17 Ways to Decorate on a Dime

All it takes is a little imagination.

The biggest secret of a fabulous decorator is imagination — the ability to see the possibilities in almost anything. The key certainly isn’t spending the most money. And you’ll be surprised at what you can do yourself at no cost at all.

1. Assess potential. Look at objects to see what they could become: An old milk can could be transformed into a lamp, the base for a small table, an umbrella stand, or a planter. Be creative as you see each object’s potential.

2. Express yourself. Do you love music? Look for old sheet music with great covers whenever you’re at an antique or junk store, garage sale or thrift store, or at a going-out-of-business sale at a music store. Hang the music on the wall above your piano, framed or unframed. Do you sew? Keep an eye open for antique (or just old) sewing equipment and display it on the walls and shelves of your sewing room.

3. Not just for floors. Small decorative rugs, either antiques or reproductions, can add color and life to a cold or boring wall. And they help muffle sound.

4. Or beds. Quilts or beautiful afghans can be hung on a dowel on a wall or draped over the back of a chair or sofa to add color and warmth — and be handy for snuggling under.

5. Keep a Sense of Scale
If you have really big rooms, don’t use Lilliputian furniture. Conversely, if you have small rooms, don’t furnish them with gargantuan pieces or too many pieces. Look carefully at each room and decide the scale; then select pieces that match the scale of that particular space.

6. Furniture
Whether you’re starting from scratch or redoing a room, begin with an honest appraisal of the area, its strong points (light, high ceilings) and its weaknesses (awkward door placement, no closets). Browse through decorating or architecture magazines and clip photos of looks you like. Just remember: That $8,000 chair in the picture isn’t necessary to create the ambiance you want. You just need imagination, a flair for style, and the patience to wait for the right piece at the right price.

7. Less Is More
Don’t worry if you don’t have loads of furniture. In decorating, less is often more anyway. If you’re using vibrant color on the walls and have an attractive rug picking up some of that color, you’ll need only a few pieces of simple furniture, enlivened with a throw or some pillows, for a charming room. Bulky furniture can become obstacles for traffic flow through a room, it can create a cluttered feeling really fast, and it can detract from your one or two really good pieces.

Neutral walls have gone the way of the dodo. Color is in and is gloriously vibrant. Let your walls make as much of a statement as your furnishings (for a fraction of the price).

To create a sense of flow from room to room, select a dominant color for your main room, then pick up different shades of the same color and use them in subtle ways throughout the house.

It’s no great surprise that desert colors — oranges, reds, browns, and yellows — are often used in decorating in the Southwest or that deep greens, earthy browns, and dark reds show up in mountain homes. Those are predominant colors in nature in those regions. The dominant natural colors of any part of the country can be used to subtly tie the interior of one’s home to the world outside.

8. The Effect of Color on Space
You can fool the eye with the way you use paint, making a room appear either larger or smaller just by the choice of color. Cool colors and lighter tints tend to make walls look farther apart; rich, dark colors bring walls dramatically closer, creating an intimate look even in a large room.

9. Color Moods
Different colors tend to elicit different emotions, although the relationships can vary from culture to culture. By and large:

Cool colors. Shades of blue, green, purple, and similar cool colors tend to have a calming influence — excellent for bedrooms if you want to create a soothing haven.

Warm colors. Shades of red, orange, and yellow tend to have a strong, dramatic, inviting effect — a look you might want for a living or dining room.

Light, bright colors. Lighter shades of yellow and the spectrum of whites can be cheerful and sunny — great in a kitchen or family room.

10. Papering Your Walls
Although paint is the easiest way to add color to your walls, wallcoverings have come back into their own. Wallcoverings are easier to hang than ever before and come in a wide variety of styles. If you have walls that are in less than perfect condition, a wallcovering can disguise the flaws without the expense of replastering.

11. Wonderful Windows
Good news for the penny pincher: The best-decorated window is usually the least-decorated window! After all, the main function of a window is to let in light and air, so the less fussy the treatment, the better.

If you’re lucky enough to have a great view, use the window treatment to frame it, not hide it. A simple drape on either side of the window can function when you need privacy but won’t detract from the view.

Bonus Tip: Artistic Groupings
Don’t feel you have to have a matching set of chairs. Look for chairs you like at thrift stores or garage sales, preferably all wood unless you’re going for a funky ’50s dinette look. In fact, a disparate group of wooden chairs can make for a much more interesting dining set. If you want to tie them together somehow, paint or stain them the same color. Or make seat pads of the same fabric.

Kitchen Face-Lifts for Less
You may want a new kitchen, but do you really need new appliances or a new floor plan? If not, a kitchen face-lift might save you hundreds of dollars.

12. Cabinet refacing.Even if you have this done professionally, you will pay much less than it would cost to have new cabinets installed. You can save even more, by doing the refacing yourself. This usually involves gluing new veneer over the old finish on all the vertical surfaces. You can get the veneer and instructions at home centers. You can also get new cabinet doors and drawer fronts to replace your old ones, refinishing the cabinet frame before installing the new doors and drawer fronts.

If you don’t want to go through the effort of a full refacing, take off all the cabinet doors and drawers and paint yourself a brand-new look. You can match the doors and the frames or, if you want some drama, paint them different colors. Paint the frames white and the doors and drawer fronts bright red, then look for a vintage ’50s dinette set with a red tabletop and red-cushioned chairs. Or stencil a design of herbs on the doors and drawer fronts and paint the framework a pale green.

13. Don’t forget hardware! Knobs, handles, and drawer pulls come in an infinite variety these days; there’s something for everyone’s taste. If you’ve saved big money redoing your own cabinets, you can splurge a bit on hardware.

Putting in your own tile backsplash can really change the look of the room. Like hardware, the variety of tiles available is staggering. You can go French country blue, Spanish-style bright, Southwestern saltillo, floral, or just about any other route you can think of.

If you have a window that lets oodles of light into your kitchen, remove all curtains or coverings and install glass shelves to make a window herb garden. You’ll always have fresh seasonings for your cooking as well as a gorgeous window, especially if you use interesting containers.

14. Mirror Tricks
Mirrors, mirrors everywhere are a tremendous help in decorating for dimes. You can use them framed or unframed, as tiles, or as pieces of furniture.

Add height to a small, low-ceilinged room (such as a powder room) by covering the ceiling with inexpensive, easy-to-install mirror tiles. Use the recommended adhesive.

Place a large framed mirror in a small entryway to reflect light, increase the sense of space, and allow you to give yourself the once-over before going out.

Do you have a darkish room with only one window? Set a mirror on the wall opposite the window to give the illusion of another window and to increase the light.

A series of small framed mirrors in varied shapes can be arranged down a darkish hallway or on the wall next to a staircase to catch light and add a bit of sparkle.

For a recessed window, line the sides of the window recess with mirror tiles to reflect more light into the room.

Look for attractive antique frames at flea markets, garage sales, and thrift stores. You may have to look beyond the so-called art in the frame. When you find a winner, remove the art and replace it with a mirror. Hang it above a dresser, a mantelpiece, or a powder room sink.

Bonus Tip: Slip Into Something Comfortable
A quick and easy way to make a worn sofa look like new again (or to change the look of a room for a new season) is to buy or make a slipcover. If you’ve picked up a well-made but worn-looking sofa at a garage sale or thrift store for little money, it might be a good investment to have a slipcover made professionally, which is still cheaper than reupholstering and is easily removed for cleaning.

15. Plants
Few things add more beauty to a room than plants. Put them in eye-catching pots to double your visual pleasure. Select plants that are right for the light available in the area where you want to display them. Some easy growers that don’t require a lot of extra care include:

Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis). This parlor plant with arching fronds flourishes in a north light.

Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). This low-care evergreen has broad, shiny leaves and prefers porous, enriched soil.

Ficus or weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). This popular shiny-leafed evergreen can thrive for years, then suddenly die.

Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia). Gorgeous dark foliage with bronze underleaf tints, this plant thrives on moderate sun.

Jade plant (Crassula argentea). This excellent houseplant has a thick trunk, fleshy leaves, and tiny pink flowers.

Philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium). With heart-shaped leaves, this trainable vine can take a lot of neglect.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum). This evergreen has soft, curving leaves and little miniature plants on long stems that can be cut off and potted. Grow in a well-lit window.

Wandering jew (Tradescantia; several varieties). This fast-growing, long-trailing plant is great for window boxes.

16. Learn to Do It Yourself
A great way to save money on creating a designer look is to learn to do many of the installations yourself. There are any number of books you can borrow or buy to learn techniques, but sometimes a class can make what you want to do really clear. Check with your local home center; home centers often offer regular classes (free or for the cost of materials) in laying tile, planning a xeriscape garden (xeriscaping refers to landscaping methods that reduce water requirements), painting techniques, and more. The parks and recreation departments of many cities also offer low-cost classes in slipcovering furniture, the art of feng shui, raising herbs, and more. You can even check with a university nearby to see what kind of extension classes it offers.

17. Trunk Tricks
A trunk — old or new, footlocker style or hope chest — can be one of the most versatile things around your house. New footlocker trunks can be had year-round at discount stores, but often go on sale during back-to-school months as parents ready their college-bound kids for dorm life. You can pick these trunks up for around $20 or less. But if you hunt through the attics and basements of older relatives and friends, you might find some wonderful old steamer trunks or wooden chests that can add charm to any room and provide terrific storage space.

Set a trunk just inside your back or front door as a convenient place to sit and remove muddy shoes (and store out-of-season shoes, boots and sandals).

Put a trunk at the foot of a bed to store extra blankets, comforters, pillows, or even sheets for that bed.
For a handy patio coffee table, use a weather-resistant or weatherproof trunk to store pool toys, towels, extra seat cushions, games, picnic linens, table ware, bird food, or just about anything else you’d rather have outdoors.

A good-looking wooden trunk makes a beautiful and useful coffee table or end table and adds storage space to your living room.

Old-fashioned steamer trunks — the kind with drawers and space to hang clothes — make eye-catching armoires for a guest room or a little girl’s room.

Keep an old footlocker next to your fireplace to store firewood.

A trunk or footlocker is a natural for a child’s toy box, but be sure it has a brace or device to keep it from slamming on little fingers.

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest