Fitting In: Buying Furniture for a Small Apartment

Furniture for a Small ApartmentSo you’re about to move into your first studio, and you’re finding that, as in many areas of life, everything seems to cost even more money than Paris Hilton’s shoes.

You’ve pulled a laundry list of furniture to buy for your apartment off the Internet, and even though all the stuff on there is reasonable, no-frills stuff you’d expect to find in a living space, you just can’t imagine cramming it into an apartment that’s probably only two or three times the size of your childhood bedroom. You can’t afford a bigger apartment and hardly afford the furniture.

But what can you cut from your list? The solution is to think not in terms of the items on your list, but in terms of your needs first–then choose items to fill those needs.

So, what do you need?

1. You need a place to sleep.

This is the most important thing. If you don’t have a bed from your last living space, and you can’t afford a whole new setup, don’t panic.

If cash is tight, there are two half-decent options available to you: a) sleep on a futon, or b) just get a decent mattress and set it up on the floor for now. In the case of the second option, if your apartment is carpeted, I would recommend putting a cheap rug down underneath the mattress–and whether carpeted or not, you need to keep the surrounding floor clean. If you don’t sleep well on a futon, though, this could actually be the better option.

Futons are very popular, for the fact that you can get a decent one for $150-$200 and you can buy washable covers for them–and also, you can stay in this price range without sleeping so close to the floor. You can shove your pillow and duvet or blankets into a plastic tub and slide it under the futon during the day easily.

If you’re on a budget but can still afford a good place to sleep, you might opt for partnering your mattress with an IKEA bed frame and a slatted bed base (also available from IKEA), which replaces a traditional box spring. There are even bed frames with storage drawers built into the under-bed area–which, as we’ll see later, may be worth their extra price. In particular, I’m thinking of the BRIMNES bed frame, which is $250 with a slatted bed base. However, this would be difficult to move from apartment to apartment.

2. You need a working kitchen.

See my post on this–there are too many fiddly things involved in a kitchen to list them all here. Suffice it to say that your kitchen will probably cost you $300 to be fully functional (in other words, to let you make everything you want). If you already know your cooking style, you may be able to omit some of that list, but a lot of it is just generally necessary. Buy decent-quality things to ensure that you don’t have to buy them all again!

However, if your budget is tight, consider picking a few meals that you like, that are easy to cook, and that need similar equipment and just buy those tools. If you are a big pasta fan, buy one big pot to cook your pasta (and make soup) and one oven -safe frying pan to make the sauce (and roast a chicken).  Definitely buy from thrift stores–you may want to run the stuff through a bleach rinse, but you’ll spend a quarter of what you’d dish out for new stuff.

If you’re on a limited budget, what I won’t do is recommend skipping this, as you’ll spend more on a few days’ worth of eating out or a few weeks of eating ramen (the latter may cost you your health/energy, too) than you would by getting kitchen tools.

3. You need a place to study and/or work.

This is a really personal thing. Maybe you need a desk to be most productive, or maybe you’re okay with sitting on a futon with a coffee table in front of you and your laptop on your lap. Factor it into your list; you probably know what works best for you by now, and you may even have a desk already from home.

4. You need a place to eat and relax.

Some lists will recommend that you get a little breakfast table and some chairs. I suggest that this can be skipped–just get a decent coffee table that won’t be busted up by the end of the year (look at garage/estate/moving sales, flea markets, and thrift stores). Yes, you can get a teeny breakfast table and a couple of stools from IKEA for $20 up front, but how much will you be paying for their share of your rent in terms of floor space? It’s a hidden cost. Remember, one-trick ponies are not your friend in a tiny space.

Even if you don’t plan to sleep on a futon, they’re a good buy for your “living room” because they’re cheaper than couches, you can let your friend crash on them if needed, and they’re not hard to move if you end up staying in that apartment for only a year.

You can buy another chair or two depending on whether you can afford it and whether you have room for it, but this might be a purchase best saved for later.

5. You need a place to store your stuff.

Clothing in particular. You can get a dresser, especially if you can spot one at a thrift shop/garage sale. You can get a bed frame with under-bed storage, or just put plastic tubs under your bed as makeshift drawers, but take into consideration whether you’ll have the space to slide out those drawers, and how convenient it’ll be to rummage through what is basically a box on the floor for your clothes every day.

Again, if dedicated furniture is out of the budget, there are some less attractive options. The aforementioned plastic-tub-under-the-bed solution is a decent compromise between your aesthetic and your budget. Or you could use the classic dorm solution of putting everything in milk crates until you can afford real furniture.

6. You need lighting.

Ceiling lighting is kinda terrible–it just isn’t a natural angle for an indoor space, and most people can feel that even if it’s only subconscious. Floor and table lamps make a room feel a lot homier, so get a couple. It will make your apartment feel like more than a dorm room.

7. You need to make the apartment feel like home.

This is not to be underestimated. Budget for it, even if you can only scrape up a little bit to spare. Stress is a major problem, especially during a move, and your mental health is just as important as whether your bed makes your back ache. So, yes, this is a need, not a want.

Obviously, exert some caution and reason, and remember how much you actually have space for. Use your resourcefulness, and remember your thrift stores and DIY projects. Now is the time to try that thing you saw on Pinterest, because–congratulations–you are not in your childhood bedroom or your dorm room! You finally have room to experiment and make your space your home.

Now you have enough information to make your own checklist, customized to your needs! But, for your convenience, here are a few sample checklists you can pick and mix from:

<$500 budget

1) $150 futon; you may be able to find the frame from a thrift store and get the pad somewhere else. If you have older siblings or friends who are in college, you could ask if any of their friends are getting rid of a futon. Be a little wary of your sources, though, or you may end up with one with a chronic odor of cheap beer. Also be wary if your sibling’s or friend’s friends don’t actually like them very much and would be willing to sell them a futon with bedbugs in it.

2) $100 worth of thrift store kitchen stuff. Only you can know which kitchen items are absolute essentials for you, because everyone’s style is different in cooking. All I can say is–go ahead and read through the kitchen post, practice cooking a few times, and make cuts where you can. Don’t go without buying a frying pan, though. Apart from its near-ubiquity in cooking, it’s also an innocuous-looking home defense weapon… just ask Rapunzel.

3) $25-75 for a coffee table to work on, or maybe you can find a cheap desk; you’ll only find these prices in thrift stores or garage sales, though. Don’t spend $75 on a coffee table at this budget level. You can find some pretty nice ones for $20 if you look in the right places, at least in my city.

4) Use your futon and coffee table as a “relax” space as well as a working space.

5) $25-75 for anything from milk crates to a dedicated dresser; again, it depends on how good your local garage sales, thrift stores, and flea markets are.

6) $50 for lighting; this should at least get you two nice floor lamps and maybe some Christmas lights, even if you end up having to buy them new. More lighting (or more leftover cash) is better, though, so keep looking at those thrift stores!

7) $50 to make your space your own. Spend wisely.

$1,000 budget

1) $300 for a decent mattress, and a cheap rug or blanket to throw underneath it. Your mattress, at this stage, is way more important than your bedframe… which can be expensive and difficult to take apart and move if you don’t spend more than a year in this particular apartment.

2) $200 for your kitchen. You CAN buy everything I mentioned in the kitchen post for this; the $300 figure I mentioned earlier assumes you’re in a town with awful thrift stores and that you’ll have to buy everything new. If that’s your case, spend a little gas and haul yourself over to the next good-sized town in your mom’s minivan. You could probably get the lot for less than $150 with a little patience and a gallon of Clorox.

3) Spend a good $100 on your desk–or wherever it is you like to work.

4) Grab yourself that $150 futon.

5) $100 for your dresser/storage space, if you don’t have one from home.

6) $50 for your lighting.

7) $100 on personalization. Don’t spend it all in one place!

$2,000 budget

1) Spend $550 on a bed and a bed frame. Beware that IKEA products are notoriously difficult to take apart, and your bed frame should be either really, really cheap or easy to disassemble and move. However, the aforementioned BRIMNES bedframe does have under-bed drawers… this makes it pretty heavy, though. It might be a good option if you’re pretty sure you’re staying in that apartment for the next three years or whatever.

2) Grab your $300 kitchen. If you still went to thrift stores for the basics, you could afford a few knives from Wusthof, which will last for literally decades. I think my mom has had the same set of Wusthof knives for about forty years, and they’re still the best knives I’ve ever worked with. Don’t forget your sharpening steel. (And for Pete’s sake, use your steel correctly, never throw your knives in the dishwasher, and don’t use glass, metal, or stone cutting boards.) Besides their longevity, expensive knives are actually safer to work with. Wusthof knives will never break in your hand unless you actually TRY to break them (and that would be difficult).

3) $300 for a good desk/chair combo is reasonable at this budget. Do make sure to budget at least $100 of this for your chair; you’ll sit in it a lot, so give your back a break and get a nice chair.

4) $350 will get you an actual couch! Not a fancy one, mind, but there are decent couches with fabric covers in this price range. This isn’t something to buy from thrift stores; beware of bedbugs.

5) $150 will get you a nice dresser. If you’ve saved in other areas of the budget, you can also nab some bookshelves. I know most people don’t read a lot, but I do… if I didn’t already have bookshelves, this would be an essential buy for me at any budget!

6) Spend $100 on some neat lighting. You’ve got the traditional options of five-headed lamps and desk lamps and such, but if you’re a DIY-er, you can get puzzle light (or “IQ light”) pieces, which you can make into different shapes–globes, hearts, fish, all sorts of things. Or you could find yourself some neat Chinese lanterns. Basically, the extra money here is to let you make your lighting into extra decoration.

7) This leaves you a whole $250 to decorate! You might even think about painting–just remember what’s in your lease, since you probably have to paint it white again when you move out. In other words, stay away from dark purple or zebra stripes!

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Author My First Apartment

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I'm a young programmer from Iowa getting ready to move out on my own. I hold aspirations of starting my own tech startup in Boston or San Francisco, but will settle for getting into a nice college if that doesn't pan out.

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Comments (2)

  1. Avatar Brianna Yates

    Thank you for this! I have been putting off buying furniture and have been living in my apartment for almost a year now! It’s time for me to make my apartment my home and this article has really helped me to think about how to do so and on a budget. God bless you!