Leon Levine was born into a retail family. His parents owned a Rockingham, North Carolina, department store called The Hub. North Carolinians dressed their families in clothes from The Hub during the hard years of the ’40s and bought new purses and ties there during the post-war boom. Levine grew up in and around the store, watching his parents buy low and sell a little less low. In 1959, Levine took his lessons and $6,000—every penny he owned—and started a new kind of retail empire. Nothing in Levine’s little Charlotte store cost more than $2. That was his boast. That was the point. Levine called his store Family Dollar. He soon opened another location, then another. By 2009, Family Dollar Stores was a publicly traded, Fortune 500 powerhouse. Competitors like Dollar Tree and Dollar General began springing up in neglected storefronts wherever the square footage was cheap. As a result, there’s probably a dollar store within walking distance of your home. And you should definitely visit. We’re not saying that everything in the average dollar store is a good value, though. You’re better off paying for top quality with some things, like mattresses, shoes, and produce. But why pay more for paper products? Why go name-brand on plastic cutlery? True thrifty consumers don’t write a single shopping list. They write several: one for the grocery store, one for the farmers market, and one, yes—a sizable one—for the dollar store. If you’d like to do the same, here’s what you should write on your dollar-store shopping list.
1. The Key to Clean Dishes
Sure, you could buy an $8 all-natural sea sponge to scrub your dishes. But what happens when it starts to stink? You could end up shelling out $8 a week just to keep your dishes clean. We didn’t pull that once-weekly figure out of nowhere, either. As we’ve mentioned previously on HealthyWay, sponges pick up tons of bacteria, and there’s no way to effectively sanitize a sponge. A recent study discovered just how frighteningly active the microbiome of your average kitchen sponge actually is. The authors of the study concluded that “we … suggest a regular (and easily affordable) replacement of kitchen sponges, for example, on a weekly basis.” So drop by your local dollar store and stock up. You’ll save a fortune, and you might even prevent an illness.
2. Household Chemistry
You can’t really mess up household bleach. It’s just a chemical, a mixture of sodium hypochlorite and water. Same with ammonia, really. It’s just nitrogen and hydrogen. This is not to say these products are “safe.” They’re both highly toxic, and if you mix them together, you get poison gas. So don’t do that. But there’s also no reason to pay a premium for a fancy bottle and a name brand. Bleach is bleach is bleach, for the most part, and you can usually pick the stuff up cheaper from the dollar store than from your local dealer of artisanal, hand-crafted bleach. (If you don’t have one yet, just wait; the neighborhood will get there.)
3. The Most Necessary Product in the World
You’d think toilet paper would rank pretty high on our list of must-splurges. There’s a lot at stake. But when we started looking closer at the claims of the name-brand TP czars, we found that the premium products don’t always justify the price. Consumer Reports has been tracking major toilet paper brands since 2009. Between then and 2015, the magazine found, some of the leading manufacturers have shrunk their rolls by more than 20 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve justified price bumps with vague claims. By switching to certain totally decent store brands of toilet paper, consumers can save around $130 per year, Consumer Reports found. Go ahead and thrift out on this necessity. You can strike a balance between the needs of your backside and your pocketbook.
4. A Smile in an Envelope
Millennials are always surprising the folks whose job it is to figure out what to sell to millennials. For instance, did you know that young adults love greeting cards? “The demographic has really shifted,” Sarah Turk, an analyst who studies the stationery industry for IBISWorld, told the Boston Globe. “Instead of it being more of an older consumer that values paper, we’re seeing a lot of millennials also purchasing paper products. I think that, especially in a digital age, paper now has more value than it ever has.” That is true in a literal sense. The price of the average greeting card hovers between $2 and $4, according to the Greeting Card Association. The Boston Globe story refers to millennials spending up to $8 for a fancy new paper card. We’re thrilled that millennials are into greeting cards, but it’s time for them to take the next step: buying cheap. And that means a trip to the dollar store. The sad truth is that once delivered, greeting cards might hang around on a fridge for a year or two, tops. Ultimately, they all end up in the recycling bin. Why throw $8 away when you could throw away a single Washington?
5. Paper Plates and Plastic Cutlery
We actually don’t have a whole lot of deep analysis for this one. It seems pretty obvious. Save money on your next picnic by spending less on things you’ll only be tossing soon.
6. The Final Touch for Any Great Gift
The same principle holds here: Products that are destined for the recycling bin—or worse, the landfill—shouldn’t be too expensive. We can’t think of anything more temporary than wrapping paper, which you can pick up on the cheap at the dollar store. And you should.
7. Garden-Fresh Decoration
Frugal florists have a secret. They get their vases for a fraction of the price their wholesalers charge—and all they have to do is take a trip to the dollar store. We’re not sure how or why dollar stores offer the cheapest vases you can get (short of visiting the sell-by-weight Goodwill outlet, which is another story entirely). But they do. The next time you need a vase for your own backyard bouquet, look no further than your nearest dollar store.
Reimagining the Dollar Store
As we compiled this list, we began to notice a pattern emerging. The real dollar-store deals seem to cluster around a common theme. They sell everything you could ever want for a party. Specifically, a child’s birthday party. Just picture it. You stock up on your paper plates and plastic forks for cake. You buy plenty of low-priced birthday cards; kids don’t value hand-made Amish paper curling, anyway. Then, when the chaos subsides, you clean up after the kids with all the low-cost cleaning supplies you picked up. It’s almost like it was designed this way. Dollar stores could just as easily be considered children’s-birthday-party stores. That’s a heavy legacy for good old Leon Levine, the father of the dollar-store concept. He would probably disagree with our analysis. Since the first Family Dollar opened in 1959, the industry has rooted itself firmly within the broader American retail landscape—which, admittedly, covers a lot more than birthday parties. Between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. dollar store industry boasted a 50 percent growth rate. It was worth a total of $45.3 billion by the end of that growth period. That’s a lot of $1 items—45.3 billion of them, to be exact. May some of them be yours, and thereby may you save.