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Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best money we’ve ever spent on other people

Or that other people have spent on us. 

Alanna Okun is a senior editor at Vox, primarily working on Even Better. Before Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked and BuzzFeed.

At the very end of 2018, we started publishing an essay series called The Best Money I Ever Spent. Less a collection of musings on the best or most underrated or cheapest versions of products, it’s meant to be an exploration of what value means to different people. We’ve now released dozens of installations on everything from hand sanitizer to TSA PreCheck to a week with an alleged literary scammer, with many more to come.

Here, at the end of 2019, we wanted to depart somewhat from the format we’ve established. Instead, we asked writers to tell us about the best money they’ve spent on someone else, or that someone else has spent on them. The result is something like a reverse gift guide — while you probably won’t spend $12,000 on someone’s rent this holiday season, the spirit might move you to buy them (or yourself) a plant.

A $12 plant

I looked at the plant with some apprehension. I’d had a poor record with houseplants: two air plants killed in college; a pothos I murdered by smoking in my room; a grocery store orchid that, after dropping its final blooms, grew stringy and desiccated no matter how devotedly I watered it.

And yet. This plant, which C was now presenting to me — as a gift! — was small, its shiny leaves wavy and frilled, with beautiful deep green spots that looked painted on. With a gardening app, we looked up its name: Calathea. It was also called a prayer plant, for the way its leaves moved in response to light — flattening to catch the morning sun, standing straight up in the evening, the matte wine-red undersides of the leaves showing.

Later, C would tell me that I’d looked nervous. I was. Skeptical, maybe. We hadn’t been dating long then; it had been just four months. A plant wasn’t the same as getting a pet together, but it held, I thought, a similar significance — there was just too much room for metaphor. I worried about killing it, that I’d kill something of us if it failed to thrive in my hands.

But I was good at taking care of my Calathea, it turned out. In my south-facing windowsill, it flourished in the sun. New shoots sprouted up faster than I could count. I dusted its glossy leaves; watered it with care. When it outgrew the pot C gave me, I bought a new one, transplanting it in my living room. Bolstered by my newfound confidence in caretaking, I got new plants — a coin plant, a Phalaenopsis orchid. Managing their complicated watering schedules got me out of bed in the morning. I felt fluid and capable; gratified to be a plant mom. It was good to have beautiful, alive things around me, I understood. Good to be taking care of something.

Two years, two repottings, and a new orchid spike full of blossoms later, I’ve come to understand that C had never worried that I was going to kill the plant. The fear had come from me alone — I had believed I was incapable of taking care. That I was stuck where I was.

His gift to me was trust: that I could take care, that I could make room for beauty in my life. That I could allow something to grow.

Larissa Pham, poet and critic

$850 Burning Man tickets

In 2015, I spent $850 for me and my siblings to go to Burning Man, the hippie-tech fusion festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. I’d just received a signing bonus from a fancy tech company I’d dejectedly decided to work for in a fit of post-college financial terror.

My younger sister is a festival queen and my older brother is in a bluegrass band. Going to Burning Man, for them, is nothing new. I’m kind of a square and require nine hours of rest in a bedroom that resembles a deprivation chamber, so the experience was a bigger stretch for me.

The first three days, I hated it and wanted to leave, but by the end I had fully transformed into one of those goes-to-Burning-Man-once memes and was rolling around in the dirt (I mean dust!) talking to strangers about how we were best friends. The last day, as my sister and I packed up the car to drive back to California and my brother got ready to head to Portland, I told him I would miss him and also that I really liked his shirt (it was long-sleeved and striped and looked soft).

He took it off and tearfully gave it to me, a symbol of how much he loved me and also how strung out we all were. It’s one of my favorites — a tattered piece of memorabilia that comes down to my knees that I still wear to sleep all the time.

Zoe Schiffer, reporter for The Verge

A $275 meal

Our server approached the table as I told my girlfriend, “Order whatever you want.” It felt good to say this wild sentence aloud at what was absolutely a very expensive restaurant in a city neither of us had been to before. It felt especially nice to know I’d be able to pay for it.

Growing up, there was an entire week we ate chicken and yellow rice for dinner, the portions getting smaller as the week progressed. One evening my father announced with sincere frustration that “Beanie Weenies weren’t a meal,” but they had to be, because that’s all we’d been able to afford that night.

As an adult, I fed myself the way I’d learned as a child: shopping for groceries at convenience stores, deciding that chips and crackers could constitute dinner if that’s what I could manage. It was easier to make jokes about what I ate than to concede that I fed myself garbage not only because I couldn’t afford good things, but because it was embarrassing to admit that I didn’t know how to take care of myself.

“Pick whatever you want,” I said to my girlfriend. “Order for both of us, get whatever sounds best.”

As she selected our food and wine, appetizers and desserts and espresso, I didn’t sit and worry over the bill. I watched with growing delight as she fed herself, as she enjoyed the meal I was able to provide. Feeding her all that expensive food felt pleasurable to me: I was taking care of a person I loved. Not only that, I was allowing her to take care of me. We shared all our plates.

It was the first nice meal we shared together, but it would not be the last. Feeding each other means we’re not only splitting the food – we’re splitting the goodness that comes with loving another person. When I pick up the check, I’m paying for her food, but I’m also investing in the two of us. I’m investing in myself.

Kristen Arnett, author of Mostly Dead Things

A $30 toner

I’m a skincare aficionado, which is a fancy way of saying that I spend way too much on tiny bottles of moisturizers and serums for my face.

It was a habit that started young. Since middle school, my mom has encouraged me to meticulously follow a skin routine, and over the years, my collection has expanded from a small makeup pouch to multiple shelves of products. It’s a problem, especially when brands are so keen on commodifying self-care (and when I’m so keen on buying into it).

Right before my move in January from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, I ran out of toner — the second step in my face regimen where I splash on a pleasant-smelling, pore-refining substance. As a going away gift, my best friend Kenny gave me a $30 Missha toner. I was initially grateful, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I pulled the bottle from my stash of moving boxes, that the gift struck a sentimental chord.

A toner is used to further purify the skin after you first wash it with soap; it’s like a fresh start for your skin. My first three months in DC were hard: I struggled with homesickness in a place where I virtually knew no one, and I was reeling from the end of a two-year relationship. Applying the toner was refreshing, occasionally painful, and soothing. It felt pure — somehow divorced from the capitalist culture of skincare because it was purchased for me, not thrust upon me through product recommendations and targeted ads. Most importantly, it was a gentle, routine reminder from a friend to take care of myself.

Terry Nguyen, reporter for The Goods

$12,000 in rent

I’m a saver. A saver of all things, really, but especially funds. My childhood was rife with in-fighting over bills and excessive purchases and the words “can’t afford.” It’s not that we were always cash-strapped and uncomfortable; it was more that penny-pinching was recommended over spendthrift behavior. When combined with a work ethic that had me chasing extra hours and promotions at every opportunity, by the time I was 25, I had accumulated what others might call a rainy day fund.

This is unlike my parents, for whom savings are a long-ago dream. I didn’t talk about how much I had in savings, because I had afforded myself the opportunity to just … not. It wasn’t much, relatively speaking, but it was more than most people I knew. At least my savings existed.

My mom in particular has long suffered from the economic downturns that have made it harder and harder to earn a living wage in this country. Taxes and bills don’t stop just because an income does, and eventually, holding onto my childhood home had become literally impossible. That was a frightening proposition for my mom, even as she lived alone and we’d been struggling to keep that house for almost a decade as it was. The thought of her not being able to find anywhere else to live — not having the money for a down payment or first-and-last-month’s rent — became scarier to me than losing the only home I’d ever lived in.

So when she needed to move, ASAP, I decided to dig out those savings. And I gave it all to my mom: $12,000 to get her into an apartment. This was more of a loan, since selling our old house would give her the chance to pay me back. But being able to make sure your mother is safe and housed is, to me, the best way to spend your own money, no matter how scary that was for me to see my account balance drop to empty.

Allegra Frank, associate culture editor for Vox

A $355 “engagement ring”

My spouse Matt and I married in 2014, when they were still identifying as a man, and when I, feminist as I was, still had the idea that it was their job to do the proposing. I had provided them with my great-grandmother’s diamond with which to make a ring, and teased that if they didn’t propose soon, I was going to do it. It never dawned on me that, by giving them a diamond specifically for marriage, I had perhaps already proposed. We had both internalized that somehow it wasn’t real until they asked me.

A few years ago, Matt came out as non-binary, and as our relationship evolves, it has brought further questioning and undoing of the assumptions of who does what in this relationship, one aspect of which is who is the gifter or recipient of sparkling things, who gets to ask and who gets asked. I never got to surprise Matt with my intentions in a grand, romantic way. They never got to be given something beautiful, and their wedding band is much plainer than any of the jewelry they have come to wear.

So I went to a jeweler we both loved, chose a ring that fit their style — glamorous and bold and a little goth — and the second it came in the mail I sat them down on our couch and asked if they’d continue to honor me with their love. I wanted them to have that moment, and to have something as pretty as my engagement ring. And honestly, I reveled in being the asker.

Jaya Saxena, staff writer for Eater

A $16.95 book

Gift-giving wasn’t always a strong suit for my last boyfriend, a generally thoughtful man.

He had a tendency to make elaborate plan-promises instead of presents, and the scheduling of these plans would be left to me. When this became a source of friction, I started telling him exactly what to get. This would have been fine, except that follow-through remained an issue; I remember yelling through tears about the birthday desk chair I’d asked for months earlier because our dining table chairs were causing me back pain.

As a spoiled only child, it’s gross but true that gifts are part of my love language (ew/sorry/ew). I find it embarrassing to place a high importance on gifts from my partner — especially when you share concerns about consumerist culture, whoops — but I felt like an after thought when he didn’t come through. Unfulfilled promises are difficult to navigate in a relationship, what you let go and what you don’t, and it was frustrating to both of us to have the same fight over and over.

On our last Christmas together, he beyond pulled it out: tickets to a Neko Case show, a sampler of my favorite candles, a tarot deck, and a copy of David Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon.

The book is so good; Grann is my favorite longform journalist, the practitioner of a style of research and narrative skill I can’t even comprehend, and good books are always welcome. More than that, I didn’t even know it existed (I’m a lousy fan), so it wasn’t something I knew to ask for. I felt seen, cared for, planned for, which is what any good present should do. The real gift was someone changing for the better because I’d asked him to.

Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor for The Goods

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