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5 Bathroom Decorating Tips on a Budget

Updated on April 6, 2012

We’re all on a budget these days, but being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to spend years looking at the same old, worn-out bathroom. You can make your bathroom a pleasant place to be, and in so doing bring a little beauty and brightness back to your day-to-day life. It just takes a little ingenuity and a little elbow grease.

Read on to find five tips on how to revitalize your bathroom without killing your wallet.

1. Change your hardware

When it comes to bathrooms and kitchens, changing your cabinet hardware is one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to give your room an instant facelift.

To really save, scour your local hardware stores for discounted and discontinued merchandise. Also visit flea markets and thrift stores, which won’t have as wide a selection but will be able to offer better prices.

If you can’t find a complete set, be inventive – mix and match! You’re often better off going eclectic than trying and failing to find a perfect match. Choose a theme - a color scheme, a material, a key decorative element - and let the rest vary. With a common thread tying your disparate pieces together, you'll find the end result charming, and certainly not cookie cutter. (And your guests will thank you for giving them something interesting to look at while they acquaint themselves with your facilities.)

2. Paint your cabinets

Often, a new coat of paint and change of color can breathe new life into an old bathroom. Choose bright colors if you’re working in tight quarters, as this will open up the space and make it feel larger and airier. If your bathroom is larger or already very bright, however, a richer, darker hue might bring in some exciting contrast. An off-black or deep burgundy could be a good choice in a predominantly white bathroom. In bathrooms where the main color is cream or yellow, contrast it with a deep sapphire blue.

For a high-humidity environment like a bathroom, you should use a satin or semi-gloss paint. Beneath it, use an oil-based, mold-and-mildew-resistant primer like Kilz primer. If you can’t find that, ask at your local hardware store for something similar. The important thing to make sure of is that your primer can stand up to high humidity, resist water spills, and inhibit mildew formation.

To prepare your cabinets for painting, it’s not necessary to completely strip the old paint. Doing so will give you a longer-lasting result, but it’s time-consuming and, in the closed environment of bathrooms, can be dangerous if you use a paint thinner or stripping gel. And since we’re on a budget (and probably short on time), we should probably keep things simple.

So, clean the wood thoroughly with an all-purpose household cleaner and sand it lightly with 150 to 180 grit sand paper. Wipe the sanding dust off with a soft tack cloth or damp microfiber cloth and dry thoroughly. Now you’re ready to apply your primer, and after that, your paint!

A small foam roller is your best bet for even application, though finer trim work will need to be done by hand with a brush. Remember to cover anything you don't want painted, unless you happen to think your floor tiles would really rock the speckled look.

By the way, an easy way to add a decorative touch to any paint job is to use stencils. Try Spray Paint Stencils for some free downloadable patterns and tutorials, or sites like The Stencil Library or Stencil Ease to purchase some pre-made tools and kits. Choose two colors, a background and foreground, and follow the directions at Spray Paint Stencils to make your own polka dot pattern! It’s as easy as cutting out a few circles and filling them in. Alternatively, try stencilling a simple border along the edges of your cabinet doors door, such as any of these from the Stencil Library. Or, for something more low-key and classic, go for a tone-on-tone all-over pattern, like this fleur de lis design from Stencil Ease.

Of course, if your bathroom is really exhausted you might need an even bigger splash of new color to perk it up, which might mean you’ll have to:

3. Paint your walls

The rules for painting bathroom walls are more or less the same as the rules for painting cabinets. You should almost always choose light colors for your walls, however. Dark walls can easily become oppressive. As always, make sure both primer and, preferably, surface paint are water and mildew-resistant.

By the way, wallpaper is contraindicated in bathrooms for exactly that reasn. Often, it has no protection against humidity buildup and will tend to mold or peel, and that’s not pretty at all.

Always remember, when painting, to use a tarp or drop cloth to protect your floor, and if you can’t strip the old paint, make sure to at least clean, sand, and wipe the walls down well before laying down the first layer of primer. You will want as smooth a surface to work with as possible. Use a sanding block to sand and a foam roller to paint – it helps.

If it’s accessories rather than big changes that you’re after, though, you can do no better than:

4. Visit a thrift store

Thrift stores are a great resource for home decorators on a budget.Often you’ll be able to find shelving, cabinets, hardware, occasional furniture, and small accessories. Be creative!Keep an open mind, and think of ways to adapt and re-use unlikely objects.

Some things to keep an eye out for:

  • Look for wall cabinets and shelving which are in need of some refurbishment. You can always strip and repaint small pieces relatively easily, so don’t worry about peeling paint or discolorations. Pay attention to form, size, and little design details that may appeal to you. Mount them on wall brackets where they’ll be handy but won’t be in the way, such as above the toilet or on the wall next to the sink.

    Oh, and do remember to drill into the studs, not the drywall. You don’t want your shelving coming down on your head while you’re having some quality time with your favorite magazine. Trust me.
  • If you need wall decorations, think outside of the box: vintage picture frames have a beauty of their own even without the picture.
  • Similarly, try collecting vintage mirrors of varying sizes and shapes, from compact-sized on up, and create a mirror wall.

    Alternatively, just keep an eye out for any pictures or old photographs that have a special appeal to you.Try to think of a theme, or better yet, a common color scheme .Even if the subjects of the photos and paintings are all different, you can tie them together by finding some common elements and then linking those elements back to your overall décor.
  • Carnival glass and porcelain knick-kacks are common thrift shop finds, so pick up a colorful carnival glass vase or cup and use it as a toothbrush holder, or do the same with a small porcelain pitcher.

    For the most-forgotten piece of bathroom furnishing, an old copper pot or pewter bucket can make a lovely, quirky-chic wastebin.

    Speaking of flowers, you could always:

5. Say it with flowers

A fresh, fragrant flower will beautify any room it’s in. And flowers don’t have to be expensive, either! If you have a garden of your own, a beautified bathroom is only a few steps and a couple of snips away. If you don’t have one, ask around! Most home gardeners are more than happy to show off their prize flowers or share cuttings from their own gardens.

If you have a bathroom with a window, consider growing your own flowering plants on your windowsill or in a hanging basket.

A few examples of house plants which work well in bathrooms:

  • African violets are a common, low-maintenance flowering houseplant that takes well to indirect light and high humidity. It’s perfect for the typical bathroom environment, and will put out pretty purple blooms to sweeten the air - and your mood.
  • Orchids are often considered difficult plants to grow, but the phaelaenopsis orchid actually takes quite well to an indoor environment. It also thrives in high humidity and dislikes lots of direct sunlight, which makes it perfect for most bathrooms. They don’t have a flowering season and will bloom at any time of year, with the flowers often lasting for two months or more.
  • The peace lily loves humidity and tolerates very low light, and in fact hates direct sunlight, so it’s perfect for bathrooms with small or north-facing windows.

Low-cost bathroom decorating doesn't have to be low quality

I won't lie:

A lick of paint or a few trips to the thrift store will cost you more time and effort than a trip to your local bed and bath big box store.

What they won't do is cost you the arm and a leg that new tiles or mass-produced set of accessories will, and they'll be bursting with so much personality and loving care that you'll find yourself getting more satisfaction from every aspect of your new bathroom that you'll never want to go back to full price again.

Though, hopefully, by then we'll all be able to afford it.


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    • azahorik profile image

      azahorik 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I just jogged over and read yours. You're right. We will inform the world on how to make their bathrooms awesome. :)

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Tams R profile image

      Tams R 5 years ago from Missouri

      Great tips. I too have an article on this topic. Between the two, people will have awesome bathrooms. Gotta love the thrift stores.