Illustration of a shopper at a dollar store.
Illustration: John Ritter

There may be no shortage of dollar stores coast to coast, but what they carry can sometimes be pretty limited. So when you shop in one, forget about taking a list—what you really need is a strategy. We asked CR experts, all dollar store shoppers themselves, to share their best ideas for navigating the aisles.

Food

Amy Keating, Registered Dietitian and Food Safety and Testing Program Leader at CR

Check the freezer. Not many dollar stores carry fresh fruits and vegetables, but they often stock frozen versions of each. And those can be as nutritious as fresh. Look for veggies with no added salt or other ingredients and for unsweetened fruit.

Scan the can. Canned veggies are often high in sodium, and canned fruits tend to be packed with extra sugar. But if that’s your only option, choose those with the least sodium. For canned fruit, look for products packed in juice or light syrup, then drain it. And don’t buy cans with deep dents or bulges, which may compromise their safety.

More on Dollar Stores

Avoid processed meals. Dollar stores carry lots of packaged food, but much of it is heavily processed pasta mixes or chilis, lunch meat, frozen meals, and canned soups. Those tend to be high in sodium and sometimes added sugar. But you can make healthy meals by choosing items such as dried or canned beans, brown rice, pastas, and jarred spices.

The milk and eggs can be Grade A. These staples might not be organic, but they can be perfectly nutritious. Note that you can check product dates, though “sell by” is simply meant to help stores manage inventory; “best used by” and “best before” indicate when an item is at peak flavor or quality.

Don’t judge a juice by its picture. Dollar stores often stock lots of fruit drinks—but a picture of fruit on the label doesn’t mean the container is full of real juice. Look for drinks that say “100 percent fruit juice” on the front, whether from concentrate or not.

Go nuts. A lot of shelf space is devoted to snacks such as candy, chips, and cookies. But the stores also have healthy snacks: Look for unsalted nuts, sunflower seeds, or dried fruits, like raisins and cherries, that don’t have added sugar.

OTC Drugs and Supplements

Lisa Gill, Pharmaceuticals Reporter at CR

Save with generics. Dollar stores, like supermarkets and drugstores, often carry generic or store-brand versions of over-the-counter drugs (such as the painkillers ibuprofen and acetaminophen), as well as branded versions of those meds (Advil and Tylenol). Generics are chemically identical to branded versions, so they are just as safe and effective—and much less expensive. Gill found generic ibuprofen for 2.5 cents per pill at Dollar General, while the branded version, Advil, cost 16.7 cents per pill. Bottle sizes tend to be small at dollar stores, which is fine if you need the products only occasionally. Otherwise, larger bottles from big box stores may be more convenient and less expensive.

Do buy personal-care items. Gill says she sees many familiar brands of soap, shampoo, and toothpaste at dollar stores for good prices, but variety may be limited and stock low. She is especially wowed by prices on tampons and other feminine care products.

Be supplement-savvy. These products aren’t regulated as carefully as OTC drugs, so buying them always requires extra vigilance. Check to see whether they bear the USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia) seal or the seal of another independent testing group, such as NSF International.

Home Goods

John Galeotafiore, Associate Director of Product Testing at CR

Stock up on the basics. CR’s survey found that a majority of people who shop at dollar stores typically buy household goods there—things such as paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaners. You may be able to get them cheaper in bulk at big box stores, but in an emergency or if you just need a little, dollar store offerings are a good bet.

Beware of slim hardware pickings. When it comes to tools, dollar stores may offer only standard items—pliers, claw hammers, two-pack screw-driver sets. That’s fine if you’re caught short when you’re hanging a picture or curtain rod, but if your task is more complicated, you might want to head straight to the hardware store.

Do a bulb precheck. Dollar stores may be more likely to stock incandescent bulbs, not the LED ones that tend to be more expensive in the short term but use less energy and last much longer. To save time and money, note the details of the bulb you’re replacing, so you don’t end up with something that isn’t quite right.

Make an automotive pit stop. Run out of windshield wiper fluid? Spill coffee on your car seat? Dollar stores often carry products that can help you through those minor mishaps. Many also stock motor oil, in case you notice that your level is running low. But make sure oil carries the American Petroleum Institute’s certification mark. Even if it’s a brand you don’t recognize, that mark means it meets the latest industry standards.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.