How to decorate your home on a budget, according to interior designers

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Last year, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. At 28, I was living alone for the first time. It was tremendously exciting, but I also had a problem: I had no furniture. For weeks I slept on an air mattress that would be mostly deflated by the time I woke up.

After almost a decade living with roommates, when everything felt shared and temporary, I longed to make the new space feel like my own. I wanted each item, even my wine glasses, to say something about me.

But I was soon intimidated by the high costs of couches and tables and considered going into debt. Instead, I spent a lot of time wistfully scrolling online through all the beautiful things I couldn’t afford.

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With inflation hitting furniture prices of late, many other people are also likely finding it harder to decorate at a reasonable cost. Household furnishings and supplies were up 10.6% this summer compared with last, according to the consumer price index.

Yet there are ways to creatively use your budget, said Athena Calderone, author of the design book “Live Beautiful.”

“While it can feel really stressful to decorate on a small budget, the good news is that constraints are far from confining,” Calderone told me. “In fact, they’re often the source of true creativity.”

Here are some tips for saving money on furniture, home goods and decor.

1. Know when to splurge and when to save

Elizabeth Herrera, a designer at Decorist, an online interior design company, tells people to tune out the trend cycles and follow their hearts while they’re buying furniture.

“This way they won’t be wanting to redecorate every few years,” Herrera said.

People should also know which items are worth splurging on, she added: “It’s fine to purchase lower-cost, trendy accessories to refresh your space, but keep the larger pieces classic.”

It’s easier to tell when core items, like your couch and dining room table, were cheaply bought, experts say.

This is also the furniture you want to last.

“Think long-term,” said Becki Owens, an interior designer in California. “If you are patient with the process and invest in quality pieces when you can, you will have items that you can build on.”

“I have pieces that are 20 years old in my home.”

If the goal is longevity, Owens also recommends buying your core furniture pieces in durable materials and neutral colors.

“You can always change¬†decorative layers like textiles as the trends change,” Owens said.

2. Buy secondhand pieces

The trick to finding bargains on these sites, Calderone said, is to type in the right keywords. (She recently wrote an entire article on the phrases to plug in when looking for vintage vases online, including “old urn” and “large antique clay vase.”)

“Play around, type in lots of different variations and have fun,” she said.

“And don’t be afraid to negotiate on price, either,” she added. “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.”

3. Look to emerging artists

The handmade nature of artwork often means it’s on the pricier side, Calderone said.

Still, she says she’s found some incredible art from emerging artists, particularly on Instagram. Two of her favorites are Art by Lana and Aliyah Sadaf. Other works by newer artists, who tend to charge less because they’re just starting out, are available at websites such as Tappan and Saatchi, Calderone said.

You can also search for original art in your price range on websites such as Art Finder.

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John Sillings, a former equity researcher, helped found Art in Res in 2017, after realizing how much people struggled to make a big one-time purchase on artwork.

The art on the company’s website can be paid off over time without interest. The typical painting on the website costs around $900, which comes out to $150 a month on a 6-month payment plan.

“The mission is to make fine art more accessible,” Sillings said.

The thrill of the hunt

Now that I’ve been in my apartment more than a year, the place is filled with furniture, and I can hardly remember when it was empty. Unsurprisingly for a Manhattan tenant, I’m actually already running out of room.

But it reminds me of some advice I got from my mother when I first moved in. I was complaining that it would take me time to decorate the place, and she said that that was a good thing, that much of the fun is in the process.

When it was over, she said, I’d wish I could go back and do it again. She was right, although I still have a little more space to fill.

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