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A Crash Course on Low-Budget Decorating
by Courtney Ronan

Your mother's due to arrive this week for her first visit to your new home. The problem is, while you've moved up in the world -- landing yourself a respectable job and a nice pad -- your furnishings are rather sparse, and your decorating style is rather minimalist. That's not so much due to lack of time or desire as it is to budgetary constraints. Creating a nice-looking living environment, after all, costs a lot of money. Or does it? What's the bare minimum you need to spruce up your place and make it look more sophisticated -- without breaking the bank, of course?

Start in your living room -- the room Mom will step into first, the room that "introduces" her to your digs, so to speak. If you can afford to spruce up just one room, choose this one. The first step is your lighting. Cozy lighting can add a lot to a room, regardless of the condition of the rest of its furnishings. Hit your nearest flea market, and find yourself something unusual -- a conversation piece with an unusual base or shade. Purchase a variety of lamps of different styles and heights. And shop around. During a visit to a local (and very popular retail furniture store), I discovered a floor lamp that looked great, but once I approached it for a closer look, it was clear that a slight breeze would be enough to knock the unsteady lamp over. You may have better luck at garage sales or flea markets, where local artisans often sell some of the best-made furnishings around for a steal. By shopping around, I later found a floor lamp at a flea market that not only looked better than the first one I spotted; it was also made of sturdy black iron. A gale-force wind couldn't knock it over.

Do have anything hanging from your walls? If not, it's time to start. Head to your local art museum, and hit the gift shop. That's where you'll find various posters and prints of all sizes. They're all priced reasonably, and you'll often find reproductions of your favorite works. Since you've saved money on the prints themselves, you might consider spending a bit more on the framing. Arts and crafts stores often run "50 percent off" specials. Sometimes, however, even simple frames will work. Measure the dimensions of your print or poster before you leave for the craft store, and see if you can't find a ready-made frame. Custom framing can become very expensive, depending upon the number and quality of mats you select, as well as the glass and the quality (texture and material) of the frame itself.

A folding screen is another good choice for dressing up your living room (and also hiding a storage area if you're pressed for space). Look for a Japanese-style screen, or select one of the very popular "frame" screens, which allow you to insert several photos of your choice. This type of screen adds a very personal touch to your room. A screen can also create the illusion of a separate room (if you're self-conscious about presenting your tiny studio to Mom).

If you've still got those plastic "college cubes" in your living room, perhaps holding up your television set, it's time to graduate to the next level (OK, I'm speaking from personal experience, although I assure you I threw them away a long time ago). You can purchase very inexpensive side tables and either refinish them or cover them with a table skirt. If you're looking for something sturdier, find yourself a wooden chest to support your television. They also make great coffee tables.

A throw rug adds warmth to any room. I'm not talking a bathroom-type throw rug, now (for those of us who are challenged in the decorative arts). I'm talking about the kind of rug you purchase far away from the bathroom section of your retail store. You can spend as much or as little as you'd like on these rugs. Many of them at upper-end retail stores are overpriced; shop around. You don't have to empty your bank account to find a simple, nice-looking throw rug to place underneath your coffee table or in front of your fireplace. As you're shopping around, be wary of rugs with edges that are already beginning to curl; they're an accident waiting to happen. When you're not tripping over them, they're driving you crazy with their appearance. Ideally, you'll purchase a woven rug made of soft fabric. These are more likely to stay put than "straw-type" rugs. You may consider placing a rubber mat underneath your rug, as well, to help keep it from shifting.

Purchase plenty of large, overstuffed pillows for your sofa and/or chairs. They create a lived-in appearance, and their presence alone invites guests in to sit down. If you have plenty of pillows, but they've seen better days, purchase pillow covers -- a very inexpensive option that can transform the appearance of any room in a hurry. Last but not least, gather up your vases -- the more eclectic the assortment, the better -- and buy yourself some flowers, real or artificial. Fabric arrangements have become so authentic-looking that it's hard to tell the difference. If you have bad luck with household greenery, you'll want to go this route.

These easy, quick and inexpensive shortcuts will give your living space some much-needed personality. You'll even impress Mom ... if you can just keep her out of the rest of your house.