The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License,
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License,

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Dollar to the Max – Slash Your Grocery Budget at Those 99-Cent & Dollar Stores

By Vicki McClure Davidson


Now, more than ever, Americans are scrambling to either save or stretch their shrinking dollars. While you can't cut back feasibly or easily on credit card payments or mortgage costs, the family food budget is the largest area with the most flexibility. But as food prices continue to rise, how much cutting back is possible?

Plenty. There are alternatives that only a handful of people (until recently) have embraced.

One of those options are the dollar stores or 99-cent stores. Here, more reliably than just about anywhere else, value and deep discounts are available to drastically reduce your food costs. These bargains are starting to dry up from what they were last year (or even a few months ago), but so far, not too badly. While name brands are infrequently available, quality items are offered often.

These dollar stores are showing strong gains in increased number of shoppers and profits during these days of our precarious economy. These stores rarely advertise and have a simple pricing system: nothing over the infamous dollar (or 99 cents, which is purt-near a dollar).

Selection can be unpredictable, and you can likely anticipate that if regular wholesale/retail prices soar, the number of items available for them to scoop up and resell for a dollar will decline. Time will tell, though.

My Recent Purchases for a Buck Each (or, 99.9 Pennies... Close Enough)

There are several of these stores (the 99-Cent Only Store and Dollar Tree) near my home and work in Arizona. I pop in frequently to see what new shipments have arrived. On several grocery shopping trips recently, the following bargains were offered:

Some of the bargains I've found recently at my local 99-cent/dollar stores
Lean Cuisine Flatbreads 
Sunny Acres American Cheese Slices 
Stouffer's Corner Bistro Flatbreads 
Even cosmetics, office, gardening, pet, kitchen utensils, and home cleaning items are amazingly low-priced.

These low prices are in place day in and day out, 365 days a years. The availability of items, however, fluctuates tremendously. Availability is influenced by the season, financial climate, and region. I have no idea what items are available outside my area, but that's OK. Stores in other states could have better bargains or vastly different merchandise, but I can live with that.

Since the rest of my world is topsy-turvy, the unpredictable nature of these dollar stores' inventory is acceptable to me, and actually, I find it fun (in a warped kind of way) seeking out the mystery bargains of the week.

Be aware that while national name brands do make their way to these stores, they are infrequent. Usually, lesser-known brands are what's offered, but I've been pleased with the overall quality.

Strategy for Going into the Food Jungle & Saving Big Money

There are two strategies my daughter and I employ when grocery shopping.

Number 1 Strategy: Go to one of the dollar/99-cent stores FIRST before going to the grocery store. This usually pays off enormously for us. So many items on our list can be purchased for 99 cents/1 dollar that are typically double, triple, or quadruple that price. Or, if there is an unusual bounty of fresh produce, we adjust our shopping list. Either way, going to the dollar store first is smart.

Number 2 Strategy: Go to the 99-cent/dollar store LAST. As backwards as that seems, it sometimes works. If you're hit square between the eyes with sticker shot at the grocery store, buy only what you absolutely must have that day and then head over to a dollar/99-cent store. Amazingly, they have had a surprisingly good track record for having what I need for much less. Or, I've stumbled on fabulous alternatives, and then just adjust my menus for that week. I recently found 12-ounce jars of La Victoria salsa (chunky, cilantro, and picante varieties... these are now priced close to 3 dollars at my supermarket). Prepared salsa is great to have on hand for a quick snack for my teen son or to use in a Mexican casserole when I'm pinched for time, but I won't pay $3.00 for it.

Another great find: Last week, my 99-Cent Only store had the 16.5-ounce size of packaged Nestles' Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough (while I prefer to make my own cookies from scratch, I stocked up, since the raw dough freezes beautifully, and my husband sometimes craves a sweet snack late at night). Again, this prepared cookie dough is close to 3 bucks a pop at the supermarket.

Believe it or not, a number of my friends weren't aware of the food bargains to be had at these stores—some of them didn't know where the stores were located. One told me she'd never shop there because she thought they were dirty. That comment surprised me, because the dollar stores I frequent have never had any kind of sanitation problem that I could see. I'm sure that could be said of most, but only one or two with lazy employees who don't "take care of first impressions" could give the whole chain a bad reputation. Usually, the produce is fairly fresh, but I have been in there when it wasn't.

My thinking is I need to evaluate before I spend, a "buyer beware" mentality. But unless the problem was chronic, I wouldn't let one experience of wilted produce sour me.

If you're baffled like my friends as to these stores' locations, here are some links for you to check out to see if any of these stores are in your area.

Best of luck in the shopping jungle!

Location Finder: 99-Cent Only Stores

Location Finder: Dollar Tree Stores

Location Finder: Family Dollar Stores




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