Making your home lovely — on the cheap

It’s an ongoing challenge for many of us — how to make your home attractive and affordably? Dorm room, shared flat or your very own first house, the basics remain the same: you need charm, color, texture, function and comfort.

The world is jammed with design blogs, like Design Sponge, so there’s no shortage of advice out there for the taking. I love this post — the Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture — from one of my absolute favorite blogs, Apartment Therapy.

For you Pinterest fans, here’s a post on using it for this purpose.

I’ve been making a pretty home since I left my parents’ house at 19. Few things are as nurturing and healing as a home that makes you smile every time you open the front door, and few as draining and depressing as hating your four walls, (and ceiling and floor.)

In the late 1990s, I also studied at the New York School of Interior Design, which I absolutely loved.

Here are some of my tricks, and some images from our home:

Consignment shops

You can find terrific deals in consignment shops, (places where people leave quality stuff and hope for a percentage of the sale price.) I snagged a glass pitcher for $12 and a reproduction wooden Pembroke table, at one of my favorite spots in Greenwich, CT, about a 30 minute drive from my home. Greenwich is one of the nation’s wealthiest towns, so their cast-offs are awesome! The table wasn’t super-cheap — $350 — but well worth it; light, versatile, classic and well-made.

Thrift shops

People give away stuff all the time without a clue as to its real value, just to get rid of it easily. Visit often and you’ll score furniture, lamps, china, cookware and linens for pennies.


Not every auction house is as pricy or scary as Sotheby’s! I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire, and attended a weekly auction nearby for almost 18 months. I learned a lot — like how to distinguish between the real thing and a reproduction or to know that a “marriage” means joining together two pieces that don’t belong together but look impressively old anyway. Read a few books on antiques, and you’ll pick up the basics of what a truly old, (often valuable but underpriced), object looks like. Keep your eye out for lower-priced treasures like quality rugs, serving pieces and candlesticks. This is a fantastic list of every antique term, from a comprehensive British website all about buying antiques.


I found this flat-weave wool rug for $125 in a Toronto antique store. It had raggedy edges so I bought some black Ultrasuede and had our local dry cleaner add it to each end, for an additional $30.

The wooden box pictured here was about $10 at auction — perfect size for magazines.



Our bedroom door came from the curb, i.e. someone threw it out! It’s probably from the 1930s or so. I like its round brass knob.

Fabric stores

They always have remnants, cheap. Even a yard or two of gorgeous fabric, hand-stitched into a pillow cover, can add pizzazz to your chair, sofa or bed.

We’ve had this Crate and Barrel china cabinet for ages. I got tired of looking at dishes, so added this fun fabric, for about $40, inside the glass. It picks up the room’s theme, which is photos and engravings of Paris.



The cheapest way to make everything look fresh and new. A quart of paint  — about $20 or so — can totally change the look of a small bookcase, a stiff cardboard lampshade, stool, chair, table or chest of drawers. Consider adding a hit of pure red, creamy white, glossy black, chartreuse or tangerine.

Save up for the good stuff!

I once waited for years, literally, until I could afford exactly the only lamp I wanted, the Tizio by Richard Sapper, a classic. It cost me a staggering $500 in the mid-1980s, (today, a small version is $300+), but I still use it every day and love it. I’ve never once regretted buying quality. I’m still (!) sitting on the sofa I bought in Toronto in the 1980s, slip-covered. It’s not cheap when you buy it — but if you amortize the cost over 10+ years, it is.

English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972)
English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shop everywhere

Garden stores, gourmet shops, sporting goods stores. You never know what you’ll find. I snagged a pair of fab pierced metal lamps at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis — for $13.50 apiece. I’d actually just gone there for lunch, but decided to poke around. I discovered sheets of soft, pliable, versatile copper at a local yacht supply store, a great material for lamps, votive liners, even covering a kitchen countertop. Jose was in Tucson teaching a workshop when he found some spectacular talavera planters and plates he shipped home. I hand-carried small framed prints home from Stockholm.

Including places you think you can’t afford

Everyone has sales sometime. Anthropologie has lovely homegoods, often on sale, as well as these sites I love, Mothology and Wisteria.

Use your imagination!

I found an old Chinese wooden frame ($75) and ordered up a custom-cut antiqued bit of mirror to put behind it from a glazier. It’s now our bathroom mirror; total cost $125.

Antique shows and flea markets

I scored a fantastic Moroccan metal lantern for $15 by arriving early at a local antiques fair. I had it sand-blasted smooth for $50 by my local auto body shop and painted it a delicious red from Farrow & Ball. (The coppery metal one beside it is a $12 on-sale find from Pier One.)


Stock a tool box and know how to use it

Hammer, pliers, staple gun, screwdriver, small saw, wood glue, nails and screws. A small hand-held sander is a great help, easily stored. Keep a supply of plastic dropsheets and foam brushes. Be ready to sand, stain, re-size and re-paint your finds as needed. Or make your own stuff to fit difficult spaces; Jose created three fantastic planters for our balcony from sheets of plywood we cut and painted.

What cool things have you done to make your home lovely on a budget?

21 thoughts on “Making your home lovely — on the cheap

  1. Great tips but I don’t sure I can find a quality item from the curb in my country. Garbage everywhere here. Also about this “I’ve never once regretted buying quality.” I like your point of view, although there is a priority what we should buy and what we shouldn’t. There is no advantage when you just keep and keep your money without spend it once in a while.

    1. It really depends where you live, that’s true. There’s a lot of great stuff in cities like NYC but not so much out where I live in the suburbs.

      I love a good splurge. But I’m cautious about it…We did recover a chair recently. Gulp.

  2. We bought an antique dining set with ratty tattered seats. A trip to the cloth shop for a few yards of burgundy and gold cloth with dragonflies on it, an industrial stapler and one hour later, I had a gorgeous dining room. I’ve also gotten great crystal from yard sales. Plus, at our Goodwill store I’ve seen people drop off items in Cartier bags. They always have great finds. Stuff like this is much more fun for me than buying it retail for some reason.

    1. I love it! We’ve used our stapler as well — it’s a terrific tool. I agree that the thrill of the hunt always beats buying something from a store or at full price. Flea markets are the best for this.

  3. franckies

    Thank you for this post! I´m currently moving into my first apartment and I´m trying to make it homey in an eco-friendly, non-expensive way.
    – I definitely agree with you on the paint. I´ve bought a few wooden lampshades, trays and photo frames from thrift shops and after giving them a little sandpaper and then water wash, painted them with colors that match/mismatch the rooms.
    – Chairs for the kitchen are often very well made if they are a few decades old (quality!), yesterday I bought two at the local thrift store. They are in great shape, but will probably need some new paint in a while. They cost 3 dollars each!
    – One of the outlets in my hometown is moving to a new location in a few days. They put an ad in the newspaper and I passed by, buying eight plates, sixteen linnen napkins, a large linnen tablecloth plus eight place mats for 40 bucks, great bargain.
    – Personal stuff is often found at the thrift store, I buy those “decorative plates” that people used to buy at travels to put up somewhere to display certain memories. Now I look out for plates that mean something to me, and stock up on odd plates that can be used for eating. That adds a personal touch.

    I´m currently looking for an old bureau made through and through out of wood to freshen up and decorate on the front. Check this out for example:

    Have a great day!

    1. Sounds like you’ve done really well!

      Love that bureau in the link…I bought an antique chair at one auction and then used it as a template to copy a rug…I painted it white, drew the rug pattern on it, then painted it in. It was pretty fantastic and a fun project.

      I can’t believe how much great stuff you got at that sale. Score!!!! 🙂

      Another cool painting project (which I’ve never tried) is to make a floor-cloth from canvas and paint it whatever style you want.

    1. Oooh, cool! Those boxes are lovely. My paper projects are less ambitious — I found some marbled paper the exact turquoise/teal of our bookshelf interiors and covered some books with it.

      I agree, that lamp was very spendy indeed. But it’s rare for me to find an object I still absolutely love 30 years later…I don’t love shopping that much, so the time I save by not having to replace stuff is worth the $$$ to me.

    1. Lucky find, that was! A lot of it is simply (not so simple) having a sense of what goes where in a room, (i.e. scale, proportion.) I knew by looking at it, without measuring, it was probably just the right size…and for the price, I wasn’t going to pass it up!

      Reading design magazines and books is tremendously helpful as you can (if desired) study the rooms in them you love and analyze what’s working so well and why (or why not.) The more you look at art, antiques and lovely rooms (like clothes or shoes or accessories) the more defined your taste becomes and more confident. The Pembroke table I scored is really a great little find, but I knew that because I’d been looking at lots of furniture for years and also know what works well in our small apartment.


  4. The best way to have an attractive home is to have a design sense. It is not about how much it costs or where you buy it, but about what you buy and where you put it.

    Is there a suggestion about where to pick that up for cheap?

    1. Absolutely: watch television design shows; read magazines (free) at the library or online; ditto for design books. Visit museums, which often have shows on design and rooms with exquisite objects beautifully displayed.

      Attend auctions — free. Walk into stores selling anything home-related — take photos, notes — free. There are hundreds of on-line design blogs — free. If it’s important to you, you’ll devote some time and attention to cultivating that skill. It IS a skill, just like anything else. It doesn’t take $$$$ but it does take repeated exposure to great examples.

  5. Ironic that I read your post today. I just picked up a 6-foot tall metal locker salvaged from a high school at a local consignment shop. My first thought was to refurbish it for use in my husband’s garage but then I discovered some great 30-year-old graffiti on the inside of the door and decided it would make a unique display piece instead. Now deciding what color to paint the outside of it!

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