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It’s hard to resist the lure of a dollar store. I mean, if everything is a dollar, how could you possibly go wrong?

Actually, it is pretty easy to make poor choices at a dollar store. In addition to buying things you don’t need, you may find yourself buying inferior quality products or, worse yet, overpaying for items you could have bought for less elsewhere.

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Having said that, I don’t mean to suggest that dollar stores don’t offer good value, because they offer incredible deals, at least on certain items. The days when dollar stores sold only off-brand items produced in far-off countries are long behind us, according to Business Insider.

“The biggest misconception about dollar stores is that they only have junk that no one needs, and everything is low quality,” said Andrew Schrage of the MoneyCrashers investment website.

In fact, dollar stores are a big business. Dollar Tree, with more than 5,000 locations in the United States and Canada, made the Fortune 500 in 2008. Originally founded in 1953, Dollar Tree has steadily bought out similar chains and their stores are neat, clean, well-stocked and don’t have that overpowering cheap soap smell that scents the air in so many other dollar stores I have visited.

If I had to pick my favorite reason to shop at dollar stores, it would have to be the greeting cards. Baruch Hashem, we go through a lot of them and, while I used to be able to get a discount on cards at my local supermarket that offered 30 percent off, those days are long gone. Instead, I make the occasional trip to my nearby Dollar Tree, where cards are priced at either a dollar each or two for a dollar, and stock up for the next several months. (Okay, let’s hope none of my close friends or family members are reading this… oops… wait… hi Mom!)

Balloons would be a close second. There is something about helium balloons that brings out the kid in all of us and when you can find them for a buck a piece, there is no reason not to go for the wow factor and buy a bunch. You should be aware, though, that while party stores usually have large bags to accommodate balloons, dollar stores typically do not, so either bring your own or be ready to have them floating around in your car or trunk on your way home.

Party goods are another great buy and you may be lucky enough to find coordinating cups, napkins, plates and matching silverware for a variety of occasions. On my last trip to the dollar store I noticed the lady behind me had gorgeous black and white-patterned plates in her shopping cart and I mentally kicked myself for not having picked up a few packages for the yomim tovim. Expect to find party hats, decorations, latex balloons, cellophane goody bags and party favors as well, giving you the ability to cross all those items off your list in one fell swoop.

Looking for seasonal items? Head to your nearest dollar store, although be aware that once they sell out, these items are typically not replenished. From hula-themed cups in the summer and leaf garlands in the fall to Chanukah decorations in the winter, and solar-powered dancing daises in the spring, dollar stores are loaded with fun stuff to get you and yours in the mood for every occasion.

Other dollar store items have garnered mixed reviews. You can often find a decent selection of off-brand or low-end cosmetics, and I have actually found a useful item or two that have made great additions to my makeup bag. There are also hair accessories galore and, while they may be of lesser quality than their name brand counterparts, these are short-term purchases since hair accessories have a unique tendency to wander off to parts unknown and disappear with alarming frequency.

Food is another popular item at dollar stores, but you really need to read labels carefully. In addition to looking for a hechsher, check out expiration dates, the country of origin and the size of the product. Food items are often repacked in smaller sizes, so while the price may be lower than what you are accustomed to, you may be getting significantly less product, which means you aren’t saving anything. Even within the same store, product size may vary over time. I once bought an eight-pack of single-serving size peanut butter in one store for a dollar and just recently saw the same item in a different location of the same store, only this time it had been downsized to a three package box.

While quite a few experts have said that dollar store medicines are a great buy, many others strongly disagree. A Consumer Reports article warns consumers to stay away from the medicine aisle completely, saying that items may be expired and ingredients may be different than in name brand products. The report also advises against buying any medicines that don’t list the country of manufacture and warns that items produced outside the United States are not subject to FDA regulations.

The jury is still out on whether or not kitchen items are a good dollar store buy. Forbes calls dollar store kitchenware a great deal, while Time deems it to be of inferior quality, advising shoppers to “spend more and get a product that will last.”

Dollar store batteries are likely a poor investment. Typically made of carbon zinc, they offer far less power than alkaline or lithium batteries. Because these batteries are much more prone to leakage, they also run the risk of permanently ruining whatever device they are being used in.

Electrical items are another dollar store no-no. While some of them may actually work, many have no safety ratings at all or are faulty, so you may be saving a few dollars on that extension cord, USB cable or surge protector, but you also run the risk of burning down your house or frying your laptop, definitely something you want to avoid. Similarly, you probably want to steer clear of dollar store tools. Whether you are talking handsaw or just a screwdriver, there are moments in life where you just can’t afford to have things breaking on you and this is one of them.

School supplies like pens, notebooks and glue might look like good buys at the dollar store, but you can likely do far better elsewhere. Bonus points if you stocked up on all of these items during the back-to-school sales, the absolute best time to replenish your stationary supplies for the year.

Whether or not to avoid the toy aisle at your local dollar store is entirely up to you, although it goes without saying that anything you buy here should be considered disposable. Consider if the item will last long enough to have any play value and if it is potentially hazardous to your kids. If your little ones have a habit of putting things in their mouths, you definitely want to consider buying either name brand items or things that were made in the good old US of A for safety reasons.

So there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly at the dollar store. There are definitely bargains to be had here, mixed in among other items that may be less of a great deal. It is up to you, my savvy shoppers, to figure out which are which. As for me, my mom’s birthday is coming up soon and I have yet to buy her a birthday card, so guess where I’m headed? Yup, you got it – the dollar store.

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