Almost all of us are watching our spending these days: hunting for bargains, postponing purchases, making do with what we have, or doing without. The PB household is certainly being more careful about its spending — and we were always rather frugal. These days, I'm especially grateful for several high-quality items around our house that make our lives more pleasant every time we use them. These were not necessarily expensive purchases, but even the pricier ones are well worth all the agonizing we did before we whipped out the credit card. Because of them, it's easier to resist buying shiny new things when we already feel cosseted and indulged.
If you've actually got a little money to spend on your home, it's smart to spend it where you will really get the most value — on items you will use and enjoy every single day, and keep for years, or decades:
1. Bed. You spend about 1/3 of your life in bed, and if you're careful, that much of your life can become just about perfect.
A mattress that lulls you to sleep for a 15 years or more is worth its price (as long as the bill won't have you lying awake, worried. I'm not talking about excess here. Live within your means; never go into debt). No matter what you spend, make sure you are in love with your mattress from the get-go. We have a Duxiana, which cost something like 5 times the price of a typical mattress and boxspring at the time. I thought we were nuts just for visiting the Duxiana store to test one. But we'd tried a lot of mattresses at the local department and furniture stores. We even went to Gardner Mattress, the local maker. And the Dux was the only one that astonished us with absolute comfort. And it still does, every night. When I make our bed in the morning, I'm already looking forward to the moment when I can get back into it.
You also need comfortable sheets and pillows to sleep really well. I'm not a sucker for high-thread counts; when I'm asleep, I don't notice nuances of sheet quality. As long as my sheets are clean and dry, they won't keep me awake. And, anyway, I prefer cozy flannel (Portuguese is my favorite) and jersey knit sheets to crisp percale or sateen. Figure out what bedding characteristics say "comfort" to you, and open packages to feel the quality before you buy.
For pillows, we like the Cuddledown outlets in Kittery or Freeport, where the sales staff will educate you, ask you many questions, and help you make the best choice for your sleeping style. Theirs range from $22 synthetics to $3,399 eiderdown. A quality, white-goose-down pillow (toward the lower end of that price spread) should help you sleep well for years.
2. Bath. A few years ago, we were fortunate to have a carpenter friend renovate our bath with custom cherry cabinetry and paneling, Italian marble, and a deep soaking tub. We went crazy, but we love the result every day, and feel it was worth that enormous chunk of our savings. If you're more sensible than we but still want to improve your bathroom, a fabulous showerhead will make a luxurious difference. We have a Hansgrohe Raindance 6" handshower. The head is the size of a small frying pan, giving excellent, "rainstorm" coverage. An extra long hose makes rinsing easier (as well as cat bathing and tub cleaning).
Great towels can be had at all prices. The key is to decide what matters most to you: size, softness, thickness, absorbency, color? We like ours soft and absorbent, but not too big or thick — like these super-soft bamboo towels, from The Company Store.
We stockpile good soap: Yardley English Lavender. Oh, for the days when these were 4 for $1 at CVS. Now if there's an online deal, I buy dozens. They make great sachets among the linens and sweaters, too.
3. Cooking. Growing up among among my working-class family and neighbors, I know that great food can come from cheap cookware. It's also clear that fancy cookware won't make a mediocre cook better. But there are a few cook's tools worth their price.
You need a few workhorse knives. Don't waste money on a big set with a block; you don't need most of them. Instead, invest in 2 or 3 high-quality knives that can do everything and feel comfortable in your hand. I'd start with the biggest and best chef's knife you can manage, a mid-sized serrated knife for slicing bread and general tasks, and then maybe a smaller all-purpose knife like a santoku or small chef's knife. I prefer the all-steel Global knives because they have terrific blades and balance — and fit well in my small hand. Our Wustof chef's knife has been working for us for 10 years. If you do a lot of boning or carving, you may find you need those knives, too, but those three should have you covered for everything else. There are insanely expensive craftsman lines now, including Shun, that you can splurge on, but the next-cheapest brands, like Global, work perfectly well.
Unless your pots and pans are as bad as my husband's first set — the handles were so much heavier than the pots that they would spontaneously tip right over on the uneven burners of our stove, spilling their contents — you probably don't need to upgrade. Decent cookware is available at all prices, with copper cores, aluminum and steel combinations, nonstick finishes, and so on. Just make sure you have the basic sizes and shapes you need and stop wondering if there's cookware nirvana out there. Remember: the ingredients in the pots are what matter.
One splurge I do recommend is an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, which will last a lifetime if you care for it properly. Our 5.5-quart Le Creuset round oven is ideal for simmering soups, baking casseroles, boiling quantities of pasta, and roasting birds. It really does heat more evenly and consistently than ordinary pots, and it makes a noticeable difference with certain foods. Plus it looks gorgeous on the stove (in "Caribbean Blue"), and it helps strengthen my arms because it weighs a ton. You can sometimes find Le Creuset and similarly renowned brands on sale at Marshall's; if you find one, go for it.
A few inexpensive items can significantly improve your kitchen time, too: Get the biggest cutting boards, in wood and acrylic, that will fit on your countertop. You'll use a sturdy pair of tongs for everything from frying bacon to tossing salad. Collect glass storage containers in many sizes for leftovers so you won't be stuck at the last minute. A roll of parchment makes baking cookies easier and clean-up a snap. Make sure your potholders are insulated enough so you aren't a bit scared of handling red-hot pans from the oven. And figure out what your personal cooking quirks are, and work with them: I purée a lot of soup, so an immersion blender is important for me.
4. Dining. Everyday meals feel like occasions even if you're just eating takeout pizza — on a beautiful plate. As I was growing up, my parents had the cheapest stainless flatware and a hideous set of black and harvest-gold dinnerware. (It's all still in use.) I vowed to do better someday. Over the years, we've accumulated small sets of new and antique dishes (mostly plates) in many sizes and patterns. We also have a fancy dessert set with cups and saucers, a souvenir of a trip to Prague. We have a set of silver-plated flatware, but I also collect a few 19th-century sterling patterns that we treasure — and use all the time. I find pieces at Brimfield or on eBay at a small fraction of the price of new sterling. Beautiful, quality dishes and flatware should be used and enjoyed at every meal, so it's worth buying what you love, even if you have to do it slowly, piece by piece. Served in a turquoise French bowl with an antique sterling spoon, yogurt, fresh fruit, and granola can be a photo-worthy creation as well as a healthy breakfast.