Money-Savin’ Mama: Dollar stores can stretch family budget

What are your favorite dollar store purchases?  Leave a comment with the hits or misses …

My newfound obsession with dollar stores started with spices. I’d run in to a fellow frugal friend while grocery shopping. She mentioned she was going to a nearby dollar store to get a few different spices, the final items on her list.

Spices for a dollar? Genius, I thought. My husband had started making his own barbecue rub, which had depleted my spice cupboard.

I started to realize other treasures could be found at these most-discounted of discount stores, especially for special occasions.

I hit them up for my son’s birthday party supplies this summer, and again in October for daughter Eve’s princess costume accessories, as well as a wedding greeting card and gift wrap. Now that December has rolled around, it’s looking a lot like Christmas, all for a dollar.

This week I picked up a fresh roll of holiday gift wrap, plus scissors and a two-pack of Scotch tape, each for a dollar. I found some stocking stuffers for the kids, and even my husband’s Christmas present for $4. (Shh … don’t tell.)

I took note of the Christmas cards, candy, stockings and ornaments. Here were items I often look for after the holidays on clearance, at clearance prices already.

I also grabbed a box of crackers for my daughter’s preschool snack stash and some kid 2-in-1 shampoo. I was tempted by some funky nail polish and glitter glue for crafting.

On past trips I’ve purchased cleaning supplies, groceries and baby wipes. I’ve noticed a wide selection of kitchen utensils and linens, plastic storage containers, school supplies and home décor items like picture frames. Eve and I will be heading to the dollar again soon to pick out a prize for reading 10 books by herself.

The Fargo-Moorhead metro is home to several dollar store options. Dollar Tree, in Fargo and Dilworth, is a true dollar store in my mind, as everything there actually is a dollar. Loopy’s in Moorhead boasts $1 and $2 deals, as well as other discounted merchandise. Family Dollar, which has three local stores, carries items at a variety of price points.

Here’s the (non-spice) rub, though: Not everything at a dollar store is a good deal.

Often, the cleaning product or food containers are smaller, so the per-ounce price may be bigger than you’d pay at a grocery or big box store. Pay attention and know your prices.

Quality can also be an issue. The glow-in-the-dark wand I bought Eve for  Halloween didn’t glow, and actually started leaking when I cracked it a bit too enthusiastically.

It can also be easy to overspend at a dollar store. “It’s only a dollar,” you think, throwing something else in the cart. Those dollars add up quickly. Know what you want to get when you walk in the door, and limit impulse purchases.

But adding a trip to your favorite dollar store this month may help “buck” holiday overspending.

Sherri Richards is a reporter for The Forum and thrifty mom of two. She can be reached at and blogs at


Money-Savin’ Mama: Taking on Sam’s/Costco comparison

In today’s Money-Savin’ Mama column, I compare the two warehouse giants. I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below: Costco or Sam’s and why?

It’s a question being posed by the frugal all around Fargo: Costco or Sam’s Club?

Now with two membership warehouse clubs in town to choose from, I wondered myself if it was worth making a switch.

We’ve been members of Sam’s Club for years, and admittedly haven’t always used it enough to make the membership fee pay for itself. But we have found several bulk staples that save money per item or ounce.

It took some research. Not everything in bulk is a good buy.

That said, many of my friends rave about Costco. A quick Google search reveals many Sam’s Club vs. Costco comparisons with no decisive winner. So last weekend, with the new competition’s doors swung wide open, I decided to do my own mini comparison.

I grabbed my shopping list and headed to Sam’s, picking up nine items I needed. Then I drove to Costco to compare prices. I was welcome to wander around the store without a membership card but couldn’t buy anything.

Immediately, I was struck by how similar the two stores felt. There were the familiar fancy flat-screen TVs facing me when I walked in. Towering shelves lined the outside of the store while low tables piled high with clothing filled the center. Food samples were being handed out in several aisles and near the registers, a deli counter sold pizza by the slice.

The similarities extended to the prices.

A gallon of whole milk was $3.57 and skim $3.22 at both stores. The exact same 250-count box of dryer sheets was the exact same price ($7.88) at both stores, too.

A fresh pineapple was 6 cents more at Costco ($2.73 vs. $2.79). A 48-count package of string cheese was 19 cents cheaper at Costco than Sam’s ($8.98 vs. $8.79).

The rest of my comparisons had to be done on per item or per ounce basis. I’d bought a 20-count box of Fiber One bars at Sam’s for $6.22. A 36-count box of the same bars was $11.79 at Costco. Doing the math, the fiber bars were roughly 2 cents cheaper each at Sam’s, even though they came in a smaller box.

Comparing bags of chocolate Halloween candy, I found each store sold the bags for about 17 cents per ounce, but again, I was able to get that price on a smaller bag at Sam’s.

A 50-pound bag of Tidy Cat kitty litter was $8.68 at Sam’s compared to a 40-pound bag of Fresh Step for $10.69 at Costco.

I had the hardest time comparing the salsa. To get the medium spiciness we like, I had to buy an 8 pound, 10 ounce jug at Sam’s for $8.78. At Costco, I would have bought a two-pack of 38-ounce jars of organic salsa for $7.49. While the per ounce comparison favors Sam’s (6 cents vs. nearly 10 cents), I honestly would have preferred to buy two smaller jars, and I expect organic food to be more expensive.

I realized my comparison may not have been totally fair. After all, I was starting with items I knew to be a good price at Sam’s. So on Monday, I went back to Costco with my family, to see what treasures the store may have for us.

Costco has a far greater selection of toys than Sam’s. It also carries shoes and boots, including a pair of leather knee-highs I would have loved to take home. A mineral makeup kit for only $20 also caught my eye. On Sunday, I saw packages of gift cards at Costco priced 25 to 50 percent off face value.

My husband was tempted by a pack of sirloin steaks at a good price, and also pointed out bags of oranges and apples at just over a buck a pound. I noticed pop was cheaper at Costco than Sam’s.

So am I going to switch after touring the new store twice? No. There just wasn’t enough there to woo us, especially considering Costco’s annual membership is more expensive than Sam’s Club, $55 versus $40 for individuals.

Does that mean Sam’s is the right choice for you? Absolutely not. You have to look at what products you purchase and use to figure out whether Sam’s or Costco, or buying in bulk period, is a good value. Also consider the location and convenience of each store.

Some people may be wooed by Costco’s $110 executive membership, which rewards shoppers with a 2 percent return on purchases. Realize you’d need to spend $2,750 there each year to recoup the increased membership cost.

That’s a lotta bulk.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum.

A new dress in the (paper) bag

Money Savin’ Mama isn’t necessarily known for her fashion sense. But she sure has fashion cents. Check out the outfit I’ll be wearing to a formal dinner during homecoming at my Alma mater, the University of North Dakota, this weekend.

New sparkly dress and shoes

The shoes are, if I may say, fabulous. And the price was pretty fabulous, too, at 80 percent off. I paid $14 for them at JCPenney.

Hiiiiiigh heels

But the dress was the real steal. Because it literally cost me spare change. I bought it during the last bag sale at the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Store in south Fargo.

Twice a year, each of the four area Boys Ranch stores holds a bag sale, on four consecutive Saturdays (usually in January/February and July/August). Customers fill a grocery-size paper bag with all the clothes and shoes that will fit and pay only $4 per bag. It’s a great way to buy lots of kids’ clothes for cheap, because kids’ clothes don’t take up much space in the bag. But it’s also worth picking up a few things for yourself, for what ends up being pennies (OK, dimes) per item.

Here’s why: The racks often contains brand new clothing items, most recently seen in Target stores. I’ve actually gotten items there that I’ve later seen still at a Target.

Sure, there are also lots of great gently used items on the racks, too, that are worth stuffing in your brown bag. But the new items are more likely to be in excellent condition and in fashion. Plus, well, they’re new.

How can you tell if it’s a new item? There are generally two clues. First, there will be several of the same shirt or pants or pair of shoes, which isn’t usually the case with used items. Second, you can tell by the tag. It will feature the name of a common Target brand (Merona, Mossimo and Liz Lange maternity are a few examples) with a black marker line through it. I’m not 100 percent certain why they do this, but I’m guessing it’s so people can’t return the donated clothing to the original store.

Black marker line through Target brand

If an item doesn’t end up fitting right, or I decide later isn’t my style, I re-donate it. But that’s usually the exception. I just counted no fewer than 12 bag sale finds in my closet that I wear on a regular basis. I’ve also found a few polo shirts for my husband, and lots of clothes for my kids, including winter coats.

A warning: Bag Sale Day is not for the faint of heart. The crowds are a bit overwhelming, especially when the store first opens at 9 a.m. It’s considerably less busy in the afternoon, but the inventory is smaller. For those who choose not to brown bag it, each store prices all its clothes and shoes at 50 percent off the week leading up to its bag sale.

Either way it makes good fashion sense, and cents.