i’ve gotten a few requests over the past few months about decorating on a budget—or how to decorate a space that may not be yours forever (like a rental, which most of us will live in at some point in our lives). so suffice it to say this post is long overdue. i lived in three rental apartments before buying the grand apartment, and up until i did this big renovation, i rarely splurged on decor. take, for instance, the photo below, of my bedroom in my old apartment in peter cooper village, NYC (which i lived in for 8 years–insane!). the curtains were $20 at target, the lamp $75 at homegoods, the bed a free ikea craigslist find, and the “art” a print i literally printed out from the internet, then stuck in a free frame i found on the street.
thanks to the internet and the advent of social media, we’re up to our eyeballs in pretty imagery—but most of us can’t afford to recreate the looks we see online. and if we are, well, we’re lucky, because having a beautiful home is a luxury, not a necessity.
that said, i do believe that design can make people happy. it can turn a house into a home. AND i believe that you can create a beautiful space without spending a ton of money (yes, really). below are a few tips for making your space shine—without forking over half your paycheck each month.
#1 PAINT: it’s the cheapest, easiest way to change a space. exhibit a: the entryway above, which belongs to my genius friend tiina. imagine if these walls were regular ol’ white. they’d be rather MEH. but with the deep, vibrant black walls above, the entire space P-O-P-S. i’ve painted the walls of every apartment i’ve ever lived in—my hallway in stuy town was a deep purple (random, i know, but it looked nice with my french gilt mirror!). painting is an easy weekend activity that you can do yourself (though it’s more fun with a few friends!), and it’s definitely the cheapest way to switch up a space. tip: many hardware stores (even the biggies like home depot!) have a “used paint” section–aka paint that people mixed incorrectly, or colors people decided weren’t right. you can get great colors at a deep discount!
#2 UPGRADE YOUR LIGHTING: if you’re living in a rental (and even if you’re not!), chances are, you’re #blessed with a boob light or two. you know the kind I’m talking about. the one that looks like a boob, complete with a nipple. sorry, TMI, but also, free the nipple, amirite? anyway—boob lights are a curse for many of us, but this doesn’t have to be the case! electricians are not all that expensive, which means it’s not all that difficult to switch out your ugly boob lights for something a wee bit easier on the eyes. yes, light fixtures are an investment—but you can take them with you when you move!
if you don’t have the budget for an electrician, or your landlord won’t allow you to futz with the fixtures, spend your money on ambient lighting (floor lamps and table lamps), and leave your overheads off. i actually don’t have overhead lighting in my bedroom (i went for a ceiling fan instead–and am SO GLAD i did, even if it’s a design no-no), so i make do with bedside table lighting (my sconces were under $34 a piece from urban outfitters, and a cinch to install).
#3 INVEST IN AREA RUGS: stores like homegoods, tjmaxx, and urban outfitters offer trendy rugs for decent prices–also known as a quick fix to flooring you can’t stand. cover ugly kitchen linoleum with a fun runner (inspirational example above, from honestly wtf’s erica chan coffman). spruce up wall to wall carpeting with an area rug. many NYC apartments have an 80% rule (80% of your floors must be covered to keep noise down for your neighbors)—if yours does, use it as an excuse to make your floors fun! there are also great steals to be found on good ol’ craigslist. i have gotten incredible finds just by typing a few key things into their search box. Z
#4: ADD ART: a small budget shouldn’t hold you back from adding art to your walls – especially when there are so many great digital prints available! i love Jenny’s Print Shop for affordable art prints–all prints are $15, and with their digital downloads, you can print them in literally any size you’d like!
you can also peruse local antique stores and flea markets for cool vintage art—some of my favorite pieces have been snagged for under $10, discovered under a stack of not so great paintings. the bonus of flea markets? even if you don’t love the print, you might find a great frame (one you can use to frame a print you find elsewhere). it’s also worth saying that literally ANYTHING you find can be art. i’ve framed old menus or flyers from my travels (i got great vintage hotel stickers at a flea market in lisbon last september!).
#5: WHEN IN DOUBT, HANG A MIRROR: mirrors instantly make a space feel bigger, and help to bounce light around the room. i have 3 (yes, three) in my entryway. CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP. sure, mirrors are necessarily in spaces like the bedroom and bathroom, but consider putting them elsewhere too. a large floor mirror can help a living room feel twice as large. adding a big mirror in the entryway (like mine above) offers a spot to check your reflection before you head out the door and makes a tiny hallway feel bigger. never doubt the power of reflection, friends.
BONUS (aka, #6): hit the streets! my second year in new york city, i was walking around the upper east side and came across a giant worn leather arm chair just sitting on the street. i inspected it for bed bugs (because new york), then sat my butt down in it to test it out. it was huge, and VERY heavy. so i walked away. then, a few minutes later, i walked back, and pulled up craigslist on my phone, and typed “last minute movers” into the search box. within 45 minutes, an out of work actor with biiiig arm muscles showed up in a red pickup truck to deliver me and my new chair down to 20th street. for $75, he brought the chair safely into my apartment, where it sat for the next 7 years.
the moral of the story? you’ve got to, as my mother likes to say, keep your eyes peeled. people move, and they need to get rid of their stuff. sometimes they put it on craigslist. sometimes they have yard sales/apartment sales. sometimes they put it out on the street. many of my favorite pieces have been snagged in this way. the giant gilded mirror in my entrway? it was $25 at an apartment sale in peter cooper village (where i used to live) YEARS ago. a goddamn STEAL!
sure, you run the risk of bedbugs, or things that are imperfect–but i like my pieces to have a little history, and when you buy or find a piece that’s lived a life before it reaches you, you get history in droves. plus, what’s the fun of ordering a bunch of big box stuff online? the thrill is in the hunt.