Picks

We Thought Buying This Stuff Would Make 2021 Better. Boy Were We Wrong.

Used silverware. A cat-eye stamp. A coffee warmer with a vengeance.

Collage of unloved purchases in the shape of a sad face.
Photo illustration by Slate.

This year, we spent a lot of time inside our homes (again), a lot of time socializing (at last), and a lot of time feeling … very, very confused about which one we ought to be doing. Yes, 2021 brought vaccines, but it also brought variants, supply chain woes—and, naturally, some stress shopping gone wrong. Here are some of the things we bought this year in an attempt to make our lives better. They did not do that. We do not recommend you buy them, either.

Aqua Ruler

This summer, during a MOMA Design Store sale, I purchased a blue acrylic ruler. (The ruler I bought is no longer available, but this one has a similar vibe.) Why did I want a ruler? Your guess is as good as mine. I am not a child learning to measure. I had no plans to make a technical drawing of any kind. There are at least two tape measures already in my home, and those are much more useful for the occasions in my life that actually require measuring aids. (Centering a picture frame on a wall? With a 12-inch ruler?)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Looking back, I believe I was suckered in by the sale price ($1.56!) and the chic, minimal design, which was much cooler than the rulers of my youth. I realized that I didn’t own a single ruler, and it seemed like the kind of thing one should have, for reasons. Five months later, I have reversed my position. Adults do not need rulers. Luckily, mine looks very cute rattling around my junk drawer. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer and podcast host

Cat Eyeliner Stamp

During a part of the pandemic when I had a reprieve from nonstop video calls, I decided it was the perfect time to finally learn how to do a nice little cat eye eyeliner, a look I’ve always admired on other people. It turns out that there is something weird about the shape and structure of my eye that makes this impossible, but I didn’t know that, so every day I tried and failed. One of my many challenges was symmetry, so when I saw this—a stamp that does all the work for you!—I hit “add to cart.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

I can’t explain how bad it looked (a few days into the experiment, when I thought I’d actually done an OK job, my husband gently asked, “Is there something wrong with your eye?”) or why it didn’t work. But I also can’t explain why I thought it would. I mean, it’s clearly too good to be true. Again, my eye setup probably deserves part of the blame here. But do not buy this. —Jenée Desmond-Harris, Dear Prudence columnist

Replacement Wick Humidifier Filters

My Amazon shopping history is littered with the detritus of my desperate and flailing mission to have a well-humidified home in which we have spent and are spending so much (so much) time. We own evaporative humidifiers rather than ultrasonic, because something something mineral dust, something moisture levels, something something—who the frick knows anymore, because they have taken over my life.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

For some reason, no wicking filter I buy, OEM or not, is working. They’re drying up. They’re starting to smell of rotted fruit. Sediment gathers. I wash them out. They get dirty again. The filters turn brown, turn black, fray, frizz. I spend $20, $30, $40.

No more, never again. I would rather drape wet towels over our radiators than go through another pandemic winter month with my soul being sucked out by something that won’t play fetch or snuggle or call me when I’m old. —Lowen Liu, deputy editor

Compression Socks

OK, the thing is, I actually love these compression socks. I wear them around the house after tough workouts, on runs when it’s just a bit too nippy for shorts alone, or while flying. They’re functional! They’re cute! But in the thrall of striving for free shipping, I, for some reason, bought FOUR pairs of them. I have a washing machine. There is no world in which I would need compression socks four days in a row without access to a washer. I literally have never even opened two of the pairs of the—not cheap!—bougie, Instagram-ad approved compression socks I bought. Just get the one pair, pay for the shipping, and enjoy the snug fit of these babies on your sore calves. —Abby McIntyre, managing editor

Antique Silverware Set

I’ve been trying to focus on buying fewer, nicer, pre-owned things. I thought this box of antique silver-plated silverware fit the bill, since we were starting from scratch and needed a full set. I could have done more research before making an impulse buy at an estate sale auction. I ended up with enough silverware to feed Downton Abbey, upstairs and downstairs, stacked on two shelves in a beautiful wooden box. There are no teaspoons, steak knives, or other things you might want from a silverware set. The knives are so long they seem to be designed for NBA players, the blades permanently tarnished and the handles clunky and baroque. I do love the forks and spoons and the box, but in retrospect, I would have spent my $100 differently. —Henry Grabar, staff writer

Paint-by-Numbers Kit

I bought this paint-by-numbers kit for my boyfriend and me. It was meant to be a present for him—his grandparents live in Mexico and he was unable to visit them for Christmas, so I ordered a picture of the two of them thinking it would be a fun and sort of sentimental activity for us to do while trapped inside. Unfortunately, not even the depths of pandemic boredom could drive him to pick up a paintbrush for the horrifying image that arrived. Vacant eyes, abstract shapes—it didn’t look much like two sweet old people (though maybe it would’ve with some paint), and he wanted nothing to do with it. Luckily this year we can travel to see the real thing, because that kit is still untouched. —Elena Schwartz, producer on What Next

Smart Coffee Cup Warmer

My theory was that the only thing (besides the internet and extremely bad habits) stopping me from being a productive and efficient beast was the variable temperature of my coffee. I was always getting up to microwave it. A cup warmer seemed like an obvious solution: They exist, they’re cute, and they’ll cut down on distracting trips to the kitchen. I bought this one and at first all was well: It even has a blue light that switches on pleasingly when you put your cup on it. This shows that is working! Practical. Delightful.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Unfortunately the cord for this thing is almost impressively short; anywhere I put it on my desk—which is big, one of those standing ones you can lift and lower so you’re not always sitting—it ended up kind of near the edge and straining if you know what I mean. You can see where this is going, I expect: I absent-mindedly raised the desk mid-draft to stand for a while. The cup warmer went flying along with my cup, splashing the walls and floor and the power strip to which everything was connected. The cup broke and some plastic from the cup warmer chipped off. It looked bad now, and I had to let all my electronics dry overnight.

Advertisement

Never mind, I thought: I’d praised this thing on Twitter, and I was going to make it work. So I STOPPED RAISING AND LOWERING MY DESK. Out of deference to the untold ways this cup warmer would undoubtedly improve my life, I started sitting all the time. This was bad for my back and me, but I didn’t care … until one day I left a cup on the cup warmer, forgot about it for a while, and came back to find that the liquid had boiled down into a thick and menacing hot steaming crust. Enough was enough. The thing is gone, and good riddance.   —Lili Loofbourow, staff writer

Insulated Cooler Backpack

I bought this for the second pandemic spring/summer (2021) when outside hangs were very much a thing. I thought I would be extra prepared by buying both a foldable picnic blanket and this cooler backpack. Turns out my trips to the park were mostly impromptu, and I was more likely to just throw a six-pack in my tote bag. —Cleo Levin, audience engagement editor

Vanilla Candle

Earlier this year, I got suckered into one of Bath & Body Works’ deals (without knowing that, in fact, this brand runs various dramatic deals essentially every day). The one I fell prey to was a sale on single-wick candles. I’ve always loved vanilla-forward, warm scents, so I picked vanilla bean. It’s no longer in stock—thank goodness for you, because this candle was disgusting. —Madeline Ducharme, assistant producer of One Year

Collagen Powder

I’d heard about collagen being amazing for your skin, so much so that you’d see results almost instantly, and even though I knew it was probably at least somewhat hooey, I decided to try it, specifically the kind you consume by mixing a scoop of powder into a glass of water. I can’t say I noticed any difference whatsoever. —Heather Schwedel, staff writer

Plant Watering Bulbs

One small way I coped with the first year of the pandemic was to transform myself into a Plant Person. The return of my social life meant that I had to confront the reality that keeping plants alive takes more work than I like. So I figured I would cheat the system by getting these bulbs to water my ferns for me. (They want water, like, all the time??? It’s too much.) Joke’s on me, these do not work even a little bit. And I forgot to return them. —Molly Olmstead, staff writer

Memory Foam Beanbag Chair

After moving into a new apartment, I ordered a couch. During the long, dark months I waited for it to arrive due to supply chain issues, I was desperate for something, anything, to sit on. I chose this beanbag chair because it was well-rated, and seemed soft and plush and would be better than sitting on my foldout camping chair in front of my TV. No. It was not better than sitting on my foldout camping chair and, in fact, is not very good to sit on at all. Because it’s memory foam and not that classic beanbag bean filling, it squishes more like a pillow than a typical beanbag, and being a person of above-average height, it’s hard to get up after plummeting so close to the ground while sitting on it. I now own a great couch, and this beanbag haunts the periphery of my living room, being sat on by no one. —Benjamin Frisch, senior producer

EZ Tofu Press

We like tofu in this household. We read that this viselike contraption would be a more efficient way to press the water out of said tofu. In fact, it did a rather piss poor job compared with the standard method of just wrapping the block in some paper towels and putting something heavy on top. Also: If you screwed down the press too aggressively, it caused the tofu to break up. Just a total waste. —Jordan Weissmann, senior editor

Rancho Gordo Bean Club Subscription

Early in the pandemic, I signed up for the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. More specifically, I signed up for the waitlist for the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. The quarterly subscription promises six pounds of well-pedigreed dried beans every three months, which made it a hit with people like me, who were working from home who wanted to have something simmering on the stove all day. When I finally got off the waitlist and received my first shipment, I realized that while I like beans, I do not like them enough to cook half a pound of dried beans (three cups cooked) every week without fail. But, subscriptions being what they are, the beans have kept coming ever since, and as of this writing I have 23 pounds of dried beans in my pantry. —Dan Check, CEO

L’Oréal Wonder Water

An effusive review from a podcaster convinced me to try this stuff. You squirt two to three “doses” of the “treatment” on your hair after shampooing and before using conditioner … if, allegedly, you even need conditioner after the Wonder Water has “transformed” your locks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My own experience with Wonder Water went exactly like my experience with 90 percent of hair products I try: I used it twice, noticed a little bit of a difference in my hair, mostly that it was slightly softer. After that, I mentally planned out how I would order shipments of it for the rest of my life—how much it would cost per month, what I would do if it were discontinued; after all, life as a woman in modern America is in part a battle to be endlessly, incrementally more beautiful if/when possible. Wonder Water was a new tool with which I was armed.

Then … I forgot about it! The bottle has sat in my bathroom for months. I tried it again at some point, and thought my hair felt sort of softer but also, kind of weird. —Shannon Palus, senior editor

See what we bought in 2020 that sucked, too!