Christmas gifts for under $20 dollah
December 1, 2009 10:12 AM   Subscribe

What $10-$20 item improved your lifestyle?

Due to the financial situations of some of my family members, we are limiting Christmas gifts to no more than $10-$20 US per person.

No more useless ties for dad, candles for mom, picture frames for the sister. We really want to think about gifts that would help a person live better, do something faster, make life simpler. Please suggest an item you have that has become indispensible at home, in the kitchen, for your pet, at the office, etc.

posted by HeyAllie to Home & Garden (85 answers total) 438 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If any of your family members frequently use their laptops away from their desks, get a wireless mouse. It's amazing what a difference it makes in preventing hand fatigue and injury.

Also, silicone oven mitts are awesome in the kitchen. You can stick your whole hand in boiling water, no problem.
posted by decathecting at 10:15 AM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Crazy off the top of my head idea: Buy a $10 USB stick to go on a keychain and preload it with the Portable Apps Suite.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:18 AM on December 1, 2009 [7 favorites]

Best answer: A moleskine notebook is the perfect size for a back pocket, and ever since I got one of them, it has changed my life. No longer do I have to worry about forgetting things, I just write them down wherever I am. A tiny pocket sized pen to go with it makes the set complete. Not the best gift for everyone, but for some people it is amazing.
posted by markblasco at 10:19 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Silicone oven mitts are indeed awesome.
posted by markblasco at 10:19 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: -the smallest swiss army knife that has scissors. It lives in my pocket, and it is amazing how often I use it!
-a harmonica or other small instrument can be fun for longer car trips and you don't need to pay more than $20.
-a french press or coffee pot.
posted by ddaavviidd at 10:20 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I bake a lot and have found this to be indispensably useful: Oxo Good Grips Pastry Scraper. It cuts dough, keeps cut cookies intact when you scrape them off the counter, cleans up flour and other messes, quickly and easily sweeps the cutting board into the pot, etc. etc. etc. LOVE it.

And I know it probably seems silly, but my kitchen life drastically improved when I got a simple apple corer and slicer. Slicing an apple to eat or preparing it for cooking/baking takes maybe two seconds instead of five minutes. You can have mine when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.
posted by balls at 10:23 AM on December 1, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: These metal clips. I started clipping bags of food. Then it turned into everything. EVERYTHING.
posted by spec80 at 10:25 AM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Kitchen items would be great. I have something similar to the Oxo mentioned by balls--but I just use it to scoop up cut items (veggies, really) and drop them into the pot. It is so much easier than using the blade of the knife or your hands or picking up the cutting board and tilting it into the pot. A great thing.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:26 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: Salad spinner, silicone spatula, cast iron skillet, microfiber towels. The salad spinner makes cleaning lettuce and drying it kind of a fun operation, encouraging us to eat more fresh salads. The spatula is useful for everything from peanut butter to cooking eggs to folding vinegar into sushi rice. Cast iron questions and answers and stories. And as for microfiber towels, well, everything on earth is easier to clean with them, although they do kind of leech moisture out of your hands. Still, a supply of the cheapest ones (separated into green and blue for kitchen and household and yellow for bathroom) and ten or so of the higher-quality ones for everything else have done wonders for our household. Dust, clean up spills, dry dishes, whatever you'd use rags for, they're crazy great!
posted by cgc373 at 10:27 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Daylight-colored compact fluorescent bulbs. I got a six pack at Costco for $5, and my apartment no longer looks jaundiced. Plus, they last basically forever.
posted by sinfony at 10:29 AM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

I cook a lot and love this Polder timer. I have two.
posted by massysett at 10:29 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: Also for the kitchen: Magnetic knife strip, Bottle pourers

Keep an eye on, they sell one product every day and it's often something neat for under $20. Today appears to be two RC helicopters for $19.99.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:31 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A small keychain LED flashlight like this one has been very handy for me in a pinch. It might not pack the big "wow" factor that other things might at first glance, though. An insulated mug for desktop use is another thing that makes my life nice, since it keeps its contents hot for a good hour or so.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:32 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: In the past I've leaned heavily on The Container Store for useful, fun stocking stuffers and small gifts.
posted by hijinx at 10:34 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Less than $10: the Zena Star peeler, as sold by the late Joe Ades in New York.
posted by holgate at 10:34 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

NETI POT. It has been discussed/mentioned here a lot. It is kind of personal, and seems icky to discuss it in public. Even considering all that, is there is a tiny chance the recipient might use it, I consider it life changing.
posted by Classic Diner at 10:35 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Swiffer Sweeper. As a dude, I have discovered that this is exactly how much effort I am willing to put into cleaning a floor. This whole wringing the mop and stuff took way too much time.

Now I actually clean the floors!
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2009 [8 favorites]

Seconding the keychain knife/multitool. I have a little Leatherman Squirt on my keys with a blade, a bottle opener, the signature pliers, and some other doodads, and it's amazing how often I pull it out. Was a great gift from my dad a few holidays ago.
posted by Rallon at 10:40 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: A microplane grater/zester is wonderful to have in the kitchen, and every time I use mine I wish I had gotten one years ago instead of using a standard grater. In fact, I'm giving some as inexpensive Christmas presents this year.
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:43 AM on December 1, 2009 [7 favorites]

If any of them commute by bus or train, a little travel pillow might be nice. Thirding silicone oven mitts.
posted by amethysts at 10:44 AM on December 1, 2009

A few years ago, someone got me an inflatable foot tub (a plain one, though, not the massaging kind) - it seems frivolous, but I use it all the time.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:45 AM on December 1, 2009

If you can find them, and you're in the right climate, a pair of thin soft fleece gloves are amazing. They're perfect for most sunny winter days, and can go underneath bigger, heavier gloves for insulation, often come in fun colors, are thin enough to allow for dexterity, and fit into a small pocket or purse with no problem. They also generally don't cause allergic itchy reactions.

One thing that improved my life an unexpected amount was putting a pair of those Dr Scholl's massaging gel insoles in most of my shoes. They run about $15 each, depending, and are extremely worth it.

My mom always uses one of those calendar books, the sort that have a square for each day of the month on a 2-page spread. It lives on the kitchen counter and it's been a fixture in life since before I was born. I think without it she'd be completely lost. I'm not an organized person like her, but five years after moving out and living confused and unorganized, I got one, and it seriously works. I actually remember to do things now! And I don't have to pay for a pda or an iphone to write stuff down in a place I'll find it again. Astounding.
posted by Mizu at 10:46 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a guy, I've found the $10 double-sided money clip from Walgreens indispensable. One side holds up to 30 folded bills, and the other side holds up to 6 cards (license, ATM, etc). Plus, it's engraveable. No more bulky wallet in my rear pocket - I just slip it in my front pocket and go.
posted by Telpethoron at 10:47 AM on December 1, 2009

I've been extremely happy with my keychain compass. I live in a big city and often go to neighborhoods that I'm not familiar with, so it's been super helpful in getting me oriented and figuring out how to get from one part of town to another. Of course, it might make me look like an overgrown boyscout, but who cares. For me, a compass has an added dimension of firing my imagination when I use it "Huh, so that's north. North.....Canada......polar bears........northern lights.......tracking polar bears under the northern lights in Canada."
posted by otolith at 10:54 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

One year as stocking stuffers my m-i-l gave us a variety of medicine. We got small sizes of Tylenol, Advil, Benedryl, hand sanitizer, chapstick. They've been great to have - I put them in my purse and they've been so handy! Check out the travel size stuff at the store (drug store, WalMart, Target, etc.) for lots of really useful stuff!
posted by Sassyfras at 10:57 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

A pound of coffee? Something like Intelligentsia, however the effects only last for a week or two :)
posted by so_ at 10:58 AM on December 1, 2009

A little outside your price range ($25) but the AeroPress.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:59 AM on December 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

You'd be amazed how convenient it is to have a 16GB USB stick (instead of, say, a 4GB stick). They go for around $40 at my local shop but you might be able to find better, especially with the sales right now, plus I'm in Canada where this stuff tends to be a bit pricier.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:01 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: The narrow silicone spatula pretty much changed my life. Now I can scrape every last bit of salsa out of the jar.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:01 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Several items came to my mind, then I realized that every single one of them has been reviewed on Cool Tools, so I'll just send you to their blog instead. Now that I think about it, Levenger also has lots of life-simplifying items as well.
posted by DrGail at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Absolutely, without a doubt, an inexpensive safety razor. has them available in the low $20's. (may be found for less at local shops). I would recommend it to anyone wanting to save money and get a closer shave in the process.
posted by siclik at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2009

I received an Envirosax from a co-worker two years ago, and I've used the hell out of it. It's the best reusable bag because it folds of so small, and I can keep it in my purse all the time. I'm putting them in my families stockings this year.
posted by kimdog at 11:10 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wheeee doggies! Some really great suggestions here that I never would have thought of. Keep 'em coming....
posted by HeyAllie at 11:11 AM on December 1, 2009

A jump rope. They can cancel their gym memberships and sell their expensive treadmill / exercise bike. Takes up less space under the bed. Great for getting concentrated blocks of exercise in a small period of time. Save them money, space and time! Just what you're looking for.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:12 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: Klean Kanteens or Nalgene bottles - no need for buying water bottles, BPA-free, and all that jazz.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:15 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is even cheaper, lasts forever and has improved my life immeasurably.

The Container Store carries them, usually.
posted by Danf at 11:19 AM on December 1, 2009

Stainless steel portable coffee mug and stainless steel thermos. You will save money carrying them around - you can fill at home and take it with you and you might get a a discount at some coffee shops for your re-usable mug. Some cafeterias will give hot water for cheap - useful if tea or instant coffee is your thing. Stainless steel are easy to clean and don't taste like plastic. My thermos was 35$, out of your price range, but maybe two of you could collaborate and buy one for someone?
posted by philfromhavelock at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: If any of your family members frequently use their laptops away from their desks....

I got this $20 bag [7x9 gussetless case] from Walker and use it to carry all my misc laptop crap. Basically I put it in the bag whenever I put my laptop in the bag and I make sure all my gear is IN IT before leaving anyplace. I no longer leave my crap everywhere and I can always find my gadgets, dongles and spare batteries and charging cords.
posted by jessamyn at 11:29 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some very high quality butter.
posted by spilon at 11:29 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Not for everyone, but I'll say a shaving mirror for the shower. I used to shave after getting out of the shower, but this is way more convenient. PRO TIP: when it fogs up, smear some soap on it (or experiment with other shower products, whatever works best).
posted by where u at dawg at 11:30 AM on December 1, 2009

For the ladies: Hollywood Fashion Tape. It's sticky on both sides, and very adhesive. You use it to stick your blouse together when there's gaps in middle that show your bra or whatnot. You can also use it to adhere clothing like camisoles and slippery fabrics directly to your skin. It's about $7/pack at craft stores.

I saw fabric bags at a craft fair that are for making baked potatoes in the microwave. I love baked potatoes but it takes a long time and a lot of energy in the oven to make one. You can find them on Etsy from a bunch of crafters, or just make one yourself if you are handy.

Flashlights are always good.

Salad spinners are incredibly awesome.
posted by FergieBelle at 11:44 AM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Not very festive, but you will be shocked at how useful this simple kitchen scraper is. I got mine at christmas as a stocking stuffer.
posted by anti social order at 11:47 AM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: Perhaps with the potential to be less exciting on first view, but I always like good music. Finding an album, compilation or soundtrack someone really likes is fantastic, and fits within your budget. DIY version: mixCDs. Cheaper, but more personal.

Another thing to put on flash drives: pictures you've taken of/for the recipient.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:05 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Walgreen's has back .... er, thingies. They go against the back of a chair, black mesh fabric over a frame. I've given a few out to people with back trouble, and they have been very well received. About $4 each.

I find my auto sunshade (goes over the inside of the windshield when parked) to be a huge life improvement in the summer. Keeps the car much cooler, and the steering wheel doesn't burn my hands. It takes me about 30 seconds to deploy it and to fold it again when I get back in the car. I have air conditioning, but that doesn't keep the car cool when it's parked. Wonderful product, but not a very good gift for this time of year on the north end of the planet.

Small double wall metal thermos bottles run about $10. I like to bring a hot drink with me if I'm going somewhere where they won't be available or would rather not spend the money or time at a coffeeshop. Wonderful for winter driving or hiking.

Gaffer's tape is a very nice alternative to duct tape, doesn't leave the horrible sticky residue behind, so there are many more places where it can be used. It will also lift leftover sticky bits from other tapes. Runs around $10 to $14 a roll, but as a gift it's somewhat lacking on presentation qualities.

A smaller nylon tool belt can be had for around $15, it's very handy and something someone might not think to get for themselves. It's much nicer to have what you need ready at hand than having to walk even a few steps to get it, particularly on a ladder. Aside from stereotypical tools, they also work well for sewing tools, housecleaning tools, or gardening tools.
posted by yohko at 12:19 PM on December 1, 2009

I am constantly losing my keys, glasses, phone and metro card, and I'm upset no one has bought me this remote control Key Ringer that you attach to your belongings. It beeps loudly when you press a button and tada! There are your keys, in the refrigerator where you left them. They're $29.95 for a pair, but I can't tell if it means you get a pair of devices? $30 is a little out of your price range, but if you get a pair then they're $15 each.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:27 PM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Last year someone gave us Javalogs, and they were a fun gift.

Also, I use these tube squeezers for toothpaste, and I LOVE them. I know it is weird but it gives me such pleasure getting all the toothpaste out of the tubes.

I like these little tins of Nivea hand cream. I get them at Walgreens, for .99 each. Winter is harsh where I live, skin gets dry and these are good for pockets.
posted by chocolatetiara at 12:43 PM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

A few Christmases ago a family member got me a bunch of stuff for my car - things I wouldn't think to buy myself like sturdy ice scrapers/brushes, a car cell phone charger and nice mud guards for the floor. No one "brand" to recommend, but I use that stuff constantly.

That (possibly + you cleaning out and taking the car to the wash) would be useful and thoughtful.

Also, if anyone is out on their own for the first time and doesn't have it: a tool kit, or a few common tools (nice screwdriver and hammer.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:57 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My electric tea kettle.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:59 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You mentioned disinterest in picture frames as gifts, but what about printing pictures to give in the frames? Most people I know don't actually have that many pictures of family and friends around, even if they have digital cameras around.

Tangent idea: disposable camera with a few pictures already taken. Mystery gift plus potential to take pictures on Christmas!

If someone you know has a camera or portable music player but no decent case, get them something with space for the camera/music player plus a pocket for accessories/headphones. If the case is really inexpensive, you could also get an extra SD card, so they have spare space for pictures. Bonus: SD memory card reader - I got one for $0.79 shipped(!!), and it's still working, two years later. Some are designed to be used as USB thumb drives, so the extra SD card could double as space for the camera and generic storage.

If someone has a music player but only the stock headphones, I suggest the Koss KSC75. They fit over the ear, so you can still hear the outside world (which I find helpful, and I worry about hearing loss from overly loud earbuds), and they sound fantastic, especially for 'phones under $25. An audiophile friend recommended them as the pair that he used with his iPod, and I've had mine for almost 3 years. I use them almost every day, and they're doing well.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:27 PM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

3 things that have provided me with incredible comfort, and without which I can't imagine existing:

1) A body pillow. I got one like this from the salvation army for $2, and haven't had a bad nights sleep in 5 years.

2) Shoe insoles.

3) Wool socks. Cotton is absolutely the worst thing to have on your feet for any period of time, yet almost all thicker socks are cotton. Any poly-blend will be far more comfortable.

Additional things that have changed my life for the better:

4) A good Thermos. I take good coffee to work every morning so I don't have to drink the swill they make in the break room. Beware: Some thermoses suck.

5) An insulated lunchbox. Most people I work with buy lunch everyday; I save a bundle.

6) A floor-to-ceiling shower caddy.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:30 PM on December 1, 2009

Ben and Jerry's have started selling mini cartons of their ice cream. They are just too cute, and the price in NE is 10 for $10.00. I'm trying to figure out gift pack ideas using them. Wrapping and transporting are obvious problems.
posted by Pennyblack at 1:35 PM on December 1, 2009

Combination apple corer/slicer.
posted by rahnefan at 1:55 PM on December 1, 2009

Good idea keeping the present thing sane.

For $20 you could get a small Swiss Army knife - some even fit on a key ring.

Mine (I think it's called 'climber' or 'mountaineer') is 20 years old and I use it twice a week. Scissors are really good - tweezers seem to get used more that you might expect. You won't be tempted at $20 but the 'million blade' swiss army knives are less useful simply because they're big enough that that you won't carry them with you.
posted by southof40 at 2:18 PM on December 1, 2009

Best answer: Seconding common tools (hammer, screwdriver, etc.)


A good vegetable peeler
Merino wool socks
A microplane for grating hard cheeses/zesting
A hot water bottle (I am surprised how much I use mine and how much I like it)

A few months ago, I spent close to $20 on a stainless steel travel container for leftovers. It's not water-tight but it's perfect for a sandwich. I bring my lunch to work and find this container much, much more appealing than a plastic one.

I'd also recommend, for people newly on their own, go to a nice spice shop like Penzey's and buy small containers of all the common spices and herbs.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 2:29 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Grocery shopping is way less of a pain when you have reusable shopping bags and a trunk organizer. You can get cute grocery bags almost anywhere nowadays. I recommend the vinyl/oilcloth ones over regular cloth.
posted by radioamy at 2:30 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

A screwdrivers with a zillion assorted size regular and phillips bits stored in the handle is awesome - we keep it in the kitchen junk drawer. I also have a small hammer that unscrews to reveal a regular screwdriver, which unscrews to reveal a phillips screwdriver. It's got flowers painted on it, so I know it won't end up buried on mr jane's workbench. Keeping with the fancy screwdriver theme, my arthritic father in law appreciated the good grips type handled screwdriver in his stocking a few years ago.
posted by sarajane at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2009

A pack of mini-screwdrivers are often more useful than full-size in these days of gadgets.

If you know the person, a hat that they will like can be a great gift.

You can buy some amazing jams for $10.

I personally find tea canisters really useful for storing all kind of things, likewise small containers for spices.

A USB kit that comes with a range of different heads. Soooo useful.

Many books retail around $10, even more at the remainders store.

For kids, you can get a whole bunch of semi-precious stones like quartz, agate, etc. Kids often get a kick out of these "jewels".

$10 will get you some not-too-bad real coffee or tea, same with chocolate.

Posters can be a great gift for teens around $10, especially since their parents often have no idea.

It sounds ridiculous, but blank DVDs are incredibly useful, and I never had enough.

For crafty people, you can buy some nice papers and card for $10.
posted by smoke at 3:40 PM on December 1, 2009

Really great sheets. Admittedly, you won't find really great sheets for $10, but you can sometimes find them for less than $40, so they can be fantastic as a gift for a couple.

Seconding the kitchen timer idea listed above. You have no idea how sad I was when mine broke or how incredibly happy I would be to have 3 or 4 of them on hand. I also desperately love my OXO vegetable peeler. And having a hefty stash of kitchen towels or aprons you aren't ashamed to wear are also surprisingly wonderful to have on hand.

Personally, I love it when someone gives me an inexpensive sampler of something useful that I don't know much about, like makeup or olive oil, because it introduces me to new things and helps me identify what I like (or don't like) without a lot of hassle. I'm a big fan of product education via teeny tiny trial sizes, especially if I'm being guided by someone who knows more about it than me.
posted by Diagonalize at 4:12 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

If they have small children, they can probably use this Stanley 4-in-1 Pocket Screwdriver. Modern children's toys have the battery compartments screwed down, and getting this perfect-sized tool for the kitchen drawer was a relief; going to the tool box every time = pain. (The bits store in the tool, ready for use -- more convenient than it looks; it's just one piece.) Also useful for a lot of other small chores. It made life so much nicer I'm cheered every time I see the thing.
posted by kmennie at 4:15 PM on December 1, 2009

Bananagrams is an amazingly fun game, like Scrabble but everyone makes their own crossword and there's no waiting for turns. As we found out over Thanksgiving, it's impossible to walk by without stopping to help someone, and once you've helped someone, you absolutely want to play.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:25 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

a wallet is only as thin as the material from which it is made. i like this "all-ett". made from paper-thin nylon -- they last about 9 months in your front pocket. everything made from their 'spinnaker cloth' (i.e. nylon) is remarkably thin.
posted by maulik at 4:45 PM on December 1, 2009

Rechargeable batteries and a charger. I hate buying batteries, and rechargeables actually last longer in things that pull a lot of power, like digital cameras.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:51 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

i totally love these "flip and tumble" bags. i carry two or three around with me all the time now just because it's so easy and they're so cute.
posted by gretchin at 5:23 PM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Maglite Solitaire has been a lifesaver on my keychain on several occasions. For sale on a rack next to the counter in pretty much every hardware store in the USA.
posted by Brian James at 6:17 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I loved it when I found a headlamp that was small enough to carry around all the time. Then I lost it and can't remember the brand, but here's something that looks similarly small and light ($20). There are $10 ones from Coleman as well.
posted by salvia at 8:41 PM on December 1, 2009

I had to buy new earbuds a couple years ago, so I bought these. (The lowest price on the list is $16.) I'm still using them today--they sound great.
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:06 PM on December 1, 2009

Wooden toaster tongs, for when toast or bagels get stuck.
posted by misha at 9:06 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

A couple years ago, my school aged child gave me a handy dandy hammer with nested screwdrivers. - I use it all the time and when I'm done with it, I don't have to stash it away in a junk drawer. And it's only $5.50!
posted by kbar1 at 9:47 PM on December 1, 2009

A timer that beeps, flashes, or vibrates (or any combination thereof), has a magnet and a clip, counts up or down, and does hours/minutes or minutes/seconds. Good for generic household purposes, but also handy for those with attention/distraction issues, e.g. you can use it to delimit breaks or chunks of working time.

It's a bit over $20, but a bagel biter/guillotine or something analogous is indispensable for bagel eaters. Makes slicing a bagel easy, prevents emergency room visits for bagel-related injuries.

High-fidelity earplugs that reduce volume without muffling speech.
posted by parudox at 10:24 PM on December 1, 2009

Er, I meant: high-fidelity earplugs.
posted by parudox at 10:26 PM on December 1, 2009

I just got a netbook, and best co-purchase?
$12 USB speakers on Amazon. Doesn't need to plug into a power outlet, just runs off the USB cord.
If you know anyone with a laptop, new netbook, or just has crappy home desktop speakers, it's an easy improvement.

(and, amusing alternate to above post)

Also, there's the $10 vibrating pillow I got from Walgreens when I mean to get a travel pillow.
Brrrrr- AaaAAAAAaaaaahhhhhhhhhh....

If they have allergies, an allergenic mattress cover (eh, the stuff you don't think of).

Drawer dividers. Lightshades. Bulk rainbow glasses and suncatchers... What? They make my life better!

(Ah, the internets. I love the stuff I can get from you...)
posted by Elysum at 12:20 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

By far the best gadget I got this year was, of all things, a knife sharpener. It's magical! Only ten bucks and super satisfying to use.
posted by anildash at 12:36 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Comfy Slippers.
posted by SarahElizaP at 1:18 AM on December 2, 2009

Thor-lo socks

Silk sockliners
posted by jgirl at 7:01 AM on December 2, 2009

I can't believe no one has mentioned the Fischer Space Pen. The basic bullet design fits in your pocket or purse, writes upside down or right side up on almost any surface, and feels pretty comfortable in your hand. Besides, with all the concern about flu and other illnesses these days, it's pretty nice not to have to use that greasy, sticky pen that everyone else uses at checkout counters. This is one of those devices that, once you have it, you wonder how you ever did without.
posted by dinger at 9:10 AM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Garlic press!!! No more peeling/mincing/smelly fingers.
posted by fancyoats at 2:11 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cloth napkins. Many times nicer to use than paper. All cotton or linen; poly makes them useless. Pepper grinder.
posted by theora55 at 5:51 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

After quickly losing my Space Pen and related alternatives, I found my way to the Inka pen, which is $20 and delightful. Writes anywhere in any position, like a Space Pen, Lives on my keychain, so it's hard to lose. Refillable. Comfy to write with. Makes Julienne fries. Babysits the kids.

I find people who like to cook also appreciate when you buy them ingredients that tend to be expensive as part of a shopping list, but are always in demand. A double-sized bottle of artisan vanilla extract will be a hit with bakers (as would a bundle of wonderful Madagascar vanilla beans). A gift pack of artisan cooking oils won't fail you. Indulge pasta-lovers with morel mushrooms. Anyone who enjoys Japanese cuisine might love packets of wakame seaweed.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:54 AM on December 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

This idea requires you being handy in a kitchen, and may require some aggregate cash outlay of slightly greater than $20, but you can get multiple gifts in one go -- it's what I'm doing for a few people.

* Spice mixes. Get some spices in bulk, some nice jars, mix stuff together in a bowl, decant into the jars. If you get a decent amount of spices, you can make about 5-6 jars in one go.

* Canning fruits/pickles/jams. There's a new book out, WELL PRESERVED by Eugenia Bone, which doesn't just give recipes for the apricot jam or whatever, it also gives you a few recipes for "and now that you HAVE this apricot jam, here's some things you can make WITH it". A pound of apricots makes about 4 cups of jam, in the book she published -- that's 4 half-pint jars. You can get half-pint-size jars in your food supply shop, or even in some hardware stores, for a buck or two apiece. Split those up amongst four family members with a little copy of the recipes using the jam, and you've got four gifts for about six bucks or so per person.

I'm taking this approach with a few people -- I'm making about 4-5 different batches of fruit/pickle/jam, as well as some spice mixes, and am mixing and matching to make up little gift baskets ("okay, we'll put some of the apples in cousin Tom's basket because he's obsessed with apple pie, and then those jalapeno pickles and the taco spice powder in Lucy's basket because she loves mexican food -- the chai mix and some figs in brandy for Sarah, perhaps...")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on December 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Who knew this question would end up being in the top 20 most favorited? Thanks, everyone, some amazingly creative options being handed out. Keep them coming if you can... seems like lots of other people are getting use out this thread too.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:16 AM on December 3, 2009

Best answer: Most of these are retreads from the recent cookware recommendation threads, oops. But still. I maintain, as I did before there, that a bunch of little kitchen items under $20 that are very very well designed can change your cooking experience immensely. It feels so good to have tools that are reliable, that you don't have to fight, that are convenient and clean easily and oh I could go on!
  • Cuisipro measuring spoons are easy to clean and actually fit in tiny spice jars so you don't have to dump spices into spoons and get the excess all over the counter--they changed my life in the kitchen
  • OXO Good Grips tongs...most tongs SUCK when it comes to their locking mechanism and fall apart quickly; these don't, and hence don't induce rage in me like the others do when I'm trying to flip something in hot frying oil quickly, whew. Silicone tongs also rule.
  • You can get cast iron cheap used and reseason it yourself, for someone who doesn't yet know its wonders.
  • To continue on as an OXO shill, their box cheese grater is good quality, about 16 bucks, and includes a box below it to collect (and then store in the fridge) the cheese
  • Just one more OXO recommendation, promise...their canisters, the airtight ones that you press down on to seal, are awesome and more than someone would probably pay for themselves, but well within your range ($13-16, I think?). They really organize and tidy a pantry up instantly (they're modular and stackable) and look very smart. I love mine.
  • Progressive makes a collapsible funnel, so it's easier to store. Come to think of it, collapsible measuring cups and tupperware are also pretty easy to find these days too
  • Kuhn Rikon's garlic press is the only one I'd ever bother with, because it's sturdy aaand you can take out the part that gets pressed and messy
  • If you prefer using kosher salt to standard table salt, a salt pig or little salt cellar is wonderful as a replacement to useless standard salt shakers. Both for convenient prepwork and serving purposes
  • As someone mentioned above, really good spices easily up the ante. Penzey's is a good nationwide resource for this...their spice blends (taco seasoning FTW) in particular are good for a busy cook with high standards; cuts preptime considerably without loss of flavor.
  • If anyone makes apple pies, one of those apple pie corer/slicer things is good for uniformly shaped and sized slices
Affordable cookbooks and cooking references that I use weekly:
  • I'm pretty sure you can get How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman for $20 or just under. It's a much better reference, in my personal opinion, than Joy of Cooking
  • Not Your Mother's Weeknight Cooking by Beth Hensperger changed my life in terms of, uh, weeknight cooking. It's priceless to me--the only cookbook I've yet encountered that lives up to its promise to help you make quick, easy, delicious dinners that won't break the bank. I highly recommend it. It's cheap too. Taste by David Rosengarten is my favorite document of a genuine food lover ever.
Other not-cooking-related things:
  • Stockings/thigh highs/legwarmers/armwarmers from and And in general, really nice socks and undies and gloves and scarves are oh so nice, and with some diligent sniffing around can be had in your price point.
  • Portable USB drives, if you know someone who'd be into that. They make 'em in all kinds of goofy shells now--pens, watches maybe I think? etc.
  • If they live somewhere cold, a nice throe blanket to keep warm

posted by ifjuly at 9:52 PM on December 3, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: To continue on as an OXO shill, their box cheese grater is good quality, about 16 bucks, and includes a box below it to collect (and then store in the fridge) the cheese

....Dude, you've just given me a great idea -- one of those graters paired with a couple of nice cheeses. thanks!

For the record, that's always a nice way to make some kind of cooking implement a bit more "gifty", I've found -- make it some kind of "set". Just getting a whisk, say, never feels all that "sexy" or "gifty" to me, so I pair it with something like, say, a little notebook of meringue recipes. Or something else you can use a whisk for. Some nice coffee goes with a French Press, or a nice teacup goes with the chai spice, things like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:26 AM on December 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Last year everybody on my list got about $20 worth of stuff each from
They are a government products contractor specializing in small, practical tidbits useful to soldiers, EMTs, cops, covert geeks, etc. All very cheap. I wrapped the gifts in camouflage bandannas from the hobby store and made everybody feel more prepared than a Boy Scout.
posted by Oireachtac at 11:52 AM on December 4, 2009 [8 favorites]

Klein 10-in-1 tool. I have 2 of these and use them all the time. There's probably other good ideas on CoolTools actually.
posted by chairface at 4:50 PM on December 4, 2009

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