I haven’t yet printed or framed this image, taken at a friend’s Ontario cottage. But I could!
By Caitlin Kelly
I’m not someone with a lot of disposable income to spend. I’ve worked most of my career in journalism, which I’ve enjoyed, but isn’t high paying or secure — no pensions for me! I’ve also lived in Toronto and suburban New York for most of that — two areas that are costly for rent/housing. In the U.S., if you work freelance, you’re also stuck between medical bankruptcy or paying a fortune for health insurance — like $20,000 a year, which was normal for us for years.
So I’ve always been pretty good at squeezing my money hard for full value and enjoyment.
As readers here know, my two biggest splurges are travel and our apartment; it’s only a one bedroom, so there’s no fear of a costly boiler/roof/plumbing drama or having a tree split our house in two during a hurricane or tornado.
I grew up a family that came from serious money, so we’ve had the combined blessing and curse — as we didn’t have nearly as much of it as our ancestors! — of creating a stylish and elegant home and wardrobe without lots of cash. My maternal grandmother was very wealthy and hired Toronto’s top interior decorator to do her homes, so I grew up around lovely art and furniture and wallpapers.
Here are some of the ways I enjoy stylish life without a ton of money:
My $3 18th c teapot
Flea markets and antique stores
A goldmine, potentially. I’ve seriously studied antiques so when I spot an underpriced bargain, I pounce. I’ve got an enormous 19th c paisley wool shawl (that covers Jose’s desk) for $150, an 18th c teapot (missing its lid) for $3, a massive wicker suitcase at a show in Toronto that Air Canada let me stash in the airplane overhead compartment. I recently revisited one of my favorite spots, an enormous, sprawling antiques mall in Stamford, CT that’s a favorite of NYC designers, Most items are $1,000 or more, so it’s not a hotbed of bargains, but the quality is fantastic and it’s inspiring; I did get a lovely frame for $56 and an olive green small glass vase for the same price. If you never look at high(er) quality material — or sink happily into down cushions — it’s hard to recognize and appreciate it. Half of the battle is a little education. I got a stunning handmade blue and white wool coverlet in Maryland for $100 — worth three to four times that much (you can easily Google it when in-store.)
The shadow of a black wooden painted folk art horse, found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ont.
Consignment, thrift and vintage shops
Such treasures! I scored four stunning ruby red wineglasses at our local thrift shop for $10 and have spotted some very good early pieces there. Since most people don’t know the real from the fake, it pays to learn a bit. Carrying a tape measure and small magnifying glass are useful to know if something will fit your space and be able to read tiny marks denoting silver plated cutlery (EPNS) or the hallmarks of sterling silver. I’ve found lovely linens in all of these — tablecloths, damask napkins, pillowcases. Most are pristine but can easily be bleached.
I’ve also found great things in Greenwich, CT at a clothing consignment shop — many larger cities have one, and if your area has a wealthy neighborhood, go! I’m not one for designer names, but got a pair of brown suede Ferragamo loafers for $100 I wore for maybe a decade. I’m still using a super-thick cashmere cardigan I got there for $100, also many years ago. No one knows it’s vintage or pre-owned!
My favorite NYC vintage shop is on Rivington Street, Edith Machinist. Her prices are very fair and the selection carefully edited. Edith is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met!
These simple metal lanterns were super cheap, found in a Minneapolis cafe
The very word tends to intimidate — since the only auctions we generally see in mainstream media are people bidding millions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Yet there are many local and regional auction houses selling all sorts of lovely things at a wide range of prices, and they’re well worth a look — in NYC, Doyle and Swann Galleries have given me some good stuff (and I’ve sold at Swann); in NH. where I lived for 18 months, William Smith. Skinner in Boston, Leslie Hindman in Chicago. Our tribal wool living room rug came from a Doyle auction — $800 including tax and a buyer’s premium. I bought a print by Raoul Dufy and a gorgeous huge lithograph by Vlaminck at the same Swann auction and love seeing them every day on our bedroom wall.
There is always a buyer’s premium! So be sure to check as it can add 25% to your bid.
Things we use every day can be a joy or an annoying mess. Invest a bit extra for a supply of fresh quality pillowcases and towels; nice soaps; candles and votives, some plants. None are prohibitively expensive. Even a very good screwdriver and basic toolbox will make life easier. Pretty lampshades, (they come in every color and style, from pleated fabric to marbled paper) are an easy upgrade; Ballard Designs is a good place as is the website OKA.
I love reading design magazines and own many many reference books on every aspect of design. I love to sit back and leaf through them, always happy to see new colors or fabrics or combinations of things I wouldn’t have thought of. I won’t ever own a Tudor cottage or LA mansion, but I can enjoy looking at them and gathering style tips. Your local library will have lots of options — as do websites like Apartment Therapy, Frederic magazine, House and Home magazine’s videos.
If you find a great — anything! — buy multiples of it: linen napkins. great loafers on sale, a lovely sweater. Saves time and energy searching. Also, when items are in pairs (like two matching side table lamps or two bedside tables) they gain more visual impact.
I’ve been collecting transferware china and silver lusterware for years, usually very cheaply, so I can set a pretty table with enough items. Choose something you love and start a collection.
Mix old and new
Whether your home or wardrobe, combining new/fresh and vintage/antique makes for the most stylish mix. I have a gorgeous Donna Karan embroidered sweater I splurged on maybe 25 years ago. It actually looks vintage and now it sort of is! I usually add a vintage accessory (shoes, earrings, bag, scarf) to a contemporary piece. And when it comes to furniture, very few items made cheaply in China offer the character, design, material quality and longevity of a decent antique, even a reproduction piece.
Keep it simple –mostly
A stylish home, and wardrobe, work best if you stick to a few key colors and styles. I wear a lot of black, gray, navy blue and almost never frills, flounces or prints. A color that repeats in our bedroom (headboard and blind fabrics) and living room (an antique painted armoire, rug, two throw pillows) is teal. The current design trend to make everything gray (!??) is so sad and tedious — add some pops of color, print and texture (velvet, silk, linen) to keep your home from looking like an insurance office from the 80s.
Few things will make your home drearier than overly bright lighting, especially from overhead fixtures. It’s inefficient, unflattering. Get a dimmer! The world is full of really attractive lighting now, even from places like Home Depot, and a few handsome lamps can quickly change the look of a room.
Take very good care!
I am not a fan of fast fashion, at all. I don’t buy it, hate its environmental costs and dislike how it promotes mindless, endless consumption. So I tend to buy quality and hang on to it! If you invest in quality clothing and footwear, take good care of it. Visit the cobbler. Get to know your local tailor if something needs altering. Most of my beloved/ancient cashmeres all have tiny holes I just stitch up — and make sure to add cedar blocks when I store them. All our silver is antique silver-plate and I put the Downton Abbey staff to shame with my polishing!
The world is full of amazing posters! From movie classics to early illustrations and paintings. Browse pretty much any museum site and you’ll find a fantastic selection very affordably. We have three on our living room walls — one, a huge black and white drawing I bought in France by legendary artist Sempe, another from the Carnavalet Museum in Paris and one, a Hiroshige print; we framed the latter two in gorgeous red frames.
Shot at a Toronto flea market. I think this would make a great black and white print.
I know this is counter-intuitive, since you’re commissioning someone’s skill and labor to help you, whether getting a vintage suit tailored to fit or a custom-made pillow cover, curtain or framing a piece of art. But every penny we’ve spent for this has handsomely repaid us in daily pleasure. As I’ve mentioned before, online shops like The Cloth Shop in London have some excellent fabrics at very fair prices in colors and textures I rarely find on North American sites.
Shop your phone!
If you own a cellphone with a decent camera, as many of us now do, you’ve got tremendous options for creating a gorgeous gallery wall for yourself! The world is full of beauty just there for the noticing — whether a nature image, your pet in repose, a beloved relative, an architectural detail. I take photos almost every day.
Here are a few, all taken in June 2022 on my solo California road trip, I’d consider worth framing:
Play with filters — often an image in sepia or black and white is more striking and beautiful than in color. Sites like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn, among others, offer a wide selection of simple and affordable frames.
Also, crop as needed! If I printed that sunset (taken in Morro Bay, CA) I would crop out the boat on the left hand side.
Obviously, the world is full of retailers and almost all of them have sales. I’m not a coupon person but there are money-saving apps that help you find the best price on specific goods.