Illustration of a dollar store.
The dollar store might not be the first place to pop into your head when you think of a place to go shopping, but it might be the most viable option if you're a broke college student. (Illustration by Leigh Desorcy, Montserrat College of Art)
College /// Thoughts x
Illustration of a dollar store.

Are you broke and in need of food, cosmetics or simply something to do? Well, an unexpected shop might just have you covered.

It is no secret that we, as college students, often struggle with finances. That is to say, our pockets are quite empty, and it can be hard to have access to everything we need on a $20 per week budget. To all my fellow broke students out there, I have reached a solution: the dollar store.

I am not talking about the shops that claim to be dollar stores and then have items that are priced for $3 — or worse — $5. I am talking about the one true dollar store: Dollar Tree. In September, Dollar Tree did announce that some of their items would increase in price to around $1.25 or $1.50, but as a loyal customer — and one looking for the best deals — I will allow it. When I walk into a Dollar Tree, I see a world of possibilities. There is enough in the store to keep you running for weeks on end, from food to school supplies to passion projects.

Something To Do

Take, for example, the small garden my friends and I started in our residence hall last semester. Every component of the garden was from Dollar Tree, and it remained alive until we had to dismantle it at the end of the semester — a whopping four months after we installed it. We bought the wired stands for the plants at $1 per stand, the seeds for different plants at 25 cents per packet, two sunflower pots for $1 each and the little decorations in packs of two or three for $1 each. The rest of the garden — the pots for the other plants and the sign — was built from old containers from the dining hall provided by COVID-19 regulations and construction paper.

The idea for the garden came to us when we went to the Dollar Tree looking for school supplies. Some might argue that this is how Dollar Tree functions: You go in for one thing but come out with 20 more, and the price adds up. While the price does in fact add up, the peace that came from watering the garden every morning was worth the $7 we spent assembling it. Everyone on our floor would take turns nursing the plants, and we saw them grow every day. Amid a hectic college schedule, the garden was a welcomed escape.

Dollar Tree also has an endless supply of tattoos, stickers and other trinkets that can bring some light to your busy, overwhelming day without breaking the bank. You can find little games like mini-golf to play with your roommate or buy dorm decorations for more sensible prices. It is the first place I check for bargained Halloween costume components or birthday cake candles.

The Necessities

Aside from the fun side projects that you can work on with tools from Dollar Tree, dollar stores can also keep you nourished. Cans of vegetables, boxes of pasta and bottles of pasta sauce can go for $1 each. Of course, buying in bulk is probably cheaper in the long run per unit, but when you do not have enough to buy 20 boxes of pasta at once, the dollar store is a viable option. The assortment may not be as organic as your local grocery store (yet), but you can surely find bread, peanut butter and jelly for half of the grocery store price tags. Just be sure to check the nutrition facts and expiration dates!

One of my favorite items to look for at the dollar store is makeup, but this one requires more vigilance. The cheap products might do more harm than good, especially the ones containing SPF, which have a certain shelf life that may have passed by the time you find it. When you look for makeup (or really, most things) at Dollar Tree, it is important to not try any shortcuts. Stick to the name brands if you can find them — once, I got my hands on some Revlon and Maybelline, which was a dream come true.

It is true that with certain products like toilet paper and towels that you get what you pay for in terms of quality. However, the dollar store is great for items that you plan on using one time. For example, how many times as a college student will you be baking brownies? My answer to this question was just once, so buying a one-pack foil baking pan or even a three-pack for $5 was a smarter decision than investing in a long-term pan that I already have at home.

For items that you plan on using more than once, buying in bulk or buying name brands at your local Costco might be the way to go. And if you try your hand at extreme couponing, which, while sometimes too time-consuming and tedious to be reasonable, you might even be able to get those dollar store prices at a big grocery store. But that is an article for another day.

All in all, the dollar store is a good place to shop for fun project supplies, and although the quality may disappoint you, it can even serve you well in other shopping areas. You just have to use your judgment in terms of what makes sense to buy for a dollar or to splurge on for you and your lifestyle needs. The magic of the dollar store is in the thrill of the hunt: You never know what incredible goods you will find for a dollar’s value. The satisfaction that comes from these deals is inexplicable, and it is one that I hope all of you can experience.

Writer Profile

Esha Shah

New Jersey Institute of Technology
Biology

Esha is a biology major with plans to go to medical school. Writing allows her to make sense of the confusing and incredible world around her, ranging from neural regeneration to songwriting techniques.

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