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Dollar Store Dos and Don'ts for Teachers

By Genia Connell on January 21, 2015
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

I'll be the first to admit, when it comes to buying things for my classroom, I'm cheap. Frugal may be the nicer word, but it all boils down to the fact that I never like to pay more than I have to, especially for items that aren't meant to last. Enter the dollar store! Spending more and more of my own money on school supplies each year means that I make frequent stops at dollar stores and the dollar sections I've found popping up in discount and craft stores. One thing I have learned in my dollar store shopping is that each store holds enough deals and steals to make any frugal teacher swoon. Unfortunately, those deals sit right next to items that just may waste, instead of save, your hard-earned dollars. Knowing what is, and what isn't a good deal at the dollar store isn’t always easy to figure out. This week some bargain-hunting teachers and I will use our dollar store prowess to help you sift through what we use and love in our classrooms while letting you know when you may want to just say no. 

In the video below I'll take you on a tour of all the dollar store items I use in my classroom while few of my teacher friends share their dollar store must-haves. As you watch, you're sure to notice a few clever, unconventional uses for everyday items!  

 

In a nutshell, here are some of the things we love to use from the dollar store along with what we think you may want to think twice about buying. 

Great for Language Arts

For letter and word recognition try:

  • Bingo markers
  • Sight word cards
  • Metal cookie sheets with magnetic letters
bingo marker

cookie sheet for word work

  • Vinyl placemats let students know where to sit, and the backs can be used for word work.

Think Twice...

Most dollar stores have a large book section. Before purchasing, inspect the books to ensure there are no printing errors and the content is what you want for your students. You could put yourself further ahead using bonus points or stocking up on dollar books from the Scholastic Reading Club for your classroom. 

 

Classroom Management

Shhhh! Let students know it's a do not disturb zone with:

  • Pop-up lights let students know you are assessing a student at the reading table.
  • Hand signs you can hold or point to are a quiet way to signal your class. 
  • Small, printed cones give students positive reinforcement

pop up lights

 

Teaching Supplies

Most dollar stores have a teacher aisle where you can find discount teaching supplies. My recommendations for the teacher aisle:

  • Name tags
  • Tent cards
  • Bookmarks
  • Sentence strips
  • Cut-outs in packages

 

Think Twice...

These teacher supplies are great for consumables that you will use once and toss such as name tags and word strips. Think twice if you are looking for something that will last for years such as quality posters, bulletin board trimmers, die-cut letters, etc. If you buy reward stickers, use them quickly because mine seem to lose their stickiness in a matter of months.  

 

School Supplies

Not all school supplies are created equal at the dollar store. While some are just fine, you are best to go with name brands with others. 

  • Gel and roller tip pens, and medium point permanent markers all work really well
  • Double-sided, washi tape, and painter's tape are great buys too.
  • Smaller calculators with fewer buttons are good for younger students.
  • Note pads and packages of thank you notes are always good to have on hand. 

Think Twice...

  • Glue sticks from the dollar store tend to dry so fast my kids can't get the materials they want to glue put together quickly enough.
  • The crayons and colored pencils seem waxier and the colors just don't seem as bright with these. I spend a little extra to get the name brands. 
  • For years I kept buying dollar store scissors, which seem to work well for about a month. Now I spend more for scissors that stand up to daily use in my classroom.
  • Computer paper has cute, brightly colored borders, but it is thinner than most paper, and my printer jammed over and over again when I used it.

 

 

Get Organized!

It pains me to pay more than a dollar for most storage containers. Best buys for dollar store organization and storage include:

  • Muffin tins hold classroom supplies for a portable art center.

  • Desktop totes for each table's community supplies

  • Magnetic holders made for lockers are perfect for holding dry erase markers.

  • Containers from dollar stores are found in nearly every classroom in our building. They hold books and school supplies perfectly. 

Think Twice...

Inspect each storage piece carefully before purchasing. I have gotten home more than once and realized that a corner or bottom of the container was cracked.  Also, check the shelves to see if your container has a matching lid. Lids are often stacked separately, away from the containers. 

 

Classroom Decor

Dollar stores are a great place for a quick makeover that won't break the bank. I recommend the following: 

  • Hooks to hang things from your ceiling (if allowed!).
  • Paper decorations to spruce up your decor (decorations on right are hung from hooks on the left.

  • Adhesive stickers help spruce up boring spaces and hide damaged walls and bookshelves.

  • Shower liners make great curtains to hide messy or old bookshelves.
  • Plastic tablecloths are the perfect way to quickly cover a bulletin board. 

 

  • Motivational posters from the teacher aisle

 

Science and Math Materials

  • Containers to use for volume/measurement
  • Funnels
  • Flashlights
  • Batteries 
  • Tubs and totes

Think Twice...

Batteries are a good deal because I only need them for a two-week period each fall. If you are looking for long-lasting batteries, you may want to think twice about these.

 

Field Trip Supplies

Great to take-along on field trips:

  • Plastic rain ponchos
  • Adhesive name tags 
  • Mini-emergency kits for chaperones to carry with mini-hand sanitizers

Seasonal Decor and Party Supplies

This may be my number one reason for visiting the dollar store! I used to save and store window clings that I changed each month, tediously returning them neatly to their plastic backing. If that happens now, great. If not, they can easily be replaced for a dollar. Sometimes, time is money!

  • Decorations for walls and windows
  • Holiday pencils and erasers
  • Inexpensive gifts for students
  • Plates and napkins for special occasions

 

Think Twice...

Every year I buy holiday pencils for my students and every year when they go to sharpen them I remember they are more for looks than practicality. Many of the pencils lose over half their length before getting sharp the first time. I have no idea why!

 

 

Craft Supplies

Most craft supplies are on the BUY list. You can get googly eyes, pom poms, glitter pens, decorative tape, and pipe cleaners for half the cost of large craft stores. Glue guns and glue sticks are also a best buy. 

craft cupplies

Think Twice...

Watch the quantities on the packages. Some supplies like wooden craft sticks wind up costing more than they do at the craft store because they are sold with smaller quantities in each package. 

 

 

Toys and Fidgets

The dollar store's toy aisle is filled with fun things for kids. These are things we buy

  • Toys for prizes and incentives
  • Indoor recess materials
  • Fidgets for active students or those with sensory needs

 

Think Twice...

Look closely at any toy you buy for your students. Be on the lookout for, and stay away from:

  • Small parts that could come loose and be a choking hazard
  • Surfaces with paint that could flake off
  • Sharp edges or corners

I also suggest that you:

  • Check any light-up toys (like the large bouncy balls) to make sure that they actually light up.
  • Just say no to the play-doughesque clay. It will crumble on the floor and make you a cranky teacher.

Keep It Clean

I recommend using the dollar store for:

  • Dusters
  • Microfiber cloths for screens
  • Brush and dustpan
  • Name brand air-freshener 

 

Think Twice...

Make sure cleaning supplies you buy for your room are gentle. I've purchased some that smell awful and have warnings to keep away from children. If you do purchase those, be sure to use them when students are out of the room for the day and rinse any desks the cleaners come in contact with. 

 

So many uses:

  • Decorative flyswatters can be used to tap on interactive white boards, play games, show you know the answer, and so much more.
  • Glass gems can be used for reward jars, ink pen holders, and arts and crafts
  • Acrylic frames make great center direction holders while wooden frames make every project or piece of art a bit more special.

Think Twice...

While I love the dollar store for many reasons, the two things I always tend to shy away from are food items and any plastic that you eat or drink out of, but that's just me.

So, it's true — I love the dollar store, it's odd, one-of-a-kind smell, and the joy of coming home with something new, fun, and cheap for my class. Of course, what is written above is only my opinion of my favorite and not so favorite items from the dollar store. I'd love to hear your experiences. What do you always buy at the dollar store or what would you never buy?  Share your comments below.  

For more classroom ideas, follow me on Twitter and Pinterest.

 

 

 

Comments (7)

This was a very wonderful overview of what the dollar stores offer! I saw in other posts people mentioning being a little disappointed with eraser options for student whiteboards. I forget who to give the credit to, but several years ago I saw someone using baby/toddler socks as individual student erasers and have used them ever since. I purchased 5 packs from the dollar store that had I think 3 pairs in each pack. When they get dirty I throw them in the wash and keep re-using. It has also been a bonus because when I want to shift up their groups I will sometimes say "everyone find your matching sock" or "get into a group with the rest of the socks that have a flower on them"...

The Dollar Tree has dry erase markers that come in packs of 3: red, black, and blue. The cap has a magnet and an eraser. They are perfect markers for students, and every year I buy a case of these. My students use the markers a lot for math and small groups. They last the entire year, often with many left over.

I'm off to Dollar Tree in the morning. I'm inspired! Thank you for this wonderful information. I do wish the sound had been better. You couldn't hear many of the explanations - I did then find them on the written part of the post. But I'm not sure what the pig scrubber is used for.

I frequently use dry erase boards in my classroom, but did not have much luck with finding quality erasers for them. I saw that another teacher used felt pieces but when I bought these from the dollar store they got holes in them. Upon another dollar store trip, I saw these microfiber face cleanser pads that I now use for erasers. There's 3 in each pack so I bought 8 for my class. This is my first year using them. Already they're so much more reliable. At the end of the year I plan on throwing them in the washing machine to clean them for next year.

I frequently use dry erase boards in my classroom, but did not have much luck with finding quality erasers for them. I saw that another teacher used felt pieces but when I bought these from the dollar store they got holes in them. Upon another dollar store trip, I saw these microfiber face cleanser pads that I now use for erasers. There's 3 in each pack so I bought 8 for my class. This is my first year using them. Already they're so much more reliable. At the end of the year I plan on throwing them in the washing machine to clean them for next year.

I use the plastic cupcake carriers to make a number partner game. For example, for number partners of 10 I write a number 1 - 9 in each of the recessed circles, then put two small pompoms in the container. Then we put the lid on (I find taping it down helps to keep it in place.) Then the students shake the box and try to end up with the pompoms in the numbers that will add to 10. (7 and 3, 8 and 2, etc.) It is a great activity for the class when they are waiting in line - they just keep passing it down when they find number partners for the target number. I made each student one for holiday gifts In class I have one for each number up to 10. (For 5, I put two 1s, two 4s, two 3s, and two 2s.) It makes a good activity for early finishes and I also have a recording sheet.

What a great idea, Kathy! Thanks so much for sharing. I am definitely going to give that a try!

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