More for less: How to shop the dollar stores like a pro

I started shopping at dollar stores when I was trying to keep up the payments on my new VW Beetle without having to sleep in it. While the car is no longer in my life, dollar stores have become a shopping mainstay.

I'm not alone: In 2001, the specialty discount market was a $40 billion industry in the U.S., growing about 6.9% a year. projected this growth rate to continue through 2008, with 8,000 new stores like Dollar Tree, Tuesday Morning and 99 Cents Only springing up across the country. In my Silicon Valley 'hood alone, there are about two dozen dollar stores within 10 miles of my home, both mom-and-pops and the big chains.

Successfully navigating a dollar store's aisles requires trial and error, so newbies should follow two simple rules of thumb:
1. Off-brands are not the anti-Christ
2. If your purchase doesn't work out, it's okay to toss it. Remember, you only paid a buck for it.

Food is often the exception to Rule No. 1 that proves Rule No. 2. Not surprisingly, I had my best off-brand grocery shopping experience when I was stocking up for a white trash theme party at my local Dollar Tree. I found Moon Pies, bacon-flavored crackers, Shasta-brand Tiki Punch and the coup de grace, plastic-ware sporting the John Deere logo and scenes of happy, tractor-ridin' folks. Since I didn't expect anyone to actually consume these nominal edibles, I didn't bother to check the labels for expiration dates or possible carcinogens.

If you're actually buying dollar store food with the intention of eating it, reading the labels is highly recommended. It's best to make sure that can of French-cut green beans isn't past its prime, and anyone watching the levels of salt, fat and/or sugar in their diet may have a hard time coming up with a meal plan that doesn't include MSG, high-fructose corn syrup or transfat. And if you're wondering where white bread goes to die, check out the "bakery" section.

So that's what dollar stores aren't good for. Luckily for my budget, they are good for many, many other things. Even the smallest stores are stocked to bursting with basic hardware, kitchen and bath items, not to mention whimsical -- read "weird" -- gifts. For eight bits, I've purchased everything from hairbrushes and hand lotion to butane torches and bungee cords, and I can recall only a handful of times I've had to employ Rule No. 2 afterward. The smoked cheddar cheese (or was it "cheez?") spread comes to mind.

By Anne Gelhaus. Gelhaus is a writer and editor based in San Jose, California, who is an expert on how to live frugally in Silicon Valley.
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