Simple Tips to Decorate on a Budget Without Compromising Style

Words by Sacha Strebe.

We know that decorating a space, a room, or a house can test your finances, but we like to look at limitations as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles. Knowing how to decorate on a budget is the key to any design project, no matter how much you have to begin with. Once you’ve established your vision, it’s time to start mapping it out, ensuring you have the fundamentals in place before finessing with the decorative touches. It’s not always easy to stick to your budget but if you’re willing to hunt down that piece you have your heart set on—yes, we’re talking eBay, Etsy, antique stores, Instagram vendors, and live auctions—then you’ll have a lot of fun in the process. We’re notoriously researching, scouring local boutiques, and inquiring into vendors we follow both online and off to secure those rare oddities, touchable trinkets, and special one-offs that make your house a home with a soul.

Ready to get started? Read on for Athena Calderone’s tips for how to decorate on a budget and shop a few of our favorite affordable pieces from her Crate & Barrel collaboration.

Photo: Adrian Gaut for Crate & Barrel. Styling: Colin King. Production: Studio Lou.
Photo: Adrian Gaut for Crate & Barrel. Styling: Colin King. Production: Studio Lou.

Gather imagery

I am a deeply visual person so when I’m working on a new project whether it be a small update or a complete overhaul, I always amass a collection of inspirational imagery, typically in a binder, slideshow, or private Pinterest board. When I feel I’ve collected as many as I can find, I will allocate time to trawl through them and see what commonalities arise. More often than not, there is a through-line that connects them all. I look for those overarching themes, things that permeate each image such as the color palette, textures, and materiality—then I hone in and get super specific. I think it’s really important to collect as many visuals as possible and see what you navigate toward the most, what makes your eyes swoon. If you want to go a step further, print and pin them to a mood board on the wall and add/subtract visuals to get a holistic picture—here’s a step-by-step process on how to make a pinboard like mine.

Map out the room

The pace at which you order products depends entirely on your budget, of course, but typically I recommend spending time on the configuration of your room first. Once you land on a general look and feel, then you can start planning the foundational pieces. For example, if you’re decorating a living room, you really want to start from the ground up—find a rug that anchors the room and sets the color palette, followed by larger pieces such as the sofa and accent chairs (if you have room), then the coffee table, side tables, and lighting. Smaller decorative objects can be purchased towards the end to bring it all to life. I always recommend saving up for one to two investment pieces that will establish the tone but also stand the test of time with their classic, timeless appeal.

Necessary Objects

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Make a rough budget

The budget you set will differentiate based on the room and your finances, but I suggest you spend some time mapping out the room from the large pieces to the diminutive décor, then add estimates for each one based on your research. Once you add all of them up, you’ll get a sense of the overall cost to decorate the room in your desired style, and then you can budget accordingly from there. While it can feel really stressful to decorate on a small budget, the good news is that constraints are far from confining. In fact, they’re often the source of true creativity. They make you think outside the box. You are forced to look at other avenues or even get crafty and put your DIY cap on. The magic is in the mystery and following the rabbit hole to see where you end up. It’s often a super creative and fulfilling path.

Invest in large items first

It is always a good idea to invest in larger items first like rugs, sofas, accent chairs, etc. because they are typically the higher-priced items. If you have your heart on something, I always think it’s a good idea to save up and buy the pieces you really love, pieces that will stand the test of time. Having less but investing in quality and beauty is always the best, most authentic route. You don’t need to overfill a room with lots of things for it to be beautiful. Simple and thoughtful are key when it comes to design. I think it’s always smart to look for deals for any of the larger items. I am constantly scouring resale sites, online auctions, and Etsy or Ebay for pieces. I will also often reach out to the dealers direct on platforms like 1st Dibs to see if they’re open to offers—you just never know when someone is ready to offload an item. What have you got to lose?

Simple Tips to Decorate on a Budget Without Compromising Style

Don’t be afraid to get thrifty

I am a huge proponent of seeking out furniture from vintage and antique stores, both IRL and online, and I love live auction sites for sourcing unique or rare pieces at competitive prices. Be prepared to hunt and look through the trash to find the treasures. You also need to set a final price that you’re willing to spend because sometimes you will be outbid beyond what you can afford and may have to bow out. But it’s always so thrilling when you do win. The key to finding good pieces is typing in the right keywords. Play around, type in lots of different variations, and have fun. You’ll be surprised what treasures you can score at affordable prices if you’re willing to put in the scroll time! In fact, I wrote an entire article on the keywords and phrases to use when sourcing vintage vases and vessels online. Nothing beats that thrill of finding a one-of-a-kind piece under $100. The art is in the mix, the high with the low, and above all personalizing a space so that it speaks to your soul.

And that goes for art too!

I believe artwork to be one of the most transformative ways to weave your narrative into a space, while also adding the color and texture you crave. But the handmade nature of artwork often means it’s on the pricier side and budgets aren’t always accommodating. Well, I’m here to tell you that beautiful art doesn’t always have to cost you. I have found some incredible emerging artists on Instagram (Art by Lana and Aliyah Sadaf to name a few), along with Etsy, Chairish, Tappan, or Saatchi. Original art is at your fingertips if you’re willing to search for it (pro tip: search by price range and get creative with your keywords). As always, the thrill is in the hunt!

I have found a lot of artists on Instagram. The more you start searching for them, the more the algorithm will start showing you other artists in your feed. I also love to take a peek at who an artist I love is following. Quite often they are also following new and emerging artists so it leads me down a beautiful path of discovery. Using the search bar and typing in various hashtags is a great way too. If you are unsure what hashtags to use, look at what other artists are using and start there. Just be open to discovery and you never know what you’ll find.

Necessary Objects

These items may contain affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using this link.

Save up for the pieces you love

If there is a designer piece you absolutely love, then I’d encourage you to wait and invest in something you could potentially have for 20+ years like a sofa or dining room table. Once you know the brand and style name, proceed to hunt it down on every resale site available to you—Facebook Marketplace, Etsy, eBay, 1st Dibs, Chairish, Pamono, The Real Rea, Live Auctioneers—I have them all! And don’t be afraid to negotiate on price either. Take a risk and submit lower offers on auction sites and see what happens. I’ve been known to offer as much as 50% less on items and they’ve been accepted. You’ll never know when a dealer needs to get rid of something.

Beautiful doesn’t mean expensive—follow your heart!

Never rush into buying something just to fill a hole. Take your time, source pieces that make your heart sing and your eyes swoon. And be open to mistakes. I have endured plenty of them in designing both of my homes but the end result was always more beautiful than I had initially planned—unexpected beauty that took me by surprise! So, take a risk, follow your heart, and keep it simple.

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