How to Make Your Apartment Fabulous on a Budget
There's nothing more relaxing than coming home to a warm, welcoming living space at the end of the day, but very few people have the budget to transform an ordinary apartment or dormitory with expensive furniture or high-end artwork. Using simple tricks to find unique color schemes, re-purpose used furniture, and add budget-friendly decorations, you can create your own stylish but homey living space that will impress your family and friends without breaking your budget.
Paint Is Your Friend
Paint, in any budget decorating project, is your friend... make that your best friend. A good paint job can transform a room (or, as discussed later, any number of hideous second-hand treasures you might find hiding at bargain stores or garage sales). Because the paint on the walls of a room serves as the decorative foundation, I recommend it be your first step to designing your dream apartment on a budget.
Choose Colors Wisely
Many people are gun-shy when it comes to picking bold or unique color schemes, and rightly so. Picking a bold paint color with the wrong tint can make your space look extremely tacky, no matter how fabulous everything else is. Another major pitfall, especially in apartment living, is picking a color which seems perfect on its own, but clashes with something difficult to change (such as the carpeting or the blinds) once it's up on your walls. A good way to avoid this is to do three things:
Find a Virtual Paint Tool
Use one of the many free internet sites that allow you to upload a picture of the room and then virtually paint the room to see how different colors will look in your space. My favorite site is colorjive, but many of the major paint manufacturers (such as Behr or Valspar) have similar tools. You can register for colorjive and upload a single photo for free, or pay a small fee ($15) to be able to upload multiple pictures. I prefer colorjive because I find it has a larger color selection than the other sites.
Find Accent Colors
Take the color your like and find two or three accent colors that will look good with both your chosen paint color and those difficult-to-change room fixtures. You can use the same virtual painting sites to pick accent colors, but I prefer to instead find a nice print that has the color I picked for my walls along with 2-3 other coordinating colors.To find good prints, you can visit your local fabric store to pick up swatches or pre-cut quilting sections, or order a few swatches off the internet from a sites like fabric.com or onlinefabric.net, both of which offer relatively inexpensive fabric swatches.
Pick Your Paint
Finally, take your chosen wall color to your local hardware store and chose the type of paint you'd like. Any good store employee should be able to assist you in choosing the right type of paint for your space, but there are also plenty of good articles and videos on how to pick your perfect paint type. Be sure to keep in mind how the lighting in your living space will change the look of the paint you chose - it is a good idea to take color samples home and tape them to the walls you intend to paint before actually painting. If you are short on time, many of the big-box hardware stores have stations for viewing color samples under different lighting conditions - I strongly recommend using them.
Pick Good Furniture
Once you have your walls painted, you'll need furniture to fill out your room.
Design with Function in Mind
When selecting the furniture for a room, try to keep in mind the major ways you're going to be using the space. For example, if decorating a living room, keep in mind whether you're going to use the space primarily for entertaining friends, or as a multi-purpose room for both entertaining and daily television watching, reading and relaxation. A living room designed for casual entertaining can not have enough comfortable seating and table space for snacks and drinks, as guests feel most comfortable if they have some room to relax. A living room designed for everyday use, however, needs to be comfortable, amenable to wear and tear, and easy to clean. Designing a dining room requires the same considerations - will you eat there every day, does it need to double as a study area? When decorating my first apartments, I also paid attention to whether there would be a dedicated guest room, or if my living room would need to double as a space for overnight guests (read: sleeper sofa or futon required).
Find the Right Bargain Furniture
You can often find good furniture deals in the clearance section of furniture stores, or in a bargain warehouse in your area. But if you are really looking for rock-bottom prices, the best deals I've found on good furniture have been from second-hand stores, garage sales, and craigslist. Look for sturdy, well-made pieces in relatively poor cosmetic shape (ripped or worn, covered in hideous patterns) that are still comfortable to use and (very importantly) do not have any odor. Even though you will look crazy sticking your face in to used furniture and taking nice big whiffs, it is well worth it to avoid having your space wreak of animal waste or cigarette smoke.
Cover Ugly Furniture with a Slipcover
The pieces you'll find will probably look like they are straight off the set of a sitcom made ten years before you were born. If their dated pattern has a funky vintage look, consider just leaving the piece as is and running with the vintage theme. Chances are however, the pattern won't be so much vintage as well... ugly. This is fine because covering your beat-up, dated furniture with a slipcover is both easy and inexpensive. Search around for a solid or printed cover that matches your color scheme - a great place is amazon.com. My very favorite covers come from the chezmoi collection - they are cheap and can be tied off to fit your furniture well without too much fuss. Also consider securing your slip covers with either , or by fastening all the creases with a quilt basting gun. By far the worst part of using slipcovers is getting them to stay put, so invest some time (and money) in TuckOnce slipcover gripssecuring your cover.
Re-purpose Worn Wood Furniture with Paint
You can get a lot of bargain out of seemingly ugly non-fabric furniture just by giving it a quick paint. Using a color from your color scheme, fix up used coffee tables, kitchen tables, chairs, dressers - whatever you'd like. There are lots of techniques for making painted furniture look really classy, none of which are very difficult. My favorite sites for how-to tips on painting furniture are hgtv and diynetwork. There are tons of possibilities that can be creatively adapted to fit your theme. Just keep in mind that the most important step in re-finishing furniture this way is to make sure to sand it well before doing anything else so it will take the paint or stain you choose. If you can't find a friend or relative to borrow a sander from, I recommend investing in a good electric sander - this will greatly decrease the time it takes you to finish this project (which is good since the first couple times you try it, you may need to re-do your re-finish to get it just right). Corded electric sanders like the are convenient because they don't require you to remember to charge the batteries. This particular model also has a dust bag, which helps decrease the messiness of sanding. If you're diligent about recharging your power tools, a more portable cordless might make it a better choice for you. DeWalt 5-inch Random Orbit
Pick Multi-Purpose Pieces
To maximize small spaces or make a room multi-purpose, look for furniture that can be used for different things. My favorite multi-purpose pieces include sleeper sofas, futons, trunks that double as coffee tables or end tables, and lightweight tables that can be used for entertaining or studying but easily tuck away when not in use. Most furniture can serve multiple functions if you take the time to find the right pieces.
Inexpensive Photo Frames
Make Simple Accessories Look Fancy
With your walls painted and your furniture picked out, all you need to do is add accessories and you'll have a fabulous apartment for almost no money. Pick out just a few pieces that match your color scheme, avoid adding too much clutter, and you'll be good to go.
Most people designing rooms for the first time overlook the potential of lighting to enhance a living space, and instead gravitate towards the large, unoriginal lamps seen in almost every 20-something's apartment. These lamps might seem like a bargain, but break easily and turn in to big, unoriginal hassles. Instead, find either old lamps at second-hand shops or cheap lamps at big box stores and spruce them up by either painting them or giving them a unique lampshade. You can find bargain lampshades at any of the big box chain stores, or online through websites like lampsplus.com, many of which are less than $25. Just be sure your lampshade is the correct size for your lamp or it'll look like Dr. Seuss does your decorating.
Framed art is ridiculously expensive - a good way to get around this is to buy or print photos or paintings you like and frame them yourself using really cheap frames. Black and white photo walls are a popular example of how to execute this decorating idea. All you need are black and white photos you like in various sizes, and cheap frames to throw the pictures in to. You can bring in your accent colors with the mats of the photos, or even with the colors found in the photos you chose if you don't want to go black and white. I've also had a lot of success in taking cheap posters purchased from somewhere like allposters.com and framing them with simple poster frames from amazon or a big box store to give the illusion of a framed poster for a fraction of the cost.
If you're willing to get a bit ambitious, you can also try decals to create mini murals that go with your theme. Decals are available on a lot of hipster-type web sites, are easy to put up, and will give your space an artsy feel. If you're really ambitious, you could try designing your own pattern - I recommend first tracing the pattern you'd like before painting it in. You might be surprised how easy it is to paint a simple decal on to your wall.
Grow Indoor Plants
Indoor plants will start small, but when properly cared for will turn big and beautiful, adding a lot of appeal to your space for not much money. If space in a kitchen area allows, I recommend growing 2-3 herb plants for this purpose. I havebasil and parsley plants in my kitchen that not only provide fresh herbs to cook with, but also lend aesthetic appeal. You can even paint cheap planters to match your color scheme. Indoor plants throughout a living space require minimal maintenance, but grow to become lavish decorations over time. I like to pick plants with at least two colors in the leaves, such as a mother-in-law's tongue, a spider plant or a chinese evergreen. You could even try a flowering plant such as a moth orchid. Most plants are inexpensive in their immature stages, making them a good long-term decorative investment.
Be Creative, Not Fussy
There are many other budget ideas that will help you maximize the style of your space without requiring you to spend too much money - I've listed only my very favorites here. The key is to be creative, thrifty, and most of all not too fussy. Designing your own living space should be a fun way for you to express yourself, not a stressful or frustrating burden. You should aim to surround yourself with things you like and took a little time to find, not things you bought out of frustration or because you felt as though you had to fill a space with junk to make it look finished. Your home will reflect the joy (or frustration) you experienced designing it, so have patience, keep an eye out for bargains, and most of all, have fun.