In the years before I ever acquired a "proper" cutting mat, I used a couple of dead cheap alternatives.
One was an off-cut of thick, monotone floor vinyl that I obtained from the scrap bin of a flooring & carpet retailer. I managed to get a few large-ish pieces plus some discarded vinyl floor tiles that kept me going for several years. Each time one became too soiled or damaged to use, I just binned it and used another tile or offcut. The vinyl tiles were better, as they were thicker and more rigid... almost identical to a cutting mat, in fact.
The other was an offcut of plastic pond/dam liner. I have no idea what type of plastic it was but I suspect some type of polythene. It was about 1mm thick, matt black (great for modelling), quite rigid and very durable. Over time however, it started to curl up at the sides and formed a slight "bubble" in the middle, which may have been a long term reaction to glue and solvent spills. Although it was an excellent cutting mat, it reached the point where it would not lay flat and I had to bin it.
I have used three different cutting mats over the last decade - a large one that covers the entire work area, a smaller one that I had in my "second home" and an A4 sized one that I used when travelling or at work. Only one of them was a "brand name" mat; the others were cheapies from discount stores that cost only a few dollars. Although there are slight differences in texture and rigidity between them, I have found no significant different in their durability for model making use.
I understand about the grid lines disappearing when spilled glue, paint or thinner is wiped up but I don't bother too much about that. Whilst I occasionally use the grid lines as guidance for cutting or aligning, I don't trust them entirely so their absence is neither here nor there. I just keep a pad of cheap 1mm graph paper close at hand and tape a piece of this to the cutting mat for accurate guidance if needed (eg. cutting regular strips of sheet styrene).
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