Saving Smart Spending

Buy This, Not That at a Big Box Store

Beth Trach
Written by Beth Trach

Buy This, Not That at a Big Box Store

Ah, the big box store. They’re not exactly pretty the way they rise up from giant parking lots in the middle of nowhere, but once you step inside, it’s easy to be wooed by the simple ability to buy anything you need for daily life. Come for a loaf of bread and you’ll walk away with a new purse — or maybe even a sweet seasonal set of plates for your dining room.

Sure, discount department stores like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s are convenient, but they’re also perfectly designed to separate you from your hard-earned money. If you’re not careful, you could blow your budget on all sorts of things that were just too cute — or too on sale — to pass up.

There are so many things in a big box store that it’s hard to know what’s a good deal and what’s just a decoy. What should you buy on your next trip to Target? Here’s what to embrace and what to avoid.

Buy Kids’ Toys, Not Books

Discount retailers like Walmart usually have great prices on the most popular kids’ toys — especially Lego, which has the potential to send you debtor’s prison if you have a kid in love with the clicking bricks. When shopping for a last-minute gift for a kids’ birthday party, it’s easy to slip in and out of your nearest store to get a good deal — and you won’t have to worry about shipping charges or planning ahead to order online.

On the other hand, books aren’t usually as good a deal. There’s not as big a selection, and they go on sale less often. If you’re going to pay the cover price, you might as well do it in a bookstore with more choice so you can find a unique picture book that matches your child’s interests. If you’re looking for rock-bottom pricing, Amazon is your best bet.

Buy Notebook Paper, Not Wrapping Paper

Big box stores are often a good pick for seasonal items, and school supplies could be their crowning achievement. When you can get composition notebooks for only 50 cents apiece, it’s smart to stock up in August when these retailers want to lure you in. During the rest of the year, you won’t find these amazing deals, but basic pens, pencils and paper are still less expensive here than at an office supply store like Staples, which caters to businesses that will most likely write off the high prices in a way that kindergartners cannot.

Not all paper products are good deals, though. Gift wrap can be enormously expensive when you factor in the part where you’re just going to tear it up and throw it away, so there’s no reason to buy it at an expensive card shop or at the drugstore — or even at Target, where those designer prints can get pricey. Instead, head to the dollar store and get a solid color that will work for a variety of birthdays and other holidays.

Buy Men’s Razors, Not Women’s Razors

In general, big box stores are a good place to buy shaving supplies and other grooming needs, especially if you’re looking to pick up a favorite item in bulk instead of in a small drugstore size. In particular, men’s razors and shaving cream are a good deal here, so feel free to splurge on the newest 27-blade cartridge if that’s your thing.

Alas, women’s razors and supplies aren’t as good a deal, though it’s not just big box stores where this is the case. The pink tax is everywhere, and you’ll nearly always be charged more for a “girly” version of a grooming product, whether it’s shaving cream or shampoo. Men’s razors are identical except for the color, so snatch them up and never look back. If you seek out unscented versions of deodorant, soap and shampoo, you can also save a bundle if you patrol the men’s aisles instead of the pink and lavender women’s section.

Buy Packaged Foods, Not Produce

Ever notice how expensive a box of Cheerios is at the grocery store these days? That’s because your local grocer lures you in with good deals on the circular items from the deli and butcher and then makes up for it with the higher prices on cereal and other packaged dry goods. Get family-size boxes of your favorites at the big box store, and you’ll save a bundle — just be sure to make healthy choices so you don’t end up a cart full of sugar bombs because the prices were so low.

Your local grocery store is a great place for fresh fruits and vegetables, though. Big box stores have gotten better over the past several years by adding selection and organic options, but at the end of the day they still can’t compete with the freshness of what you’ll find at the grocery store. Prices are comparable, and you can score local, in-season options for cheap at the grocery store if you adjust your menu for seasonal eating.

Buy Accessories, Not Furniture

Target is a great place to find decorative items to spruce up your home without breaking the bank, so if you need a wall mirror, lamp or curtain rods, go for it. You’ll spend far less than you would at a department store or a designer boutique, and you can often get a similar look since stock is regularly rotated to reflect current trends.

Furniture from the big box store, however, should be avoided. The quality is usually poor, since items are often made of particleboard and cheap veneer that is easily chipped — and cannot be repaired once it is. Items that aren’t built to last more than a few years are never a good deal, and replacing them will add up in the long run. For better deals on higher quality furniture, look for antiques and consignments or hit up garage sales and Goodwill, where people often give away hardwood furniture without a second thought.

When you know what to buy and what to avoid on your next Target or Walmart run, you can stay focused and on budget without being swayed by something shiny that you don’t really need. Got any more tips on how to save at the big box stores? Share them in the comments!

About the author

Beth Trach

Beth Trach

Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport, MA. She also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can catch up on all her adventures in frugal living and extreme gardening at Port Potager.

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