The moment I learned that dollar stores aren’t a good deal

Dollar StorePhoto courtesy of Alan Levine

In 2003, I was living in New York City, working a retail job where I made around $13 an hour. (That’s a $26,000 salary equivalent.) My rent was $675, which meant that I was spending 50% of my take home pay just to live and keep the lights on.

It wasn’t quite “result misery”, as Wilkins Micawber might have put it, but let’s face it, it was kind of dire.

This was a time in my life where the quality of the food I ate wasn’t nearly as important to me as the price. Even if I had cared, I wouldn’t have been able to care; I just didn’t have the money. A typical meal I ate was reheated frozen chicken nuggets on toast with ketchup.

Oh, those were the days.

As you can imagine, I was looking for food deals anywhere I could find them. This is not an easy thing in NYC, I might add. I recall buying three days worth of groceries at a local Gristede’s on a previous visit there, and it cost $65. In 2003 dollars. Ouch.

The dollar store

One day, while on a walk nearby my new place of employment, I spotted a large store called “Jack’s 99 Cents”. It was a dollar store, or rather a dollar superstore.

Jack's 99 Cents

Jack’s 99 Cents. It’s still there, and appears to be thriving.

Now, let me admit my privilege here. I had never been into a dollar store before. A place I worked at in college was replaced by a dollar store, but they weren’t a part of my orbit.

But now, in my first, non-dorm-room experience living away from home, the dollar store immediately called to me. I could buy things for a dollar! I could buy food for a dollar!

The burrito

I specifically remember wandering back to the freezer area and spying a box of Amy’s Burritos.

Amy's Burrito

aka the “cannonball”

I remember being really excited. Dollar burritos!? That was a whole meal! A dollar for a meal! Now that was a price I could get behind.

So I bought a few, and enjoyed my microwaved gut bombs. (I joke, but gut bomb was a good thing when feeling full for low dollars was important.)

I never did start doing most of my food shopping at Jack’s. I lived in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, so this store wasn’t really all that convenient for me. And plus it wasn’t exactly a full grocery store. I sort of filed the idea away in my head and moved on.

More burritos

Fast forward a few years later. My financial situation was slightly less dire, and I was able to shop at slightly less sketchy grocery stores. (I will not miss you, Pathmark.)

I don’t recall what store I was in. It might have been Costco (where I had gone in on a membership with my roommate), but I can’t confirm. Maybe it was online.

But it was the exact same burrito in a multipack. And the per-unit cost was less than it had cost to buy them individually.

Ohhhhhhhhhh. I get it.

The crux

This is how people with low incomes can get screwed. Without enough disposable income to save up enough to buy things in bulk (or lacking the wherewithal to know to do that) people make short-term decisions that seem like a smart and frugal choice, but in the long term end up leaving them with less money.

This is a systematic, structural problem, and I don’t have any answers to that here, obviously. (Well, aside from improving the safety net by providing more access to affordable healthcare and maybe even providing a basic income, so people have more food security, but I’m a kidder.)

Some may not have the money to be able to make different choices. But some of you can. And if we are armed with the knowledge that we might make better choices if we think more long-term, then it might allow us to buy in such a way that we take advantage of better deals.

I’m not saying that dollar stores are all bad. I’m just saying that sometimes, the short-term deal that seems cheap, is, over the long-term, not so much.

But enough about me. Do you shop at dollar stores?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey
Posted on May 15, 2017