Decorating on a budget
By Lillian Reiter
Perhaps you've moved to a new city, or are adjusting to a job transfer. Maybe you've gotten married, or divorced. Or, it could be that you've just gotten a little tired of the place you call home and want new feathers for your nest. Whatever the reason, it may be time to redecorate, and surround yourself in a style that shows off your personality and nurtures your spirit.
You don't have to be a Martha Stewart clone to transform your abode into the warm and fuzzy (or cool and sleek) casa of your dreams. The first step is to define your personal style, which simply means deciding what you like.
Thumb through the pages of your favorite decorating magazines or check some books out from the library. Stroll through local home-furnishings stores, surf the Web and check out your friends' homes. You'll soon discover that elusive thing called "a look" that feels right. Don't shy away from things that seem beyond your checkbook - a great style that you'll love to come home to doesn't have to be expensive.
After you've collected as many pictures as you can, review the pile and eliminate anything that doesn't speak to you, even if it was on the magazine cover. Does the wall color lift your spirits? Does the bedroom wallpaper make you feel glamorous and sexy? Do you feel like a pampered princess just looking at pictures of cushy oversized furniture?
Start with a plan
Begin translating your personal style into your own space with a simple floor plan. Invest in a metal tape measure and a floor-plan kit, 1/4" graph paper, or a home decorators' software program. Measure every wall and window carefully, and be sure to include any furniture you already own and love - but resist the temptation to create a plan around that hand-me-down over-sized easy chair in avocado green.
Next, get a binder with a separator and pocket-file for each room you're redecorating - though a notebook, glue stick and a couple of rubber bands works, too. Put the small scraps of paper, paint chips, fabric samples and the pictures you've collected in the various files. Try to visualize the style you love in your own space and get started.
Paying for it all
Ancient Rome was pretty spectacular, but it wasn't built in a day. Your home won't be, either. Part of the fun is the planning, the shopping and the Saturday afternoons spent mastering the art of using a glue gun. Indulge in a little window shopping to get some idea of what the types of things you want will cost. With some careful planning and lots of ingenuity, you can do it for less. The secret is to complete your project in stages. Take advantage of seasonal sales and unexpected finds that cross your path. Stick to your plan but be ready for a few detours.
Finding the right furniture
Maybe your plan calls for a living room conversation area with a large sofa and two over-stuffed chairs. Don't be tempted to buy everything at once, even if it is on sale. Invest in a well-constructed sofa covered in the perfect fabric and pull up a couple of dining room chairs softened with some inexpensive cushions. You can replace them when you get that raise.
Check out all the local garage sales - pass up the ones advertised as "estate sales" or "tag sales," because we're looking for real bargains here. Armed with your wish list, your tape measure and your imagination, scour the site for anything that resembles an item on your list. Reclaim an old dining table by refinishing a once beautiful top and painting the bottom. Or cut down the legs and treat yourself to that oversized cocktail table you thought you couldn't afford. Keep a sharp lookout for smaller tables that can be used anywhere in the house - an old scratched mahogany end table from someone's formal living room can be stripped and refinished for the den or painted in whimsical colors for a child's room.
Invest in a faux finish kit from the local hardware store or let your imagination soar. Create a super-elegant focal point for the dining room with a glossy black top and silver or gold accents on the trim. If you feel more comfortable out in the country, use a " barn red" paint and learn how to create the distressed look.
Redoing your boudoir? Maybe you're dreaming a queen-sized bed with an iron headboard and two roomy maple dressers. Do a little consumer research and buy the best mattress you can afford. Hold off on the dressers and substitute with some plain white storage units from the hardware store. When you're ready to buy the real thing, use these handy pieces for closet storage or move them to the kids' rooms.
Create a feminine bedside table with a three-legged round table that comes in a box. An 18" table will need a 60"round table cloth (on sale of course) to reach the floor, or a "skirt" you've sewn yourself. It won't cost more than an evening out with the girls and the hiding space under the tablecloth is free.
Shopping for furniture can be tricky - you'll be living with these expensive items for a long time. Don't leave home without a floor plan in your pocket and your "picture portfolio" etched in your brain.
Resist the temptation to buy lamps and lighting fixtures until the major pieces of furniture are in place, since the fixture you love today might clash with the treasure you find tomorrow.
Dress up the windows
Are you dreaming about large floral prints for elegant draperies or simple canvas shades? If you're a beginning decorator and you're considering a drastic departure from what you're accustomed to, first try out a sample. Invest in pillowcases that resemble the fabric you want to use, live with them for awhile, and then make your decision.
Enjoy leisurely window-shopping and look for draperies and blinds that work with your decorating style. Bed and bath shops, department stores, home furnishing emporiums, specialty shops and websites offer a myriad of choices.
If you can't find what you want, start perfecting those sewing skills. Window treatments, pillows, bedspreads and even place mats are a snap to make yourself. Loads of beautiful patterns are available from companies like McCall's and chain stores like Jo-Ann Fabrics. You can also visit websites like about.com for a mind-numbing collection of links to sites for pattern sources and excellent instructions geared to the beginner.
No need to invest in a sewing machine if you're the more adventurous type. Drape a few yards of fabric over some beautiful wood or metal rods for a truly sumptuous look. (Experiment with some sheets from your linen closet first.)
Coat the walls
Don't lift that paintbrush without fabric swatches in hand. Paint can be mixed to match the color of a sliver of fabric or a few fibers of carpet.
Planning to use an off-white color? You'll soon discover there are many degrees of "off." Paint companies offer shades that are tinted with pinks, blues, greens, yellows and even grays. Consider these paints to be a very light shade of whatever color works with your plan.
Paint is the least expensive item in your budget and the wrong shade can destroy your decorating plan. Save lots of money by starting out with one small can (usually a quart) and roll enough onto the walls to see how different the real thing looks from the teeny chip you selected. Notice how different it looks at night and during the day. You may have to invest in a number of quarts before graduating to the gallon size but you'll eventually get the color you want.
Wallpaper - and a professional installer to keep the stripes going in the right direction - can put a major dent in your decorating budget. Until you get that raise, you may want to jazz up those plain walls with stenciling around the doorways and ceiling or simple wallpaper borders - the self-stick kind are easy to work with.
Cover the floors
Maybe you're living in a rental apartment with drab gray carpeting that just doesn't work with the color scheme you've created. Time to think about area rugs - animal prints to bring out the beast in him, geometric prints for the sleek contemporary look, woven and rag rugs for the country girl in you and Orientals for an elegant eclectic ambiance.
Check out estate sales and consignment stores for bargains in luxurious wool, or comb department stores for the look you want in synthetic blends. Just about every fantastic design you can imagine is available.
Use area rugs as runners in long boring hallways, under the dining room table or in front of the bed. They're also a great way to define a conversation grouping in the living room.
Hard surface flooring like vinyl tiles and even elegant wood is not beyond the reach of most do-it-yourselfers and many home improvement centers offer classes to teach you how.
Professional designers recommend neutral colors that can be light or dark - but remember that dark flooring makes spaces appear much smaller.
Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize
Go back to those pictures you've collected and take a good look at the small stuff - the baskets piled on the floor, the artwork hanging on the wall and the objects d'art residing on the tabletops. Anything you already own and love can be used in the same way.
Cover a wall with photographs of friends, family, a beloved pet or anything that brings a smile to your face. For a little variety, try enlarging some of them or reframe the little ones with very large mats. Create unique frames from garage sale finds and try using new mats that will become color accents for the rest of the room.
Warm up those bare corners with piles of pillows, baskets or boxes you've decorated, and check out local crafts stores for excellent prices on silk and dried flowers. Most of us have lots of small objects that have something in common - we may collect frogs, eggs or salt shakers, or we may just end up owning lots of candlesticks because we love them. Clump them together and you have the beginnings of some wonderful table accessories. Try to vary the textures - glass, metal, wood and paper - and heights. Remember that odd numbers are more pleasing to the eye than even ones.
Even if you're making do with hand-me-down furniture, you can use personal accessories to create a cozy nest that has your name on it.
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