How I Decorated My Apartment for Next to Nothing

There are very few things in life that I will pay full price for, like groceries, wine, or a nice dinner out. However, there are some luxuries in life where I absolutely refuse to drop top dollar, like on clothing. Why spend a bundle to look good when you get the same effect with some patience and a discerning eye cast over the Marshall’s clearance aisle or the local thrift store (on half price day, of course?) This kind of vigilance has yielded such gems as a $3 Fendi Shirt and $1 Polo Dress (with its $120 price tag still attached).

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be willing to spend real money on a piece of clothing that is made by an independent designer, with quality materials, and will last a long time… and thankfully I’ve been in a lucrative enough position to do so several times in the past.

The other major area in life that I pinch serious pennies is on furniture. Looking around my living room, I’ve tallied the amount that I have spent on furniture, and the grand total comes to exactly $65.

Low-cost decorating imageLow-cost decorating imageLow-cost decorating image

What we paid for:

  • Coffee Table: $15, bought from an old neighbor.
  • End Table: $10, Garage Sale.
  • Dresser: $15, Craigslist (Appraised for $250, I’ll have you know!)
  • TV Stand: $10, Craigslist.
  • Printer Stand (Which is actually a TV tray, which I tried to remove from the living room, which my husband replaced): $15, Bed Bath and Beyond.

That’s it! Everything else was given to us as gifts, inherited from a passed relative, or as a trade for my graphic design services. Granted, I am not near finished decorating. The coffee table has some great lines but a pretty sad and beat-up inlay on top. I am imagining a pair of dark-rose curtains adorning the windows. The box of books is not a permanent fixture, I’m waiting for the Craigslist free section to show me a dark-wood, modern, horizontally-oriented entertainment center/bookshelf. (A gal can dream, can’t she? My other plan is to wait until I can actually afford my dream book shelf, but I can wait.)

Which brings me to the first of my top 3 tips for decorating for almost nothing:

1. Patience

I know from experience that moving into an empty, sparsely-furnished apartment makes one antsy, and ready to make a bee-line to Ikea to fill the place up with a half-cooked design scheme funded by an entire month’s pay. But wait! A couple of months later, you just might see an adorable vintage couch and an unheard of low price sitting in the church thrift shop window. However, it just doesn’t go with your decor, and you couldn’t possibly sell the Ikea couch for anywhere near your purchase price, so you go home and sit on your bland, slumpy couch, and weep.

The key here is to be OK with the sparseness of your furniture set up, and to wait for those magical moments when you see something that you love, fits your personality, makes you happy, and comes at the right price. Throughout my twenties, I’ve had to live with that unfinished look in all of my apartments, but I’ve patched up the holes with art I made myself, fake flowers, and really small area rugs. The wait has been financially worthwhile, and I finally have a home that feels completely “me.”

2. Edit

Now that you know how to decorate for barely any money, you shouldn’t have any problem parting with items that no longer fit your design scheme. Sometimes, you can sell items on Craigslist for more than you bought them for, like the following coffee table, on which I spent $50, and sold for $60 three years later:
Coffee Table

You certainly don’t want to end up with a mish-mash of unmatching, cheap-looking items, once the better quality stuff starts coming into your life. So keep a close, keen eye on your stuff and take away things when they’re no longer serving you. Something better awaits!

3. Craigslist

Have I not mentioned Craigslist enough in this post? Well its for good reason. Some people just need you to get their items out of their life, fast. For which reasons, you may not want to know, so just be sure to meet the person OUTSIDE of their house, during daylight hours, and bring a buddy, mmmkay?

Some good strategies for Craigslist hunting is to check the free section very early in the morning. Its also handy to know someone with a truck. You may end up paying your friend $20 to help you transport that free furniture to you place, but it will be worth it. Also, look in the really, really rich suburbs or neighborhoods in your town. (“North Chicagoland” is a good place for Chicagoans to start.) These are the folks that really don’t need to make money off of their furniture, so they’re just trying to move it out of their place hassle-free. Hence my $15 dresser.

So now that I’ve shared with you my top tips for decorating for next to nothing, I’d like to share with you my score from the past weekend:

I found this Magritte Print next to a dumpsterThis is a Magritte Print, found sitting next to a dumpster on the North Side of Evanston. Matted and everything. It will have such an impact next to my Vespa calendar that I bought on a trip to Rome:

This is a Vespa Calendar that I bought in Rome

So I’m certainly not the authority on scoring cheap and free items for the home, I bet you all have some ideas, too. Care to share?

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3 Comments

  1. Rose
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Gorgeous house! Love the whole look and feel of it. SUPER cute.
    And I agree: Craigslist, Craigslist, Craigslist!
    Some ideas:
    Some of our stuff is originally from IKEA, but we got it on Craigslist! Same stuff, we just didn’t want to pay full price for it. I got an Expedit shelf and three lamps for $15 total, and my IKEA dresser (which I bought to match my gf’s and have a nice uniform look) was also super cheap. Pair those items with some vintage-in-the-flesh furniture pieces, and the look can be marvelous.
    Our office space doubles as a sitting area, and the shape of it required us to sell our cute but too-deep desks (on Craigslist of course). We saw online the cost of a sleek, modern, clean lines 15″ deep desk that could run the length of the room – we wanted super long and skinny. The minimum was priced at $200, ridiculous for just a surface to put our laptops and sewing machine on. So, we built our own desks, two to put together to make one continuous line, in espresso finish – $30 total, we love how the work space turned out.
    I also had an open craft shelf that I got on Craigslist for under $20 that was holding my fabric – it looked a bit busy sitting open like that full of so many folded prints, and it was too close to the ground, so the cats made it their personal playhouse – so instead of buying a new shelf, I got some cute toothpick style furniture legs for $1.50 each at the hardware store and created a curtain out of fabric over the front – it’s up off the ground and creates a nice airy look, like an entirely new piece of furniture. The kitties don’t touch it anymore, lucky me.
    We have country-style chairs in the kitchen with that see-through wicker backing that would be hideous if they weren’t painted and reupholstered. Usually I don’t recommend painting wood, but if the furniture is not cute to begin with and there’s no finish that will save it, painting and reupholstering will pretty it up – our chairs are black (counter-intuitive right? but they turned out great!) with black and white damask print seats – they draw the eye with the lacey backing and give the illusion of space because you can see through them, cute and fun.

  2. admin
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Painting and reupholstering furniture is something I’ve never had the guts to do, but I have a hankering to do it to a couple of things I own right now. See, it just takes a little savvy to make a space look great for not much money, right?

  3. Rose
    Posted November 6, 2010 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Indeed. Also, in the process of making a duvet cover out of silvery-pewter sheets. So far it’s taken a bit of time, the rest shouldn’t take more than an hour, but somehow that hour doesn’t fit into my day…
    Have the guts and paint! You can always paint over it if you don’t like it, and you can really pick any color since your walls are white, maybe something like avocado, you have some beautiful olive colors going already – what can I say, I just love your place.

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