Product Recommendations

Useful (not as common) Stuff I’ve Bought

So I buy a lot of stuff. Much of it ultimately goes unused and is returned or donated, but the few purchases that don’t more than make-up for the risks taken in buying potentially useless things. The following is a list of the more “unusual” items I’ve purchased that I’m disproportionately happy with. They’re unusual in the sense that, visiting the apartments and houses of my peers, I rarely find their duplicates; otherwise, they’re fairly mundane. Alternatively, what follows is a list that I’d send back in time of things that I feel have provided me with much more value than what I originally paid for them. It’s far from exhaustive and mostly represents me walking around the apartment and going, hmm, what do I like? I recommend that others by them only insofar as they are similar to me and can sympathize with my stated justification.

Note — a lot of the items here I bought pretty heavily discounted from their MSRP. If I want to get or try something new, I’m usually pretty patient, such that I’m willing to wait a year or more for a good sale (this also helps to avoid impulse purchases motivated by fleeting whims). Generally, that involves setting up email alerts on and These sites are also good to check historic sales for different items, especially since prices can fluctuate pretty dramatically on a day-by-day basis. Before buying anything whose pricing I’m not familiar with online, I’ll usually search on both sites to see if the current price is anomalously high, or if prices drop with any regularity. I’d advise you all to do the same.

Now come and revel with me in the glory of consumerism!

IR Toaster Oven: This effectively combines the reheating awesomeness of a toaster oven with the convenience of a microwave. Basically, it warms (and bakes) food without requiring you to pre-heat anything. As a result, it’s essentially replaced the microwave for me, since re/heating something through baking nearly always gives me yummier results than microwaving it. It also looks like something out of a 1970s SciFi movie. I got this one for around $70.

Knife Sharpener: Dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones, and making sure all our knives stay sharp makes cooking much more pleasant and smooth. Sharpeners are pretty inexpensive, too; I use this one, which I bought for a few bucks.

Blackout Curtains: There’s an intersection and streetlights right outside our bedroom window, so these are super helpful at getting the room dark at night. They’re also good at lowering ambient light when watching movies on the bedroom TV. Darker ones seem to block more light than lighter colored ones, so I’d get a black one and additional curtains to put on the inside and outside if you want another color (or something cooler to face outward during the summer)

Ebook reader
: I have a “Nook”, but I think the Kindle won that war (both can be found for a few tens of dollars on sale). For me, e-readers are most useful for travel when I’m away from internet connections and wall outlets. It’s easy enough to load mine up with thousands upon thousands of books (legally, like from Project Gutenberg, or from torrents) and have a few dozen hours of reading between charges. Built in dictionaries and search functions are also super convenient.

Nice microphone/webcam: I Skype a fair amount – probably at least ~100 hours a year across weekly phone calls to my ma and grandparents and occasional chats with friends and collaborators. Having a nice mic and webcam ensures that I’m both seen and heard clearly (at least, insofar as both parties have a good internet connection). I use this microphone, which can be had on sale for around ~$70, as well as this webcam.

Nice Computer: Kate and I assembled a new computer a few months ago (with an i5 4690K, MSI Z97 Gaming 5, GTX 970, 32 Gigs of Ram, and 500 GB SSD, and 4 monitors), which we now use for gaming and I use for work (mostly coding and running simulations/data analyses, but occasionally editing photos/video). It’s definitely the nicest computer I’ve ever used and working on it entails much less frustration than working on my old laptop, mostly since everything’s so blazing fast in comparison. Having three screens (1080P screens are getting to the <$100 range, and higher resolutions can be had for <$200 on sale) gives me a lot of real estate and it’s super convenient to have RStudio (or some other coding user interface) open in one window, a PDF in another, a browser window in a third, and a text editor/word processor in a fourth (I’ve been trying to get into LaTex, but there’s a learning curve). Putting everything together was a bit stressful (like assembling very expensive, fragile legos! What fun!) but it did teach me a fair bit about computer hardware and I now have a lot more confidence taking computers apart to replace broken parts or upgrade old ones. I waited around for sales and got everything for around ~$1,200 in 2015.

Computer Peripherals: Mechanical Keyboard, XBOX 360 controllers, 5.1 Speakers, Gaming Mouse, etc. The keyboard’s a lot of fun to type on with all the clickety-clackety and greater physical feedback and has some programmable keys and backlights to improve efficiency (as does the mouse). Mechanical keyboards run more than membrane keyboards (around $50-$100 for entry level ones – I got my Logitech G710 for $50), but you can try them out in most big computer stores to see if they’re for you (and determine what sorts of switches you prefer – blue, brown, red, etc.). Having decent budget surround sound speakers (mine are the ~$50 Logitech Z506s) make movies and games more immersive and enjoyable, and a bunch of old 360 controllers with a wireless adapter lets me forego current gen consoles until they get really cheap.

Pipeeska: Great dog, 9/10, would recommend. But seriously, having a dog in grad school is awesome and forces us to go out on walks and stuff. He’s also really adorable and amusing and likes to cuddle.

Adjustable Dumbbells: Sometimes you just really feel the need to do some lateral raises, croc rows, Turkish getups, curls, etc., y’know? Fancy adjustable dumbbells can run into the hundreds of dollars, but Walmart occasionally sells ~40lb cement ones for ~$10, which you can further improve with a variety of 1” plates (which usually run for <$1/lb). The cement ones are good for lighter accessory lifts and the iron ones for heavier lifts (though if you’re going above ~50-100 lbs/DB I’d recommend getting a sturdier bar than what’s used in the cheaper set)

Pullup Bar and Dip Belt: So now you have a bunch of plates. What else can you do with them? Weighted pullups, that’s what! I personally use one of these, which I bought IIRC for ~$15. It lets me use a hammer/neutral grip, which is easier on the shoulders and engages the back more (from what I can remember). A dip belt will let you suspend plates between your legs more comfortably than a weighted vest and much more comfortably than a backpack. After you can do 15+ bodyweight pullups, you can more effectively continue to improve strength by progressive overloading the amount of weight you lift. They also obviously work for dips.

Resistance Bands: Another worthy addition to a budget home gym is a set of resistance bands. I use these, and they make possible many additional exercises, like facepulls, tricep pushdowns, Pallof press, pec cable flies, internal/external shoulder rotation, and YTWLs.

Ab Wheel: I’m at that unfortunate awkward stage where rollouts from knees are too easy but rollouts from standing are too hard. Still, it’s a nice, inexpensive way to further round out your collection of at home exercise equipment. I have both a fancy and a basic one and the former doesn’t seem any better than the latter.

Bidet: For some reason I always thought these were really expensive, but you can get a pretty good one on Amazon for ~$20. It won’t have all the bells and whistles and create a dry air vortex while massaging your prostate and vibrating the seat to beautiful music; mostly it’ll just squirt cold water at your butt. But then you have a really clean butt. What’s not to love? What persuaded me to initially look into them was that, if somehow poop got onto any other part of my body, I would not be content to dab at it with a tissue (or even a wet wipe) and call it a day. I’d want some running water at minimum!

Waterpik: As with my outer anus so too with my gums and teeth. My dentist recommended this to me and when used it makes my mouth feel super fresh, especially when mouthwash is mixed in with the water. Used in conjunction with “sensitive gums” woven floss, a tongue scraper, an electric toothbrush, and NovaMin + Fluoride toothpaste, I feel I have a pretty decent dental hygiene routine.

Ankle Weights: I got the 5-lb version of these for $10, took the little sand bags out, and filled the empty spaces with quarters. I did this in part to save money, but then ended up putting several hundreds of dollars of quarters in. At least I can use them for laundry, though I guess this leads to progressive underload. In any case, the ten pound versions would have weighed less than the quartered versions. These are useful mostly for weighted hanging leg raises — another good ab exercise.

Inzer Belt (or equivalent): At $90, my Inzer Forever Lever Belt isn’t super frugal, but I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth from it by now. Much nicer and more stable than the cheap-o prong belts gyms always have to rent out. Supposedly they take a while to break in, but mine was comfy enough from the get go. They come in pretty colors, too!

Squat Shoes: For whatever reason, I resisted getting squat shoes for ages; well, no more! I picked up a pair nearly a year ago and found that they do help me feel a lot more stable doing squats, like I’m glued to the floor. My ankle mobility is fine, but the elevated heel seems to help my lift, too. You can get a decent pair (e.g. my Adidas Powerlift 2.0s) for around $50 on sale.

Board Games: I’ve gotten into board games these past few years and really enjoy playing them with friends. Current favorites include Dixit, Carcassonne, Sushi Go, and Pandemic, though we have a lot in our game chest that have yet to be played.

Canvas Prints: Groupon will occasionally run 30% off coupons which can be applied to Canvas on Demand. As a result, I’ve gotten a lot of nice prints from them (mostly of wedding photos) for ~$20 each that now serve to adorn our apartment.

Humidifier: A few years ago I had Lasik done and it’s unfortunately resulted in me having chronic dry eye today. I find that a humidifier placed near my head while I sleep helps keep me from waking up with my eyes completely glued shut. I got a small one on sale from Amazon for around $10 and aside from a bit of hard water build-up it’s so far worked just fine.

Air Filter/Purifier: To help combat dry-eye, allergies, and my general distaste for dust, I also purchased an “air purifier” from Costco for around ~$140 with an automatic sensort than detects particulate concentrations in the air and adapts its intensity of suction to match. I’m not quite sure I buy all its claims about “PlasmaWave Technology” or whatever, but it does seem to pick up a lot of dusts judging by what’s collected on the filter every time I go to clean/replace it. It’s also really amusing when one of us farts from across the room and the purifier inevitably whirrs to life a minute later. The provided filters run out quickly, and to extend the longevity of the main filter I’ve added an extra layer of foam. It’s also much cheaper to buy 3rd party carbon filters off Amazon rather than going with whatever replacement carbon filters the original product wanted me to use.

Projector + Screen + Speakers: Instead of having a large living room TV for playing games and watching movies and television, we have a projector set-up with speakers installed up by the ceiling. It’s more space efficient and we can get a picture well upwards of 100″ if we project on the wall rather than the screen. Resolution’s 1080P, but it seems higher — I think because not having distinct pixels results in a sort of natural anti-aliasing. On the downside, the image looks a bit washed out when the room’s not dark (though on the positive side, I think the lack of extreme brightness results in less eye strain overall). I think this is the projector we currently have, along with this screen, and they’ve worked quite well for us so far.

Sewing Machine: I have a pretty big drop (~1′) and a large thigh/waist ratio, so finding shirts and pants that fit off-the-rack is impossible. Though I do visit the tailor occasionally, it’s a lot cheaper to alter my clothes myself. Learning how to sew also makes small repairs (e.g. holes) or alterations a breeze!

Miniature Vacuum: Oh man, I really love this thing. Some flour spills in the kitchen? I don’t have to role-play a mid-90s informercial cleaning it up with my hands or fetch the bulky vacuum — I can just grab the handheld. It really helps in staying atop messes before they develop into anything worse, and also helps getting into tight spaces easier where a full vacuum would be unwieldy.

Steam Cleaner: Almost every week after we vacuum, we run a steam mop over the floors to pick up any residual dirt. It tends to work really well, judging by what’s been picked up on the mop after we’re done. Plus, it enables us to experience the deep pleasure of walking on truly clean floors with bare feet.

Fabric Steamer: Speaking of steam, I’ve found that a handheld fabric steamer is much more convenient to use for quick fixes in casualwear than a iron and ironing board — just fill it up with water and point it at your clothes and poof, no more wrinkles.

Drill: It’s surprising how much I use this thing, despite not being terribly construction-y otherwise. I have a generic, fairly weak drill, yet it probably saves me a solid hour a year in screwing and unscrewing obnoxious screws when I’m putting stuff together or decorating. Easily my most-used powertool.

Fancy Nailclippers: For most of my life I’ve used cheap, dollar store nail clippers to trip my nails (or a multitool, with mixed results), but a little while ago I got a fancy fingernail clipper and it’s much, much nicer. How? I’m not really sure. I think it just feels more solid, and my clipping is much more sure. Maybe the blade part doesn’t dull as quickly? Regardless, I now vastly prefer it for clipping nails.

Foam Roller: Back tight after a particular heavy day of deadlifts or yardwork? Sore from falling asleep in a funny position? Enter the foam roller. I love this thing so much that I’ve gifted one to pretty much every family member I have a chance of visiting, partly so they can use one themselves, but also so that I don’t have to bring mine with me when I visit. I also have one at lab, lol. At $10-$20 they’re cheap enough to scatter about, and coupled with a lacross ball to hit smaller spots and DeFranco’s Limber Eleven, I stay flexible and spry. Check out a few of the guides online for tips about how to use it.

Lumbar Support Pillows: But it’s better not to develop a sore back if you can help it. I’ve bought a handful of dedicated lumbar support pillows for ~$10 a pop long flights and road trips and they save me a ton of accumulated backache.

ActionCam: I’ve recently developed an interest in videography, but worry that I’ll damage my camera/cellphone when using it to take action-y videos (and had similar reservations when considering the purchase of a dedicated camcorder) After waiting for a good sale, I bought a GoPro with accessories than now gets taken on most of our hiking trips and can withstand drops, underwater shooting, etc. much more reliably than what I was using before. I have yet to learn the ins-and-outs of different video editing pipelines/workflows, but even the basic software package provided by GoPro seems to do a good job. I’ve heard good things about the Xiaomi Yi, too, for those who want a more budget option (I see it go down to ~$50ish dollars every so often)

Double-edged safety razor: I’ve tried both electric and cartridge razors but find I get the most comfortable shave with a standard double-edge safety razor (this is the one I use). It took me a few months to stop nicking myself every 3rd shave, but now it’s been years since I’ve finished shaving dissatisfied. I think one of the key benefits of a safety razor is that you can replace the blade much more often and for less money than you can a cartridge razor, so it never has a chance to dull. You can also find a blade that works well for you (since facial hair thickness, density, rigidity, etc. will differ person-to-person) by trying out a several using a sample pack.

Retractable Measuring Tape: Now this is a bit minor, but I really hate rolling up tiny cloth measuring tapes after I’ve finished measuring something. Luckily, retractable measuring tapes exist that use springs to do the obnoxious work, just like their big cousins.

Lumbar Waist Pack: I injured my shoulders a little while ago and sometimes they ache when I hike for more than a few hours with a loaded pack — if I don’t require too much water, I leave the backpack at home and just wear a Lumbar Waist Pack. An additional upside: my back doesn’t get nearly as sweaty. A downside: I look really goofy.

Xiaomi Step Counter Mi: Fitness trackers have gotten really popular lately, and if you want one for your wrist and don’t require a ton of fancy features that ultimately don’t work really well, I recommend the Xiaomi Mi, which, at $15, clocks in at a small fraction of the price of better known stepcounters. It also tracks your sleep, though who knows how accurately. I don’t use mine too often but Kate really likes hers.

Multitool: This has come in handy plenty of times, both in my day-to-day life and on backpacking trips. I use the Leatherman Skeletool as my main carry, since it packs a decent amount of features into a fairly lightweight frame (5 oz.). You can usually get one around $30 on sale.

Water Filter: Davis water tastes kinda funny, and I was getting tired of having to constantly fill and refill the pitcher filter, so I bought one that attaches to your sink. Replacement filters cost ~$7 and are good for 200 gallons, which is a small price to pay for less-funny-tasting water. When backpacking, I usually use a Sawyer Mini for its light weight, alongside iodine tablets as my backup water treatment method.


(Header Photo Source)


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