Friends of mine would probably describe me as “crafty” and “creative.” But that’s just because they’re too polite to tell you the truth: I’m cheap.
My stinginess has led me down dark alleys in search of scrap wood to build a coffee table for a fraction of the price of the Restoration Hardware version I adore. And it means I’ll often wake up to pictures from my roommate of dilapidated, discarded furniture on the street with the message, “This made me think of you.”
As a result, my apartment is filled with inexpensive pieces that have been gathered in unconventional ways or made by yours truly. In fact, the other day while I was tidying up, I realized that every item — with the exception of my mattress — cost less than $300.
I’ve been very deliberate in my selections, and it’s taken me years to build an arsenal of couches, tables, rugs and art that I’m happy with. At times it was difficult not to rush to Ikea and settle for a set of just-okay dining chairs to avoid another night of standing around the dinner table eating supper.
I realize not everybody has as much patience to devote to decorating and furnishing their home. And I’m not proposing you spend your weekends scrounging around in dumpsters for unique home accents. (Please, that would mean fewer treasures for me.)
But there are a few tricks and shortcuts I’ve learned along the way that make it easy to save a buck or $200. And not a single one requires a tetanus shot.
– Know what to buy vs. DIY
Anytime I see an item described as “industrial” or being made with “reclaimed” materials, my DIY senses tingle. Additionally, the plumbing section at your local hardware store is brimming with potential storage solutions. I built the clothing racks in my dressing room using copper piping and concrete, and I’ve made a simple, versatile blanket ladder using dowels and copper fittings. And if you find an affordable dresser but hate the knobs, you’re just a few twists away from a sleek piece when you update the hardware.
– Buy textiles when you travel
The fastest way to add color and richness to a room is by adding textiles. It also happens to be one of the most expensive. Throw blankets, table linens and rugs often demand a high price because they’ve been imported and are grossly marked up. But when traveling through foreign countries, you can find the same items at markets for a fraction of the price. Take the massive white rug in my living room that I snagged in Mexico City for $30. Or the hand-embroidered blanket draped across my bed that I picked up in Burma for $40. Not only were they affordable and rare, but they also tell a story.
– Host a tchotchke swap
One woman’s trash is another woman’s new wall adornment or pop of color. Similar to a clothing swap or a book swap, a tchotchke swap is a way for you to exchange items you no longer need for something fresh. It’s how I picked up a crystal chandelier (really!) for nothing.
– Think big
If you have a large, blank wall to fill, don’t immediately think gallery wall, which is a strategically arranged collection of art pieces that can cost a fortune to frame. Instead opt for a large anchor piece, such as a giant map or a handmade installation. For my living room, I searched “DIY backdrop” for inspiration and found instructions on how to make a huge tassel hanging on a wedding website.
– Paint often and paint everything
A can of paint is the single most inexpensive way to change the look of your home. Don’t be afraid to go big here. I wasn’t, and I’m thrilled with my bright blue living room (inspired by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house in Mexico City) and coral dining room (inspired by a Santorini sunset). And consider painting your cabinets and doors. I couldn’t resist coating the door in my foyer with millennial pink, and the results are whimsical.
– Go to estate sales
This is the best way to shop for furniture for a number of reasons: The prices are unbeatable. In fact, many of the secondhand shops you love get their stock this way (and then charge you three times what they paid.) Secondly, if you like someone’s taste in dining room chairs, chances are you’ll like their taste in dining room tables and bed frames and dressers and … you get the idea. Plus, you can haggle for a discount if you’re buying multiple items. Lastly, estate sales give someone’s belonging a second chance at being loved, which is how I got over the initial ickiness of rummaging through a stranger’s things.
– Make your existing belongings do the work
Books, clothing and dinnerware are common items in every apartment. They can also look beautiful when displayed in the open vs. stored in a cabinet or closet. Be sure to choose your items wisely: Think floor-length floral frocks hung on a clothing rack instead of a row of white tees.
– Add some plants
Don’t let a fear of killing greenery stop you from adding life to your home. There are a number of foolproof houseplants that cost next to nothing and will last a long time, including ZZ plants, snake plants and pothos. Fiddle-leaf figs and succulents might be in vogue, but both are fickle and require specific conditions to thrive.
– Don’t be afraid of prints
If you want to make an otherwise bland room come to life, just add prints. The bright green floral couch in my living room (which I affectionately call “grandma chic”) serves as the anchor for the space, and the wallpaper in my dressing room turns a drab wall into a happy garden. Plus, the pattern is so bold that I needed to cover only one wall, thus saving money. Just be sure to go easy on other patterns so as not to overwhelm the eye.