I'll admit it. I shop at the dollar stores. I know that when some of you think of dollar stores, you think dirty, cheap junk.
I used to be one of you, so don't judge.
Dollar stores have gotten a bad rap over the years, and they definitely carry their fair share of junk.
But, if you look around, you'll find all kinds of bargains on name-brand stuff, even groceries.
They can be a gold mine for craft items, coloring books and educational supplies like flash cards, workbooks and puzzle books.
My son loves to draw and practice his letters - usually in my sketch books - so when I make a trip to the dollar store, I grab sketchbooks and tablets of handwriting practice paper.
One of the biggest surprises to me was the produce at the 99 Cents Only Store. It's good and fresh, especially on stock days.
My favorite find is grape tomatoes for only 99 cents. They're usually about $4 for the same size container at the grocery store.
One-pound bags of salad greens, bushels of asparagus, cactus leaves and portabello mushrooms can also be found for 99 cents.
Another surprise is the dairy and deli case, where you can get milk, soy milk, packages of lunch meat, chorizo, hot dogs and cheese.
So how do they sell these items so cheaply?
Kenneth Olen, manager at the 99 Cents Only store at Golf Links and Kolb, said their buyers purchase entire lots in order to stock all 360 stores, so they get each item for less than a dollar.
They mark it up to 99 cents. We get it for cheap, and they make a profit.
Even with the great prices, there are things I wouldn't get at the dollar store - like brake fluid, hair dye or condoms. They may be fine, but with some things I'm just nervous about taking a chance on their shelf-life or quality.
That being said, dollar stores have evolved over the years and can be a great resource for stretching your budget.
Look at unit prices. Some items come in smaller packages, which means you could actually be paying more. Also, some items like canned goods, bottled water, and Comet can be purchased at other stores for less.
Consumer Reports suggests you be wary of electronic products without UL labels, which vouch for their safety.
Check expiration dates on food items (I do this at regular stores, too).
Get the freshest produce at the 99 Cents Only Stores Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays when the shipments come in.
The toys are cheaply made. Make sure they're not broken.
Check store websites for recalled products.
Foil and trash bags: The foil is so thin it tears when trying to unroll it. Ditto the trash bags.
Batteries: They don't last very long.
Washcloths: Too thin and rough to use for the shower, and fall apart quickly.
Crayons: They're too waxy and the colors are dull. My 5-year-old didn't even like them.
Dustpans: Every time I've tried one from the dollar store, it ended up warped or broken.
Cotton swabs: They bend and don't have enough cotton to swab anything. Ouch!
Hair dye: Dollar store hair dye frightens me.
Off-brand vitamins: According to Consumerreports.org, some don't have the amounts of nutrients listed.
Brake fluid: Maybe it's fine, but my gut just won't let me try it.
Gifting needs: wrapping paper, gift bags, tissue paper and greeting cards.
Party supplies: colored paper plates, cups, plastic utensils, plastic serving dishes, helium- filled mylar balloons and balloon weights.
Cleaning supplies: sponges, scrub brushes, cleansers, etc.
Seasonal items: decorations.
Educational: flash cards, puzzle books, writing paper, sketch books.
Food: produce, snack foods, spices.
Toiletries: kids shampoo and cosmetic cotton rounds.
Craft stuff: googley eyes, floral foam, vases and pebbles.
Kitchen: Aluminum pans for potlucks, dishes, utensils and plastic food storage containers.
Sometimes you get a great deal at the dollar stores; other times, not so much. Here are a few comparisons I made one day last week.
10 oz. Palmolive original dish soap: $0.99 at Dollar Tree; $1.69 at Fry's.
Kleenex, 100 count: $0.99 at Dollar Tree; 110 count $0.97 for store brand at Fry's.
6 oz. Ultrabrite toothpaste: $0.99 at Dollar Tree; $1.79 at Fry's.
80 count package of cosmetic rounds: $0.99 at Dollar Tree; $2.99 at Fry's.
5 oz. Soft Soap hand soap: $0.99 at Dollar Tree and Fry's.
Cauliflower: $0.99 a head at the 99 Cents Only Store; $1.29 lb. at Fry's ($0.99 lb. with VIP card.)
Asparagus: $0.99 for a bushel at 99 Cents Only Store; $4.99 lb. at Fry's.
Gallon of water: $0.99 at Dollar Tree; $0.89 for store brand at Fry's.
I tested out a couple of dollar store items for this column, and was pleased with the results.
L.A.'s Totally Awesome Drain Opener: Unclogged the bathtub drain for a buck, compared to name brands for $4 or more.
Scrub-It Quick Eraser: These are awesome. Just as good as Mr. Clean's, but for a dollar, compared to $2.39.
Star reporter Angela Pittenger, our "Centsible Mom," shares tips, ideas and news about how Tucson consumers can find value and stretch their budgets. Send suggestions, ideas or questions to her at email@example.com or 573-4137.