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How to Shop at the Dollar Store

In the last two years, the number of shoppers who buy groceries at dollar stores has shot up 500 percent -- but not everything in the store is a steal. Put these five savvy habits into practice to keep the savings coming.
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1. Don't believe everything is a steal.

"Many people think dollar stores guarantee huge savings, but this isn't always the case," says Teri Gault, of thegrocerygame.com. First of all, only 23 percent of merchandise at these stores actually rings up at a dollar or less! Also, some items, such as candy, snacks and cereal -- even if they are a dollar -- are more expensive per serving than supermarket offerings. "The idea that everything in the store is cheap makes shoppers more likely to mindlessly purchase items without considering value," adds Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Snap out of the haze by figuring out the cost per serving and comparing it with the usual supermarket price. Doing a little math will make you less likely to be manipulated by marketing ploys.

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2. Make a list -- but keep it vague.

A list is the best weapon against impulse spending, but the everchanging inventory at dollar stores makes it hard to stick to a too-specific plan. Instead of skipping the list altogether, Stephanie Nelson, author of The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half, recommends jotting down general categories, like canned goods and kitchen cleaning supplies. Looking for items only in those categories will help you avoid buying things you don't need.

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3. Read ingredient lists.

"In order to buy and sell cheap, some dollar stores may sacrifice ingredient quality when selecting merchandise," says Tom Pirko, of retail consulting company Bevmark. Check the label for what should be the obvious main ingredient, such as milk in a dairy product. In lesser-quality versions, hydrogenated oil might be used instead. In subpar packaged meat items, soy protein might be used instead of meat, says dietitian Delia Hammock. "Be selective because products become economical courtesy of additives and fillers," she adds.

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4. Skip the produce section.

Dollar stores are at the bottom of the food chain, Pirko says. This means they usually get last pick -- after supermarkets, convenience stores and even gas stations -- from distributors. Translation: The produce is far from peak. Plus, it's rare to find the deep-discount seasonal promotions that grocery stores have. "You're likely to get fresher produce at the supermarket -- and if you stick to specials, you'll get a better price per pound, too," Pirko says. If you do come across unbeatable produce deals, stick to long-lasting staples like cabbage, onions and apples, and be sure to inspect your goods for bruising or mold.

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5. Check the expiration date and be realistic about what you'll use.

Since most dollar-store merchandise comes from manufacturer closeouts and overstocks, it probably sat in warehouses before hitting store shelves, Pirko says. Inventory moves quickly, however, so typically there won't be expired products. Still, you may find you only have a few days before the jig is up. When it comes to buying in bulk, check the expiration date before deciding how much to buy. And avoid any packages that look beat up or stained -- these are signs that the contents have seen better days.

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PLUS: Did You Know...? Most genuine dollar stores, where products ring up at a dollar or less, don't accept manufacturers' coupons, since store prices are already at rock bottom. But stores that use the "dollar" term loosely and stock more expensive items generally do honor coupons.

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