Your guide to designing and decorating on a budget 

Great design often feels out of reach. Sometimes it is! However, there’s much you can do when working with a limited budget. You just need a few tricks of the trade. So, I’ve gathered up some of the most important steps and methods to make an inexpensive decorating project look more luxurious. And, go….  

  

Clean and clear before you begin. 

Cleaning, $0. Decluttering, $0. Organizing, $0. Having a clean slate from which to design your home… priceless!  Seriously, you could hire professionals to help you with cleaning, decluttering, and organizing as needed, but you can probably get pretty far in these areas on your own. Set aside a block of time to really go after it. Donate things that no longer serve you or your space well. Designers start with a blank slate and decorators paint all the walls white. Give yourself a clean slate, too. 

Invest your own time and labor in other areas as well. Can you repaint, refinish, or reupholster something? Do you have a knack for creating gallery walls? Know your strengths and work with them. When you’ve got a tight budget, you’ll want to outsource only those things that require expertise you can’t bring to the project. 

 

Begin with the end in mind. 

Decide on a minimalist vs. maximalist aesthetic. Maximalism may be “in,” but you know better than anyone what you are drawn toward and how you want to live. Work with your own personal style, not against it.

Be clear about what the end result you want. Clip pictures to model your space after. Select those you see that make your heart skip a beat. Give it some time and come back to them in 6 months… do they still resonate? Keep only what you love over time. 

Create “zones.” This is one of my preferred methods to design a home. Understand the program… how the space will be used on a daily basis. Design around that so that you’re going with the flow, not fighting against it. Designate spaces for specific activities — the places where you dine, read, and gather to entertain are separate zones… even if they’re all done in the same room. Set yourself up for success by thinking through the various zones in any space.  

Think about shapes. Channel your inner kindergartener and mix it up! One space should not only be squares and rectangles. Make sure you’re creating lines that are curvy and grouping items into triangles or pyramids as well.  

Curate “vignettes.” Ah, this is another one of my favorite things… storytelling through specific items displayed on bookshelves, mantles, and coffee tables. Creating a space that tells a cohesive and authentic tale requires discipline… but it makes such a difference in feeling that the place is  luxe — well designed and “finished.” 

 

Establish a spending plan, then mind your budget.

Create a spending plan before you begin. Easier said than done, right? I know, it may give you mega sticker shock to price everything out, but trust me, it’s better to face facts. Don’t be discouraged. When you track the budget going forward, you may be delighted to find some items come in under budget. You can then apply the savings to the overall project cost or make specific trade-offs. 

Even if, perhaps especially if, you’re buying a lot of items at discount, don’t be afraid to invest in one show-shopping piece. Look for an antique, a high-design modern item, or something in an unexpected color or texture. One high-visibility luxury item can make a big difference in the look and feel. Give your project the wow factor. 

When sourcing your items, check out some sale and discount spots that are off the beaten path. Look into, say, a hotel liquidator, thrift stores or online exchanges. Estate sales and garage sales can be useful as well. It may take a bit of time and legwork, but that can be fun, too — the thrill of the hunt! 

As mentioned above, it’s okay to take on D.I.Y. projects when and where it makes sense. Remember that headboards can be made of any material. Window treatments can be sewn rather than bought. Adhesive tiles and wall murals may give certain spaces that extra “pop” at a minimal cost.

 

Design the interior like a pro.

You can manage a budget well without cutting corners. Here are some ways designers do that. 

  • Ceilings – Install moldings if it matches your decor. That’s a simple but impactful upgrade. Otherwise, just make sure the ceiling is adding to, rather than distracting from, the overall look. 
  • Floor – Right-size your rug. A common mistake is going too small. You generally want at least the front legs of all furniture to be on the rug.
  • Furniture – True confession: I really like to use Ikea furniture! There are often ways to personalize or upgrade these pieces with paint, stains, or hardware. Speaking of… 
  • Hardware – Upgrade hardware on doors, drawer pulls, and cabinetry so the space highlights attractively cohesive tones that fit the overall palette. 
  • Lighting – Create pools of light based on task lights, pendant lighting, and dimmer switches. 
  • Textures – Mix it up. Use woods, mirrors (round can be nice, adds light and interest) & metallics (silver, brass, copper)
  • Plants – Add fresh flowers and carefully curated greenery.
  • Window treatments – Don’t overlook these, as windows are essential. Hang them higher than you’d think to maximize the impact.  
  • Walls – As noted earlier, a cleaning and/or fresh coat of paint can do wonders here. 

 

Design the exterior for curb appeal.

Just like you’re doing inside, begin by sweeping out and clearing out any clutter or excess weeds. Trim trees and bushes. The space should feel healthy, open, and bright. 

Step back and look at ways to increase the drive-by “curb appeal.” Frequently a new coat of door paint or updated house numbers and mailboxes will go a long way. 

Consider how the exterior of your home looks at night. Illuminate it well, washing walls with light that hits the right spots but is not overdoing it. 

 

Avoid these moves that tend to cheapen a space. 

Finally, here are some things to avoid when designing with a limited budget. These are common mistakes that tend to detract from the end result:  

  • Matchy-matchy furniture or artwork.
  • Too much furniture.
  • Too much metal or too many glossy items, meaning rooms that feature, say, gold toilets. (I know you know this.)
  • Poor lighting — spaces can’t be too dark, too bright, feature outdated lighting fixtures, or overuse a single tool (like canned lights).
  • Poorly hung wall art.
  • Rugs or curtains that don’t fit the space properly.

Hey, all of us make some mistakes along the way. However, a period of “trial and error” can actually be a lot of fun on a budget. When you’re dealing with “champagne tastes on a beer budget,” it’s good to know that you haven’t spent the equivalent of a 1996 Dom Perignon Rose Gold Methuselah (which rings up at approximately $45k) on something that doesn’t work.

Cheers to that!