gifts they'll want in a pandemic

What’s the Best Thing (Under $50) You Bought Yourself This Year?

Illustration: Debora Szpilman

As Strategist editors, it’s our job to notice how people shop. Over the past nine months, we of course reported on people all of a sudden buying sourdough starters and bidets and sweatpants and home-office chairs and Zoom lipstick. But we also heard the stories about people just going for it and buying things that in Normal Times they would never consider, from new pairs of old-school roller skates, to prime cuts of mail-order pork, to baby grand pianos. So as the holidays rolled around we decided to ask some of the most interesting people we know a simple question: What is the most satisfying thing you bought for yourself this year? Below, all of the under-$50 things these folks with discerning taste — who include a congressman-elect, a Real Housewife, two Coppolas, a butcher, some bakers, and even a couple of candlestick-makers — bought in quarantine that would make great gifts. If you’re looking to spend a bit more, we’ve got options under $200. And if you’re looking to splurge, we’ve got stuff over $200, too.

Sarah Cooper


Turn it on, put your feet on it while you’re working, and it’ll warm them up. Can you tell that I just love being comfortable? It’s the best gift I’ve ever given myself.

Yeardley Smith

Voice of Lisa Simpson


A fast, efficient tabletop setup that I can move easily from room to room. This particular ring light comes with multiple settings, from warm to cool, because of “digital permanence.”

Ivy Pochoda


No fuss and effortlessness. I buy them a size larger, which brings them into the orbit of pajamas (without making me feel sloppy or hungover), yet they remain polished enough for an online book event or waving to a neighbor. The fabric is forgiving of wine and coffee stains, and there’s no need to iron or dry-clean them. They actually look better wrinkled (perhaps even dirty), which gives off a bit of a Dickie Greenleaf vibe.

Jessamyn Stanley

Founder, the Underbelly

This brush is the gospel. If there are thick curls in your life, get thee to Felicia Leatherwood as quickly as possible.

Tze Chun

CEO and founder, Uprise Art

There’s enough variety that toddlers can keep busy making new creations for hours. But the set is curated enough that they use their supplies carefully, and you don’t end up with hundreds of popsicle sticks on the floor.

These are easy to grasp and like paint, but dry quickly and don’t require water or brushes to clean up. Three artists that my gallery represents, who are also parents, recommend them, too.

Kaylin Marcotte

Founder, Jiggy

I’m cooking more than ever, so I’ve indulged in quality olive oils. Pineapple Collaborative’s is sourced from women producers and growers in California, and its ingredients are sustainably harvested in small batches.

Harry Litman

Former U.S. deputy assistant attorney general; host, Talking Feds podcast

The leash has a waist belt that keeps hands free. A lot of people use it for jogging with their dog, but that’s too frenetic for me.

Susan Korn

Founder and accessories designer, Susan Alexandra

My apartment’s mini-fridge leaves me with little to no room for a Brita filter. These charcoal rods in a pitcher of water are my hack: They make water taste sweeter and cleaner, which makes me drink so much more.

I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this knife. Not only does it slice through the crustiest boules, but it also yields the thinnest, most precise tomato slices.

Franci Girard

Founder, the Sixes

ManiMe sells custom-fit, stick-on gel nails developed with proprietary 3-D technology. They are easy to apply and remove with zero damage. I’ll definitely keep using them post-quarantine.

Andrew Kuo


After almost two decades of this story appearing here and there, Ware’s graphic novel Rusty Brown is finally all in one place.

Ashley Graham


One of my favorite parts of modeling is traveling to tropical locations. I miss soaking up the sun on my off days, which is why this has been a dream. A quick spritz before bed and I wake up with a luminous, sun-kissed glow.

Leigh Plessner

Co-creative director, Catbird

I bought a set for my 3-year-old daughter, Bluebell, but also for me. We play with them together. They are the sort of thing my mother would not have bought me, so they feel like a great extravagance.

I’ve been wrapping everything I can find, from rose-scented wax tablets and small bottles of hand sanitizer from Santa Maria Novella to a secondhand copy of Island Boy by Barbara Cooney and a white bakery bag full of marzipan. Whether I use sheets of leftover tissue paper or pages torn from the New York Review of Books, this metallic floss makes the humble wrapping gleam.

Liana Finck


I’ve been leaving it out on my window sill for the birds — mostly mourning doves — who fight with each other and whom I love. There’s also a lonely pigeon who comes now and then, whom we’ve named Beauteous.

Yossy Arefi

Food writer; photographer; author, Snacking Cakes

I switched to tea a few months ago, and I love how fast this electric kettle boils water. The carafe is made of borosilicate glass, and it automatically turns off when the water boils.

This pan makes beautiful, tall loaves of Ali Stafford’s sourdough that are perfect for sandwiches.

Trey Zoeller

My 15-year-old son and daughter and I, along with many friends, have spent countless hours on the back porch shooting arrows with the bow. (After quickly losing one, I ordered the refill pack of 12.) We sit around the fire and just shoot the shit while shooting arrows.

Cynthia Gordy Giwa

Co-creator, Black-Owned Brooklyn

Love Notes No. 2 is a blend of black amber, lavender, and pear that elevates our home into a flickering, aromatic experience.

Tayo Giwa

Co-creator, Black-Owned Brooklyn

With a balanced combination of spice and heat, it’s the perfect break from monotony and can go on everything from fish to chicken to eggs.

Chantel Lou Tattoli


They’re slim, but still cushy, and the pink floral is the most granny colorway.

Vanessa Price

Liberry Kids Hoola Hoop

I bought five of these Hula-Hoops — and some twine to hang them from the ceiling — for my dog, to keep her stimulated. After watching a few YouTube videos, she can now literally (and quite satisfyingly) jump through hoops. They’ve provided hours of activity for us, and she gets so excited to play.

Alex Morgan

USWNT forward

We use them to make cortados with our espresso machine.

Shannon Watts

As both a Buddhist and baked-goods aficionado, I’m a fan of these brownies made at a Yonkers-based café sponsored by the Zen Community of New York. It hires people facing barriers to employment and supports a nonprofit community-development organization that offers housing, social services, child care, and HIV-related health care.

Self-care is a vital part of activism. These CBD (but THC-free) bath bombs ensure a good night’s sleep.

Dara Allen


I broke so many off-brand $15 chargers this year. The Anker charger gets my phone to full battery in the time it takes me to do my hair in the morning, and the six-foot cord withstands pretty much any bend or position. It’s klutzproof — or should I say Dara-proof.

Lisa Dennison

Chairman, Sotheby’s North and South Americas

Aside from a drizzle on charcuterie and cheese boards, it’s wonderful on a spicy pizza or on the most decadent grilled cheese sandwich, and makes a great glaze for game birds. I’ll run out before I run out of ideas for how to use it.

Drew Seskunas

Architect; founder, Saw.Earth

Ongoing donations to this organization are a gift to myself and all New York City residents who benefit from its work to revitalize our parks and green spaces.

Sally LaPointe

Founder and fashion designer, LaPointe

The best retinol I’ve found. A313 is effective without being harsh or irritating.

Julia Alvarez

Author, Afterlife

I turn it on in the bedroom and we’re in a tropical forest. I’m still searching for the perfect essential oil that will bring a combination of creativity, calm, inspiration, and enlightenment.

Corianna ‘Coco’ Dotson

Co-founder and accessories designer, Coco & Breezy

From $10

Brooklyn-based HealHaus is committed to providing wellness to the Black community. As a fellow Brooklynite, I have found it a safe haven for yoga and meditation classes that have helped my mind, body, and soul.

Rebekah Peppler

Stylist; author, Apéritif

After getting sick with COVID-19, my cooking and eating shifted to being completely anti-inflammatory. So I’m flying through my turmeric stash. Diaspora’s is truly the best.

Amanda Shires


These are made using real flowers and come secured on seeded paper. You don’t have to be a horticulturist to enjoy the happiness they bring; plus, you can mix and match.

Fiorella Valdesolo

Writer, creative consultant

Why not try to start my 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter young? She can’t stack them without assistance, but she is very content to arrange the colorful wooden set into various designs and into a long line on the floor. Miraculously, she’s also very into putting them back into their handy box and sliding it shut.

It’s a marker board and chalkboard, has a roll of paper attached to it for drawings parents want to keep, and is magnetic — so kids can practice writing letters and numbers alongside magnets. It’s also small enough to plop on any surface or tabletop, and can easily fold up.

Shannon Maldonado

Founder, YOWIE

Dab it on before bed and some mornings to keep the dark circles and crow’s-feet at bay. The applicator is so unique and, dare I say, fun.

Michael Cuby

Editor-at-large, Them

RuPaul’s Drag Race is perhaps the only show I can watch in any mood. With a simple monthly subscription (via Prime Video), you can get seasons one through ten whenever you’re in need of some Werk Room drama.

Gia Coppola

Filmmaker, photographer

Getting crafty during happy hour with the spices from this kit, and a bottle of my red or white wines, has saved me from getting bored of the same drink.

Sofia Coppola

Writer, director

My friend’s company, Soap & Paper Factory, makes natural soaps and candles that smell amazing. It’s a women-owned small business: They source everything in the U.S., and they’re made in New York. I’ve been enjoying them during all this time at home, and I even worked with her to create a candle to go along with my namesake wine from my family’s winery.

Verena von Pfetten

Founder, Gossamer

This spicy green paste kind of feels like a delicious secret. The stuff makes literally everything you put it on — avocado toast, eggs, plain rice, meat, buttery-cheesy-but-otherwise-plain pasta — taste better.

Subscription boxes, and their endless parade of un-asked-for nothings are not usually my cup of tea. But Brother Vellies’s commitment to artisan design practices gives this one a more enticing touch. While I’ve certainly loved some of my somethings more than others, all of them — from a terra-cotta mug to a hand-sculpted flowerpot — do indeed feel special.

Aurora James

Founder and accessories designer, Brother Vellies

These perfect beeswax candles come from Alysia Mazzella, one of my favorite makers. I fill my house with them — when lit after pouring a glass of wine, they’re my little piece of Paris in New York.

Akin Akman

Model; co-founder, Aarmy

This brief history of humankind has given me perspective and inspired a lot of interesting conversations over the past few months.

Chloe Kernaghan

Co-founder, Sky Ting Yoga

Speeds up chop time and gives the perfect julienne cuts. Just make sure to be extra careful when using the extra-sharp blade.

Julia Fox


While stuck in New York, I fostered a dog from Social Tees. I ended up adopting her because there’s no end in sight to this pandemic. And because she’s the best.

Crystal Anderson

My fiancé and I discovered that our dog Blanche loves bubbles. So we bought this bubble machine for her … but mostly for our entertainment.

Sylvana Ward Durrett

CEO and co-founder, Maisonette

The perfect shoe for around the house and being outside in the country on warmer days.

Paul Feig


During quarantine, I learned how to make more than 100 cocktails — and invented 10 of my own — with help from these tools (and the world’s largest collection of obscure cocktail ingredients).

Stephanie LaCava

This is the best lavender oil I’ve ever smelled. It’s made by a community of Cistercian monks founded in 1148. They cultivate not only lavender fields, but olive groves as well. The oil is extracted at a Luberon Valley distillery. Throughout quarantine, I used it to help fall asleep at night. In order to have reasonable shipping costs you may have to order a few bottles, as well as the spray and candles. They all make great token gifts for insomniac or anxiety-ridden friends.

Yewande Komolafe

Chef, writer

A meal-delivery service with a menu of ready-to-eat Nigerian classics. The brand seems to have mastered that Naija “party food” flavor. The spices, the smokiness — everything just pops!

Red Bay Coffee is an exceptional small-scale roaster out of Oakland. Its darker roasts are quite exquisite; I’m currently drinking Slow Burn as I write this!

Lauren Napier

I was uprooted from my apartment in the midst of quarantine. Creating the most comfortable, cozy, safe space became top priority as I moved into my new home. It’s a most gorgeous apartment, but the sound quality was pretty poor once I was settled in. I actually purchased these soundproof rug pads for my upstairs neighbors. It might seem intrusive coming from a neighbor, but I used a very kind approach, and they were receptive. They’ve given me absolute peace while working and living all day and night at home.

Akili King

Beauty assistant, Vogue

From $55 for 2

Super helpful for at-home workouts. Sometimes I find myself just wearing them around the apartment for an extra toning boost while making tea or walking around.

Jena Wolfe

Co-founder, Piecework Puzzles

Kinto Travel Tumbler

The perfect coffee companion for long, early walks in the morning with my toddler.

Rachel Hochhauser

Co-founder, Piecework Puzzles

This chocolate company based in PDX makes my new favorite treat. It’s made from raw honey and coconut oil and has to be refrigerated, so it feels like an indulgent step away from your run-of-the-mill chocolate.

Zara Tisch

Founder, Terez