Super-Budget Decorating Tips From the Pros

pillowsSo you’ve found an apartment and you have the basic necessities of everyday life: things to sleep on, eat on, sit on … and so on. Everything seems to be in place. But as you look around your new abode, perhaps it feels a bit … unfinished. Spare. There’s stuff, but no personality to it. If you had the budget, perhaps you’d hit up that hip furnishings store you walked past the other day. But, like most of us, you probably don’t have that kind of cash.

Fear not. The pros are here to help. I got in touch with two interior designers I know, Kim Kangas of Transitions Interior Design and Maureen Haggerty of Mint Design, and I posed what I thought might be a stumper: What are some things to do if you have just, say, $50 or $100 to spend to enliven your apartment beyond the basic furniture, etc.? I knew they both do stunning work when they have larger budgets–let’s just say it’s usually slightly more than a C-note–and I was curious to see how they would respond to the super-low-budget challenge.

They came through with flying (and perfectly coordinated) colors, offering up a range of clever ideas, including unexpected ways of repurposing things you may already have.

Kim Kangas (Transitions Interior Design) broke her tips down by budget level, starting with the best price of all …


  • We all have things we’ve held onto over the years for sentimental reasons or what have you.  Dig those things out and put them on display.  What we hold dear should not be packed in a box but experienced every day and shared with our friends.  These things can be grouped together or spread out through our space, depending on what makes sense visually.

For $50

  • Exif JPEGPAINT!  I can definitely say that color is what makes a space personal and liven up the most dreary of apartments.  It’s cheap and can easily be changed. (Of course, check with your landlord to make sure you’re allowed to paint.)
  • Frames – Even if you can’t afford “real” artwork, you can probably afford frames at IKEA or Target.  There are a ton of things they can put in those frames: Pictures printed off your personal collection, cut-outs out of magazines you like–or for a more kitschy look, just empty frames. I personally have cut up pieces of my son’s finger painting and put that on the wall.

For $100

  • Adding to the $50 items, throws and pillows are at the top of the list for adding color and personality
  •  Side tables. When you’re just starting off [in a new apartment], you may have picked up your major furniture pieces from family members or Goodwill, but a ot of us forget about the accent tables.  We all need a place to put our drinks or the book we’re reading, and there are a lot of sources for inexpensive side tables.  Target just introduced a line by Minnesota-based Blu Dot that has a nice selection of hip, cool and modern side tables.
Maureen Haggerty (Mint Design) says that her primary advice “is to think outside the box—and have fun with what you have!”
  • Use a tall stack of art books as an end table or two. Wood chairs can be used as alternative night tables.
  • Paint or apply wallpaper to the ceiling for an unexpected pop of color or pattern.
  • If you are not allowed to paint the walls in your apartment, create color blocks using large poster frames highlighting fun wall coverings or do-it-yourself monochromatic colors painted onto large pieces of paper within the frames—group three or more together in a soldiered scenario. The colors and the shapes will add pizzazz and drama to the room.
  • Find a beautiful art book showcasing lovely images of botanicals or birds. Select five or seven or nine images from the book, frame them and place in a styled cluster on one wall, creating a collected and graphic presentation. No one will ever know that the images came from a book.
  • A vintage wood dining table found at a neighborhood garage sale can have a new start painted a BRIGHT color (like orange) in a high-sheen lacquered finish. It will shine like a beacon in your place.
  • Change out your throw pillows on a seasonal basis—integrate color palettes that reflect the changes in seasons–spring/summer and fall/winter. This helps to keep things fresh and show some personality.
  • Green plants in funky clay pottery always add a sunny and organic touch to any space. The key is to keep them alive and healthy.

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Author My First Apartment

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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