Sometimes you look around your apartment and groan. Most people don’t have the luxury of making over a space all at once, much less hiring an interior designer to do so. When money is tight, you might have to upgrade your place bit by bit. Luckily, slowly adding pieces helps to create a collected, personalized look. We asked several designers what single item they would add to a living room or bedroom to create the most impact on a tight budget.
You can do more with $20 than you think. For a bedroom upgrade, Meghan Hackett Cassidy and Erin Hackett of Hackett Interiors, a sister design duo based in Bronxville, N.Y., suggest buying small decorative items such as picture frames, boxes or dishes to spruce up bare dressers or bedside tables. These items add personality to a space for marginal cost and help tame all the odds and ends that might normally clutter surfaces. Hackett Cassidy finds decorative inlay boxes at West Elm (she says they’re often on sale) and picture frames from Target. “They have really simple frames and some that are a little bit more ornate, really depending on what it is you’re looking for,” Hackett Cassidy says. “They have a lot of variety at a great price point.” World Market and Anthropologie also carry numerous options and styles.
Switching out boring or old hardware on dressers, nightstands and cabinets is another low-cost way to make used or inexpensive pieces look more high-end. This easy DIY project involves unscrewing the old knobs and securing the new hardware with nuts, bolts and washers. Head to Home Depot or Etsy for simple drawer pulls and handles, which you can find for as little as $5 or $10 each. Hackett also likes Anthropologie for statement hardware.
You can find textiles such as soft throws to add comfort and texture to a space at almost any price point. “Cotton and chenille are soft and are good for every season,” Hackett Cassidy says. This is also a chance to play with textures, colors and patterns and an easy way to switch up the color scheme of a room seasonally. She points budget-conscious buyers to Pottery Barn Kids or PBteen for soft blankets that wash and wear well (and don’t necessarily look juvenile).
Many people think a single source of light is enough in a room, but often one lamp isn’t sufficient. Lighting plays a crucial role in setting the tone of a room, and using multiple lights with varying levels of brightness creates dimension and flexibility for activities such as reading, cleaning or entertaining. Hackett Cassidy suggests spending $100 on a pair of lamps to create soft, low light in a room. She favors symmetry in her work and likes to station pairs of lamps on bedside tables or dressers to add polish and create a feeling of cohesiveness. At $50 per lamp, she says it’s possible to find well-made pieces that are both appealing and functional. “The shade is half the battle because oftentimes you buy a really inexpensive lamp that comes with a shade you end up needing to replace,” she says.
“No matter what the environment is, lighting can totally transform a space,” says Mel Bean, founder and chief executive of Tulsa-based design firm Mel Bean Interiors. Even if new lighting isn’t an option, a simple and affordable upgrade — a dimmer switch — can make your existing lighting scheme more versatile. Plug-in dimmers, which are usually controlled with a sliding button, can be easily added to table and floor lamps by plugging the lamp into the device (between $5 and $50 at Home Depot). For a little more money, you can rewire wall switches to have dimming capabilities.
From an aesthetic standpoint, curtains and shades add warmth and softness, and they help with privacy and light control. “A window treatment can be one of the basic things you do that makes a space feel finished, even if it’s far from it,” Bean says. Custom panels can cost thousands of dollars, but Bean’s team has a hack: Buy basic curtains from Ikea (they come lined) and take them to a local seamstress to be pleated. “You likely can’t even buy fabric for that cheap,” she says. “Take it as high as you can to accentuate the height of the ceiling and hang the rod wide so the drapes stack beside the window,” she says. If you have a sewing machine, you could even add trim or embellishments. Try the Ikea Ritva curtains ($39.99 for one pair), a DIY favorite that comes with an iron-on hemming strip; similar styles at Pottery Barn run from about $130 to $329. Bean suggests looking for rods and rings at Target, Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn. She likes the softness of drapes in living rooms but says Roman shades also provide a similar function, usually at a lower price. In some spaces, such as kids’ rooms or windows over the sink, it makes more sense to avoid the extra yardage of billowing material.
Because we spend so much time in our beds, a new set of high-quality bedding — bedsheets, a duvet cover or quilt, and shams — can have a huge impact. “It freshens up the room,” Hackett Cassidy says. She usually starts with white bedding and looks for comforters and duvet covers with colorful accents or fun details to create visual interest. “Figure out which pieces you want to start from, then base the other colors and textures off the rest of the room,” Hackett Cassidy says.
Hackett loves the cotton sheets from Pottery Barn and says that depending on the size of the bed, you can find similar items at Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen at a lower price (both stores carry full-size bedding).
“Bed Bath & Beyond has very basic items for someone on a budget who wants that luxurious bed with a coverlet, duvet and shams,” Hackett Cassidy says. “That’s somewhere we would suggest shopping to achieve that overall look without blowing the budget.”
For more of a splurge, Hackett Cassidy suggests turning to Serena & Lily for high-quality, stylish comforters and duvets.
Bean loves the texture and quality of West Elm’s organic cotton sheet sets ($79-$119, plus $29 for two pillowcases).“I think they feel really nice and soft and they wash well and wear well. I’ve bought quite a few of their organic sheets for my own home over the years,” she says. She also likes picking up good-quality, low-cost bedding at Target.
Your basic box spring or metal bed frame has major potential for an upgrade, Hackett Cassidy says: A headboard ties a room together. Choose a bright color, a rich fabric or an ornate pattern to create a focal point for the room, or stick with the same color scheme to anchor the other furnishings. Upholstered and tufted headboards are in style and can provide a little extra cushion for people who like to sit up and read in bed. “Headboards add dimension to the room and are practical and comfy,” Hackett Cassidy says.