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Shoestring Decorating
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 budget.

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.