For all the times you’ve wasted money on purchases you regret, there are certain products that absolutely make life better. We’ve rounded up a collection of some of them, focusing on those that are, for the most part, low-cost. Some can be found for virtually pennies. A few cost over $100. All are good — even great — enough to try to see if they don’t change your life.
1. AeroPress coffee and espresso maker
Great because: Unless you own a Nespresso espresso machine or live near a great Italian cafe, you probably haven’t had a better cup of coffee than you’ll make with the AeroPress coffee and espresso maker, a simple single-cup press. The flavor difference comes, apparently, from immersing the coffee in water only briefly, then pressing it out. That keeps acidity low and avoids typical coffee bitterness.
2. Trader Joe’s fresh pizza dough
Great because: Trader Joe’s fresh pizza dough comes in regular, whole wheat and garlic-and-herb flavors. MoneyTalksNews editor Kari Huus grabs the 1-pound bags of dough to use for her family’s favorite grilled pizzas. Conveniently, Trader Joe’s also stocks all the fixings, like artichoke hearts, arugula, bacon, salami, sausage, olives, Parmesan, mozzarella … and vino, at TJ’s famously low prices. You can also use the dough to make calzones, foccacia, flatbread, cinnamon rolls, garlic butter rolls and cheesy bread sticks.
At SeriousEats, TJ’s pizza dough fans share their tips.
3. Gentle Leader
Cost: $15 with Amazon Prime.
Great because: Fans of the Gentle Leader, a halter-type lead, swear that it prevents most dogs from pulling on the leash. If you have a big, strong pet, you know the value of that.
4. A bicycle
Cost: From $50 to thousands of dollars
Great because: Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson says few purchases have changed his life the way his bicycle has. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise, Stacy says:
Riding my bike, which I try to do at least four times weekly, has definitely improved my life. I listen to TED Talks and other awesome podcasts. I think things through, including business strategies. I’ve come up with lucrative ideas while riding my bike. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment. And most important, it forces me to slow down and see things in their proper perspective. When you sit at a desk all day, it’s easy to think that life is all stress and struggle. Want to know what’s really important in life? Ride a bike along the beach or down a country road.
You can spend thousands of dollars on a fancy, high-performance bike — but you can also get a good deal on a gently used or refurbished bike at a bike shop, in classified ads, and through Craigslist and Amazon.
5. Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap
Cost: $16 for a 32-ounce bottle on Amazon
Great because: MoneyTalksNews editor Kari Huus quit buying expensive cosmetic facial cleansers after she started using Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap. “They were either too drying or did not leave my skin feeling clean,” she says, adding, “Dr. Bronner’s is concentrated, way cheaper than most skin section cleansers and you can use it to wash anything else in your universe, from your lingerie to your horse.” The liquid soap also is made with organic and certified fair trade ingredients and is in a 100-percent post-consumer recycled bottle.
6. Skechers GOwalk shoes
Cost: Starting at about $50
Great because: There’s something about these inexpensive walking shoes that puts a bounce in your step and makes walking extra pleasant and easy. Skechers’ GOwalk soles are springy. See if you don’t feel a bit like you’re bouncing on a trampoline.
Cost: $50 and up for used
Great because: Owning a Kindle basically puts an entire library at your fingertips. You can fill it up with books you’ve purchased online, of course, but there’s no need to spend a cent on books. Downloading electronic books from your local public library is free of charge. Ask your librarian how to do it. When buying a used Kindle, however, be careful. The eBook Reader.com cautions:
Websites like eBay are a popular place to buy and sell used electronics. When buying used Kindles on eBay, only choose to do business with well-established sellers that have high positive feedback and lots of ratings. Don’t trust newer sellers when it comes to used Kindles.
One trustworthy source: Amazon's refurbished and certified electronics marketplace.
8. Unbreakable wine glasses
Cost: $15 for a set of four
Great because: Take these good-looking stemless glasses anywhere — out in the backyard, on a picnic, to a potluck. They’re shatterproof, cheap, fun and flexible for wine or chilled summer drinks. Check out Amazon’s selection.
9. GreatLite LED mini car-charger flashlight
Great because: This small-but-mighty flashlight is recharged in your car’s cigarette lighter/power outlet. Keep a powerful source of light close at hand at all times with no need to worry about batteries.
10. Google maps offline
Great because: Electronic map programs are great … except when there’s no internet connection. Solution: Google Maps offline allows you to download maps for certain locales onto your phone or device so you can find your way without using up cellular data or needing a Wi-Fi connection. Tech Advisor explains how:
To download a map, open the Maps app on your smartphone or tablet (with GPS) and make sure you’re signed in. To check, tap the three horizontal bars to the left of the search bar and see if your name or email address is shown. If not you should see a Sign-in option.
In this same menu, you’ll see Offline areas. Tap this and you’ll probably see “Recommended areas” and your Home location. Since downloads only persist for 29 days, it’s only worth downloading this if you think you’ll need it soon.
You won’t have driving directions, transit links or walking routes and times but you can navigate as you would with an old-fashioned paper map. Download from Apple Store or Google Play.
11. Disability insurance
Great because: Short-term disability insurance can get you through a crucial period of rehabilitation from sickness or injury, including a normal pregnancy, that might otherwise wreck your finances. While work-related injuries may be covered by a state workers’ compensation insurance claim, disability insurance covers you if you are ill or are injured outside the workplace.
Policies often are offered through your workplace and purchased as part of a group. “Generally, expect to pay between 1 and 3 percent of your salary,” for long-term disability coverage, according to Consumer Reports, adding that the average disability claim lasts more than 31 months.
Insure.com says that a typical short-term policy offers 60 percent of your pre-disability base salary. Here’s more on this type of product, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a brochure, from the America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) trade association.
Cost: $3 per month (with free trial)
Great because: The 1Password manager app is simple enough that you’ll actually use it.
Managing passwords drives most of us crazy. We know we’re defeating our own security by letting the computer remember passwords or keeping a list of them on a device, but what can you do? Here’s what: Try this automated approach. You remember just one password. The rest are automatically loaded and updated on the app. For more, see Ask Stacy: What’s the Best Way to Protect My Passwords and Stay Safe Online?
13. Budgeting apps
Cost: From free to $100
Great because: How will you save and stop living paycheck-to-paycheck if you don’t know where your money goes? The best budgeting apps can be life-changing, making your money management easy, automatic and even sort of fun. Our favorite is You Need A Budget, which offers a 34-day free trial. Also see Ask Stacy: What Are the Best Budgeting and Expense Tracking Tools and Apps?
14. A shelter dog
Great because: A lowly mutt — a sweet creature from a shelter or rescue group that costs only a modest fee — has the capacity to change your life enormously.
The adoption fee for a pound mutt usually is low — MoneyTalksNews writer Karla Bowsher got her older dog for $150 from a shelter. Amortized over a pup’s lifetime, that is a screaming deal. It’s true that the cost of upkeep — for kibble, vet bills and however many toys and indulgences you want to purchase — can raise the cost considerably. But much of that expense is optional (the basics are food, water, immunizations and walks). The cost, even when it runs into thousands of dollars at the end of an older dog’s life, is a pittance compared with the companionship, laughter, love, snuggling and entertainment.
“We’ve had our dog for one year now, and I can’t imagine ever not having a dog again. She has done everything from ensuring I stick to my exercise routine to offering solace and comic relief as my household went through a difficult transition. Dogs are hardly cheap considering all the expenses over the course of their lives, but there are plenty of ways to save on everything from vets to food.”
15. USB water bottle humidifier cap
Great because: It’s kind of ingenious! Charge up this device with the accompanying USB cord for hours of use. Screw it onto the top of a water bottle, and it pumps a light mist into the environment — at home, at work or even in the car.
16. LifeStraw personal water filter
Great because: If you are a hiker, camper, boater or traveler — or if you are assembling a disaster preparedness kit — this simple personal water purifier is an excellent, lightweight accessory that could save your health or even your life. According to the Grommet, a LifeStraw:
- Filters up to 264 gallons (1,000 liters) of water.
- Utilizes an innovative hollow fiber membrane filter. Contains no chemicals (no iodine or chlorine) and leaves no aftertaste.
- Removes 99.9999 percent of waterborne bacteria and 99.9 percent of waterborne protozoan parasites.
The straw weighs 2 ounces and measures 9 inches long by 1 inch in diameter.
17. Smartphone camera lenses
Cost: $81 for a wide lens
Great because: Use your smartphone’s camera like a professional photographer with these lenses that fasten over the phone’s camera lens. Gizmodo says Moment Mobile-Photography Lenses “offer image quality as good as that of anything we tested, and their straightforward attachment system fits easily under most iPhone cases.” Android versions are available, too.
18. Selfie stick
Cost: $12 and up
Great because: Since you are going to take photos of yourself anyway, get the equipment and take a good shot. Some 1,000 selfies are posted to Instagram every 10 seconds, according to AdWeek, which also reports that “More people died from taking selfies in 2015 than from shark attacks.” So, use your selfie stick, but also use your head!
19. Nutramax Dasuquin joint-health supplement for dogs
Cost: $50 and up
Great because: Nutramax Dasuquin, a glucosamine-chondroitin supplement, is particularly effective, some dog owners find.
Chicago veterinarian Donna Solomon blogs, at Huffington Post:
Did you know that nutrapharmaceutical products are not FDA regulated? It is for this reason that I only recommend an independently tested product produced by Nutramax, called Dasuquin. This product supplies your pet’s joints with building materials to help rebuild your pet’s cartilage and decrease joint inflammation. For dogs, it is a tasty chewable product. For cats, it’s available as a capsule that you sprinkle on their food. I find this product works well in most pets, but not all. Try it for at least six weeks before you evaluate its efficacy.
20. Milk foamer
Cost: $10 and up
Great because: Frothing the milk for your latte elevates the morning coffee ritual into something really special. Nespresso’s Aeroccino Plus heats and foams the milk (or cream) superbly, but it costs $99. Fortunately, there are other options, from the $10 IKEA frother and the $18 Aerolatte to Epica’s $42 Automatic Electric Milk Frother and Heater Carafe, which Best Reviews pronounces “best bang for the buck.” Check out the selection on Amazon.
21. Philips wake-up light
Great because: Not all of us jump right out of bed smiling and ready to tackle the day. If you struggle to wake and rise, especially in the wee hours of the winter darkness, you are not alone, my friend.
“I was born a night owl,” says MoneyTalksNews writer Karla Bowsher. But she has become, she says, “a morning person without the struggle.” She attributes the transformation to her Philips wake-up light alarm clock, which wakes her up with a combination of gentle sounds and a gradually intensifying light that simulates the sunrise. The light-alarm has allowed her to finally enjoy a morning routine. “Having time for the little things in the morning improves my mindset and, in turn, my entire day,” she says. The cheapest, basic model does the job. More expensive models from Philips include, for example, a snooze button, background sounds, FM radio, color sunrise simulation and a reading lamp.
Philips is not the only manufacturer of these light-alarms. Numerous competitors offer similar products — one is called a “dawn simulator.” Are other brands better? Possibly. Read up online and decide for yourself. One place to start is this article about light therapy, in SleepReview Magazine, a medical journal.
22. Negg hard-boiled egg peeler
Great because: The ability to peel a hard-boiled egg is a basic life skill. Or is it simply luck at those times when the stars line up correctly and the shell slips smoothly off the egg? The internet is littered with tips and tricks, but none of them seem to work every time. All that shouldn’t matter once you’ve invested in the Negg — short for “naked egg” — an intriguingly simple contraption in which you shake a cooked egg back and forth in a little cold water before removing and peeling it. Says a customer at the Grommet:
“I was skeptical because it seems so simple. It is, but it actually works.”
23. Panasonic ErgoFit earbuds
Cost: Under $10
Great because: These basic ErgoFit earbud headphones are something of a cult favorite. More than 42,000 Amazon shoppers have given these inexpensive earphones four-and-a-half stars. BusinessInsider says:
They seem to be perfect for people who want a cheap set of earbuds that don’t sound or feel cheap. If you’re into audio, these might surprise you, as they’ve surprised the audiophiles that have given them a shot.
24. Paderno 4-Blade World Cuisine Spiralizer Pro
Great because: A spiralizer, on the off-chance you’ve missed this hot trend, is a cutting device that carves vegetables into long, slender, pasta-like strands. Vegetable noodles — especially “zoodles” (spiralized zucchini “noodles”) — can stand in for pasta in many dishes. The Paderno spiralizer is a favorite of many good cooks.
“The raw zoodles heat up in the microwave in 3 minutes or less for a quick and satisfying meal,” Food Network writes. Use them for healthy zucchini slaw, in sushi rolls, in chili, salads, soups and to add crunch to sandwiches. Buzzfeed promises that these 10 recipes “will make you a believer.” Zucchini pad Thai, anyone? Carrots and sweet potatoes also work well. Cucumbers, reportedly, are more difficult to use in a spiralizer.
25. Stainless steel vegetable steamer
Cost: $8 to $18
Great because: The humble vegetable steamer is so common that it seems unremarkable. Don’t be fooled. With it you’ll quickly transform fish, shellfish, chicken and raw vegetables into healthy, delectable meals.
Cost: Two for $10 and up
Great because: BluApple, a blue plastic ball kept in the produce section of your refrigerator, claims to prolong the fresh lifespan of fruits and vegetables by absorbing ethylene gas with through openings into a substance inside. The gas is produced by produce as it ripens, and it enhances the ripening process. BluApple explains how the product uses natural clinoptilolite, or zeolite, in the form of volcanic ash, to absorb ethylene gas.
27. Link AKC Smart Collar
Great because: The Link AKC smart accessory — a curved plastic electronic tracker and activity monitor — is fitted to your dog’s collar or used with a leather collar included with the product. The accessory has several functions. If you and your pet become separated, a GPS tracker helps locate the animal, much as the Tile Mate tracker (No. 29) does for possessions. It also tracks the animal’s temperature and activity level, and it has an LED flashlight that’s controlled remotely. The unit also can emit sounds for use in training — approximating clicker training, for example, or helping a barking dog learn to “quiet.” Functions are managed through a phone app.
28. Prynt Pocket iPhone case-printer
Great because: The makers of the Prynt Pocket iPhone case-printer say the product lets you “just plug in your phone, take a picture, and get a printed photo in seconds!” Cases are available for iPhones6, 6S and 7. (Caveat: The photos appear to be on the small side.)
Prynt makes Apple phone cases that can print the photos you take on demand. It comes in a variety of colors, and though it’s a little bulky, it’s not too big to fit in one hand. Prynt uses ink-free photo paper, so there’s no need to replace ink cartridges.
29. Tile Mate
Great because: Attach this little smart tracker to anything you want to keep track of — a keychain, laptop, purse, bicycle, luggage, pet. Lost it? Call it up with your smartphone. Here's an Amazon customer review that tells the story:
For 25 years I have helped my husband look for his wallet. EVERY DAY. No matter what system I tried to introduce him to, what basket was on the counter just for his wallet … was a dismal failure. EVERY DAY FOR 25 YEARS. I gave this tile to him for Christmas. It has been the best two months of my life.
However — and it’s a big however — realize that Tile may collect data from your use of the device. The Amazon user reviews discuss this, too, as do Tile Mate’s privacy terms. If you don’t care for the purchase, the company offers a full refund for products purchased from its site with original packaging. Each Tile’s battery is good for about a year, after which time you may purchase a replacement for about $15 each.
30. Hickies elastic lacing system
Great because: These attractive, flexible laces let you eliminate the annoyance of tying your shoelaces. You’ll find them in black, rainbow and a variety of solid colors. Replace your laces, transforming lace-up shoes into slip-ons and keeping them securely on your feet. No more lacing, tying or stepping on untied shoelaces. Hickies can be used to replace laces on any shoe with eyelets. In colors, white and metallic. At the Grommet.
31. WowWee Magnaflex Animals
Cost: $20 for 14-piece set
Great because: With this clever toy, children and adults can build 3-D creatures by bending and connecting a small library of flexible pieces that adhere magnetically. Fun for everyone.
32. Pressure washer
Cost: $80 and up
Great because: The magic cleaning power of water under pressure cannot be exaggerated (although the photo above illustrates it well). Use a pressure washer (carefully, so you don’t gouge wood or remove an item’s finish) to clean bikes, tools, vehicles, lawn mowers, decks and railings, fences, brick exterior home siding and concrete or tile driveways, walks and patios. You’ll find reconditioned pressure washers for sale under $100. Keep an eye on Craigslist.
33. Fitbit Alta HR
Great because: CNET dubs the Fitbit Alta HR “the best fitness tracker” for 2018, saying: “Long battery life and stylish design combined with improving app software make the Alta HR the best all-around fitness tracker for most people.”
The battery lasts seven days, the wristbands are interchangeable, and the device measures activities including sleep stages, steps, distance and active calories burned.
34. Playbulb Bluetooth solar-powered outdoor light
Cost: $30 each
Great because: Wow your guests. This fun accessory is just in time for outdoor entertaining season. This solar-powered LED product changes colors. It charges in direct or indirect sunlight. You program it with a (free) app downloaded to your phone or mobile device (iOS 7.0 or Android 4.3 or later). Notes the Grommet:
Choose colors (from an endless array), adjust brightness, and set effects — like flashing, fading, and pulsing — all from the app on your smart device. You can even synch multiple lights as a group to create a mini light show, or set them to start glowing when the sun goes down.
You probably won’t be satisfied with just one, of course.
35. Kilner butter churner
Great because: Are you yearning to show the kiddies what “Little House on the Prairie” life was really like? Here’s your chance: DIY butter in a tidy little Mason jar with its own churn.
36. Hands-free headlamp
Cost: $17 and up
Great because: For camping, night hikes, walks and bike rides, under-house repairs and many other uses, this hands-free headlamp will save the day for you at some point. The Wirecutter’s review of headlamps recommends the Black Diamond Spot ($30 and up).
37. Stick (immersion) blender
Cost: $30 and up
Great because: Immersion blenders, also called stick blenders, take the work and the fuss out of making smoothies and pureeing soups and sauces. This is a life changing appliance that no kitchen should be without.
Great because: The Swiffer changes the task of mopping — or dust-mopping — the floor for the better. The product is so popular that “swiffing” the floor has become a verb in the vocabulary of many households. Dry mop your floor with paper cloths that insert nicely into the Swiffer mop. Wet mop with saturated cloths. It just makes life a little easier. One word of caution, from Kmart: “Do not use Swiffer Sweeper wet cloths on unfinished, oiled, or waxed wooden boards, non-sealed tiles or carpeted floors.”
39. Nature’s Miracle
Cost: $7 and up
Great because: If you’ve owned pets or been a parent you know that children and animals sometimes produce some pretty awful stains and smells that are resistant to the power of most cleansers or rug and upholstery shampoos. That’s where the Nature's Miracle products come in. They use enzymes, not fragrances, to eliminate, rather than mask, the source of bad smells from blood, vomit, urine and other organic sources. The products are made for cleaning up pet accidents but they’re useful for human accidents, too.
40. Dawn dishwashing liquid
Cost: $11.07 for two 21.6-ounce bottles
It’s great because: Dawn dishwashing liquid, in its original Blue version, is legendary for its ability to cut grease while being gentle on skin. It is famous for its use by wildlife biologists to clean birds and other animals that have been contaminated in oil spills.
“For over 30 years, Dawn dish soap has been an important part of rescuing and releasing more than 75,000 wild animals affected by oil pollution,” according to manufacturer Procter & Gamble.
All this means Dawn is highly effective at cutting grease in the kitchen, of course. But it is not a “green” product: its effectiveness is due at least in part to that fact that petroleum is an essential ingredient. As National Public Radio explains:
[T]he reason Dawn is so good at cleaning birds without hurting them is that it was designed to erase grease from dishes without harming hands. The exact formula is a secret, but she says the key is balancing the surfactants — the chemicals that cut the grease.
41. My Critter Catcher insect grabber
Great because: My Critter Catcher lets you kindly and gently but firmly remove insects from inside the home while keeping them at arm’s length. The 25-inch handle lets you keep your distance while squeezing the handle, trapping insects in a firm grip. Release the critter outdoors unharmed by releasing the handle.
42. ADK Packworks Market Basket
Great because: Yes, $30 is a lot to spend on a reuseable grocery bag when you can find others for less than $1. But this sturdy ADK Packworks nylon or polyester shopping bag is something special. It has a metal internal frame that keeps it upright and gives it structure when open and allows it to lie flat and be stacked when collapsed. Its adjustable padded handles allow its use as a two-handed bag or a shoulder bag, and you can purchase ($10) a liner that lets you to use the bag as a cooler. It’s attractive and spacious enough to serve numerous other functions, from beach bag to errand bag.
43. RapidX high-speed charger
Great because: This automotive device charger ups the mobile charging game with five USB ports (three on one side, two more on the reverse side). Imagine charging five devices at once as you roll down the road.
44. George Foreman grills
Cost: $30 and up
Great because: In a grill-crazy world, you might feel a little left out if you don’t have patio space and the budget to set up a major-league outdoor grill. For those of us who don’t, the affable George Foreman, former two-time world heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist, is a hero. He is the pitchman and namesake for a terrific product, the George Foreman Grill.
The basic Foreman electric grill is a plug-in countertop product that lets you grill up burgers, sausages, steaks, chicken, fish and veggies in minutes. The results rival any other method. Upgraded — and more-expensive — models enable countertop broiling, high-heat searing and a removable stand for backyard electric grilling. The basic version is plenty good, though. And if $30 is more than you want to spend, look at thrift stores for recycled Foreman grills. Just be sure, when you do, that the nonstick coating is intact. Toss your grill when the coating shows scratches or wear.
45. Osmocote plant fertilizer
Cost: Varies, depending on product
Great because: Fertilize once in a growing season with Osmocote, and you’re done. This time-release inorganic fertilizer keeps plants nutritionally happy for four to six months, depending on the product.
46. Ziploc storage bags
Cost: $3 and up
Great because: These resealable, reuseable Ziploc bags have a use in every room, including the garage and workshop, from the ubiquitous sandwich bags to the largest, XL 2-gallon bags. Can’t get enough of Ziploc bags? Try the jumbo space bags for closet storage.
These bags are a game-changer because: They zip out air, keeping food fresh; they zip out water and moisture, keeping the contents dry; you can see at a glance what’s inside. Plus, depending on what’s inside, they can be stackable: Freeze soups in a Ziploc bag by spreading the full bag flat on a cookie sheet. Stack the full, frozen bags flat in the freezer for efficient use of space.
47. IKEA clothes hangers
Cost: $9.20 for 20 hangers
Great because: At first glance these IKEA hangers look like any other plastic hanger. But the problem with plastic hangers is how clothes can slip off, and IKEA’s designers have cleverly tweaked the design to minimize the issue of sliding clothes. The plastic is flat, not rounded, and it’s not as slick as that used in most plastic hangers. In addition, the hanger itself has a slightly huskier design, and the base is notched, so you can hang camisoles by their straps.
48. Grönadal rocking chair
Great because: While we’re on the subject of IKEA, take a look at this lightweight rocker. At $250, it’s not the cheapest item in our roundup, but that’s a decent price for a living room chair. “This gorgeous piece looks stunning adorned with a cushion or sheepskin,” designer Tali Roth tells MyDomaine.
49. ShamWow towels
Cost: $20 per set
Great because: Laugh all you want, but I love my ShamWow towels. (If you haven’t seen the classic ShamWow TV commercial, enjoy it here.) They last forever, are as absorbent as the TV commercials would have you believe, and they’re big, so you can cut them into smaller sizes for dishes, counter cleanups and other household chores. Plus, the ShamWow pitchman has quite a history, as documented by NBC.
50. IKEA Antagen dishwashing brushes
Cost: 49 cents and up
Great because: That’s right: 49 cents. There’s not much you can buy for 49 cents, but this long-handled brush is a seriously good kitchen tool. Keep your hands out of the soap and water while cleaning up efficiently. At this price you can bring home one in every color (white, orange, red, blue and black). Don’t live near an IKEA store? You’ll find them on Amazon, they’re currently $7.33 for the set of five.
What products have you found that have an impact on the quality of your life? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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