An Ode to Dollar Stores

Well, today is looking to be a strange day already. The Amazingly Awesome Boyfriend make a great dinner last night, with enough leftovers for lunch….. for him. Not realizing this, I let myself sleep in a bit, figuring I could use what would be my meal prep time for a nap and some writing. Instead, I had to make a mad dash around the house, attempting to draw on my eyebrows and cook up some sesame garlic tofurkey for two days worth of lunches. As it stands, I’m still running behind today and will have absolutely no time tonight to write or relax. Letting myself sleep in took away the time I needed to get pretty much everything done today. No time to stretch, or write much, or chit-chat with mum while she’s at work. I had to clean the kitchen, but could only do a half-assed job because there’s just no time for a full scrub-sweep-mop-scrub like I want to do. It was either fully clean the kitchen, or have to shell out of lunches for the next two days because I’m working weird shifts that don’t give me much prep time at night.

Usually, I don’t mind shelling out for lunches from time to time. The little plaza I work in has a lot of variety now for take-out options. In addition to the Tim Horton’s and Wendy’s we’ve had there for ages, we have a great little Vietnamese-Japanese-Chinese fusion restaurant, a tabbouleh place, and a brand new burrito joint. The only problem is, to get to any of these places I have to walk past either the Bulk Barn or a dollar store. Having a Bulk Barn around is bad enough on my wallet. You can’t run in there for just a little snack. You get the craving for a chocolate bar, the next thing you know you have a bag of broken nut rolls and need some bigger pants. Running in for a snack for me means coming out with some stevia sodas, dehydrated snap peas, some quinoa crisps, and a little bag of gummy candies to split with the work fam. And that’s if I don’t stop to get stuff for soup! I could drop a small fortune in there making gift bags for my coworkers for every holiday, getting a variety of kinds of rice, soup bases, noodles, and vegan substitutes like nutritional yeast, which I buy even though I’m not vegan and I love cheese.

At least with the Bulk Barn, I know there’s only so much stuff I can use. I know that there’s no use in me buying another $7 worth of chocolate when I’m trying to eat healthy this week and already have three chocolate bars in my fridge. And I know that my cupboard can only hold so much pasta, so there’s no use on stocking up on bulk fusilli when the cupboard is packed with rigatoni already. I have limits when I go in there (to a point). Yes, I will usually pick up yet another can or two of stevia soda, or grab a Pez dispenser for a co-worker. But I won’t drop the big bucks there very often unless I’m grabbing something I really need.

At the dollar store, I don’t have that sense of control. I can walk right past the Bulk Barn with no problem, even when I have time to shop. It’s almost like I’m physically unable to do that with a dollar store. Usually during my shift, I’ll run to the dollar store with the sole intent to buy a bottle of pop. That’s it, one bottle of pop. In the 45 seconds it takes me to walk to the store from my store, I’ll have somehow convinced myself that I need a small snack too. Maybe a small bag of cheap chips, or a Kinder Egg (for my American readers, Kinder Eggs are hollow chocolate eggs with a little toy inside that are illegal to bring into America for some reason). Walking into the store, the first thing in my sight is the seasonal things. That’s where I start to go wrong.

I know that I don’t need any more Christmas decorations. I have a bag full of tiny (and not so tiny) hats for work. We have two decorated trees. I even have a bag of candy to make into treat bags for my co-workers. Still, I take a quick walk through the seasonal aisle just to see if there are any new treats there. Somehow, I find two or three things I convince myself I really really need.

To get to the food section, I need to walk through health and beauty. It seems like there’s always something new there to try, and I usually end up loving what I get there. I started getting makeup remover wipes there for $1.25, instead of the $9 face wash or the $11 wipes at the drug store. Their bath sponges are amazing and cheap enough to replace as often as I need to. Hell, I even started buying makeup there on a whim. For Halloween, I needed blue and green eyeshadow and found an eyeshadow pallet for $1.25. This is quite possibly the greatest eyeshadow pallet I’ve ever tried. It’s a little harder to blend than the pricey ones I saw at Sephora, but they freaking stay on all day! I just got back from a hellacious 8 1/2 hour shift and my eyeshadow hadn’t budged or creased at all! So I have to check there to see if they have any new eyeshadows….. or lip glosses……. or makeup sponges….. or dry shampoo…….. or anything else they can possibly come out with that catches my eye.

By this point, I either have my hands full or have half a basket full of things. This is before I even hit the food section! I’ll try to grab just a bag of chips or some crackers to munch on. Then I’ll find half a dozen things we probably need at home: Rice-A-Roni, Cup-A-Soup, mini pizza crusts, discount Triscuits, Pop Shoppe soda in the glass bottles. It’s almost like they’re reading my mind, trying to figure out the best impulse buys for me. Then it’s through the candy section to get to the soda pop I came in there for in the first place. On a rough or really busy day at work, I can usually grab two or three things here just to give to co-workers. It’s amazing what leaving a KitKat in a person’s locker can do for their moral.

By the time I finally grab my soda, I’m up at the cash right next to the real impulse buys. I don’t know why I feel like I need peanut butter date energy bars, or a back scratcher, or foam nunchucks for AAB, but they wind up on the belt at the cash.

There have been times I’ve gone in there for soda and a snack and left with three freaking bags of things. A big part of me loves it, finding such a great deal on things. Another part of me, the financially responsible part, hates it. Yes, it’s always good to stock up on essentials like face cleansing wipes and bubble gum. But do I really need yet another piece of Tupperware with little sections in it? Or more pens with fuzzy balls on the end that the ever playful Bowser Kitten will attack any time I try to write with them?

This is why I pack a lunch for work. Today, I didn’t leave the store once in that 8 1/2 hours I was there. I brought food, and a book, and my soda pop from yesterday that I barely touched, and hunkered down in the break room for my dinner and my breaks. I didn’t spend a dime all day once I got to work.

Still, I wonder if they got any new eyeshadows in that I could use…..

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Stocking Your Kitchen, Dollar Store Style

It was a joke in my house that I would finally be ready to move out once I had a good cheese grater. I tend to put cheese on  pretty much everything I can. So I figured that once I had that grater, I was good to go. I mean, of course there are other things that are important in a kitchen (like stuff to cook with or eat off of), but I was going to be sharing a house with other people. I’d probably never need to buy any of that stuff!

Oh, how very very wrong I was. While yes, I did have my trusty cheese grater,  I don’t own plates (long story there). I do have wine and Martini glasses, and some Batman cups, but no real drinking glasses. And sometimes, my roommates would be in the same boat as me. Many times in the last 7 years, my roommates and I ended up at the mall, standing in a kitchenware store. Now, this is one of my favourite store today (it has these cocktail shakers with drink recipes right on there, so I can pretend to be fancy and make a Martini), but it was terrifying back then. $25 cutting boards? $150 knife sets? $125 for an ugly dish set?!?! How the hell is a person supposed to afford to actually use their damn kitchen?

Dollar stores, that’s how!
Now, not everything you need for the kitchen can be found there. I mean, you’re not going to find a giant stand-up mixer and food processor there (that’s what kijiji and Facebook buy-sell groups are for). But there are a tonne of things I never thought to go looking for there, that are actually quite awesome, especially for those of us on very tight budgets.

Diningware

Plates, bowls, cutlery, things to drink out of……….. these things are pretty much essential to every kitchen. Most good dollar stores will have plates either for a dollar, or two for a dollar. Same goes for drinkware. Some places I’ve been to have had sets of cutlery for a dollar, meaning you can possibly get four of one thing (forks, knives, spoons) or one of each for that price. Getting a “dining set” (bowls, plates, cutlery, drinking glasses, all X4) can cost more than $100 in some stores. At a dollar store, you can get all of this for as little as $10.

And don’t forget those little extras. Many stores sell cheap steak knives, wine glasses, Martini glasses, fancy looking drinkware, and anything you can take on a picnic or use outdoors (ie, stuff that won’t break if you drop it, which is essential to have if you have random people using your stuff all the time). As a connoiseur of cheap and boxed wines, have a few wine glasses in the cupboard is an essential to me. I also like to have two martini glasses, for the odd martini or Cosmopolitan (there are some great pre-mixed virgin versions out there. Sometimes, while writing, I like to pour one and pretend I’m some fancy, pretentious writer whose penning what they believe is the next On The Road).

And yes, that non-breakable stuff IS essential. Do you ever plan on having friends over? Throw a small dinner party or BBQ? Don’t want to serve everything on paper plates? I keep about 10 blue plastic plates in the cupboard, for when we have guests here. They all match (so it looks like a real set), they’re sturdy, and if someone drops something there is no sharp glass or ceramic to clean up. These are also great when you have the one friend who is a spilly drunk (we all have one), and they insist on pre-gaming with you, or watching the Oscars with you, or helping you through a bad break-up. These are not the times when you need to be worrying about digging glass out of the soles of peoples’ feet. Having a non-breakable option that you can both use (as not to single them out or make them feel weird) is perfect for these times.

Cooking Basics

Why the hell anyone would ever spend $25 on a measuring cup is beyond me. I mean, it’s a cup that measures things. You can get measuring cups in all sizes at dollar stores. Same goes for measuring spoons. There are basic ones, some with pretty designs, and even some that are part of a larger set of kitchenware. For the last few years, I’ve been helping my parents collect the Betty Crocker collection from Dollarama (they have a thing for red appliances and utensils). They have every size and shape of spatula, mixing spoon, ladle, and those weird slotted spoon things with tines on the side that you use to serve spaghetti.

Need a can opener? Dollar store! Vegetable peeler? Dollar store! One of those screens you put over a pan so you can cook bacon without grease flying everywhere? Dollar store! Just in the last year I’ve bought strainers, knives, canisters, large serving bowls, mixing bowls, and tupperware there. Like to bake? They have baking accessories too!

And for those of you who like to make holiday-specific foods, this place is amazing for that. For Valentines Day, they bust out the heart shape baking pans and cupcake pans. Christmas time is great for cookie cutters and cake pans. And every single holiday somehow has cupcake wrappers and little toothpick things to decorate them with. Why spend a small fortune at some craft store getting baking supplies when you can get them for a fraction of the price at the dollar store. This is also a huge help to anyone who ever gets roped in to doing the obligatory bake sale fundraisers in your school’s student centres.

Groceries

I have a thing for rice crackers. No clue why, they’re just amazing to me. But they’re like $3.50 a package at the nearest grocery store. They’re only $1 at the dollar store next to my work though. And it’s not just snack foods they have there. I’ll pick up canned goods, boxed meals (like off-brand tuna helper or hamburger helper), macaroni and cheese, and even Rice-a-Roni. A can of peas, can of corn, some boxed tuna casserole, a can of tuna……. less than $5 gets you the basics for a meal (just add milk to make the boxed meal). It may not always be the healthiest meals you can make, but you can feed yourself on dollar store groceries.

You don’t have to feed yourself entirely on dollar store foods, but their groceries can seriously help stretch you budget. There are three dollar stores within a short walk of my house (well, discount stores, but most things are around $1. Hell, even Dollarama doesn’t sell everything for $1 these days!). At one, I can load up on cheap spices, boxed meals, and rice crackers. Another has a great canned good section, and cheap candy (I like to keep emergency chocolate bars in the freezer). And the little family owned place near campus is great for a very diverse selection of boxed foods and spices. The owners are from Bangladesh, and like to keep affordable Asian foods on their shelves for students. I can get tandoori spice, powdered chow mein mix, canned hummus, and a whole line of Indian-inspired boxed rice and noodle mixes.

Of course, you should always compare prices before settling on dollar store foods. While the stores near me can’t be beat when it comes to mac’n’cheese and canned mushrooms, bread and noodle mixed (like Sidekicks) are sometimes cheaper at the grocery store just down the plaza.

In The End

Are there things you can’t get at the dollar store that you will need for a kitchen. Definitely. Most of them can be found at discount stores, liquidation stores, or online (try sites like Kijiji, or search for buy and sell groups in your area on Facebook).  Toasters, coffee pots, microwaves, toaster ovens, and any other small appliances can always be bought on sale somewhere. But for the bulk of your kitchen, you can get what you need for very little money.

Now, at times you may need to get a little creative in your buying and usages. You may wind up with mismatched place settings, or a set of serving bowls all in neon orange plastic. But, you can also get creative with your cooking. You can take regular recipes and switch out ingredients for cheaper ones sometimes. And expensive looking chicken dish could actually be made with clearance and discount products. I do this quite regularly, and hope to teach you some of my favourite swaps. Also, while I try things out, I may take you along on my culinary experiments to see how things work out for me. (Warning: it doesn’t always work out well. That’s why they’re just experiments and not masterpieces.)