Decorate Your Home on a Budget

Is your front room stuck in the '80s? Does your house beg for a make-over? Here are some tips on how to decorate your home beautifully without breaking the bank.


Thrift Store Decorating

  1. Plan themes by room. When you use thrift shopping to collect “new” items for redecorating, you have to accept that you won't be able to find all the perfect pieces for your project at once. If you plan to work room by room instead of setting a unified theme for the entire house, you open up many more design options and run a better chance of finding at least one or two things you can use on each trip.
    • Don't neglect garage and estate sales when shopping for elements. During warm months, these can drastically increase your chances of finding a perfect item.
      • Sometimes, you can even find good deals at dedicated vintage or antique shops, but don't depend on them for the bulk of your searching. As a general rule, you'll get better deals elsewhere.
    • Themes don't have to be different for every room, but the more different themes you use, the more items will become viable potential purchases. On the flip side, you don't need to choose clashing themes just to maximize your chances. Themes should always reflect your tastes first.
    • Although there are plenty of contemporary items available at thrift shops, you might have better luck going for a more vintage or retro theme. Try mid-century modern, with its soft geometric designs and warm color palette, for a timeless look; consider a maritime theme with dark woods, brass and glass accents, and maps or paintings of tall-masted ships for a study or den. Other easy themes to find pieces for include Art Deco, French country cottage, and late Victorian.
  2. Plan your trip. Come up with two routes for your thrift store shopping. One route should contain the three or four closest thrift stores to where you live; the other should contain all the thrift stores in your area that you think you can handle in one shopping day. (including the stores on the first route). You'll use the first route when you only have an hour or two to spare, and reserve the longer route for weekend afternoons and the like. List stores in your area, then use Google Maps to enter each address and come up with a route that allows you to hit them without wasting time or gas.
    • You can visit thrift store directories such as The Thrift Shopper to get a list of many stores in your area by zip code (you might be surprised how many there are). Make a note of each store that sounds even a little bit promising; plan to at least drop in at each one you add to your list, and then pare it down based on what you learn.
    • Not every thrift shop is on The Thrift Shopper or its sister sites. Feel free to supplement your list with a Google search or a look at the Yellow Pages listings for thrift shops in your area.
  3. Pack supplies. For a long trip especially, it helps to have a container of drinking water close at hand. If you plan to visit bin-type thrift stores where you'll have to dig through unsorted bins, pack a pair of leather-palm gardening gloves to protect your hands. Bring a reusable shopping bag, too, just in case no hand baskets are available and you want to buy more than a couple of items. Items such as baby wipes and hand sanitizer are fine, but not usually necessary unless you plan to eat during your trip.
    • Don't over-pack. It's nice to be prepared, but this is really just another shopping trip. The goal is to keep yourself comfortable enough that you don't get frustrated, not to plan for a thrift store apocalypse.
  4. Load up donations. Any items you know you no longer want can be loaded into your vehicle and taken with you to any nonprofit thrift store, such as the ARC (Value Village), Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. They'll take your old items off your hands for free, and even provide a receipt, since such donations are tax-deductible. Don't donate anything that absolutely needs to be replaced the same day, since you might not find a suitable replacement right away. Instead, donate such items after you find their replacements.
    • You can also hold a garage sale for your old items, but donating them is faster, easier, and generally more efficient at getting them out of your house for good. Consider holding a sale first, and then donating whatever is left.
  5. Budget. Give yourself a daily money or time limit, whichever you prefer, and stick to it. Consider setting a second monetary limit that dictates what the absolute maximum is that you're willing to spend on any single item. That way, if you've picked up $45 of goods on a $60 budget, but you then come across something you absolutely have to have for your home that costs $30, you can extend the budget up to your single-item maximum without feeling guilty.
    • Buy and grab quickly. It's useful to have a slightly flexible budget in part because good items at thrift stores never stay for very long. If you see something you love that would put you slightly over budget for the day, it's better to buy it than come back tomorrow hoping it'll still be there.
    • A few thrift stores offer discounts that change from week to week on certain items. Goodwill color codes its tags and sells one color of tag at 50% off each week; Value Village often has one day a week (typically Monday) when all used items are 25% off. Learn which stores offer discounts when, and try to incorporate them into your routine.
    • At garage sales and some small, mom-and-pop thrift stores, you can haggle for a better price, especially on items a bit more expensive than the average. Don't be afraid to make an offer; the worst the seller can do is refuse.
  6. Shop with an open mind. You can't usually find specific pieces when you shop for used goods, but if you have a theme in mind, you can often spot items that would be a perfect fit for it. The item doesn't have to be period authentic, but it shouldn't look cheap or inexpertly made, either. Cheap items tend to be overpriced at thrift stores compared to their better-made counterparts, which might cost a few dollars more but which are excellent deals by comparison. Don't forget to shop for furniture as well as accent pieces, pictures, and knickknacks.
    • Thoroughly inspect every item you find before you buy it, even if that means sitting on the floor and lifting or upending a piece of furniture. Often, a deal that seems too good to be true is the result of damage somewhere on the item that isn't immediately apparent. There's nothing wrong with small flaws that can't normally be seen, but be wary of significant damage.
    • Imagine possibilities. Often, an item with no apparent decorative value can turn out to be useful by making simple alterations or even just approaching it as though it were a decorative item. Vintage cookie presses, for example, often come in old-fashioned boxes that look great on a kitchen mantel. Scrap fabric with an interesting pattern can be stretched and framed for an unusual piece of wall art. Try imagining how items could fit into one of your themes before you pass them by for being a little unusual.
  7. Place items carefully. Start by making sure the room is clean and free of junk or items on the floor you could trip over. Hang wall items using a level to ensure good, clean angles; heavier items should be hung from studs as well, so invest in a stud finder if you need to (they aren't very expensive). Furniture and lighting can be rearranged as you see fit. Don't be afraid to move items you already own and try new configurations to get the best effect. You might even find some change under the couch!
    • Don't set items on new shelving or table space until you're completely satisfied with its location. Nothing is more annoying than loading up a new bookshelf with books and then changing your mind about its location 10 minutes later.

Re-purposing Old Elements

  1. Paint the walls to breathe life into a room. Nothing transforms the look and feel of a room like a new coat of paint. Although paint isn't always cheap, it's an investment that lasts for many years; taken over the course of a decade, the average cost of painting a bedroom is around a dollar and some small change per month. Visit a paint store and borrow some chips (paint samples) to take home so you can better visualize what the finished walls will look like. Use light, subtle colors to give rooms an open, airy, peaceful feeling, or go with bold, solid colors to make rooms feel darker and more dramatic.
    • Typically, a flat finish paint is used on ceilings. Various finishes can be used for walls, ranging from flat through eggshell and satin (a bit more lustrous) to semi-gloss, which is bright but reflects a lot of sunlight. If you have pillars, molding, or other architectural features, use a contrasting color to make them pop.
    • In addition to paint and primer, you'll need plenty of time, somewhere to move the furniture while you paint, a roller brush, an angle sash brush, some fine sandpaper, and a paint tray. Plan ahead so that you have all the equipment you need before you start painting.
    • If you can't quite find the perfect color, most paint stores will be happy to lighten, darken, or blend colors for you to create a custom color. Don't be afraid to ask.
  2. Add cloth to coordinate easily. Although huge blackout curtains and heavy drapes are expensive and generally cloying, lighter and smaller options can make a big impact on a room's aesthetic without making a similar impact on your bank account. Kitchen and dining room windows can be framed with an inexpensive valance; sheer sill-length curtains come in a wide variety of patterns and can really pull a bedroom or study together.
    • If your windows already have mini-blinds, don't worry: just install a curtain rod a bit above the top of the blinds, and let your curtains and/or valances hang over them. An extra layer of cloth between you and the window is a small price to pay for being able to open, half-open, or close curtains to control their shape, size, and light level.
  3. Repurpose old furniture. With very little work, an old dresser can be used as entry storage for shoes or sideboard storage in the dining room. Use an old coffee table for a patio table, or repaint it to give it a new look. A nightstand can be refreshed with a new coat of paint and moved to the side of the couch to make a convenient end table with space for holding magazines. As for the couch itself, if it's still in decent condition, why not buy (or sew) a new cover for it to make it look like a whole different piece of furniture?
    • Old tools and kitchen gadgets can make interesting wall hangings. Be sure to hang them securely so that they don't fall and injure anybody.
    • If you have multiple pieces of furniture, you can make almost any boxy or flat item new again by cannibalizing table or chair legs and fastening them to it. Try metal wire V legs for a mid-century look, or wooden legs for a bit of rustic DIY charm.
    • Salvage wood, available for cheap at specialty stores, can easily bring unique flair to a room with its aged, weathered look. Turn a flat piece into a coffee table by bolting legs to it, or improvise a headboard or wall decoration from a particularly knotted and complex-looking board. Salvaged shelving is a great way to display knickknacks with a bit of extra character.
      • Set tempered glass over the top surface of a beaten-up piece of salvage wood to revitalize it without hiding its patina.

More Do-It-Yourself Ideas

  1. Sew your own pillows. Square throw pillows and covers for them are both very easy to sew, if you have a little bit of experience. Choose a firm batting and sew it into a tightly-stitched, stain-resistant pocket made from two pieces of identical cloth. Sew three sides first, stuff, check for evenness, and then sew up the last side. Slipcovers are a great way to add zest and character to your new pillows. Choose bold, fun fabrics with an eye to the décor of the room as a whole.
    • More complex slipcovers (such as those with ruffles and textured covers) can be made by following patterns available online or in fabric stores. A crazy-quilt slipcover can add a rustic Americana feel to the room, and is easy to make with fabric scraps and a bit of patience.
  2. Redesign headboards in bedrooms. A wooden headboard is essentially just a big palette for your sense of style, if you want it to be. Lightly sand, prime, and repaint it however you want, or stitch together a cloth cover for it to change both its color and its reflectiveness quickly. Use stencils to add shapes in a contrasting color, such as leaves or birds.
    • Even more whimsical designs are possible, using fancy fabrics and crafting supplies. Try gluing seashells and a bit of craft sand to the board, and then covering the top part with ragged fishing net cloth to make a seaside look, for example.
  3. Add inexpensive, dramatic lighting. Dedicated light fixtures are expensive and time-consuming to install, but portable and temporary solutions can dress up a room just as well. Use stick-on lights to illuminate kitchen cabinets or closets with the touch of your hand, or staple rope lights along the ceiling seam for an elegant and fun lighting option that's perfect for watching movies, having a romantic dinner, or spending time with a loved one in the bedroom. Rope lights are also useful for softly illuminating pantries and coat closets from above the door frame.
    • Simple Christmas lights can be used for beautiful illuminated garlands that add a touch of class to a living room or front room. Buy small lights all in one color; white is best for its versatility, but other colors may also be acceptable. Go to your local craft store and buy decorative garlands, preferably with a wire core. Wrap the lights in a spiral around the garlands and nail or staple the finished garland to the wall around a door frame or along the ceiling seam.
      • Change your garland with the seasons. Use a pine bough motif with berries and pine cones for winter, red and orange maple leaves for fall, and so on. Plug it into a wall outlet for an instant, dramatic effect.
  4. Tie the room together with a homemade rug. A Make-a-Crocheted-Rag-Rug is easy to make, and can combine any colors you want for a homey, personalized look. It's also a great way to recycle old T-shirts or bedsheets. Alternatively, try stenciling a pattern onto a plain area rug with durable fabric paint to make it more dramatic and interesting to look at.
    • Mats for the bathroom or front door can also be stenciled for a new look. Whenever you stencil a rug or mat, be sure to thin the paint first – it doesn't take much to produce a vibrant effect.


  • Items found at yard sales (furniture, pictures, etc.) can be really cheap and can be put to good use for your home. You can repaint it or spruce it up somehow if it's not quite to your taste.
  • Don't stop here! There are endless other ways to incorporate your personal style into home décor – wall murals made from old T-shirts, framed vintage comic book covers, repainted ceramic lamps, and on and on forever. Be creative and dig around for even more ideas.
  • Thoroughly clean everything before you work on it or place it in the room. Gently sand surfaces you plan to paint, and then clean them with water after sanding to remove dust. Let them dry before applying your primer coat.


  • Whenever you're painting, priming, or sanding something, make sure the room is well-ventilated, and take regular breaks to get fresh air. Your body can only handle fumes and dust for so long before you'll begin to feel their ill effects.

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