Ask Wirecutter, an advice column written by Annemarie Conte, explores the best approaches to buying, using, and maintaining stuff. Email your biggest product-related problems to [email protected]
My mom loves to shop at the dollar store, which she thinks is a great value. But the stuff she brings home is poor quality and eventually ends up getting tossed in a landfill. What common household items do you recommend she spends a bit more on, and how do I convince her to do that?
I once had my lovingly baked banana bread hit the floor due to someone else’s flimsy dollar-store cake carrier (apparently the handle and latches were just for show), so … never again.
While Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, 99 Cents Only, and the other stores that sell everything from toothpaste to instant macaroni for (about) a buck certainly help those on a budget or fixed income, critics say these purveyors of cheap goods are bad for the workers, the environment, and the local community. If you have the means, spending a few extra bucks on sturdier, longer-lasting items is often better in the long run, and it has the added benefit of reducing waste over time.
I have relatives who love the dollar store, but I work for Wirecutter, where our experts on staff test thousands of products a year to ensure that we’re recommending items that are high quality and have great value.
You asked how to convince your mom to stop buying poor-quality goods. In my experience as a Wirecutter evangelist, I’ve found a few tacks to be helpful when trying to nudge those around me toward higher-quality items that will serve them better in the long term.
1. Give the gift of high-quality merch. I am a one-person gift guide of Wirecutter picks, so my friends and family don’t need to seek out cheap replacements. Happy birthday! Here’s an excellent meat thermometer. Merry Christmas! Swim goggles that actually fit. And nothing says happy 30th anniversary like a new nonstick pan to replace the now-scratched one you got as an OG wedding gift. By gifting well-made items, you may slowly but surely convince a dollar-store loyalist that the greatest long-term value often isn’t in the cheapest item.
2. Gently point out the potential safety issues. Using poorly made kitchen tools can land you in the ER with cuts, burns, or worse. And if things like surge protectors and charging cables don’t have the necessary safety features to protect your expensive electronics, you’ll end up spending much more to replace your fried phone or computer.
3. Suggest alternatives. Thrift shops, garage sales, and online buy-nothing groups are often a better way to get sturdy goods for 90% (or more) off the regular list price. I just got my mom a new-to-her, Wirecutter-pick cake pan for $2 at a rummage sale.
Seven things you should skip at the dollar store
Many common household items yield a major uptick in the quality of your daily experience without being prohibitively expensive. Here are a smattering of Wirecutter picks that might cost more upfront but take proverbial victory laps around their two-bit doppelgängers.
Homwe Extra Long Professional Silicone Oven Mitt
In addition to being heatproof, the silicone exterior of this oven mitt has a good grip, and it is easy to maneuver and water resistant. The polyester-cotton lining adds extra protection and comfort.
Grabbing a pot off the stove with a cheap, poorly made oven mitt is definitely one mistake you won’t make twice. The Homwe oven mitts offer the best combination of heat protection and dexterity among the 50 mitts we researched, and their extra length protects more of your forearm than the average mitt. If their style doesn’t appeal to you, we have a few other good options in our guide to the best oven mitts and pot holders.
Box grater and vegetable peeler
Hear me out: The Cuisipro box grater is not cheap, but it beat out 34 other box graters to rank as our top pick in our guide to the best grater. Its etched holes are notably sharper than the stamped holes on any cheap grater, and it comes with a 25-year warranty. In the kitchen, dull objects are dangerous objects since it’s easy to lose control of them, and that alone is a good reason to spend more on the Cuisipro.
Kuhn Rikon Swiss Peeler
Preferred by pros, the super-lightweight Kuhn Rikon has an extra-sharp blade and bargain price that are worth the cheap plastic casing and minor rust buildup.
Unlike the box grater, the Kuhn Rikon peeler might not last you 25 years, but it will perform better and last longer than its dull, poorly designed counterparts. The carbon steel blade stays sharp for a long time, and though it can rust if left in a damp environment, all it takes is a quick scrub with a green scouring pad to get it looking good again. (If you prefer a straight swivel vegetable peeler, we like the OXO Good Grips Pro Swivel Peeler.)
Kai 5210 8-inch Dressmaking Shears
With the smoothest action we’ve ever felt and super-sharp edges, these stainless steel and vanadium scissors sliced through everything gracefully and easily, with adjustable tension and blades that come apart for re-sharpening.
We researched 75 pairs of scissors to make the picks in our guide to the best scissors—all of which land in the $10 to $20 range, with the Fiskars 8-inch scissors being the least expensive. For just a few dollars more, you can get the Kai 5210 8-inch Dressmaking Shears, which are sturdily built and longer-lasting. Cheap scissors won’t hold their sharp edge for long and are often uncomfortable in your hand.
Uni-ball Jetstream RT
With its fast-drying ink, the Jetstream RT is a go-to pen for everyday writing on any kind of paper.
Yes, you can grab any old pen that shows up in your house, but if you’re purchasing new ones, it’s downright silly to buy pens that don’t work well. The Uni-ball Jetstream RT came out on top for daily use, but we have more options in our guide to the best pens. The same also goes for pencils. We aren’t super impressed with the downgrade in quality control for the classic Dixon Ticonderoga, but they’re still the best cheap pencil on the market.
I was an early-pandemic convert to the Sterilite Stacking Laundry Basket—I even wrote a love letter to it. The cheapo laundry baskets of my youth with cracked sides are now truly, firmly rooted in my past. (I kid you not, as I was writing this story, the bottom of my mom’s taped-together dollar-store basket completely fell out.) I would rather spend $15 on the best laundry basket that is easy to carry and lasts me years than $1 annually for something that bends and folds when full, cutting into my skin.
Tweezers and nail clippers
Tweezerman Slant Tip
Our favorite tweezers have super-sharp tips and come from the only company offering a free lifetime service to keep them that way.
Tweezers need to be precise, and ones that start sharp but quickly dull are trash. I’ve also encountered dollar-store tweezers that start out dull and remain dull, which is even worse. Tweezerman Slant Tip can be sharpened through the company’s free service (though you do have to pay to mail them in and wait up to 12 weeks for them to be returned), meaning you can own and use these for years and years. We also like the Tweezerman Ingrown Hair/Splintertweeze in our guide to the best tweezers if you’re looking for a tool to deal with ingrown hairs, splinters, or (shudder) ticks.
Muji Nail Clippers With Cover
These inexpensive clippers are compact and effective, and they come with a nail file strip and removable nail catcher.
One of the things I love about working at Wirecutter is the passion our staff has for things that seem minor but are actually a huge deal. As we explain in our guide to the best nail clippers, an effective set of clippers has two main traits: Its blades are sharp and line up evenly, and it works without sending nails flying every which way. The Muji Nail Clippers—the budget pick within the guide—achieve both those points.
“If the nail clippers that you’re buying are stamped or plated (not machined and stainless), avoid them at all costs. They are usually dull, chunky, and imprecise,” says senior staff writer Tim Heffernan. To tell the difference, look at the surface. Plated ones are usually very shiny and smooth, like chrome car parts. The machined versions often have a more matte finish, and those are the ones you want. But the most important thing (which can be hard to see with an untrained eye) is that cutting edges are perfectly aligned and sharp on machined nail clippers. Of course, the proof is in the performance: If you’ve ever used a cheap pair of nail clippers, you know they spend more time bending or gnawing on your nails than actually cutting through them. For about a $5 price increase over their crappier counterparts, the Muji clippers are worth the investment.
This article was edited by Annemarie Conte and Jason Chen.