Back to School: What To Buy at the Dollar Store (and What to Skip)

Dollar General Retail Location. Dollar General is a Small-Box Discount Retailer III stock photo
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We’re barely a month into summer, but the momentum around back-to-school has already begun, with numerous retailers rolling out sales to mark the occasion. And the more sales, the better, because this is not an event that parents are particularly looking forward to — at least not on a financial level. 

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A new survey from LendingTree found that 75% of parents with young kids are stressed out about paying for back-to-school shopping — up 12% from last year. Their stress is not unfounded; the back-to-school extravaganza is ridiculously expensive, especially this year, with the cost of supplies on the rise. A 2022 survey by Deloitte found that parents intend to spend $661 per child on back-to-school gear this year — up 8% from 2021.

To help ease the mounting costs of back-to-school, parents might want to consider shopping at an unlikely destination: the dollar store. These discount utopias, more widely known for their selections of cheap party supplies and junky snacks, can be the perfect places to find rock bottom prices on school essentials. 

Let’s explore what you should buy at the dollar store for back-to-school — and what you should buy elsewhere. 

Make Your Money Work for You

What To Buy at the Dollar Store

Pencil Boxes

“If your student needs a box or case to hold pencils, crayons or other school supplies, the dollar store is a solid place to buy one,” said Katie Roberts, consumer analyst with DealNews.com. “You can expect to pay just $1 or $1.25 for a pencil box or case there — less than you would at most other stores.”

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Backpacks (for Younger Students)

“Older students may need higher-quality bags that you can’t find at the dollar store because they need to tote both school supplies and bulky items like textbooks,” Roberts said. “But young kids can likely get away with using smaller, less-expensive bags, and the dollar store is a good place to find those. They typically start at around $5 to $8 there, which is less than you can expect to pay pretty much anywhere else.”

Paper Clips 

“Paper clips have a variety of uses that go way beyond holding paper together, but there’s no real need to pay a lot for these little items,” Roberts said. “Expect to find packages of 100 paper clips for as little as $1 at the dollar store. You’d be hard-pressed to find a per-clip price that low at most other retailers. Plus, if you lose some of the paper clips, it’s not a big deal, as replacing them isn’t going to cost you much.”

Make Your Money Work for You

School Workbooks

“Whether you’re planning to home-school or supplement school work with at-home workbooks, you can find a variety of options that focus on phonics, writing, math and more at the dollar store for just $1.25,” said budgeting expert Andrea Woroch

Craft Supplies 

“Craft supplies are a great deal at the dollar store,” Woroch said. “You can find glue sticks, paint brushes, colored pencils and more for much less than (at) craft stores or big-box retailers. You can even find these inexpensive craft and pencil/crayon caddy for just $1.25 compared to Target selling a similar option for $4 a piece.”

Food Containers

“Reusable food containers are a smart buy from the dollar store for holding your kid’s lunches and snacks,” Woroch said. “You can snag this 2-pack set for $1.25 compared to options from Walmart for around $9.”

What To Skip at the Dollar Store

Disinfecting Wipes

“Dollar stores do carry some name-brand disinfecting wipes that your student may need to bring to school, but don’t expect to find a per-wipe price there that consistently beats out retailers like Target and Amazon,” Roberts said. “And warehouse clubs may be your best bet for wipes if you have a membership, as these stores typically sell bigger quantities at better values. For example, we found a 5-pack of tubs of Clorox wipes (425 wipes total) for $18 at Costco — that’s about 4.2 cents per wipe. Compare that to the dollar store, where the biggest size we found was a 3-pack of tubs of Clorox wipes (225 wipes total) for $10 — that amounts to 4.4 cents a wipe.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Paper Towels

“Big-box stores like Target and Walmart typically offer a wider selection of paper towels than the dollar store, as well as larger packages,” Roberts said. “And larger packages tend to have a lower price per sheet.”

Facial Tissue

“You’re going to find a broader selection of facial tissue at stores like Target and Walmart than you would at the dollar store, just like you would with paper towels,” Roberts said. “And the quantities of name-brand tissues at the dollar store are generally much smaller, so you can expect to pay more per tissue there. At the other retailers, you can reap the benefits of buying in bulk.”

Hand Sanitizer

“There’s always a small chance you can find a better price per ounce on name-brand, dollar-store hand sanitizer versus the offerings at other stores,” Roberts said. “But you can’t depend on that happening, and the selection at dollar stores will likely be very limited. Instead, try to shop at big-box stores like Target for bigger discounts, a wider variety of choices, and the potential to save more via loyalty programs.”

Batteries

Batteries for any tech items like a calculator are generally not a smart buy when shopping at dollar stores because, Woroch notes, they are cheap and could leak, posing the risk of damage to any electronic device. 

“The best deal on batteries is from a warehouse club store, followed by a big-box retailer like Walmart,” Woroch said. 

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About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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