I truly believe that online shopping—whether or not you actually click “buy”—can be a wonderfully restorative experience. When I surf the endless web mall, I get to take a mental vacation of sorts, entertaining my mind with digital window shopping. As jarring as it is to navigate myself through the space-time mindfuck that has somehow made it March again, I’ve realized each of our own internet spending habits over the past 12 months demonstrate, in a way, the psychological journey we embarked on.
Last spring, in the midst of panic-buying toilet paper and canned goods, many people also rushed to buy board games, fitness equipment, and home office essentials to make pandemic isolation bearable. Some of these items were quickly forgotten—hoarded into oblivion. Others made a lasting impact. I find myself reflecting on the things we bought that proved to be the best investments in our own emotional wellbeing. Sometimes, what may have seemed trivial ended up providing a jolt of gratification, and even real joy. And in a year of such devastating loss, I’ll take all the tiny moments of joy I can get, even if they come from a kitchen appliance, an art set, or a hula hoop.
This is a collection of some of the Esquire team’s favorite pandemic purchases, big and small, from the past year. Some are practical; many are purely fun or meditative. The items on this list touch on a range of tastes and personalities, but they share a common thread: They’ve brought us moments of relief. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
Watercolor Paint Set
I am not a calm person, nor did I ever imagine I could be one. But when I saw a friend painting watercolor citrus fruits and posting them to her story, I thought, “Wow. That looks tranquil and domestic.” Turns out, I was right. I was unsure if the set would go in the way of money wasted or money invested—in my youth, I fucked around with watercolors a few times before. I wasn’t ready then. But for anyone looking for an artistic outlet, yet not anal retentive enough to live within the confines of an adult coloring book, watercolors are exactly what you need in your life. For 16 bucks, you get all the colors of the wind (36), six brushes, and a pad of durable paper made specifically for watercolors. It’s the perfect introductory set. Though the blank page may be intimidating, the best part of watercolors is that it’s just you and whatever your imagination allows for. And turns out that watercolor citrus fruit paintings are great little gifts for your friends. —Justin Kirkland
Indoor Hydroponic Garden
In the windowless cave that was my kitchen, and also my life, this year, I nurtured greenness. By nurtured, I mean occasionally refilled this self-lighting, self-watering indoor garden and reaped the benefits: fresh herbs. I’m not really a succulent person, ZZ plants have no magnetic pull, and I have never bought fresh flowers on a whim. But herbs, man. They taste good. It was the lowest-commitment, highest-reward quarantine hobby, if you can call it that. It made me want to eat salads in the dead of winter. It made me remember being outside. —Sarah Rense
Essential Oil Diffuser
This wasn’t so much a quarantine purchase as it was an ignored purchase of Christmases past that I’ve since reappropriated. But, all the same, on many days since lockdown began, firing up this essential oils diffuser may or may not have saved my life. There’s no way to know for sure. The device comes in a sleek, wood grain design that gives it a very home-y feel, and its mist lights up in seven different colors to match whatever mood you’re looking to set. I love filling this up with water and a few drops of lavender or lemongrass essential oil while organizing my room to give the space a renewed sense of cleanliness. Plus, the simple ritual of setting it up helps me to consciously “clock in” on my leisure time, at a time when clocking out looks something like commuting from my desk to my couch five feet away. If you’re like me and have wrestled with making your bedroom a place you’re excited to return to after spending most of the day inside, this diffuser might be the gateway to creating your own mini-haven. —Emma Carey
Custom Crochet Mittens
I’ve always been a bit of an Instagram-shopping skeptic, but my experience ordering a pair of custom mittens from crochet artist Lazy Leo Studios changed my mind for the better. The individualized process of selecting colors, discussing designs, choosing from different mock-up sketches, and measuring my hands was such a pleasant and honestly life-affirming experience. My mittens arrived in the mail only a week after placing the order, and I felt like a kid getting her first care package at camp. They’ve been the perfect accessory for walks in the park or socially distanced outdoor hangouts, keeping my hands warm and my fingers free to text or queue a new song. I love having a handmade accessory that’s unique, and I’m glad to support one of the many small, artist-run businesses that have popped up online over the course of the pandemic. Prices start around $ 25, and you can shop on Instagram or Etsy. —Anna Grace Lee
Baby Yoda Plush
There are a lot of fucked-up-looking Baby Yodas out there. Some are too tall, too beady-eyed, too firm—when you buy a Baby Yoda, you want a plushie, not a figurine, which you cannot cuddle—too green, too cartoonish, or not cartoonish enough. Scientifically, this Baby Yoda plushie is the cutest Baby Yoda plushie that’s legally for sale. (Black market Baby Yodas are a different story). For eight months now, I’ve been raising my Baby Yoda, whose mere presence above my desk gives me immeasurable comfort, flashing that drawn-on little smile through the worst of this past year. He’s my biggest confidant. My best friend. My son. —Brady Langmann
Bowlflex Adjustable Dumbbells
The first casualty of the great lockdown? My gym membership. The second casualty? My waistline. I slid from being in pretty-okay-decent shape to looking like Fat Thor in Avengers Endgame (minus the muscle, the beard, and the good looks.) Finally I pulled the trigger on these adjustable dumbbells from Bowflex that can be ingeniously tweaked on the fly. (Before you ask, yes this is the same Bowflex that made ’90s-era home gym equipment that resembled medieval weaponry). Need to do a set of upright rows at 30 pounds? Switch the dial three clicks to the right. Want to throw up some 15-pound curls? Two clicks to the left. Adjusting weight is so easy I found myself actually looking forward to workouts. My waistline has since receded to almost pre-pandemic sizes while my arms look…well, they don’t quite resemble Thor’s, but they don’t track as pitiful wickets either. Admittedly the price point isn’t the cheapest, but at a little over $ 300 it’s about the same amount of money as a NOICE gym membership. I bought this weight set back in November, but I kind of, ahem, feel like a dumbbell for not getting them sooner. —Daniel Dumas
Virtual Concert Tickets
So, that concert you were hyped about for the past year was delayed, and then delayed again, and now postponed until, over-under, whenever hell freezes over. We’ve all been there. Sadly, there’s nothing that can quite fill the void of being able to sweat next to strangers at a standing-room-only gig while drinking a $ 20 beer and watching half of the performance through your iPhone camera. But virtual concerts will give you the fix to hold you over. My first virtual concert escapade was last August on NoonChorus seeing SASAMI perform with special guests Mandy Harris Williams, Vagabon, and Patti Harrison. And, when I tell you it was still one of my favorite nights of quarantine to date, I mean it. Since then, I’ve caught a few other concerts on NoonChorus as well as BandsInTown Plus—and they all have featured intentional, well-produced performances that give you the intimate, live feeling that a Spotify stream or YouTube video can’t. Plus, your favorite artists are just as bummed that they can’t see you IRL—probably even more since, you know, it’s their profession and all. So, attending a virtual concert is also a great way to support performers through a time when the music industry is taking a significant hit. —E.C.
“Fuck” Neon Desk Light
This is a cheat; I didn’t buy it for me. It was a birthday present from me to my roommate, who rang in her 26th year on March 10, 2020. We were so much happier then. So full of wide-eyed youth. None the wiser. Anyway, we figured it would be a funny addition to the living room in which we used to spend a few evenings every week, so there it went, atop a bookshelf, and then we never left our living room ever again. I’ve stared at this “fuck” sign every day and every night for almost exactly a year. “Fuck,” normally, is a great word. In 2020, it was a crutch. Fuck this, fuck that, fuck the other thing, fuck. That soft indigo, neon glow (it’s not LED pretending otherwise) has meant a lot. —S.R.
Girl Scout Cookies
Hungry? Girl Scout cookie. Happy? Girl Scout Cookie. Sad? Girl Scout cookie. Cat just hurled Friskies Party Mix all over your carpet? Girl Scout cookie. Upset you have to pay $ 30 for a Disney+ movie to watch it early? Girl Scout cookie. Distraught from existential panic and the creeping anxiety that doubles with every passing month in lockdown? Girl Scout cookie. Life lets you down. The taste of a frozen Samoa does not. —B.L.
Aarke Soda Machine
Since this quarantine has been a full year long, Christmas presents count as quar-purchases, right? OK, good, because the best thing I bought in quarantine was the Aarke Carbonator III. I got it as a Christmas gift for my partner, though it really was a gift for the both of us. This seltzer machine seems to function like the rest of ‘em, but what really drew me to the Carbonator III is it’s sleek, smart look. I went with the silver option, which fits perfectly into the aesthetic of my kitchen (bright whites and shiny metallics), and we get compliments anytime it winds up in the background of a Zoom. Of course, it also works like a dream—just two pulls of the slot-machine-esque lever and we’ve got about a liter of bubbly ready to rock. —Ben Boskovich
Weighted Hula Hoop
Weighted hula hoops have been gaining popularity on TikTok recently, and for good reason—they’re the best at-home core/cardio workout, and you should try one. (I also want to say that I was not influenced by TikTok and have owned one for at least a decade, so it’s not technically a quarantine buy, but I did purchase a new one recently.) If workouts were cocktails, a treadmill would be a vodka soda and a weighted hula hoop would be a tropical drink in a pineapple with a little umbrella in it. They’re fun! Exciting! Bold! Refreshing! Perhaps they are not for everyone, but once you get the hang of it, weighted hula hoops are the most absent-minded but still genuinely hard form of cardio. They’re no joke—my heart rate when I am hula hooping is the same as it is when I am doing a HIIT spin ride. Hooping can be painful at first, but once you’re used to it, you can work on your core while you watch TV, talk on the phone, and perform any task that does not require anything to enter or leave the three foot diameter that crosses your abdomen. There are also YouTube videos that guide you through workouts for arms and legs while you hoop, if you want to make it a full body ordeal. All you need is a room with enough open space and this hoop, which comes in multiple sizes, weighs, and with the option of ridges (these supposedly help burn fat but I’m not sure about the science of that part). Purchase this! Your body and my future career in hula hoop influencing will thank you. —Lauren Kranc
Friendship Bracelet Kit
I needed a distraction during lockdown and decided to make friendship bracelets—just like the ones I made in camp. I now have a big box of bracelets, even after gifting dozens to friends. I never thought we’d be home this long! —Randi Peck
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