They seem to be everywhere now, the ubiquitous 99 cent store, or it's equally well known cousin the dollar store. Unlike the 5 and dime of yore, at a 99 cent store the proprietor really does attempt to price everything at 99 cents. Such stores are more common in urban areas where walk by traffic is high. If you don't have a car to get to a Wal-mart or K-mart, and buy things on a daily basis anyway, the dollar stores can seem quite attractive. But the big question is, are you really saving money? That depends on who you are, how you shop, and what you need.
For example, sponges. If you are a single person who goes through a sponge or so a month doing a couple dishes by hand, why not buy a sponge for 99 cents? It's light to carry home just one, and the money you save on gas by walking to the corner market figures into the savings. However, if you own your own home and have storage space, there is no doubt that you could buy sponges in bulk from Sam's Club or Costco for less. But then, it's free to get into a dollar store, and clubs require memberships. If you haven't saved more than the annual fee by shopping at a club, you've actually lost money, or it's a wash.
Next example: household detergents. This is one of the better things to get at a dollar store. After all, it's exactly the same brand you can see sold elsewhere. A can of comet is going to be most expensive at a grocery store, (because it's not a food item), slightly less at a hardware store, and a dollar at the dollar store. It is not an item that can go stale or moldy, so buy it without worries. Ammonia and bleach are also cheaper at a dollar store. Bleach actually can be less effective if it isn't a name brand. If you have to use more of it to get the same cleansing effect then you are no longer saving money. Vinegar is cheaper at a dollar store, and brand name seems to make little difference. Plain white vinegar is one of the wonders of the modern world. It was green before it was hip to be green, it's biodegradable and few people are allergic to it.
Next example: cheap plastic toys. We have heard on the news lots of scares recently about toys made in China containing lead. I would say buy toys at a dollar store with caution. On the one hand, kids get a kick out of getting new things. At a dollar a pop, you look like the good guy when you say they can pick something out. But beware with really young kids, if the toy looks flimsy or like they can swallow small parts, it may not be safe. Bigger toys, like a beach ball or a hula hoop, don't look like they can go wrong. A plastic bottle of bubbles is also good cheap fun for kids and you can buy it again and again if they lose it.
Next example: Vitamins. I read in consumer reports magazine that vitamins bought at a dollar store really are less effective than the ones from a reputable source. Buy vitamins from a health food store that appears to change stock regularly. Old vitamins lose potency. Better yet, get your vitamins from food. The body absorbs nutrients more efficiently from food sources than from supplements.
Next example: Canned foods. Like household cleaning supplies this is one that really can't go bad. Keep a list handy on your iPhone, or in your purse regarding the average cost of canned goods so you can remember which ones are cheaper at the dollar store. At the grocery store in my town canned tomatoes and corn routinely go on sale for less than a dollar. Beans and sardines rarely do, so they are worth buying at a dollar store, if I'm there anyway. One way to save money is to rotate which stores you shop at during the week, so that you buy the things that are cheapest at each one when you are there. If you need to make several trips in one day to different places, the cost of the gas you spend going around probably negates the amount you save by stopping at numerous stores.
Next example: pens, paper and envelopes. Generally a score at the dollar store. Once again, an item that can't go stale or bad and generally the exact same item no matter where you pick it up. The main rule of thumb is that lower the ratio between the cost of the thing and value of the thing the safer it is to buy it at a dollar store. So cheap items that you don't expect to last, such as bobby pins, hair ribbons, women's hygiene products etc. are a good value at a dollar store.Surprising example: lady's purse. I have friend who absolutely refuses to pay more than ten dollars on a purse. She prides herself on being a clever woman. I know how she feels. When my son was young I used to get all my purses at Woolworth's. I spent about twenty dollars on each purse and the fabric ones lasted me an average of 3 months. It was kind of fun to pick out a new purse every quarter. Four times twenty meant I was spending 80 dollars a year on purses, 160 every two years! I thought about that an finally plunked down a cool 80 dollars on a well made leather purse on sale. The leather purses I bought lasted on average three full years. Actual savings? Two hundred and forty dollars for three years worth of cheap fabric purses less eighty on one leather one equals one hundred and sixty dollars worth of savings. That was money I could have been spending on getting my hair done!