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12 ways to decorate your apartment on a budget

US News & World Report – RE logo US News & World Report – RE 3/15/2019 Devon Thorsby
Botanical room with dining table, chairs, sofa and bookshelf © (Getty Images) Botanical room with dining table, chairs, sofa and bookshelf

Just because you rent an apartment doesn’t mean you don’t want it to look good. Whether you regularly entertain friends or just like having your own personal oasis, making a welcoming home space is important to everyone.

But even if prices for Pottery Barn's apartment line or at West Elm don’t fit your renter’s budget, you don’t have to give up on a chic look. If you have a couple thousand dollars to spend on furnishings and decor, or even just a couple hundred, both are doable, says Susie Frazier, artist and author of “Designing for Wellness,” which focuses on creating spaces that invoke emotional well-being.

A do-it-yourself project to upcycle a plain dresser from Ikea or a splash of color and pattern can give your rental the style it needs. With some additional touches you can achieve inside your budget, your apartment can go from a plain box to feeling like home in a few simple steps.

“Be the person that salvages something and turns it into something beautiful,” Frazier says. “That philosophy works perfectly with someone who’s on a budget.”

Here are 12 ways to decorate your apartment on a budget:

  • Make small square footage cozy.
  • Use mirrors to make the room seem bigger.
  • Salvage or buy used furniture.
  • Put up curtains.
  • Invest in long-term items.
  • Update lighting.
  • Use removable wallpaper.
  • Get double-duty furniture for storage.
  • Bring in a touch of nature.
  • Take a closer look at the artwork you choose.
  • Get reusable containers for items that don’t fit in storage.
  • Finish out the space.

Embrace the Small Space

At first, the small square footage of a one-bedroom or studio apartment may seem like a decorating challenge, but the smaller space may be easier to pull together if you're not trying to make it feel like a palace. Frazier points out that current interior design trends emphasize creating comfortable nooks and small spaces.

The smaller your rental, the easier it is to achieve because you don’t have to create nooks or close off spaces in a larger room – the cozy setting is built in. For this reason, Frazier says, “Renters might have an advantage over a big home.”

Use Mirrors to Make the Room Seem Bigger

Taking advantage of an apartment's small square footage doesn’t mean you have to give up on making the room appear bigger. Especially if the foyer or living area feels claustrophobic, add a mirror to create the illusion of more space. Full-length mirrors resting on the floor help make a room feel more expansive, and short mirrors attached to the wall can help a hallway or alcove feel bigger as well.

Mirrors also help light bounce around the room, so if your rental is particularly dark, angle a mirror toward the window or other light source to brighten the rest of the space.

Salvage or Buy Used Furniture

Furniture can easily become the most expensive purchase you make, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out antique stores, Goodwill, Craigslist or other online marketplaces, flea markets, garage sales and even sidewalks on large-item trash pickup days to find used items that are not only cheap – or free – but can add more character to your apartment than a basic black coffee table might.

Keep your mind open for items you can transform. Frazier notes that an old door from a historic building could easily be turned into a table by adding legs to it – and then it becomes a conversation piece. “Now you have a story to tell,” she says.

Put Up Curtains

Windows in rental properties are typically equipped with blinds for privacy, but not much else. Simple fabric curtains can help add texture and color to the room. Window coverings can be a quick and easy DIY project if you purchase curtain rods and curtains, which are available at a variety of stores, including Ikea, Target, Lowe’s and specialty companies like The Curtain Outlet. A few screws in the wall will be easy to patch when it comes time to move, and you’ll benefit from being able to block out sun and noise for added privacy throughout your lease.

Invest in Long-Term Items

Your budget may make an investment piece difficult, but Lauren Cox, design expert for online interior design platform Havenly, recommends paying more for the items you're likely to hold onto for longer. “Invest in core furniture pieces – so your sofa, your bed and things you know you’re going to carry with you,” she says.

To trade off, spend less on the items that aren’t used as often and may not even make the move to your next place. Cox says dining chairs and side tables are items you may not want to spend much money on.

Update Lighting

Your home will feel more complete if you focus on brightening it up. “Bringing in lighting makes a huge difference that you don’t have to rely on the standard pieces that come with most rental places,” Cox says.

Before you settle for a basic floor lamp with a plastic shade, explore your options. Ikea, Target, Wayfair and Home Depot are all popular places to purchase lamps, and you can easily find options in different styles for under $50.

Use Removable Wallpaper

Many renters hesitate to paint or put up wallpaper for fear of losing their security deposits. Fortunately, removable wallpaper and wall decals offer a temporary, damage-free solution to the white or beige walls that keep a rental looking plain.

Without having to worry about making a mistake that can’t be undone, renters can experiment more with pattern and color on their walls, says Elizabeth Rees, founder of removable wallpaper company Chasing Paper.

“Most commonly, we find that our customers use removable wallpaper for a single wall – though we have many who also use them for an entire room, as well as DIY projects and smaller pieces of decor,” Rees says.

Get Double-Duty Furniture for Storage

If your apartment lacks closet space, seek out furniture that both provides storage space as well as performs its standard function. Look for a coffee table with shelves underneath or hidden trunk space, for example, a bar cart that can double as a side table or tall shelves for your books that can also separate the bed and living areas in a studio.

Bring in a Touch of Nature

Indoor plants are an ideal way to infuse color and life into a room all at once. But not every renter has a green thumb, and a succulent collection doesn’t appeal to everyone’s personal sense of style.

Stones, pinecones or dry natural plant clippings bring organic patterns and variety into your space at no cost. Frazier has a grouping of smooth river rocks she keeps near the entryway in her home, which she says serves as a tactile stimulant for herself as well as guests. “Whenever anyone comes over, (the rocks are) almost begging you to touch them, and guests immediately reach out,” she says.

Choose Artwork Carefully

Leaving the walls blank in your apartment will make it seem less personal, but so will putting up artwork with no personal connection to you. “Only choose art that goes into your apartment that has meaning to you,” Frazier says.

If you already have your core furniture, Cox says artwork is an excellent option for making a bigger investment. Even if it takes a little longer to fill an empty space on the wall, the choice to spend more on a piece you’ll keep for years has greater value in the long run, whether it's from a gallery, artist website or at a street sale. You may still find artwork that speaks to you at a flea market, but skip the stores where you're most likely to buy art as a space filler.

Get Reusable Containers

If you find your kitchen cabinets overflowing and your counters getting cluttered, consider options for making visible storage a little more attractive. A wooden bowl to hold fresh fruit will serve you better than produce bags sitting on the counter, and matching spice jars can make your regular cooking ingredients seem like a display rather than a cluttered collection in the cabinet. Organization like this can add up in price if you’re not careful while shopping at The Container Store or even on Amazon, so only buy these items when you have a specific purpose for them.

Finish Out the Space

The biggest mistake renters make when decorating, Cox says, is neglecting to complete a room for the sake of easier moving when the lease is up. “It’s really easy to get into this mindset that this isn’t my forever home,” she says.

Matching nightstands in a bedroom, an additional chair in the living space or a rug for the guest room can make the rooms look complete. Cox notes that they don’t have to be investment pieces or focal points, but these finishing touches can provide each room with the complete look it needs.

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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