The Must-Have Backyard Accessory I Never Pay Full Price For

published May 28, 2023
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When my freshman year college roommate and I first entered our dorm, it was a bland abyss. There were cinder block walls painted with glossy white paint, clunky pine furniture, and, if memory serves, grayish tile floors. For better or worse, the room also came with the cool feature of having no overhead lighting, so we were encouraged to embrace alternative solutions. We knew exactly what we needed: twinkle lights. A staple of every college dorm, we strung those babies up around every inch of the ceiling, swooping them down to illuminate the roommate initials we had duct taped onto the wall like a sort of mural. Our only mistake? We bought them from the local Bed Bath & Beyond, sans coupon. While I stand by the transformative power of some string lights to this day, I now know never to pay full price for them. 

And now that the season for outdoor grilling, al fresco dinner parties, and backyard hangs has arrived, I would like to remind everyone of two things. One, that twinkle lights make any deck, porch, or yard instantly sparkle. Trees are very nice, but trees wrapped in fairy lights? Absolutely alluring. A nice dining table on your deck is wonderful; string up some tiny lights and it looks like a classy restaurant patio where you’d sip on an Aperol spritz while waiting for your branzino to arrive. They’re simply a timeless staple for any outdoor space — especially if you want to comfortably linger after sunset. 

The second reminder: There is no need to buy a brand-new box of twinkle lights! Instead, peruse your local Freecycle or Craigslist range, put out a call in your local Buy Nothing group, or look for cheap used ones on Facebook Marketplace. Chances are, someone has a set of leftover holiday lights hanging around that they’re happy to part with, if you’re willing to untangle them. 

This is also a great time of year to keep an eye out for spare fairy lights while simply out for a walk — if you live in an area with colleges, students going home for the summer often leave decor like these out on the sidewalk for the taking. I live in Boston, where Allston Christmas is an annual tradition, and I don’t think I’ve gone a year without seeing some spare twinkle lights crumpled up in a cardboard box on the curb. And, unlike other stooping finds that may be upholstered or made of particle board and prone to nuisances like bed bugs, glass-and-plastic twinkle lights are a pretty safe secondhand find to bring home.
Sure, they may have a bulb or two burned out, which could be a huge bummer when they’re wrapped around a glistening Christmas tree. But when they’re hung up around your porch or yard, a little gap in the lighting won’t kill the vibe at all — it’s rustic, if anything.

So, before you add to cart, take a look around your community and see if you can’t score some for free or cheap. If not, I have to fess up: A couple years ago, I bought the string lights I currently have on my roof deck from Amazon. I wanted a specific globe bulb look that I wasn’t spotting on the sidewalks, so I gave in and have loved these ones for two summers (they were on sale — they’re on sale right now). When I move, though, I’ll probably pass the torch and put them up for grabs in my local Buy Nothing group.