Not everything at the dollar store is a bargain, or even safe to use. Learn to spot the difference between an item that's cheap, and a cheap item.
Step 1: Make sure the item really is just $1. Some so-called dollar stores sell items for a lot more as well, which you may not realize until you get home and look at your receipt. And don't assume every item is a bargain: Some dollar store merchandise costs less in a regular shop.
Step 2: Check out the groceries. The best deals include packaged snacks, pasta and rice, canned vegetables, and other nonperishables you'd normally buy in a supermarket.
TIP: Check the expiration dates on food items. Though they likely are safe beyond that date, they might not be as flavorful.
Step 3: Pick up household tools and gadgets, from spatulas to screwdrivers. A recent consumer study found they're mostly the same items you find in retail giants, but can cost up to 95 percent less.
Step 4: Pick up some shampoo. Studies have found the cheap brands work as well as the pricey ones.
Step 5: Stock up on party goods, including wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, gift bags, paper plates and cups, and balloons.
Step 6: Buy your vitamins elsewhere. A test of a random sample of dollar-store brand vitamins found they often either didn't contain what they claimed or didn't dissolve properly.
Step 7: Leave behind the batteries and extension cords. The ones at the dollar store are usually made of carbon zinc, not alkaline, which means they'll burn out faster. And one consumer group rated the extension cords of such bad quality as to be downright dangerous.
Step 8: Don't even think about buying plastic toys or toothpaste in a dollar store. The toys often break easily and some may contain lead, and the Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning after finding toxins in some off-brand toothpastes.
FACT: Dollar stores' earnings soared in the final months of 2008 – some chain's profits were up by 50 percent over 2007.