by Courtney Ronan
Good taste is expensive, right? Whether
you're a first-time apartment-renter
fresh out of college, newly single,
a single parent on a budget or you're
simply not Rockefeller, trying to
make your home resemble the pages
of House Beautiful can be a sobering
experience. Window-shopping often
is discouraging, as you realize that
walking into a showroom and saying
"I'll take that" is an impossible
dream. Being on a budget doesn't mean
that you have to resort to orange
crates, cinder blocks and plastic
dorm-room cubes, however. Indeed,
there are bargains to be found, and
here's where the fun begins. All it
takes is a sense of adventure -- and
a little advance planning.
First, take a look at your living
space, whether it's a cookie-cutter
apartment, condominium or a single-family
home. What is your favorite part of
your home? (Saying that you don't
have a favorite part is not an answer.)
Is it a large window that lets in
the morning light? A window seat?
A garden window? Some built-in shelves?
You'll want to capitalize on this
and make it the focal point of that
room. If it's the shelves, for example,
you'll want to be on the look-out
for some interesting objects d'art.
And they don't have to cost you an
arm and a leg, either. By the same
token, if you've been hanging on to
something that you don't like simply
because you felt you didn't have any
other options due to budgetary constraints,
get rid of it if you can. If you can't,
can you hide it? Enhance it? How about
selling it and using the money toward
what you really want?
Next, head to your library or book
store. If your library has a used
magazine sale (many libraries take
magazine donations and then sell them
for $.10 or $.25, for example), buy
yourself a stack of decorating publications.
Peruse them, and clip pictures of
rooms and design elements that you
like. Do you see some paint in a magazine
photograph that you like? Clip that,
too. Compile everything in one place,
whether it's a photo album or photo
box, and write the name of each room
on the appropriate clippings. When
you're on the hunt for items for a
particular room in your home, bring
the clippings with you.
Before you begin purchasing anything,
think about your intended purpose
for each room in your home. Do you
want your home to be a soothing contrast
to your stressful job? Muted colors
and neutrals will be your best bet.
Or do you want to feel energized by
your surroundings? Then you might
want to consider brighter and bolder
colors. Do your tastes lean toward
the casual side or the more formal
side? That might depend on the surroundings
in which you work (for example, if
you work in a rigid, ultra-corporate
environment, you might wish to keep
your home surroundings deliberately
more casual), your personality, whether
or not you have children and whether
or not you entertain frequently.
If you're not thrilled with your
sofa, and a new one isn't in your
budget, slipcovers are the way to
go. Watch out for sales during the
summertime and in early January ("New
Year's" sales), when furniture
stores are clearing out their inventories
to make room for the new styles. That's
precisely the time when you can pick
up a slipcover for a discount of 30
percent, 40 percent or more, and completely
change the look of your living room.
Add a few new pillows, and you'll
be amazed at the difference.
You don't have to buy a card table
and folding chairs for your kitchen.
Instead, put on your walking shoes,
and get ready to do some comparison-shopping.
Many stores offer inexpensive sets
-- a table and four kitchen chairs
in butcher-block-style, for example,
for one price. For an inexpensive
route to new furniture, try your local
unfinished furniture store. Many such
places mass-produce comparatively
inexpensive oak and/or pine pieces
that can be painted if you wish, and
dressed up with your own accessories.
Stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, even
your local supercenter or warehouse
(such as Sam's Club) carry respectable
imitations of the coffee tables, end
tables, bar stools, floor lamps, shelves,
picture frames and other home-decor
items you'll spot in more expensive
retail stores. These are excellent
destinations for any shopper on a
Think about adding some new curtains.
Granted, those can be pricey, but
they can also be inexpensive. Many
balloon-style curtains and simple
drapes may be purchased (particularly
during periodic sales) for between
$10 and $20. The addition of color
adds warmth to any room. If you own
your home and can paint, there's a
bit of psychology to keep in mind
when it comes to color: blue creates
serenity, and is intended to refresh
and renew. Red increases intensity,
gets the heart pumping and the blood
pressure rising. Green, a popular
choice right now, brings the outdoors
indoors. It creates a sense of balance
and harmony and can be a calming influence.
Yellow and related shades are warm,
cheery and inviting. And of course,
a nice touch-up of white paint can
renew your house dramatically.
For art, the best pieces are the
original ones you create yourself.
Buy a shadowbox, and insert dried
flowers, black-and-white photos, magazine
clippings, postcards, anything that
holds personal significance. Head
to the gift shop of your nearest museum
or art gallery for poster-sized reprints
and postcards for framing. While framing
a piece of art can be extremely expensive,
your local craft store holds reasonable
facsimiles for a fraction of the cost.
Select something simple; after all,
the picture is what should be the
center of your attention. Mirrors
-- even inexpensive ones -- also are
an excellent choice, and they create
the illusion of depth.
Head to your nearest discount accessory
store, and pick up accessories that
attract attention without blowing
your budget. Such pieces include unique
photo frames, colored glass (an extremely
inexpensive decoration), plate racks,
linens, vases and pitchers with silk
or other artificial flowers, and candles
-- including votives, candlesticks
and larger varieties placed within
glass bowls along with some potpourri.
Remember that groupings of accessories
are more visually striking than single
items. If you have an empty corner,
purchase a small table (craft stores
sell them cheap, and you can place
a fabric cover or skirt on top) or
pedestal there, and top it with a
plant. Remember that while more traditional
styles favor more accessories and
in some cases, even clutter, if it's
contemporary you're aiming for, a
more simple, streamlined appearance
is best (which may be more realistic
if your budget is tight).
If you do plan to entertain, keep
in mind that many professional chefs
say that there's no space too small
for a dinner party. You can always
improvise. The company is indeed more
important than the decor. Just make
sure you have adequate seating to
accommodate your guests, and that
they are able to sit within a close
distance to one another and talk.
It doesn't matter if your chairs are
a hodge-podge of styles. It's very
possible to use what you have and
create a warm atmosphere by arranging
it in a way that encourages close
conversation. A little re-arranging
can completely change the feel of
a room, lift your spirits and change
your tune about those pieces you thought
you didn't like anymore.
Don't rush any of your purchases.
Take your time, and save your money
for the items you know you want and
can afford. If you have your heart
set on a particular piece that's a
bit more than you can afford at the
moment, by all means, start a savings
account, and wait until the time is
right. Scan the newspapers regularly
for sales, and head to flea markets
in your area. Even when you decide
to purchase facsimiles of more expensive
looks, you don't have to sacrifice
quality; there's plenty of competition
out there. Be selective, and avoid
impulsive buys on cheap knock-offs.
Landing the bargain of the century
is half the fun. Happy hunting.