Twelve Steps for the Dollar Store

I am a dollar store junkie.

It’s embarrassing but I’m committed to this writing process and need to reveal truths in my work. So there it is. I’m an idiot for dollar stores.

I think I can trace my drive to find gold for a buck to my childhood. If you don’t know me already, I am the oldest of four boys (no sisters). We were relatively poor growing up and, looking back, I am aware of my parents’ struggle to provide for us. I remember both of my parents working hard as I was growing up. Sometimes the money coming in didn’t quite cover the money that needed to go out.

After graduation, I tried college- a year at the University of Buffalo, a few semesters at Onondaga Community College- but couldn’t seem to find my stride as an adult with a career. I worked a number of jobs that would fall into the “unskilled labor” category with with appropriately low pay. I paid my (relatively modest) bills but was not remotely close to financial security.

Enlisting in the US Air Force was probably the smartest move I ever made as a young adult. I went to Basic Training at the overripe age of 25- a senior citizen, practically, compared to the 18 year-olds next to me! (One of my fellow trainees, a spry 17 year-old, had never seen the movie Stripes! I was astonished! How could someone have left for Basic without seeing that movie? What if our Training Instructor was incapacitated by a stray mortar shell? He had no clue what “boom-shacka-lacka-lacka” even meant! Inconceivable!)

The Air Force gave me a sense of purpose and direction but was doing nothing to improve my financial situation- which was OK. That wasn’t why I was there. But leaving the service at 29 with an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice, 4 years of law enforcement experience, and no real desire to continue a career in law enforcement again put me on shaky career ground. Fast forward a few years and I’ve found relative success in the Insurance industry and, for the first time in my life, some degree of financial security.

But old habits die hard- which I why I still love dollar stores.

My usual limit for an unplanned personal purchase is around $15. (I first wrote “$20” but as I was reading it back I realized that I wouldn’t normally spend $20 on myself.)  I’m comfortable occasionally reaching into my pocket and laying down 15 smackeroos on myself. So my shopping tendencies skew towards the more modest end of the financial spectrum.

I think what really does it for me, though, is the idea that I’m going to find buried treasure for just one dollar. A spare cell phone charger for the car? Awesome! A set of allen wrenches? Perfect! Some kind of specialized kitchen gadget- like a left-handed nonstick oyster shucker? We were just saying we needed one of those!

Let’s be honest- there are some very legitimate reasons to pick up dollar store items. I’m not very mechanical and most of my odd collection of tools have been assembled for a series of specific, unconnected incidents. I need zip ties to secure my 5 year-old’s novelty license plate to his bike. I was rewiring an outlet and needed a set of lineman’s pliers. My wife wanted to hang pictures and I needed a little torpedo level. I don’t make my living off this work; I don’t need the Craftsman lifetime guarantee. I need to accomplish a specific task and maybe never use that tool again. How much was that? A dollar? Perfect!

My youngest brother, Joey, threw a white elephant party one time. As soon as he invited me, I knew exactly where I was going to buy the requisite gift- the Dollar Tree around the corner from my house. There I found the mother lode- a Lance Bass bobble-head. For one dollar! (Joey, amazingly, also knew that Lance was at the Dollar Tree. The party ended up with two Lance Bass bobble-heads floating around during the swap phase of the gifting…)

Yup, this is what it looked like…

I got to thinking about this the other day as we just opened our pool in time for the Memorial Day weekend. Our two little guys- the Noodle and the Goon, ages 5 and 3, respectively- both announced that they needed goggles. Hey- sounds like a trip to the dollar store!

As expected, my old partner in thriftiness didn’t let me down. I strolled out of the store with two child’s size masks. Total cost: $2.16. I may have even been whistling a peppy little tune as I walked to the car. I returned home as the conquering hero proudly displaying the trophies from my latest conquest.

Except- the masks were crap. Either my children have ridiculously large heads or the manufacturer had never actually seen a living child. The straps for the masks were long enough- if I was comfortable cutting off the blood flow to their brains. “OK kids- you can keep the masks on as long as you can hold your breath…”

Clearly, I needed to graduate from the dollar store- at least for some of my purchases. There are times in your life when it’s OK to spend a little bit more if you have it. I’m worth what my company pays me- I’ve earned my Bachelors Degree and my MBA and I am a valuable employee. My wife and I have worked hard to build a good life for our family. I don’t need to live in fear of financial ruin. While being frugal is commendable, sometimes you also have to allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Live a little!

So yesterday I bought them each a $3 mask from Wal-Mart! Problem solved, no?


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