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Renovating a Small Space on a Tight Budget

Updated on July 13, 2016

I recently moved into a new space with my partner. We have a two bedroom suite with a living room and an attached bathroom. While expansive by Bay Area standards, the space can get a bit cramped for two people, and lots of stuff!

Plan Your Space First

A cohesive game plan is important for a small space because as you start to make changes and updates to the space, you likely still need to live there! You don't want to live out of a laundry hamper because you forgot to put together your dresser.

In terms of the budget, depending on your financial situation, you might want to stagger big purchases over the course of several months. It's also important to know what you're going to need over the course of the project and when. This will allow you to wait for certain items to go on sale, buy supplies in bulk when applicable, and above all, avoid overdrawing your checking account!

Some advice to keep in mind during the planning stages:

  • Be honest, with yourself and anyone else you might be living with. Do you need one shelf in the bathroom, or three? How often do you do laundry? Are you always going to put your shoes away in the closet, or would an easier storage solution by the door suit you better? Ask the tough questions now to reduce tension later.
  • Think big, but don't forget to be realistic. While brainstorming, don't limit yourself. Dream up your ideal space in terms of decor and functionality. But when you start trying to figure out details, be realistic. This means factoring in your budget and the size of your space, as well as your time. For instance, if you work full-time, you might not have a chance to build all your furniture from scratch.

My beautiful new library... complete with free bookshelves!
My beautiful new library... complete with free bookshelves!

Craigslist is Your Friend

When you're working with a small budget, you're going to have to get creative.

When we were starting on our space, we knew we wanted to turn one of the bedrooms into a library. I have a ton of books (as a former English major, it's a serious addiction) and I wanted to be able to display them as well as have easy access to all the titles I need as I work on my applications to graduate school. We went to IKEA to shop around and check out some furniture. Knowing how many books I have, and adding my partners' books to that count, we were going to have to get several bookcases and we realized we couldn't afford to buy them new.

So, we took to Craigslist. We watched the free and for sale sections of the site for high-quality bookcases in our price range. And then we waited. And waited. And one glorious afternoon at 2:30, we saw them: two giant, good-condition bookcases for free! And just a mile away from our house to boot. We scooped those up as fast as we could and had them home and set up an hour later.

Shop Around

We knew that we needed to get a TV for our space, but we also knew that this was probably going to be the most expensive investment. After doing some Amazon browsing, we were convinced we might have to wait and save up to buy one that would work for our space. However, we continued poking around and were able to find a refurbished TV at Walmart for less than half the price of the same TV elsewhere. We scooped that up and were watching Netflix the same night!

Small Changes Can Make a Huge Difference

We had some big changes to make, but one of the things that changed our quality of living the most was a simple one. We installed a curtain rod above our big living room window and got pretty blue curtains to hang from it. These curtains were billed as "blackout" curtains and were able to keep the sun out of our second-floor space all day. Living without air-conditioning, this helped cool off our room in the summer heat and brightened up the space before we got a chance to paint it.

Our many, many paint samples
Our many, many paint samples

Be Patient

You will have setbacks when you're trying to set up a new space. Some of these will be inevitable and out of your control, like when we had to replace an old toilet seat that had seen better days. Some of these will be slightly more self-inflicted. For us, this was painting. In case you can't tell in some of the other pictures, the room was a deep-orange when we moved in. I wasn't a fan of this color, and we decided to brighten it up with some light blue paint and a purple accent wall.

We went to the hardware and picked up a large selection of paint samples. We then proceeded to not be able to choose colors for two weeks and do absolutely nothing to paint our room for another two weeks. One month later, and our walls are still orange. This was a setback, and it was easy to get frustrated, especially as the rest of our room started coming together. But painting is a big project, and being patient with ourselves throughout this process was a key for making our home feel comfortable.


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    • Fawntia profile image

      Fawntia Fowler 

      2 years ago from Portland

      I know what it's like to hate a room color, but have trouble getting around to doing anything about it. My dining room walls are all painted a horrible bright pink color. They've been that way since we moved in over two years ago! Hopefully they will be a nice, soft yellow before summer is over.

    • Marina Lazarevic profile image


      2 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Awesome tips for furnishing a space when on a budget! I am moving to a new apartment soon and these suggestions will definitely come in handy. I've empirically been too impatient waiting for the right items to appear on Craigslist but will try to change my ways! Free bookshelves are so worth it.


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