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Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Dollar Store Dilemma

For years I always considered the dollar store (insert whatever dollar store is closest to you) an occasional stop for things like gift bags, Christmas bows and candy before we went to the movies. Over the last year I have discovered it is so much more and can be a regular weapon in my frugal fight on high consumer prices and my grocery bill.

I have recently started casually introducing the topic of shopping at the dollar store into conversations with my friends to get an idea of the typical attitude. Almost overwhelmingly the consensus was the same. "Great for wrapping paper, cards or party favors, but I would never buy food there!"

The "Dollar Tree" is the local store chain in my area (the west coast). I don't know if they are typical of most dollar store chains. Maybe someone out there can comment on others because I am not likely to travel the country and check this out for myself. That being said, I have been amazed at the plethora of good quality food products I have found.

My conversion was actually purely by accident. I was there looking for a plastic soap dish with a suction cup to stick on the wall of my tiny master bath shower and noticed an end cap display of Hunt's Spaghetti Sauce. This same spaghetti sauce will occasionally go on special for $.99 ea, usually with a coupon, at the grocery store. But this is sporadic at best. The Dollar Tree had three different flavors and when I asked the clerk she said this is a regular stocked item. Huh. I thought maybe I should see what else they "regularly" stock.

 I have to admit that when I perused the shelves of the food isles I saw a very mixed bag of brands, a lot I had never heard of and a few "name brands". The reality is there are very few food items I am a die hard name brand shopper. Do I have my preferences? Of course. I love Coffemate Italian Sweet Cream coffee creamer, but at $3.69 ea, unless it is on special and I have a coupon, I buy Lucerne Italian Sweet Cream which regularly goes on sale here for $2.49, and if I have a coupon, WooooHooooo! It tastes almost as creamy/sweet and I am still satisfied. So if I am willing to try a new brand at the grocery store, why not the dollar store? I started small. They had 2 lb packages of Allegro spaghetti noodles, the Hunt's spaghetti sauce (I bought 2) and 3 count packs of Cup-O-Noodles (these are $.53for 1 on sale at my local grocery store). Total of $4.00. I went home that night and made a big pot of spaghetti for my son and his 2 friends (and 18 yr old boys can eat A LOT) using the noodles, spaghetti sauce and one package of ground turkey I picked up on a big time special at 2/$5.00. It was delicious and there was more than enough to feed the four of us for $5.50.

Before I go any further I want to comment on prepacked foods vs scratch for all the black belt tightwad frugalnistas out there cringing at prepackaged spaghetti sauce. Please see the paragraph at the bottom of this post for my opinion.

Back to the dollar store. After the success of the spaghetti and Cup-O-Noodles, which are a cheap staple in the cupboard for snacks for my son and friends, I was hooked. I went back with a notepad, $20.00 and an open mind. This is what I came home with:

2 2lb pkg spaghetti noodles (off brand)
2 cans Hunt's spaghetti sauce
1 pkg egg noodles (I use these in homemade soup and beef stroganoff, a staple in my house, off brand)
1 package burrito size flour tortillas (8ct, off brand)
1 tall glass jar of minced garlic (off brand)
1 canister of granulated garlic (off brand)
1 canister of onion powder (off brand)
1 canister of season salt (off brand)
1 box of 3 pkg brown gravy mix (used to thicken/flavor soup and beef stroganoff)
1 box cherry poptart like pastry (off brand)
1 can chili (for chili baked potatoes and snacks, off brand)
1 family size box shells and cheese (off brand)
1 box Kraft mac n cheese
2 packages Bar-S classic hot dogs (I use these for dog treats, more on that later)
1 small jar green olives (I like to put out a tray of little foods for company, off brand)
1 bag garlic bagel chips (name brand but it escapes me right now)
---------
$20.00

Of all that I bought only the green olives, shells and cheese, poptart like pastry and bagel chips are things I normally wouldn't buy because they are way too expensive at the grocery store. Everything else I buy on sale/coupons regularly, but almost never for $1.00.

I am happy to report that the only thing we didn't like was the shells and cheese. Everything else was tasty, fresh and good quality. I have since tried many other food products from Dollar Tree. They have an entire aisle of snack foods. Chips, cookies, candy, etc. When I have a craving for kettle chips (one of my secret obsessions) I stop at the dollar store. The bag isn't as big but they are just as tasty as "Tim's" kettle chips at $3.49 and are only $1.00. I don't need the larger bag. The strawberry fig newton like cookies are yummy. I have bought a large Gatorade (in the cooler) when we head out to school to go with my sons packed lunch. They have an interesting and varied refrigerated/frozen food section. The selection varies widely, week to week, but they always have certain regularly stocked items.

Now after I make out my grocery list using the weekly flyers and coupons on hand I stop at the dollar store to see if they have what I need first. It's not a good place to find staples like flour, sugar, eggs, milk etc, though they do carry those things, and in a pinch if you only need a couple of eggs to get you through $1.00 for 6 is better then buying a whole dozen for $2.29. Especially when you know eggs will be on sale with that coupon for $.99 a dzn in 2 days. But it is definitely one of my best weapons in my arsenal for saving money and still having the life we are comfortable with. If you haven't given it a shot, check out your local dollar store with an open mind and you might just be pleasantly surprised.



NOTE:
I cook most meals from scratch. I prefer fresh vegetables, meat bbq'd (year round) and scratch made potatoes, pasta or rice. But there is a place for "semi homemade" in my household as well. Sometimes meals are a combination of the two. I have limited space (1000 sq ft 3 bd, 2 bth), limited time and limited resources available. Though I live in a small town and am surrounded by farms and ranches ,what we grow in this area is limited because of our climate. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower etc is expensive. I also have a black thumb and plants of any kind start screaming when they see me coming. It is not feasible either space, time or money wise to can my own spaghetti sauce. If I truly were a black belt in the area of frugality I would never buy prepackaged food of any kind. I sadly am not. What I am is a freshman frugalnista doing her best to create a quality life that is still comfortable for my family and does not leave me stressed and exhausted at the end of each day. I admit to having a mix of prepackaged as well as staples in my pantry cupboards and fridge/freezer. Some "convenience" foods also regularly find their way into my house if I can find them cheaply enough. Enough said.

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