One thing we’re always focused on around here is helping you save money. That’s why we’re constantly offering you clever tips on how you can cut spending on everyday expenses, get discounts on everyday consumer purchases, and ultimately find the balance between cost and quality. But sometimes, you simply can’t have quality without spending a little more money.
Of course, we’re all about saving on things like disposable office supplies, paper plates for your next family gathering, or dryer sheets for your next load of laundry. Dollar stores are designed for that kind of stuff.
But let’s be honest–there are just some things you need to spend money on. In fact, sometimes going the cheaper route may actually be a poor investment. Certain products may be less functional, less effective, or less efficient at a lower price point. You may feel like you’re saving a few bucks on that cheaper item, but you will likely be replacing it a whole lot sooner. Thus, underspending may actually be more wasteful than spending a few dollars more for the real thing.
With that in mind, we thought we’d take a moment to look at just a few things that you should never attempt to purchase at a discount store. Discount stores come in a variety of shapes and sizes–from those that sell larger surplus retail items like furniture, rugs, clothing, and home decor to the Dollar General type stores that make their profit on off-brand bottled tap water, synthetic vitamins, and knock-off children’s toys.
Not to disparage Dollar Stores–they certainly have their place–but there are simply some items that you shouldn’t cheap out on. As the article will explore here below, underspending on some items can not only be the wrong financial decision, but there may even be negative consequences to your health and well-being. While buying low quality items at a discount store probably won’t damage your standing where the credit monitoring services are concerned, it can have a negative impact on your daily household budget, your nutrition, and your environmental health.
Of course, if you’re focused on finding other ways to save, we’ve got plenty of ideas for you. Start with a look at our eleven tips for saving on groceries without sacrificing quality or health. Otherwise, read on and find out which items you should never buy at the discount stores.
How Popular Are Discount Stores?
Before we dig into what you should and shouldn’t buy at a discount store, let’s take a closer look at what discount stores are and how they work. In this context, the phrase “discount store” refers to retailers that offer a wide array of both name brand and non-name brand inventory at steep discounts from their original list price. Below, we’ll discuss both discount department stores and the variety of stores that fall into the “Dollar” category such as Dollar Tree, Dollar Express, and Dollar General.
Discount department stores are those that sell a wide variety of consumer goods in numerous categories at reduced prices. Such stores are often sectioned into areas for clothing, home decor, furniture, kitchenware, children’s toys, and more. This retail model includes stores like Marshalls, TJMaxx, and Ross, which are noted for their varied inventory and comparatively lower prices.
According to an article in The Penny Hoarder, discount department stores turned roughly $101.8 billion in sales in 2022. While that represented a continuing decline in year over year sales, with more Americans than ever before getting so much of their shopping done online, discount department stores remain a central part of the shopping landscape for most consumers.
This is true regardless of individual consumer earnings, says Penny Hoarder. In a survey of 3000 adults conducted by the National Retail Federal, some 89% of respondents indicated that they shop at discount stores. Moreover, “About 50% said they shop at stores like Ross or T.J. Maxx. Whether respondents made under $50,000 or more than $100,000, the percentage of those who shopped at discount stores remained largely the same. Shoppers were most likely to buy clothing, groceries and home decor and furnishings.”
But just how good a deal are consumers actually getting on these items? Well, sometimes, the deal is actually pretty good.
In many cases, these discount stores offer similar products to those found on the shelves of traditional retail stores for far lower prices. Clever decor, stylish kitchen serving dishes, and charming holiday wreaths can all represent pretty good deals for the everyday consumer when purchasing at a discount store.
Indeed, discount stores typically offer a no-frills shopping experience, dispensing with elaborate displays, packaging materials and other extraneous costs in favor of low prices. This gives you a chance to get some pretty cool stuff at a reasonable cost.
How Do Discount Stores Get Their Merchandise?
The real secret to those low prices, however, is the strategies that discount stores use to build their inventory. In fact, says the article in Penny Hoarder, most discount stores employ a number of tactics for bringing in high quality inventory at a low price. In most cases, this inventory comes from the shelves of more traditional stores. And in most cases, this inventory retailed for a significantly higher price at the time of its original shelving. Indeed, you can usually see that lower price marked on the original tag of certain items.
As the article from Penny Hoarder explains, strategies for acquiring inventory at deep discounts include “relying on the unsold inventory of department stores and stores that sell clothing, home furniture and electronics, which totaled more than $112 billion in May 2023, per U.S. Census Bureau data. When manufacturers make too much, have canceled orders or update an outdated design, discount retailers can also capitalize on those opportunities…Some large department stores and manufacturers even create liquidation marketplaces where buyers for discount retailers can bid on surplus items,”
While you may presume that much of this outdated material is generally out of season and out of style, Penny Hoarder suggests that you might be surprised. According to an executive from TJX, which operates sister stores TJMaxx and Marshalls, 85% of the store’s clothing inventory is from the current season.
Moreover, while discount stores may have a reputation for selling “irregular” items–those with minor flaws that might have caused them to fall short of the quality control standards for a traditional retail store–only 5% of discount store inventory actually falls into this category.
With that said, there are some limitations to what you can (or should) buy from a discount store. While many of the items you find at a discount store may have lined the shelves of a full price retail establishment at some point, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the best of the best. Remember, this is some of the stuff that didn’t sell. You might not always get access to items made from the highest quality materials, or those assembled with the greatest durability or the best chance for long term survival..
Oftentimes, more costly items tend to justify their cost by lasting longer and holding up better over time. The same is not always true of items you might find on the discount racks.
10 Things You Shouldn’t Get From the Discount Store
Discount stores are great for all kinds of items, particularly those that are meant to be cheap and disposable. You can save a few bucks on everyday items like sandwich bags, paper towels, paper plates, aluminum foil, baking soda, fabric softener and countless other household consumer items.
After all, many of these items are designed for single use and quick disposal. You’re not in it for longevity. It’s about convenience. This may also be true of things like cleaning supplies, plastic straws, clothing hangers, and much more.
Some of these discount items may even be close to their brand name counterparts in quality, but stores may be able to charge less because these non-name brands don’t waste packaging materials, displays, marketing efforts or other costly consumer frills.
That said, there are absolutely certain items that simply should not be purchased at these discount stores. After all, you can only save so much money before you experience diminishing returns on low quality items.
Durability and quality bring us to the first item that you should never purchase from a discount store. Furniture is supposed to last for years. That’s kind of the point. When it comes to getting your money’s worth from furniture, life expectancy and sturdiness are critical.. This means that value comes down to a lot more than just the price. If you’re purchasing a piece of furniture that you expect to see a lot of usage over a long period of time, you’ll want to be sure you’re investing in something that can handle the job.
According to the article from Penny Hoarder, even our favorite discount stores tend to fall a bit lower on the quality control scale than full-priced retailers. The article explains that “For avid fans of HomeGoods, TJX’s home-themed outpost, this one might upset you. But experts caution not to buy heavy-duty furniture like nightstands or dressers from T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Some products may end up at the store because of reduced quality, like failed inspections.”
That reduced quality may not be self-evident right off the shelf. After all, we love these stores because many of the designs are so cool and contemporary. They do a fairly convincing job of simulating those high-priced items we see in the home decor magazines. But that simulation becomes less convincing over time, when drawers start to fall off of their runners, when the surfaces quickly show signs of wear, and when that piece breaks down and finds its way to the curb on trash pickup day.
Truly well built furniture rarely finds its way to the dumpster…because it lasts forever (or at least forever when it comes to your needs). Spend money upfront for decent furniture and you won’t find yourself spending a few hundred more dollars every few years for another cheap and borderline disposable piece.
2. Beauty Products and Cosmetics
Remember how we mentioned that discount stores used a lot of different strategies to acquire inventory from primary retailers. In other words, most of these items do not come directly from their initial manufacturers or their affiliated distributors. Each item takes its own unique journey from that original manufacturer to the clearance rack in your discount big box store.
So that means it’s more or less impossible to know exactly how each individual item got there. That’s a pretty big wild card. And while it’s not that big a deal to take that gamble on some cute seasonal kitchen towels or a fluffy bed for your kitty, you might feel differently when it comes to the cosmetics you apply to your face and body.
After all, there’s just no way to know where all those plastic bottles came from, or what happened to them before they got to you. Not to make you paranoid, but the Penny Hoarder article advises, “The beauty section at discount retailers can be so tempting—how do they have the entire MAC special edition palette or Lancome mascara? But there’s so much we don’t know about who has handled the products and where they have come from. As USA Today’s Reviewed says, previous customers may have already used the products as a sample. Do you want to be slicking on lipstick every day that’s already been worn by someone else?”
Don’t feel you need to respond. We’re assuming we already know the answer. And if we assume correctly, you should probably just plan on clipping coupons and scoping sales for cosmetics from full-price retailers or directly from the companies themselves.
3. Certain Food Products
If we’re advising you to think twice about buying discount items to put on your face, you can probably imagine what we have to say about buying discount items to put in your face. Ok. Perhaps there was a better way to say that. But the point is, discount stores aren’t always your best option for food.
In fact, Dollar Stores can actually be kind of sneaky about this. Those shelves may be lined with canned vegetables, candy bars, and Ramen noodle soups, each for a buck apiece. It looks like a good deal, but in this case, looks are deceiving. In fact, says an article from Yahoo! News, “Some items cost more at a dollar store than the grocery store. For example, the same can of black beans that you buy for $1 at the dollar store is usually around $0.79 at a grocery store.”
Make sure you comparison shop before you decide that discount stores are the way to go for these canned goods. There’s a good chance you can do a bit better at your regular grocery store, and a whole lot better if you buy in bulk at a wholesale store like Costco or Sam’s Club.
Of course, no matter where you buy your groceries, you should always read the labels. But you’ll want to be especially diligent about this step if you’re shopping at a discount store. The reality is simply that lower cost foods are often cheaper because they are of a lower quality. As the article from Yahoo! News advises, “always read food labels carefully when shopping at the dollar store. Meats, in particular, can have lots of fillers added. As a general rule, stick to non-perishable items or frozen food if you purchase food from the dollar store.”
Whatever you do, don’t put a discount ahead of your healthy diet. And this tip may probably seem kind of obvious when you’re actually looking at the produce–but you probably don’t want to buy your “fresh fruit” at a discount score. The cheaper it is, the more skeptical you should probably be about its freshness.
This one is not quite as obvious. After all, batteries can be so annoyingly expensive. And you can definitely get them for super cheap at places like Five Below or the Dollar Tree. So why not save a few bucks on these frequently replaced items?very once i
Well, the reason is specifically because these items must be replaced so frequently. Buying cheapo batteries almost guarantees that you’ll be replacing these items at a much higher clip. And there’s actually a specific reason for this. Reputable battery brands like Duracell and Energizer sell alkaline batteries. Discount stores tend to line their shelves with the much less durable carbon-zinc batteries.
Unless you’re using these batteries to power a low drain item like a remote control or an alarm clock, you probably won’t get a whole lot of life out of those discount batteries. So even if it feels like you’re paying less with each purchase, you will ultimately spend more money on batteries in the long run by going cheap.
An article from Go Banking Rates advises that “If all you see is off-brand batteries, there’s a chance that they won’t last as long as their name-brand counterparts, especially if they’re older and have been on the shelf for a long time….On top of that, the prices usually aren’t the best. You may only pay $1, but it usually turns out to be the worst price per unit.”
Not only that, but cheaper batteries also carry a heightened risk of leaking. This can cause corrosion, damage, and even destruction to your electronics. Better to stick to the name brand batteries. If you’re looking to save money, buy batteries in bulk from a wholesaler with favorable prices per unit instead.
Speaking of electronics, most consumer reports would advise strongly against buying your tech gear at a discount store. Obviously we know you’re not out there buying stereos and televisions at the Dollar Express. But a lot of discount stores do sell all kinds of computer, gaming, and audio peripherals at prices that seem too good to be true. This includes headphones, cables, keyboards, controllers, and much more.
The prices on these items are almost certainly too good to be true. An article from U.S. News & World Report points out that “You’ll find plenty of power cords, earbuds and other tech accessories and the price will be appealing, but there’s no knowing if the manufacturing of these items is up to snuff. Given that you’d be plugging them into your beloved smartphone or tablet, why chance it?”
You’re better off steering clear of anything that runs on any kind of power from one of these deeper discount stores. The odds of long term survival are pretty low. If you’re looking for real discounts on electronics, wait for a holiday sale or an Amazon Prime Day to buy the real thing from a recognized electronics retailer like Best Buy or Office Depot.
6. Over the Counter Medications
It’s true that you can get all kinds of generic over the counter medications like cough syrup, pain relievers, antacids, and antihistamines from the discount stores. On the surface, this may seem like a good deal. But it’s possible you won’t get the same benefits from this medication as you would if purchased from a full price retailer.
Remember, many discount stores acquire their inventory by bidding on unsold merchandise from full price retailers. This means that the medication from a discount store may have a far shorter shelf life ahead of it than one you might buy for full price.
According to the article from Go Banking Rates, many of the medications that you’ll find on the shelves at the discount store may already be nearing their expiration date. In other words, most of those medications are likely to pass that date while sitting in your medicine cabinet. As Go Banking Rates explains, “Best-case scenario, this means the efficacy will be lessened. But even if they aren’t nearing the expiration date, there’s a good chance the price per unit isn’t worth it. You’ll be better off shopping at big-box stores like Target or warehouse stores like Costco if you can manage it.”
Long story short, those cheaper medications won’t kill you, but they may not help you either. If that’s the case, it’s a waste of your money altogether.
Put vitamins, supplements, and pretty much any other internally ingested wellness products in the same category. In fact, vitamins are even a bit dicier than medications. With fewer regulations governing the ingredients of vitamins, you really have to read the labels carefully when you are purchasing discount supplements with unfamiliar brand names.
Or, you can just assume that the kinds of steeply discounted vitamins found in budget stores are likely constituted of filler materials, nearing their expiration date, or both.
Bottom line–if you’re planning to consume it for your health, deeply discounted items simply aren’t worth the risk. The article from U.S. News & World Report suggests “Wellness products and vitamins can be expensive, but the solution to savings isn’t at the dollar store. ‘Anything for internal use, like vitamins, should be skipped,’ says [shopping expert of TrueTrae] Trae Bodge. ‘Don’t take any chances – just shop at the pharmacy, a big box store or wholesale warehouse for those.'”
8. Plastic Food Storage Containers
On the subject of not taking chances, the risks of purchasing knockoff plastic Tupperware from deep discount stores may be even greater than just enduring the stale sandwiches and freezer burned meatballs that come with a less than airtight container. In fact, these cheaper plastics could actually present a threat to your health and the health of your family.
As the article from Kiplinger explains, “Whether we are cooking with these containers or using them in the microwave or dishwasher, applying heat can release toxins in certain plastics…Because you’d be unlikely to find BPA-free or other ‘safe’ plastics at the dollar store, I would avoid this category unless you plan to use them for storing non-food items.””
In the simplest of terms–it’s totally ok to use a fake tupperware container from the Dollar Express to sort your nails and screws, but less ok to use as a vessel for reheating Mac n Cheese. If your primary intended purpose is the latter, buy real BPA free Tupperware containers that are marked as both microwave and dishwasher safe. You’ll spend a couple extra dollars, but it will be well worth it for your health.
9. School Supplies
It’s the height of back to school season, and I know those high prices for school supplies are still fresh on all of our minds. But an article from Kiplinger cautions against relying on the deep discount stores to save a few dollars on school supplies. The thing about school supplies is that your kids will be using them a ton…hopefully.
Anyway, assuming your kids are making full use of things like lead pencils, highlighters, and binders, nothing could be more annoying or distracting than supplies that are constantly failing on account of their low production quality.
A consumer analyst for Dealnews told Kiplinger, “For your school supplies, ‘you’re better off buying a bulk pack at a warehouse store, as these will often be name-brand instruments in larger packages,’ she says. ‘I can personally confirm that a box of Ticonderoga pencils from a warehouse store got me through at least three years of college without having to buy more.'”
The takeaway here is that school supplies come in two categories: things you’ll have to replenish all year long (think pencils, highlighters, notebooks, etc.) and things you’ll want to last all year long (think backpacks, lunch bags, and water bottles). In both cases, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck if you invest in higher quality materials at the start of a new school year. And if you buy those higher quality items in bulk, you might just have enough durable school supplies to last for a few years.
By the way, if you’re looking for a few more ways to stretch your dollars during back to school season, check out our ten tips for saving on school supplies.
10. Children’s Toys
The toys that are sold at discount stores are almost invariably made from inferior materials, built to low quality control standards, and basically destined to break or malfunction moments after you’ve left the store. You’re left with a sad child, a broken pile of trash, and a bunch of easily swallowed pieces that are now a bonafide choking hazard.
It’s just not worth the aggravation. Discount store toys break quickly. If they don’t break, they don’t work particularly well. And frankly, it’s pretty obvious you’re dealing with knockoffs. As the Dollar Store Reviewer points out, for instance, “We’ve also bought some of the off-brand Barbie dolls at Dollar Tree, and they are slightly smaller than regular Barbies with different body proportions, so name-brand Barbie clothes won’t fit them. Dollar Tree does sell some of its own doll clothing that fits their dolls, though. Dollar Tree Barbies also have thinner hair, and their bodies don’t have as many bendable joints compared to the real Barbie.”
Barbie is super in these days. You don’t want to saddle your kid with a bunch of obviously fraudulent Barbie dolls. It’s just not a good look.
While we’ve focused here on things you shouldn’t buy at discount stores, we recognize that saving money is a priority. With that in mind, we can definitely recommend great ways to save money when shopping by signing up for credit cards with awesome rewards programs. Check out our ten tips for saving money by using credit cards for cash back on things like travel, groceries, premium gas, and much more.