May 07, 2019

Bang for Your Buck

By Elinor Blankenship | 

My name is Elinor and I am addicted… to the Dollar Tree.

No, but really, since the first one opened in my hometown, I have been fascinated by the concept of a store where anything only costs a dollar.  When I started my career in afterschool, this turned out to be a valuable resource, because not only was my own wallet much smaller than I’d hoped, but my programs’ budgets weren’t looking much better.  So, after years of collecting tips and tricks of smart shopping, I have decided to share some of my secrets.

Photo: https://www.freestufffinder.com/dollar-tree-weekly-freebies-deals/ 

**DISCLAIMER:  If you receive grant funding, vendors such as the Dollar Tree may not be approved!  Always be aware of your funding restrictions before shopping.**

I know what you’re thinking, “Elinor, the Dollar Tree is sooooo cheap and everything from there looks like it.  We are trying to be professionals here.” Yes, that is a natural consequence of going to a store where everything costs $1, but not everything there is as cheap as it appears.

Things to grab: 

Here are some of my go-to program supplies from the Happiest Cheap-Place on Earth.

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  • The classroom section.  It is definitely hit or miss, but classroom decorations, educational tools/games, and stickers are always worth stopping by here.  The office aisle also has some great options like posterboard and notebook paper.
  • Seasonal items!  Planning an end of year Water Olympics?  Need pool noodles for a jousting club? You never know what you will find in the seasonal aisle.  It is great to decorate your space and get festive. My campers once spent a summer obsessed with finding and studying bugs and these bug kits were a lifesaver (and are currently in season at local stores)!
  • Door Prizes/Gift Baskets.  Dollar Tree’s basket selection is amazing for organizing your space with colorful bins!  But, my favorite way to encourage families to stay for Family Night was always a raffle. We snagged a popcorn bin, snacks and a Redbox gift card for a fantastic looking, but also super inexpensive, giveaway.
  • Aluminum Foil and Makerspace.  When you are doing STEM you can go through so many materials so quickly.  A must-have item was always the aluminum foil with the most square footage available.  You don’t want to use it to try and cook with, but if you are making an aluminum foil river for boats to float down, this is just fine.  Another great stop is the cooking aisle for things like measuring cups and mixing spoons.
  • Prizes. You can never have too many incentives.  Dollar Tree has a great variety, Birthday Party favors that are 10-25 cents a piece, or even bigger prizes from the toy section.  There are so many treasures to find! 

Things to avoid:  

I’ve tested and tried so many things that it probably isn’t healthy, but now you can benefit from my informal studies!

  • Some craft supplies.  You really have to watch what you are buying.  Pipe cleaners, for example, are usually 98 cents at Walmart and are of better quality.  I have never had a good experience with Dollar Tree gluesticks either, which is frustrating for the kids and the staff.
  • Hula Hoops.  If kids are going to use these, you don’t want Dollar Tree ones.  They will last 5 minutes max. Run away. No amount of duct tape can save you or them.
  • Toys.  Most of the toys also have a really short life span.  If you are getting something like a card game, that is solid (they’ve had some great Physical Activity sets lately), but things like dolls and play-dough aren’t worth the money.
  • Cleaning Supplies.  These can sometimes be great (the fake Magic Erasers) or sometimes be horribly wrong (the plungers and Clorox wipes).

AND, did you know that Dollar Tree has a website!?!?  At www.dollartree.com you can order items by the case (Hello classroom set of chalkboards!) and they have a blog with classroom ideas.

I could talk all day of my love for the Dollar Tree, so feel free to contact me with any questions!  But now I have to change gears and mention a few more stores for items that the Dollar Tree may not have in stock.

Non-Dollar-Tree Honorable mentions:

  • Thrift stores.  The one item that immediately comes to mind is their selection of used magazines for art projects.  You can also find furniture, board games and more if you are willing to go hunting.
  • NPS.  I’m going to share one of Salt Lake City’s best-kept secrets… (and I heard rumors of a store in Orem opening up) It is an amazing place with fantastic deals.  This is how they describe themselves “The NPS Store located on 1600 Empire Road in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a bargain hunter’s paradise with great deals to be found on grocery, clothing, housewares, electronics, and collectibles 6 days a week. Across the street is the NPS Industrial Store where you can find great deals on sporting goods, furniture, hardware and tools..” Basically, it is things from liquidation sales and damaged freight shipments.  You never know what will be there, but be prepared; you could get lost for the entire day!  www.npsstore.com
  • Ikea.  Oh, Ikea and your furniture that is basically Legos for grown-ups.  The Utah location is in Draper, but they have online shopping available (www.ikea.com).  Know that Ikea furniture is not what you want children to be climbing all over; it won’t stand up for commercial use.  For offices and storage, however, they have great organization systems available. They also have a fun selection of toys and decorations that could be a worthy addition to any program.  Here are some pictures from my recent trip. (Fun lights, a paper roll/holder, Storage shelves, a math game, a rug with a map, a swing and bucket storage)

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All in all, when it comes to shopping in Afterschool, don’t be afraid to be frugal, and you will definitely want to get creative.  If you can’t figure out what to do with an item, let the kids explore and create.  That’s how we powered through a case of 1,000 plastic lids that was given to us once.  We made ornaments, shakers, frisbees, used them as plates, anything and everything to use them up.  When working in a tight budget, always look for items to repurpose or for things that can be very useful for very little money.  

Happy shopping!

Elinor Blankenship is an Out-of-School Time Specialist at the Utah Afterschool Network. When she's not at the Dollar Tree or visiting programs, you can find her directing a musical or expressing herself through balloon artistry.

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