When a friend recently polled my Pilates classmates about how to afford two graduation parties for her daughter, the answer was a unanimous “the dollar store.” Selling everything from ketchup to charcoal grills, the ubiquitous dollar store attracts shoppers of all ages and income levels.

“Chains such as Dollar Tree and Family Dollar (both owned by Dollar Tree), Dollar General, 99 Cents Only Stores and Five Below have become large corporations with enormous buying power,” says Diane McCrohan, associate professor in the College of Business at Johnson & Wales University.

A changed selection

Once seen as dumping grounds for liquidated and off-brand merchandise, today’s dollar stores often buy their inventory from major manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble, Hanes, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Energizer, Crayola and General Mills.

“I’m amazed by the dollar store near me in East Greenwich, Rhode Island,” adds McCrohan. “Not only is it up-to-date and relevant to the consumer, but the visual merchandising and displays are as good as any larger retailer. Customers can feel safe shopping them.”

But should you? Critics point out that dollar stores aren’t always good for communities, especially in urban centers with few retail options. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, dollar stores take a toll on grocery stores and in many cases reduce people’s access to fresh food. That’s because few carry fresh produce and most offer a limited selection of processed food. In fact, some cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, have imposed restrictions on new stores.

$1 isn’t always the best price

And you won’t necessarily get the lowest price there. “In general, dollar stores provide great value,” says Meaghan Brophy, a senior retail analyst who follows dollar-store trends for FitSmallBusiness.com. “But as many items are custom-made in smaller sizes by manufacturers for dollar stores, shoppers need to compare the price against weight, length and size.”

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That box of aluminum foil might look identical to those on grocery store shelves but may be only 18 square feet instead of 55. And a $1 can of green beans could sell for 88 cents at the supermarket down the street.

Pricing is another variable. Everything still costs $1 at Dollar Tree and 99 cents at 99 Cents Only, but prices vary at others. A recent Dollar General ad touted an 80-cent bottle of Gatorade and a $14 charcoal grill. Plus you’ll find many independently owned dollar stores that stock their shelves with closeout merchandise purchased from liquidators or who knows where.

Janet Alvarez, executive editor of Wise Bread, a personal finance website, points out that you may get a better deal at your local grocery store with sales, loyalty programs and coupons. “Dollar stores are extremely convenient one-stop shopping, but if you have the time, it pays to compare prices and go where you get the best deal,” she says.

I agree. Though I’m a fan of dollar stores and shop them regularly, I always go in with a specific list and budget in mind, which helps allay any impulse buys. And I pay attention to product size, even if I have to pull out my calculator and do some math, to ensure that I’m getting the most for my money.

What to buy (and what to skip)

Here are the aisles to peruse (and bypass) at your favorite dollar store.

Paper goods

Greeting cards, gift wrap, paper plates, tablecloths, streamers and party supplies are among the best dollar-store deals. The quality may not be as high, but the difference is barely noticeable — and probably won’t matter — for disposable items that get tossed after one use, Brophy says. Recently, I noticed my neighborhood Dollar Tree is selling Hallmark greeting cards two for $1. And I refuse to pay $3.99 for a gift bag when I can pick up three for $1.

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Plastic products

Stock up on disposable plates, cups and utensils and other one-time-use items for a party or picnic. Alvarez likes hair clips and barrettes. Plastic containers for organizing or storing items are also a good buy. Just realize that a low price may mean thinner plastic, so it may not be as durable.

Travel-size toiletries

Name-brand, travel-size toiletries that you can bring in your carry-on luggage are typically a better deal than at major retailers and drugstores.

Eyeglasses

Every time my dad flies in from Houston, we have to head to a dollar store for a pair of sunglasses, as his are still sitting on his car’s dashboard at the airport parking lot. Just be sure any sunglasses you buy indicate they provide UV protection. You may not want to use them long-term, but in a pinch, they’re fine. And, for those of us who always misplace our reading glasses, it doesn’t hurt so much to lose a pair or two when they came from a dollar store.

Home goods

Look for picture frames, craft supplies and glassware. “I actually have a flower vase I bought 10 years ago at a dollar store and still use,” Brophy says.

Pregnancy tests

Surprise! According to McCrohan, home pregnancy tests are one of the top sellers at dollar stores. The FDA regulates home pregnancy tests, so if you buy one from a name-brand dollar store, you can feel confident it’s legit. More expensive ones may be easier to use or show results faster, but dollar store kits will do the same job.

Toys

This is one time when cheap may truly mean “cheap.” Many dollar store toys carry no brand name. They break easily, may have small parts that can pose a choking hazard and don’t last. Some dollar stores may not receive notifications of recalls. Coloring books and cardboard puzzles are OK, but you really don’t want your kids to have meltdowns when their yo-yos become a tangled mess after three spins.

Anything with a plug

Off-brand electronics can be risky purchases, as their supply chains are not as consistent as the name brands you find at other retailers. Power strips and chargers are likely to be cheaply made and could damage your devices.

Batteries and battery-operated items

Unless the package carries a brand name, batteries are a risky buy. They may have been around a long time and/or are prone to leakage.

Sunscreen

Don’t get burned twice. If expiration dates are short-lived, leave it on the shelf. Ingredients in sunscreen really do have an expiration date, and although expired sunscreen isn’t going to hurt you, it may not be as effective.

Pet food

Water bowls and pet toys are fine, but all of the experts agreed that pet food is on their “avoid” list. Pet food may be closer to its expiration date, off-label or made offshore.

Health and beauty products

The general rule is if you are going to ingest it or put it on your skin, be extra cautious. Off-brand products may contain harsher ingredients or be watered down (such as shampoo and conditioner) to keep costs low. Check expiration dates, as well as price per ounce, to ensure you are actually getting a deal.

Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies.