Spending Should You Buy Groceries at the Dollar Store?

With food prices skyrocketing countrywide, smart shopping expert Trae Bodge offers tips for how to use dollar stores to your (and your wallet’s) advantage.

By Trae Bodge
PUBLISHED 01/20/2023 | 6 MINUTES

Are Dollar Tree or Dollar General stores becoming a staple for your grocery shopping, or looking like they might?

As Americans continue to struggle with rising prices, many are turning to dollar stores for their groceries to keep costs low. In fact, average spending on grocery products at discount chains increased 71% from October 2021 to June 2022, according to a new study by analytics firm InMarket.

Here, we explore what kind of food you’ll find when you visit your local Dollar General or its equivalent and how to determine what you should and shouldn’t buy there.

Why Grocery Shop at Dollar Stores?

When we think of dollar stores, we typically think of cheap goods like off-brand toys, party supplies and cleaning products. Until recently, these low-price retailers weren’t necessarily a go-to for groceries. But with food prices increasing 10.6% year-over-year on average, per the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, dollar stores can present a more affordable alternative for grocery shopping for many.

The proximity of dollar stores is also a huge factor. As of 2021, there were more than 35,000 dollar stores in the United States, according to Statista, led by Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which also owns Family Dollar. Kate Ellison, a Dollar General spokesperson, says that “75% of the U.S. population lives within five miles of a Dollar General store”—an important detail given that roughly 10% of subdivisions in the country are considered food deserts (neighborhoods where people may have a difficult time accessing affordable and healthy food due to a lack of supermarkets or transportation).

When shopping in dollar stores over the years, a quick glance in the food aisle revealed cans and boxes of processed foods from unfamiliar brands—so I skipped it as a matter of course. Nowadays, you’ll still find “Brand X” mac ‘n’ cheese or cans of Chef Boyardee-ish ravioli, but dollar stores have increasingly added healthier options, including fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, frozen and canned vegetables, and refrigerated items such as milk and eggs—typically for cheaper than what you’d pay in your regular grocery store.

What’s Available at Dollar Stores?

Family Dollar introduced fresh produce and frozen meats in late 2020—likely in response to the pandemic—and, in 2021, Dollar Tree began rolling out Dollar Tree Plus!, a new store layout that includes fresh produce.

Furthermore, Dollar General launched their DG Fresh program in 2019 with the goal of carrying “a wider selection of brands customers trust and at a great value to customers,” says Ellison. “In 2021, Dollar General also committed to offering fresh produce in more than 10,000 of its stores in the coming years.” Dollar General now identifies their healthier items with “Better For You” at-shelf labeling and has created their Good & Smart® private label brand, which includes items such as nuts, juices and freeze-dried fruits.

While dollar stores are likely to be cheaper, always shop around to compare prices. Many items will be $1—or $1.25 at Dollar Tree—but some will be more expensive, especially as these chains increase their offerings.

Your safest bet for grocery staples at the dollar store? Nonperishables like spices and canned and boxed goods.

Tips for Grocery Shopping at Dollar Stores

As a point of comparison, I found shelf-stable store-brand almond milk at Dollar General for $1.25 each—minimum of 12 per order—compared to $3.29 per unit for Almond Breeze at Walmart. Big savings for our cow milk–free household! However, Honey Maid 14.4oz graham crackers were $4.50 at Dollar General but only $3.38 at Walmart and $3.99 at Target. (Refrigerated items such as eggs and milk are only available in-store, so it’s not as easy to compare prices from home.)

In general, brand names, if cheaper at the dollar store, are an easy YES to grab. But anytime you see generics or store brands, always check the ingredient lists. Many are the same as brand-name products, ingredient by ingredient, but some contain fillers, extra sugars and other undesirable ingredients—do your due diligence before picking them up.

The Bottom Line

So, should you consider shopping for groceries at dollar stores? If your local store is one of those tricked-out locations with healthy options, it’s worth a look—buying select items could be a good anti-inflation move.

If you don’t live near an “enhanced” dollar store, or live far from a grocery store, it might make sense to explore a grocery-delivery service instead. Some grocery stores/services deliver for free on orders of $35 or more with an annual membership, which typically runs $98/year for Walmart+, $99 for Shipt or Instacart, or $139 for Amazon Prime with Amazon Fresh. That investment could be worth it—versus your travel time to and from the store if you’re in that 10% food desert land. And, as always, price comparison is queen when it comes to saving money.

Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.

Trae Bodge is a lifestyle journalist and shopping expert with a passion for helping people save money.


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