8 Pro Tips for Decorating on the Cheap


Since we are still in the thick of renovating as we push to finish in time for baby, I thought it would be fun to revive this post from December 2009, when we lived in New York.

It’s a familiar story. A newly married couple is having trouble furnishing their first apartment with limited funds.  Not so familiar:  winning a design makeover arranged by The New York Times.

Even though most of us are not as lucky as the couple I read about in “Newly Married, in Search of a Style,” here are eight frugal decorating tips that I gleaned from their experience (and that I find myself trying to apply to my own house):

1.  First Stop: Hand-Me-Downs

Mix of traditional and modern furniture

Hand-me-down furniture with a new slipcovered couch and matching paint. Photo by PoshSurfside.com

The couple amassed their starter furniture by asking for castoffs from family members. One can always hope to be handed down some antiques, which will add enough depth in case the rest of your collection is by Target (like ours is).

If there are no heirlooms in your future, you can still find affordable worn-in furniture at consignment shops, flea markets, or thrift shops like Goodwill.

2.  Mix Modern and Traditional

Restoration Hardware does a great job of mixing contemporary and classic styles.  Photo: RestorationHardware.com

Restoration Hardware does a great job of mixing contemporary and classic styles. Photo: RestorationHardware.com

If grandma’s castoffs don’t seem “you,” try mixing them with some contemporary pieces.

The designer felt that the dark wood and clutter of the couple’s current arrangement would be helped by lighter items — a tall modern lamp with a white shade, a mirror-encrusted throw pillow, and a white lacquered desk (from West Elm).  Of course, IKEA is full of modern lines, and its affordability can offset other costs.

3.  Craigslist:  Someone Else’s Trash…

West Elm (Pottery Barn’s hipper brother) is relatively cheap, but Craigslist is cheaper. The couple found a West Elm desk that the designer had suggested for almost $200 less than it would have been at retail.

4.  eBay:  The Virtual Flea Market

The couple’s designer was psyched to find a pair of Lucite lamps for $165 on eBay — whose value she estimated in the thousands.

A recent search on eBay for "midcentury table lamp" yielded 4,213 results, including this pair Hollywood Regency lamps from the '60s

A recent search on eBay for “midcentury table lamp” yielded 4,213 results, including this pair of Hollywood Regency lamps from the ’60s

5.  Cover Instead of Replace

The designer figured that a custom slipcover for the TV console would cost less than buying a new one.  They got a custom cover with flaps for accessing the DVD player and cable box.

At $275, however, this made-to-order option is still expensive.  If you want to stick with your own furniture, painting is another inexpensive way to give it an update.

6.  Re-upholster Chairs

My parents helped me put art nouveau fabric (from a remnant I bought on eBay) on these cheap chairs I bought online.

My parents helped me put art nouveau fabric (from a remnant I bought on eBay) on these cheap chairs I bought online.

Changing the fabric on chair cushions can really improve the look of a room. To save on labor costs, try doing it yourself. All you need is fabric and a staple gun (which you might be able to borrow or rent from a hardware store).

Thanks to my parents’ demonstration on my own dining chairs, I can attest to the fact that recovering a seat cushion takes about 15 minutes per chair.  Here is a 5-minute video that explains how to do it.

7.  Low-Commitment Wall Decor

ChocolateBrownWallStickerStripesWallpapering is expensive, yet painting is messy.  Enter removable decals.  The decorator used these chocolate brown stripes to set off a dining nook, for a cost of $100, from wallsneedlove.com.

YouTube has all sorts of videos under “how to apply wall decals.”

8.  Invest in One or Two High-Quality Pieces

A traditional English roll arm couch with slipcovers from Pottery Barn.

A traditional English roll arm couch with slipcovers from Pottery Barn.

Sometimes it’s worth it to invest in something classy and durable.  In the long run, this can be kinder to your wallet and the environment.  Traditional styles don’t look dated in a few years and furniture made from natural materials ages gracefully.

Even though the designer found a sofa bed at a showroom marked down from $5,800, it was still a large purchase at $1,950. She convinced the couple that — being elegant and versatile — it was a good investment that would stay with them over the years.

How to Find Affordable Interior Designers

It’s one thing to be able to bargain shop and paint your own walls. But how do you pull it all together into a look you’re happy with?

The decorator paid for by The New York Times would have charged $10,000 for this job. If you appreciate good design, hiring a designer can be totally worth it, but not always possible.  There is a class of decorators, however, that are affordable.

Interior “refiners” and interior “redesigners” work with what you have to improve the look and functionality of a room in a short amount of time and for a minimal amount of money.


Before and after pictures from redesigner Lauri Ward at Redecorate.com.

Members of Interior Refiners Network (IRN) charge a flat fee ranging from $250 to $350 per room.  Interior Redesign Industry Specialists (IRIS) charge $50 to $150 an hour; others may charge by the room, or by the half-day or full-day.  Some offer home staging, shopping and accessorizing services, and color consultations.

You can read more about both of these budget designers and how to find one in your area in this Washington Post article.

If even that sounds like too much, perhaps you know someone — an artist, an architect, or just a friend whose taste you admire — who would be willing to help you place furniture and make decorating decisions.  Our homes are so personal and full of emotional attachments — sometimes an objective eye is just the right ingredient to make the recipe.

Lead photo: Kris Krug

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  • Masive Vinyl Wall Stickers October 4, 2014, 5:25 am

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this blog
    loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the
    blog. Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

    • Amy October 7, 2014, 2:07 pm

      Hey there,

      Are you having trouble with the images in this post? They should all be fine, however many other posts have missing images, which were lost in a technical accident. So it’s probably not your problem, but mine. :-)


  • Josh September 26, 2013, 7:31 pm

    I’d have to agree that mixing modern and traditional elements oftentimes results in the most unique and eye-catching looks. Also your last bit… I could not agree more that investing in a few high quality pieces is worth it. They act as the centerpiece and allow your creative side to flourish as you finish decorating the rest of the room.

  • Vivian Mandala July 4, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Hi! As an Interior Designer, I would also add yard sales (or better yet Estate Sales), Auctions and Flea Markets!
    Paint is also your friend. If you find something that has good “bones” but really dark, you can always paint it! I do this for clients all the time with wood panelling, which, when painted white, creates a cottage airy look.

    • Amy July 4, 2013, 9:43 pm

      Hi Vivian,

      What great tips! I can totally see what you mean about 70s wood paneling taking on a whole new life when painted white.

      I have heard that estate sales are the best, but for some reason I find them intimidating. Gotta get over that.

      Thanks for stopping by and offering your wisdom,

      • Vivian Mandala July 16, 2013, 5:02 pm

        Amy, If you want to tackle Estate Sales, create an adventure out of it. So decide what day you want to go, find a handful of them to drive to, decide what you want, for example, you are looking for a side table. ONLY look at side tables. This will narrow your focus enough that the overwhelm will subside and give you a decent goal. :)

        • Amy July 18, 2013, 3:19 pm

          Hi Vivian,

          Thanks for these tips! I’ve heard that antique dealers take all the good stuff by arriving at 4 am and putting their name on the list. I feel like there are so many insider tricks that I’d never stand a chance, but maybe I’m wrong.


          • Vivian Mandala July 19, 2013, 1:59 pm

            I totally get what you are talking about, but it’s not nearly that aggressive as you think. The antique dealers are looking for very specific things and they may not (mostly not) be looking for what you are looking for.
            They want things that they can resell at a high markup, so it’s rare they find anything. :)
            If you travel with your list and are ready to find something or not depending on what’s there. You can also start by deciding NOT to buy anything, you are just poking around. That takes ALL of the pressure off.

  • matt February 12, 2011, 6:34 pm

    great advise! enjoyed reading!

  • Maggie@Home Decorators Collection November 17, 2010, 10:48 am

    A great advice to all who want to save in designing their homes.
    Buying a secondhand furniture is a great alternative to save you a lot
    of money. Hope to hear more great advice in your blog.

    • Amy November 18, 2010, 2:05 pm

      Hi Maggie,

      I’m so glad you stopped by and wrote in. If home decorators agree with this advice, then it must be pretty good!


  • Outdoor Curtains August 19, 2010, 2:00 am

    Wow! A great advice. I agreed with that post wherein you must “cover instead of replace. It was really good. Thanks for sharing that great advice.

    • Amy August 27, 2010, 11:09 am

      Hi there at Outdoor Curtains,

      Yes, it’s worth watching one of those free how-to videos on YouTube on reupholstering and what-not. It’s actually quite easy and can be very satisfying.


  • Steve @ EroomService August 10, 2010, 1:17 am

    Great article and advice, ebay and craigslist have done so much for the concepts of flea markets and classified ads, young couples today don’t even know what it was like without these essential websites!

    • Amy August 27, 2010, 11:04 am

      Hi Steve,

      I agree! We are spoiled in many ways by the convenience of the computer age, and the breadth of things available to us know.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • M December 17, 2009, 9:52 pm

    What a great post! I cannot agree with you more about starting with an antique or a piece with some history. It will act as an anchor and make the other furnishings look better. Once an architect told me that if you have a good floor, everything else will look okay. Maybe the same is true about the placement of a good old piece.

  • Amy December 16, 2009, 2:19 pm

    Hi Al,

    I totally agree on the thrift store front! And I love how you choose travel to spend your savings on. :-)


  • Al December 15, 2009, 4:42 pm

    You don’t have to be broke to appreciate the savings to be found in thrift store furnishings. Sometimes the serendipity lends a sort of hipness that makes the whole project lots of fun. Then you just have to decide what to do with all that money you’ve saved. I chose travel.

  • Nancy West December 14, 2009, 2:35 pm

    I wonder whether schools with interior design programs offer the services of students at a discounted rate, the way hairdressing schools and dental schools do?