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Most of the time, you don’t actually need the fanciest version of a gadget or cream to get the job done—or to make an excellent gift. That’s why, in the spirit of this so-so season, of this inflationary annum, of this more-or-less-adequate time in human history, we are once again recommending some products and gear that are simply, even emphatically, good enough.
These items will leave your friends and family thankful that you have improved their lives in some meaningful way, but they won’t have to worry that you’ve drained your bank account or that they need to figure out some newfangled, useless feature. Everything on this list is fine … at least! Dare we say some of these gifts are even better than their more expensive counterparts?
A Bright Bike Basket
If your loved one is an e-bike rider, they may be looking for an affordable way to carry groceries on the bike’s back rack. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on bike accessories, from $60 panniers to a $70 rack bag. Yet what the e-bike rider truly needs is just a box on the back of her bike that she can throw a bunch of crap in. The good-enough solution: a big old milk crate, only $30 for a pack of three from Farmplast. It’s charming, it’s DIY, it’s bright orange and extremely visible on the road. And it just happens to be the exact right size to fit two large paper shopping bags side by side. Throw in a pair of lashing straps, which in my experience are more secure than zip ties—and allow you to easily remove the crate if you need to transport the bike. —Dan Kois, senior writer
The Skincare You Actually Need
A big tub of Aquaphor is the utility infielder of skin care. Put it on your baby’s butt, your child’s scrapes, your own chapped lips, your whole family’s nasty winter feet. If you are into the slugging trend, you can layer it on top of some fancy serum overnight. I like to really coat up my hands and watch an episode of The Crown, confident that by the end of whatever dysfunctional thing the Windsors are doing, I will have soft hands. One of my brothers gave me Aquaphor as a present last year, and I plan on giving it to several people this year. Buy it instead of Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour hand cream. —Lizzie O’Leary, host, What Next: TBD
The Second-Fanciest Candles
The Santal 26 candle from Le Labo has been praised by celebrities like Blake Lively, Kylie Jenner, and Jennifer Lopez (who apparently buys them in bulk, bless her). The company describes the scent as “aristocratic” and “at once gentle, smoky, and leathery.” What this luxe candle actually smells like is sandalwood and other woody fragrances. It’s nice, I won’t lie, but for $85 I’d expect it to also clean my home and solve my problems. You can do just as well with scents from Boy Smells and P.F. Candle Co., two of my favorite candle makers. They’re not exact dupes, but in my opinion, they offer an even better version of the Santal 26 vibe. Boy Smells has St. Al, which is sandalwood-forward, Hinoki Fantôme, if you’re more into cedarwood and smoke, and Cedar Stack, which has “notes of cedar chips and dried tobacco”; all of the above are $36 apiece. P.F. Candle Co., with its slightly more literal naming conventions, has Sandalwood Rose, Teakwood & Tobacco, and Amber & Moss, which will each run you $24 for a 7.2-ounce candle. Yes, they’re still luxe candles, but you can buy three for the price of a single Le Labo. —Caitlin Schneider, senior audience development manager for podcasts
Inexpensive Pink Mist
Rose water, whatever it is supposed to do, can cost tens of dollars from luxury skin care brands. It’s pink water that smells pleasant. Buy a few spray bottles of it at Trader Joe’s, which secretly has some very nice, inexpensive face and hair products, and add them to gift bags as a little extra. Put one in your guest bathroom: fancy! —Shannon Palus, senior editor
An Audio Setup on a Budget
Andrew Jones, a designer of loudspeakers that retail for $20,000 and up, decided one day to see what he could build for next to nothing. The result was the ELAC Debut B5, which, at $230 a pair, was a kind of miracle. A slightly upgraded version, the Debut 2.0 B5.2, for just $100 more, is the best bargain in hi-fi. No, they wouldn’t be mistaken for his (or many other) much pricier items, but these small (17x13x9) “bookshelf” speakers are smooth, dynamic, and detailed, and even put out decent bass (especially if you place them on speaker stands instead of stuffing them in a bookshelf). Bonus: PS Audio, a top-notch electronics company in Boulder, Colorado, bundles a slightly better Jones creation (the ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2) with its own Sprout 100–integrated amplifier (a wonder in its own right: teeny, with inputs and outputs for everything and a power rating of 100 watts per channel) for just $1,100. Toss in a $200 U-Turn Orbit Basic turntable (made in Woburn, Massachusetts), and you’ve got a true entry-level high-end audio system. —Fred Kaplan, War Stories columnist
A Library of Classic Movies and TV Shows
Yes, I’m sure a lot of people are thinking of gifting subscriptions to Netflix or Paramount+ or HBO Max or any of the other streaming conglomerates. But for the classic film lover in your life, consider the Criterion Channel. Cheaper than Netflix—$99.99 per year to Netflix’s $239.88 per year for premium—the Criterion Channel is more limited. But you’ll find films (and old sitcoms!) that you can’t stream anywhere else and which can be hard to find physical copies of. Some of my favorites on the platform include Bell, Book and Candle, with Jimmy Stewart, and The Strawberry Blonde, a really sweet James Cagney rom-com. Like any good video store, there’s a selection of staff picks if you don’t know where to start. —Cheyna Roth, producer
A Comfy Bathrobe
A few years ago, Instagram started stalking me with an ad from Parachute featuring a waffle bathrobe. I do not recall how the algorithm learned of this desire, but in this case, it was correct: I was looking for a lightweight robe that I could wear year-round (since my apartment gets pretty warm in the winter). The trouble was, I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $100 on something I would wear only between the bathroom and bedroom, with perhaps a brief coffee lounge in between. Still, the general want remained, and I finally did some digging on Amazon and found this version from SIORO. I do not claim that it is as plush or fetching as the Parachute version probably is. But it’s effective at its job and comfy enough, both in terms of fabric and budget. —J. Bryan Lowder, associate editor
Unique, Delightful Art
The internet is full of places to buy art, but it can sure get expensive. I’m not just talking about the $8,000 paintings at auction houses; even sites like Society6 price many prints at $50 or more. But the world is full of talented comics artists who will sell you delightful prints for almost nothing and, often, take commissions for a very reasonable price. Follow cartoonists on Twitter or search hashtags like #commissionsopen to find artists. (There are also useful Reddit communities, though they’re very focused on D&D and other character art.) I’ve recently bought affordable, delightful work from Olivia Li, Cuyler Keating, and Olivia Commini (check out those skeleton pinups!). —D.K.
Drugstore-Printed Photos in a Pretty Frame
One of my favorite things I’ve ever given, a gift to my mom, is a pair of photos from a trip we took together to Switzerland. I got them framed with Framebridge (which is now owned by Slate’s parent company), and they look really nice! But you don’t have to pay for custom framing to turn a snapshot or two into a nice present. I’ve also given photos in these 5-by-5-inch silver frames from Amazon, which are the right size for a desk, a bookcase, or any nook that could use a little piece of art. You can get square prints in the correct size made at your local CVS for $3 each, or online from Kodak for less than $1. Get a few extra photos so your recipient can pick their favorites to display—and have a few hard copies to pass around, like old times. —S.P.
Lots of Lattes
The myth of lattes eating up all of millennials’ money has been thoroughly debunked, and yet … I feel like a fool when I spend $6 or $7 on a latte in the real world. But a latte is the most pleasant way to caffeinate! When we invested in an at-home espresso maker, we told ourselves it would save money, and I believe that it has. But I also think that’s because we got basically the lowest-end machine that exists while still being good. (A top-of-the-line model can easily cost $6,000.) The drinks it makes are delicious, and it is kind of fun! Frothing milk is a delight. A word of warning, though: Do not expect the froth to be of the caliber that allows for latte art. Prepare instead for blobs that maybe end up heart-shaped by accident. —Susan Matthews, executive editor
Beautiful Cookware That Gets the Job Done
When I got married (for the first time, LOL) a million years ago, of course we got some Le Creuset cookware. My friend Jessica gave us a beautiful braiser in red, and we had a little casserole and saucepan. Eventually, we added to the collection with a stockpot and 8-quart Dutch oven, thanks to a serendipitous trip to an outlet mall in Pennsylvania.
But years later, when my husband and I split up, we also had to divide up the cookware. We both love to cook and are medium serious about it. I kept the braiser; he took the Dutch oven and the stockpot. It was about five minutes before I learned I could not live without a Dutch oven. But there was no way I was in a position to spend $475 on a piece of cookware.
So, I looked for an alternative at … Amazon, of course. I quickly discovered the Lodge line of enameled cast-iron cookware, which is also available in bright, fun colors. Their 7.5-quart Dutch oven was reasonably priced: $80 at the time. (It’s now selling for $100.) I have been using this pot for short ribs, stews, mac and cheese … so many things! And it’s perfect. I don’t see any difference between my Lodge and my erstwhile Le Creuset. Now I just need them to make a stockpot. —Hillary Frey, editor in chief
A Wonderful Way to Boil Water
This is my first electric kettle; I love how simple and effective it is. I chose the midpriced option at Target, something that looked better and more versatile than the cheapest ones but was still affordable and justifiable for an appliance I hope to use for years. It’s fast, and when it’s done, the beeping alert that sounds isn’t even an annoying tone (to my ears). After you remove it to pour and replace it back, the holster (tray? plate?) will keep the kettle warm for a little while, too—but not for too long: At a certain point, it automatically turns off to prevent overheating and wasting electricity. Its settings for optimal different temperatures are a treat as well, if you’re like me and heat water for multiple purposes that require such variance: black tea (boiling), French press coffee (200 degrees), green tea (180), or more persnickety herbal concoctions (even lower). To my eyes, on the countertop it looks elegant but not fancy: an unfussy, nonsevere, metallic dark gray. If you lift it while it’s full, you might find it to be a little heavy—but that just makes you feel like, “Hey, I bought a nice kettle, didn’t I?” Buy it instead of Wirecutter’s $100 pick. —Seth Maxon, associate editor
A Time Saver for Home Cooks
Like any committed home cook, it’s important to me to have good stock around for soups and braises, especially this time of year. But I confess: The only one I have the inclination or materials to deal with regularly from scratch is chicken. (I know you’re supposed to be able to ask your butcher for beef bones or fish heads or whatever, but I don’t like talking to strangers, so.) That’s why Better Than Bouillon is a godsend (and a great stocking—ha!—stuffer for the chefs in your life). Just keep a small container of the various flavors you think you’ll need in the fridge, and a teaspoon of paste and a cup of hot water later, you’ve got your stock. One note: The stuff is saltier than homemade would be, so be sure to adjust your recipe/seasoning approach accordingly. —J.B.L.
Rice Without Stress
A rice cooker is one of those rare single-purpose devices that hasn’t been conjured up to meet an imaginary need. It frees up a burner on your stove and frees you from having to monitor the rice as it cooks. There’s no downside. Cooking rice, by the way: one of the most essential human acts. The cheapest version of the device you can get does the job at least as well as the more tricked-out units, in my experience. It has only one button. Don’t overthink this. Press it; thrive. —Alex Sammon, politics writer
Toys That Pets Will Destroy Anyway
How to qualify the pet toys sold at dollar stores? They are almost always more attractively deranged than what you’d get at Chewy. They are almost always much less expensive. Are they made with materials that could possibly poison your pet? Can’t be worse than any other thing made with petroleum. Will they fall apart relatively quickly? Definitely. That said, they are the best, and they make the best gifts. An eggplant-shaped squeaky, sewed with only one eye? You can find it at a dollar store. A cat toy made of what looks like hair? Buy it at the dollar store! Your recipient will be delighted you got a gift for their pet. And the pet won’t know the difference. —Natalie Shutler, politics director