Glass is pretty much glass is pretty much glass (rockin’ glass artisanship aside, like Dale Chihuly – seriously, I love that man’s work and you should check it out if you can!) – you’re just looking for a particular shape or look.
Definitely give Dollar Tree’s container and glass aisle a try. You’ll find margarita glasses, vases, mason jars, and all kinds of other glass things you could want or need.
Or how about when you need a balloon weight for a table at a party? I mean…this is not a rocket-science-caliber product. You just need it to do its job, which is to literally sit there. Spend the $1.25 instead of $2.80 plus elsewhere.
Dollar Tree Wins: When You Just Need One
Many grocery stores sell things in sets for a higher price. The price-per-unit is still good, but you literally only need ONE. Why would you want to buy lots and have to donate them afterward?
Like, for a pack of 6 mason jars for $12.97 from Walmart when all you really need is one mason jar (at $1.25 from Dollar Tree) to make that awesome soap dispenser project you found on Pinterest.
Or a kid movie for a sleepover (shelling out $1.25 from their kid movie section sure beats signing up for a monthly streaming service).
Or a white paint marker to doodle on your graduate’s car windows.
It just makes sense to spend the $1.25 in these cases.
Dollar Tree Wins: When a Smaller Size Helps Another One of Your Goals
I know this might sound counter-super-sized-culture, but hear me out: MORE is not always better.
Sometimes, more is just more.
Maybe you’re cutting back on the amount of food you want to consume. Buying a bulk-sized anything means you’ll just consume lots more of it before your next grocery shopping trip (sometimes in our household, my husband has consumed something twice as fast just because I bought it in bulk). A smaller, pre-portioned amount actually can help both your health goals AND your wallet.
Maybe you don’t want your child guzzling down a full-sized bag of chips, and the smaller size at Dollar Tree helps you feel like a better Mom.
The smaller container and portion sizes, in this case, help keep other goals of yours in check and it then makes sense to purchase them.
Dollar Tree Wins: When You’re Buying Something to Eat Soon
Guess what? Name brands like to offload whole-sized grocery items (and other items) that are going to expire soon at Dollar Trees (hellllooooo my favorite Herr’s Sour Cream ‘n’ Onion chips! It was a short-lived, great few months finding you there).
You need to grab these. And eat them. Usually in a month or two.
- $37.50 Weekly Dollar Tree Meal Plan for 2 (No Beans & Rice!)
- 7 Dollar Tree Food Hacks (& is Dollar Tree Food Safe?)
- 7 Dollar Tree Dinner Ideas ($42.50/Week for 2-3 People)
- 5 Make-Ahead Dessert Shooters (from Dollar Tree)
Dollar Tree Wins: When You Need Something Just to Get By
Dollar Stores can get you by in a pinch. When you can’t afford a full-sized product, but need something right now, with what you have.
This is true for those branded products you find there that are smaller in size – typically by a few ounces – than the same branded product in other stores like Walmart.
But since it’s a smaller size, you stay within that $1.25 amount. And you stay on budget.
Like the Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa example in the video below (note: I know this is not a need. But it IS a good example of how this can play out, so I’ll use it anyway!).
Is this short-term financial thinking? Yes.
It’s instant gratification, Dollar Tree-style.
Purchasing smaller quantities of something at a lower price can get you through to the next paycheck or next month.
Hopefully, long enough for you to figure out a better way (spending less elsewhere, earning a bit more, etc.) to buy bulk-sized products at the lower cost-per-unit price elsewhere.
Dollar Tree Wins: When You Need a Container to Stay In Budget
Do you have some bad spending habits? Like going crazy at Target, or adding in lots of unnecessary necessities at Wal-Mart?
The Dollar Tree can be a great place for you as a protective container around your money. Because it’s hard to do “real damage” spending-wise in there since almost everything is $1.25.
NOTE: it will not help curb your spending impulses. This, you have to work on as well. But in the meantime, if can help stop you from over-withdrawing a bank account.
When Shopping at Dollar Stores is Not Cheaper than Walmart
Aside from the direct cost comparison examples above where Walmart won out…when else is it going to be cheaper to buy from Walmart than dollar stores? Here’s where Walmart wins.
Walmart Wins: You’re Going to Use Coupons
However, you’ll most likely not be able to use any. Here’s why.
Many coupons are manufacturer coupons for brand-name items in specific, full sizes. You’ll notice that lots of brand-name items at the Dollar Tree are a different size from what you’d find at “normal” stores.
SO, if you’re able to pair a manufacturer coupon, with a digital store coupon, with anything else (like a rebate), then you’re better off buying that product from Walmart or CVS, or wherever else you can make that deal happen.
Walmart Wins: You Need a Long Expiration Date
Not all the food at Dollar Tree expires soon – so I don’t want to give that impression.
BUT, from shopping at Dollar Tree for years, I will ALWAYS advise that you look at expiration dates before buying food.
Usually, you have months or weeks. Sometimes…it’s days (to be fair, I’ve found expired stuff on Walmart shelves as well – it’s partly just a management thing).
Hint: I’ve been in and out of Dollar Trees a lot over the last year working on articles, savings strategies, and shopping for my family. One thing I noticed? Tons of men come in and put together a lunch from there. What a great strategy! Since you’re eating the food right away – no need to worry about expiration dates. Here’s 7 Dollar Tree Lunch Ideas ($18.75 for the Week!).
Walmart Wins: Buying Large Quantities
Most often, when you buy something in bulk, you’ll pay less per ounce of product than you would when buying smaller-sized products. This is true for household products (like toilet paper), food, and everyday items.
Walmart Wins: Buying Fresh Produce
Dollar Tree might win out on some canned goods, but they do NOT win on fresh produce. In fact…expect no fresh product at all when you shop one.
Who would have thought that? This is what I have been suspecting in recent years, so I am glad that I did this comparison in order to confirm it. I just hope that people who are truly struggling are aware that the name of a store can be deceiving.
Pro tip: Fresh produce? Not a thing at the Dollar Tree. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find healthy foods to eat from there. Here are 9 Healthy Snacks from the Dollar Tree.
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