Things that are cheap (or free!) and last (nearly) forever

As holiday shopping season 2021 is complicated by shortages and delays, (and panic reporting) I’ve been thinking about certain objects in my life, things I use or enjoy every day, yet cost very little. Some I’ve had for years. Some were gifts, others “gifts of the universe,” which floated into my life and have become, over time, indispensable.

Kitchen table by Ikea, $15

Bought used via neighborhood list serve, this easy-to-dismantle table fits into my Subaru Impreza. It has moved with me four times, supported the food spread for dozens of parties including Pandemic Bubble Thanksgiving 2020 and is now the site for daily dinners with my husband, a priceless ritual we maintain in our epoch of raising an infant.

Wooden table holding food in dishes
Kitchen table, $15, presenting Thanksgiving dinner 2020

Earrings from Sweden, $7 US

Person wearing dangling earrings
New favorite earrings

One morning during my four-day, kind of aimless trip to Stockholm before a 2018 conference (in hindsight, I should have visited Copenhagen), I got lost. Aiming for the sunken ship Vasa, I found myself on the wrong pedestrian-friendly island, one which held the city’s Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. My original desire for vacation that year had been Japan, so I thought, “might as well.” I spent an amazing afternoon perusing the history of Japanese shipping connections with northern Europe and a special exhibit on paper (heart, heart, heart).

On my way out, I glanced at the gift shop—and a pair of earrings caught my eye. I vaguely remember something breaking as the clerk took the earrings out of the case, but soon they were mine. I proceeded to walk through Stockholm’s cherry blossom park, Kungsträdgården, a gift from the emperor of Japan. I concluded my day with the best sushi dinner I’ve ever tasted. These earrings have become a reminder of the magic of letting myself get lost once in a while. They’re still my favorite pair.

Plants, $10 to $0

Ranging from cheap at Ithaca’s Home Green Home shop to free by the curb in Fall Creek, our collection of indoor plants is continually growing, both in number and in the size of each specimen. A few highlights:

  • A Christmas cactus (origin unknown) that bloomed last November for the first time in years and years.
  • An aloe plant I rescued, roots-up, from the side of the road in my old neighborhood.
  • A money tree that was a holiday gift from my work team director last year.
  • An ivy that was my Christmas gift to Bill in 2019 now stretches about six feet to drag on the floor. Bill cheers for it, waters it first, and claims that it’s going to “beat” the ivy across the room.

The few bucks we’ve spent on plants has blossomed into fun and purpose. And the truly priceless part of our indoor garden is the sun room most of them reside in, (“the Plant Room”), a windows-on-three-sides box of sunlight. When we moved in, this room looked like a dirty tack-on. Now, it’s the best spot in the house.

Glider chair, free (plus U-Haul rental and one Sunday afternoon)

I was eight months pregnant last June when we discovered that a world-wide lumber shortage meant we couldn’t get a new rocking chair until January 2022. Instead of despair, I chose Freecycle and put out a “needed” notice. We got one response, but it was the right one: a kind guy in Candor, NY had two gliders to give away if we could get out to the country to pick it up.

Driving a full size pickup truck in my third trimester was exciting, as was stopping several times on country highways to re-secure the tarp protecting the chair from rain. The chair is maple, great construction and fits perfectly in the Plant Room. The finishing touch: my mom sewed white cushion covers while she was in town the week Paul was born. She got a project, I got a pretty chair, and Paul now has the best place in the world to eat most of his meals.

Shower sandals from a Nebraska truck stop, $0.39

These win the longevity competition.

Plastic sandals on a tiled floor; lockers nearby
Sandals: 22 years of happiness for 39 cents

I found them in a bin on the sidewalk while driving across the country with about 30 teenagers packed into three extended vans to a Christian youth conference. It was summer 1999, and I’d just graduated college. I coughed up spare change alongside a Snapple and M&Ms. The snacks disappeared by the Colorado border, but the sandals are still in my swim bag. Lately, I’ve been wearing them at the YMCA pool up to three times a week. They’re a little dented in places but work perfectly. Thirty-nine cents for 22 years of service. That’s value I never dreamed of when I slid them across the counter.


Plastic flip-flops, plants, dear dangling earrings, a rocking chair: Each of these objects has an origin story, which reminds me of an oft-cited piece of research by Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich: In the long run, we value experiences more than material goods.

Person holding a baby in a sunny room
If this boy gets nothing but hugs for Christmas this year, he won’t mind.

So if you’re worried about acquiring that perfect, overpriced product that’s on 3-week backorder via Amazon before December 24 (and I am in a few instances) remember this list of priceless cheap stuff. Perhaps you could do something with your loved one, give the gift of an afternoon together or an embrace. Or go ahead and hit “order”: the story of getting it to your door on time or in February 2022 might be just as good as the thing itself.

1 Comment

  1. Emily Hopkins on December 13, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    Wonderful! Wow, to have flip-flops for that long! You are a special kind of person. Love the happy baby pic! xoxo

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