photo by byrdiegyrl

Growing up, I never shopped at dollar stores. There weren't any in my area yet. I was old enough to shop at Woolworth's five-and-dime before they closed their doors, so I was aware of variety stores that carried discounted merchandise. However, I wasn't quite old enough to be a savvy shopper who scoped out deals. Fast forward to adulthood, and dollar stores are cropping up everywhere.

There are too many stores to choose from, and it's tough to know where the best deals can be found. Some people have strong convictions on buying from discount stores. In the era of $5 milk and $50 visits to the pump, I'll stretch my money the best I can.

While not everything at dollar stores costs only a dollar, items are often much cheaper than at standard retail stores. Add on the discount from the stores that accept coupons, and I'd be stupid not to shop there. Just remember that dollars add up quickly, so avoid filling your cart with things simply because they're cheap.

PARTY SUPPLIES: While staples such as paper plates and napkins aren't necessarily cheaper, you can find favors, toys, candy and decorations for less. For those who like to give goodie bags, many have gender-specific grab bags ready to go. Get your gift wrap, gift bags, decorative tins, batteries, tablecloths and Mylar balloons, too.

BOOKS: They have a large variety of titles such as cookbooks, coloring, puzzle, painting and activity books, to name a few. Some of the best deals are on their hardcover books.

CRAFTS: If you have a budding artist in the house or are looking for cheap supplies for yourself, they carry low-cost craft items such yarn, chenille stems, pom-poms, craft foamies, felt, chalk, glue, scrapbook supplies, ribbon and paint. If you want to decorate with handmade crafts, they have silk flowers, wreaths and candles, too.

HAIR ACCESSORIES: Few places have cheaper prices on barrettes, bows, clips, hairbrushes and combs.

TEACHING SUPPLIES: While pens, pencils and crayons can often be found cheaper elsewhere, you'll find great prices on items such as stickers, flash cards, workbooks, scissors, construction paper, learning place mats, poster board and certificates.

STATIONERY: Greeting cards are often two for $1. I don't suggest their cards for all occasions, but they're adequate for most. You'll also find pretty notepads, journals and address books.

KITCHEN PRODUCTS: If you know someone moving into his or her first apartment, you'll find less costly cooking utensils, plastic storage containers, dish soap, spices, measuring cups, dishes and mugs. You'll also find name-brand cleaning supplies. Stock up on snacks, too.

GARDEN SUPPLIES: While some gardeners prefer to buy their seeds elsewhere, you can find seed packets that are satisfactory and make great gifts. You can also find garden tools that are perfect for kids.

Shower-curtain liners are much cheaper than at most stores. You'll also find soap, shower gels, bubble bath, toothbrushes, shampoos, bath poofs, loofahs and lotions at bargain prices.

MAILING MATERIAL: Get your packing tape, bubble mailers and envelopes for a substantial savings.