Are Dollar Stores Really Cheaper? I Did The Research For You

by Chris Tecmire

Dollar

 

Dollar stores have the reputation as the cheapest of cheap retail experiences.  If you want to save money, shop at a dollar store, right?

I speak to groups of people occasionally on how to save a ton of money on food.  Often times I’ll open up by asking people how they personally save money on their grocery budget, and almost universally, dollar stores are brought up at some point.

But here’s the thing…I rarely set foot in dollar stores for food or anything else.  Honestly, I just tend to forget them.  So, recently I set out to see what all the fuss is about.  Are dollar stores really cheaper?  I wanted to find out.

I picked 25 items to compare – 12 food items and 13 household items – and then compared the prices I found from 3 different local dollar stores to the prices I found at Wal-Mart.  The dollar stores I used were Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree.  For the most part, Family Dollar and Dollar General are rather interchangeable since they are so similar to one another in products and prices, but I must say that, at least in my town, Dollar General beat Family Dollar most of the time in price.  It usually wasn’t more than 5 or 10 cents, but still…this is a price comparison after all.  The Dollar Tree is more similar to the original dollar store concept.  It only sells items for $1 or less, making milk and peanut butter an impossibility.  So, Dollar Tree was only used for certain comparisons.  I’ll indicate which store was used as we go.

Instead of boring you with each and every price, here’s a summary of a few of the biggest differences.

 

Are Dollar Stores Really Cheaper?

 

Food Items

 

1.  Gallon of Milk

$3.95 – Dollar General

$3.23 – Wal-Mart

This is one of the biggest differences for two reasons.  The first is the obvious one.  A $0.72 difference is a big one when you’re probably buying at least a gallon of milk every week.  The second reason is the fact that we haven’t even taken into effect what price matching can do for you.  Since Wal-Mart will match any advertised price in your area, you should never have to pay full price since milk is often on sale somewhere.  My wife and I haven’t paid more than $1.69 for a gallon of milk in who knows how long since Aldi advertises it for that price every week in our area.  Take into account the price matching and I’m saving $2.26 on a gallon of milk!

2.  Storebrand Flour (5 lbs)

$1.95 – Dollar General

$2.18 – Wal-Mart

3.  Dozen Eggs

$1.85 – Dollar General

$1.58 – Wal-Mart

42 Liter of Coca Cola

$1.35 – Dollar General

$1.18 – Wal-Mart

5.  Ritz Crackers (11.3 oz.)

$2.50 – Dollar General

$2.98 – Wal-Mart

This is the dollar stores’ biggest victory by far.  The storebrand crackers were cheaper too.

6.  Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts (16 oz.)

$4.00 – Dollar General

$3.50 – Wal-Mart

 

Food Item Summary – There weren’t too many wins for dollar stores on the food side of the store.  In total, a shopping trip consisting of all 12 items I checked (Coke, milk, eggs, peanut butter, flour, mayo, peas, rice, peanuts, crackers, chocolate covered cherries, and cereal) would cost $26.50 at the dollar store and $25.77 at Wal-Mart.

While it isn’t a huge difference, that total doesn’t include any price matching or buying in bulk – something that Wal-Mart offers that dollar stores do not.  Plus, you can’t do all of your shopping at a dollar store anyway since the selection is so limited.

By the way, Dollar Tree’s selection on food is even more limited since everything in the store is $1 or less, and even the items it does stock like rice, mayo, crackers, and cereal are worse deals than any of the other stores I checked.  $1 seems like a good deal for cereal until you realize it’s only a 6 oz. box of Honeynut Scooters.  $1 of mayonnaise will get you a jar smaller than your fist.  Stay away.

The Ruling – Don’t buy your food at dollar stores.

 

Household Items

 

1.  Suave Lotion (18 – 22.5 oz.)

$3.00 – Dollar General

$2.87 – Wal-Mart

2.  Dawn Dish Detergent (25 oz.)

$2.00 – Dollar General

$2.74 – Wal-Mart

3 Storebrand Sandwich Bags (snap together kind) (100 count)

$2.00 – Dollar General

$2.48 – Wal-Mart

4.  Generic Paper Towels (141 sq. ft.)

$2.00 – Family Dollar

$1.64 – Wal-Mart

5.  Notebook (120 sheet, 3 subject)

$1.00 – Dollar Tree

$1.44 – Wal-Mart

6.  Aim Toothpaste (6 oz.)

$1.00 – Dollar Tree

$0.85 – Wal-Mart

7.  Pens

$1.00 – Dollar Tree (pack of 10)

$0.74 – Wal-Mart (pack of 15)

8.  Gift Bags (for birthdays, Christmas, etc)

$1.00 – Dollar Tree (all sizes)

$1.97 – $4.87 – Wal-Mart (all sizes)

 

Household Item Summary – This is much more complicated than food.  There were some big wins for Wal-Mart that sort of surprised me like pens, paper towels, deodorant, and even kitchen gadgets like spatulas and whisks.  However, the dollar stores that I surveyed offered some excellent deals on sandwich bags, plastic utensils, dish detergent, and notebooks.  The best deal of all were the gift bags at Dollar Tree.  There was a decent selection and every last one of them was only $1.  I can’t say I buy them often, but if I do, I’ll head to the dollar store.  Overall, my imaginary shopping trip of 13 items (lotion, deodorant, bar soap, sandwich bags, plastic utensils, dish detergent, diapers, laundry detergent, paper towels, gift bags, pens, notebooks, and toothpaste) would cost $40.75 at the dollar store and $43.84 at Wal-Mart.  However, keep in mind that you would have to visit two different dollar stores to take advantage of those savings.  Two-thirds of the difference in the totals is because of the gift bags.  The other 12 items were much closer in price.

The Ruling – It depends on the item.  What am I going to do?  I’m going to stick to buying most of these items at Wal-Mart for ease of going to one store.  Visiting two stores on a regular basis to save $.50 or $1.00 is simply not worth the gas money…or your time.  However, when it comes to restocking our notebooks or grabbing a bag for a gift, I just might see you at the dollar store.  The other option – simply price match those deals at Wal-Mart.  For example, if Dollar General sells sandwich bags at a better price and I want to stock up, but the store isn’t in a convenient location, simply check the online ads to see if they’re listed.  Price matching solves a lot of problems.

 

Are Dollar Stores Really Cheaper?

Only on certain items.  Their reputation, though not complete malarkey, is a bit misleading.  It’s been crafted through clever marketing.  People tend to assume that dollar stores are the least expensive option because that’s what they’ve been told.  However, like a lot of other marketing, it shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value.

Dollar stores used to be a novel idea and a cheap alternative for frugal families, and while that’s not completely untrue these days, the fact that just about every retail store on the planet now focuses on low prices means that dollar stores no longer stick out in the crowd.  They’re still fun to stroll through occasionally or to bring your kids to in order to find a cheap toy, but as far as everyday purchases are concerned, dollar stores don’t live up to the hype.

SFF Piggy Logo

Dollar image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Related posts:

  1. The Magic of Price Matching
  2. The One Hour Coupon Rule – Efficient Coupon Use

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Patti November 7, 2012 at 8:20 am

One thing that is cheaper at the Dollar Tree is bread – a loaf of name-brand bread is only $1.00 which is cheaper than at the bread outlet. It is also seems to be fresh, not day-old. So find out when your store gets bread stocked and head over there to get a good deal!!

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Chris Tecmire November 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm

I thought about that afterwards – for some reason I didn’t see the bread. It must have been hiding. Thanks for the tip!

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Lydia parks November 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

I love you choice of topics; keep up the good work!

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Chris Tecmire November 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Thanks Lydia! I try to cover a wide spectrum of frugal living so everyone has something, but if you ever have anything you really want to know about, email me. I can’t promise anything, but I love suggestions.

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Sarai November 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

Thanks for sharing! They may not be the best place to go to save $ but they can be fun :)

http://youtu.be/_CUYmWh5pvw

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Rachel November 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I actually prefer the dollar stores over Walmart for many items. They seem to have better deals on storage bins, household decor, kitchen accessories and the clothing sets are not a bad deal either. Actually, the clothes I have bought from Family Dollar for my daughter have held up better than most brands. I pretty much never buy food or consumables there though because it can be, like you found out, more expensive. You really have to know your prices on things, and most people don’t. Another thing I love about dollar stores versus a bigger store like Walmart? They’re small – meaning my shopping experience there is more enjoyable and less stressful (this is the same reason I love Aldi!). With two girls, 2 and under, sometimes I will pay more for that!

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Chris Tecmire November 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Great point on the size of the store – I know that can make a big difference. Also, I’ve heard good things about the clothes, but haven’t done any research on that. I looked into some of the household things like storage bins, kitchen gadgets, mini blinds, etc and actually found them to be more expensive than Wal-Mart in my area, but it was a small sample. At first, I was really impressed with the kitchen accessories being only $1 until I went to Wal-Mart and found the same stuff for $0.88. It just depends on the item. You’re right about knowing your prices Rachel – that’s the key!

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Beverly November 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I can’t find toothpaste at walMart that is $1or less. I use aqua fresh from Dollar General and it is $1 whereas Wal Mart it is very expensive. Cookies at Dollar Gen are much cheaper as Greeting cards, they are 2 for $1. Milk at Aldi’s is$1.63 a gallon and has been since early summer. they also carry name brands now and are much cheaper than WalMart. Thanks for all the info that you write abour, so informative and really helpful.

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Chris Tecmire November 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Thanks for the comment Beverly. Yes, you’re right, greeting cards are a good deal at dollar stores. The toothpaste I randomly chose was “Aim”. I was surprised to see the same size tube was under $1 at Wal-Mart.

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Tim Tecmire November 12, 2012 at 10:52 am

We have a Dollar store next to a grocery store and I usually save at least three dollars when I buy birthday cards. Sue picks up construction paper and craft stuff for her daycare and saves money. I think if you are going to be there anyway it makes cents. Great website and ideas.
Uncle Tim

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Chris Tecmire November 12, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Yeah, the birthday cards are a great deal – much cheaper than any other store I’ve seen. By the way, I like what you did with the “cents” :)

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Terri Tyler April 2, 2013 at 10:09 am

Just keep in mind when you go into a big box retailer -ex. Walmart, that you need to take a list and stick to it. This is where they get you. Because they have almost everything you need and WANT, you end up spending more money. We have cut our grocery/cleaning/pet/paper/etc. spending in half by shopping Dollar Tree,Big Lots, and our Tops market because we avoid the temptation. Great site you have here.

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Chris Tecmire April 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm

You’re right – thanks for the tip Terri. Restraint is key. Retailers don’t make their money off the sales…
Thanks again for the comment and congratulations on cutting your food budget!

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Esther October 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm

One other thing to consider is which one is closer. I wouldn’t mind spending a few cents more on an item when it would have been spent on gas anyway. Thanks for doing all that research:).

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Chris Tecmire October 3, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Absolutely Esther – a lot of people don’t think about gas when it comes to shopping, so I’m glad you brought it up.

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Travis January 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I live within easy walking distance of a Giant Tiger, a discount supermarket/department store (though my location is small) here in Canada, and a Dollarama, one of the largest chains of dollar stores here. I find that they often have similar prices but that I can save considerably if I shop at both locations, but I definitely have to be careful and compare prices at both to know what to get at each store.

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cautiousshopper January 23, 2014 at 6:39 pm

If you know your prices/sizes, etc., you can purchase a few name brand foods at the Dollar Trees that carry food (not all do).

For example, Progressive Soup is $2.35 a can in Harris Teeter, $1 at Dollar Tree. (same soup/same size can). Their selection of foods changes,… currently they don’t have any of the Progressive soups, but they did back during the summer ….when NO one was thinking of “hot” soups. ;) Another is Michalleni (spell?) frozen dinners are $1.25 to $1.35 at some grocery stores, UNLESS you catch them on sale, (I have found them on ocassion at Food Lion for .88 cents) or if you have a coupon. Always a $1 in Dollar Tree (admittedly not a healthy thing to eat daily….but they are great to have on hand when you are too busy to really cook).

Thebread again is a great buy, if you are lucky enough to catch it. As someone else mentioned they have some great name brand bread for $1 ….I have found no one that can beat that price, even on sale. (My adult son loves the bread, 100% whole wheat, marble rye, etc. so I pick it up for him whenever I see it at Dollar Tree.) I however eat only bread from organic sprouted grains from the co-op organic local food store that cost $3.79 a loaf….rarely ever on sale anywhere….and sadly not carried at Dollar Tree.

Here is a big one….Earth Fare (a local health/natural food store) has Geyser Springs gallon jugs of bottled water for $3.69,….same exact brand and size in Dollar Tree $1.

Some of the baby products are great deals, BUT, you must be a LABEL reader, and verify the items’ safety.

Definitely some of the BEST gft bags, especially ones for baby gifts..Adorable! (seems like my children’s friends are all having babies!). Also great prices on crossword puzzle books, baby books, etc.

You just have to examine things and check the quality of WHATEVER you decide to buy and determine if is a good buy (i.e. a savings). You just have to know your prices, and go armed w/a list and NOT buy stuff just because it is “only” a dollar.

I buy most of my grocery items at farmers markets, local organic food sources, or places like Whole Foods and eat very little processed foods, so I MUST figure out ways to save $$ on other things to allow me to afford the very BEST foods for 95% of my diet. The Dollar Tree does that! It is more than worth your time to explore this buying option….and like others have mentioned…the stores are small, friendly, you can get in and out quickly! I loathe Wal-Mart, the size, the look, the feel is a total turn off! (my little Dollar Tree is with in walking distance of my house) :)

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FighttheK0chs June 7, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Yeah keep shopping at Walmart that is costing the USA billions due to it underpaying of employees. Shop Walmart if you want small businesses to cease existing.
Shop Walmart if you want the US government sold to the highest bidder as the Walmart family wants.

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