Seven Ways to Decorate Your First Apartment on a Budget

This title should probably be amended to “Ways to Decorate Any Space on a Budget” but today, I specifically wanted my 30-something year old self to give some advice to my former 22-year old self. So, seven ways to decorate your first apartment on a budget, it is! After graduation, I followed my mom from Virginia down to lower Alabama and started pounding the pavement, looking for my first “big girl” job – my introduction into “the real world”. Ultimately, rural Alabama in 2008 wasn’t quite ready for me and I had to broaden my search. During a visit to Georgia, where I grew up, I sent some resumes, and was able to line up some interviews in Atlanta. I excitedly accepted my first offer – a low-paying entry-level position – drove back to Alabama to pack my bags and a week later, headed back to the suburbs of the city. I had a small, one-bedroom apartment 45 minutes north of Atlanta with rent that was about 50% of my take-home pay. I went out with friends but I also got really creative with my meals. You guys- my favorite poor girl “recipe” was white rice topped with frozen broccoli, some shredded cheddar, with a Chick-Fil-A sauce packet mixed in. Another go-to was taking a can of corn and a can of green beans, mixing them together, and then eating half for lunch and half for dinner. I did have almost every color in Nine West pointed toe pumps, so… there’s that haha.

I had enlisted the help of my friends to help me slather the walls of my apartment in taupe, orange, and red the night before the moving truck pulled up. When it came to making that apartment my home, in some ways, I was resourceful; in others, I wish I had known better. Instead of going slowly and saving, I spent my extra pennies on small tchotchkes to fill flat surfaces and walls. I dropped more than I could afford on heavy, ill-fitting black curtains and I remember using any and everything that was considered to be in my determined color scheme, regardless of style. I loved that place and what it stood for – that time in my life where I learned and grew. I remember hoping Maintenance didn’t come in and catch me with my cat (no way could I pay the fine that went along with having a non-approved pet), and I remember the day I moved out. Dave was actually the first person to arrive in my crew of friends (back then, that’s all we were) – but, that’s a story for another day 😉

Today, we’re talking about some things I’ve learned since then – through trial, error, and new discoveries. Whether you are decorating your first apartment or you’ve been on your own for 30 years, here are a few of my favorite budget-conscious ideas to create a beautiful living space.

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1. Dress Your Windows with Ikea Ritva Curtains

I don’t know where these have been all my life but it wasn’t until we moved into our current house that I discovered the best, almost-linen, neutral curtains. We had a ton of windows and I was looking to get the most bang for our buck; these look SO much more expensive than they are! Another plus- they come with back tabs so if you’re like me and don’t care for the pole-pocket look, these have a built-in solution. They come in different sizes (starting at 96″), and will only run you $42 for a pack of two (less if you order two sets) – plus free shipping on Amazon Prime (HERE). You can see my full post on them (yes, they’re that good that they got an entire post) HERE.

See them in our dining room and breakfast nook below.

Gray wood bead chandelier over dining table

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Elegant, Traditional DIning Room Design

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2. Bring in a Hard-to-Kill Live Plant

I’ve been talking about these a lot recently but you guys, I swear, having indoor plants that require little maintenance that I haven’t killed has done a ton for my esteem and decorating possibilities. My younger self would have seen a corner and thought it needed to be filled with a floor vase and whimsical branches (maybe with small mirrored circles on the ends?!); but I’m here to tell you – forego that thing from Kirkland’s that you just see as something to fill space. Bringing in a few strategic plants is not only inexpensive, but they don’t go out of style. You won’t find yourself hoarding them in the basement of your home one day, either 😉 Even if all you have is some furniture and a plant, your space will look more polished.

Style a snake plant in the corner of the room in a basket on top of a garden stool

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Along with live greens, take a look at garden stools instead of plant stands or side tables… which brings me to #3.

3. Invest in Convertible (Mutli-Use) Furnishings

Pieces that are multi-functional can be your best friend when you’re on a budget, space confined, or even when you’re just looking for the practicality (ahem- justification 😉 ) in any purchase. Those garden stools I mentioned? They can serve as plant stands, side tables, and seating… Bar carts are my favorite. If you are thinking you barely have enough room for a side table and there’s no way you would even consider bringing in an “extra” like a bar cart, here’s the answer. Use a bar cart as a side table. Or, a night stand. Or, a plant stand. Having it in lieu of another piece of furniture is 1. probably more cost effective and you’ll love being able to bring it out when you have friends over. I literally use mine all over the house for everything.

Black Rattan Bar Cart Night Stand with Guest Essentials- ideas for bar cart uses

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Spring Decorated Rocking Chair Front Porch with Asher Bar Cart from World Market

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4. Consider an Indoor/Outdoor Rug

This will save you major $$$. I used to think any indoor/outdoor rug would basically feel like astroturf. Not true. With more people focusing on outdoor living and creating an area that is an extension of what’s going on inside, there are some really good rugs that don’t even look like they aren’t indoor exclusive. As a bonus, I remember being 22 and the kind of parties I had were a little different than today (haha). Indoor/outdoor rugs clean up so well, making it a super smart choice if you like to entertain.

Scroll & Tap to Shop Awesome, Affordable Indoor/Outdoor Rugs

5. Give Thrifted Furniture a Custom Makeover

Instead of stretching yourself thin and spending more than you’re comfortable with, or, going the ultra-cheap route (pieces of particle board put together in box formation), keep an eye out for yard sales, thrift stores, and local Facebook sale pages. It isn’t hard to find quality furniture at a ridiculously low price (a lot of people just want the stuff out of their house and aren’t even looking to make a profit). You may have people offering to give you cast-offs and hand-me-downs and while that’s awesome (and you can land some real treasures that just need a little love), don’t feel like you have to accept everything. You don’t have to become a family member’s dumping ground for all their personal clutter 😉 I’m super appreciative of what I’ve been gifted second hand over the years, especially starting out, but don’t fall into the trap of taking on too much and accepting stuff you don’t need, just because it’s free. Ok, now that we covered that side note, back to the furniture! You can easily customize and revitalize a piece with a paint job (if needed), and/or a hardware upgrade. This little chest of drawers was passed down and I made it over in no time. Here’s where I started…

Before the chest of drawers was made over

And this is what it looked like after an hour or so.

Chalk painted chest of drawers with updated knobs and hardware

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Check the mechanics of the piece (do the drawers glide smoothly?) and if you aren’t super handy and don’t want to mess with wood filler, confirm there aren’t huge chunks/gashes missing. Aside from that, you can get totally creative and outfit your space exactly how you want for a super low price. You can find my easy chalk painting tutorial (no prep needed) HERE and the chest of drawers closet makeover project HERE.

6. Save on the Sofa; Splurge on the Pillows

If you do fall into the category of being young, budget conscious and/or not in your “forever” home, I would look for an inexpensive, neutral sofa. Here’s why. Your tastes are going to change, your financial situation will likely evolve, and how much are you lounging on the sofa? When I wasn’t with friends, I was primarily watching TV from bed. Regardless, as you do move, your space constraints will likely dictate a sofa of a different size. No matter how much you tell yourself that you will find a way for the fuchsia love seat to work in your homes for years to come to justify an expensive/trendy purchase, my guess is that you’ll be out a lot of money and wanting something different by the time you move out. Focus on making a statement through throw pillows, instead. Seriously, throw pillows (and throw blankets) can take a sofa you detest to something you actually like. And, it will be original. If you get tired of throw pillows, you can move them around – at worst, be out $30 instead of $2,000.

Tonic Living Pillow Combination IDeas

1. Striped Pillows | 2. Indigo Print Pillow | 3. Indigo Velvet Pillow

7. DIY Your Artwork

Don’t feel like you have to fill all your walls with “stuff” immediately. Even the smallest framed collections and canvases can get expensive quickly. And if they have no meaning, you’ll get tired of them in no time. (I’m still guilt of this from time to time). Use your own resources to create your own gallery walls with free prints online like these botanicals (see the full post HERE)…

Antique Silver Leaf Lantern in Guest Bedroom

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or frame your personal experiences like I did with this black and white gallery wall of travels (see the full post, along with other gallery wall ideas HERE).

During the time you are in your first apartment is typically when you’re finding out a lot about yourself. And, you’re finding out what your tastes are. Contrary to what I thought, creating a space that’s a “refection of you” doesn’t always mean the polar opposite of what you’ve always known, just because you can haha. Orange and brown followed me for a long time just because it was the so far from what I grew up with. (Is decorating rebellion a thing?!) Take your time, don’t spend your rent money on expensive trends, find ways to be resourceful, and enjoy making your place a home you love. Not every space has to be your ultimate dream space, especially when you’re starting out. Learn to compromise, and identify your priorities. Collect ideas on Pinterest – don’t try to replicate the rooms; instead, determine what you like about them and use them as inspiration. And of course, I hope if you don’t already, you’ll subscribe to my emails at the bottom of this post and visit me for ideas along the way.

Inexpensive Apartment Decorating Ideas on a Budget

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  1. 6.1.18
    Lacey said:

    Love this! Wish I had read for my first apartment. Bought a custom couch that was very modern and very uncomfortable. Definitely learned the lesson the hard way. I am definitely interested in more budget decorating ideas. Love the rug idea ??

    • 6.4.18

      Lacey, I totally get it!! Thank you so much for stopping by!

  2. 6.1.18
    Sharon said:

    Always love your posts, Kelley! Your have a gift for pairing lovely design with practical purchases. I often have problems opening the links to the items, however. Is it just the two wacky laptops I’m using, or has anyone else mentioned troubles getting them to open?

    • 6.4.18

      Hi, Sharon! You are so sweet to me. And how frustrating- I am so sorry! I haven’t heard of anyone else having any issues but I will definitely reach out to see if this is a known issue; thank you for letting me know!

  3. 7.7.18
    Alyssa said:

    Thank you for this post! Currently working on decorating my first “grown up” apartment and found these tips amazingly helpful. Would love to see more of this type of content! 🙂

    • 7.8.18

      Oh, I am so glad and congratulations!! That kind of feedback is so helpful <3

  4. 6.13.20

    Im way past first apartments to almost the other end of the spectrum! But I still have 2 more girls to get through college and launch. I sent them your link for reference. One is decorating her shared apartment on campus. Thanks for the tips.

    • 6.24.20

      Linda, What an exciting time for you and your girls! I think of those days fondly and decorating on a budget was so key. I so appreciate you sharing and wish you and your girls the best on their next adventure.

  5. 12.14.20

    I really loved the tip you gave about sofas and how you can help save money on them by splurging on pillows instead. My initial thought about moving to an apartment was how hard it would be to get proper furniture for the place since it’s much smaller and doesn’t allow for much decorative freedom. Your tips will definitely help me properly decorate and furnish any apartment listing I end up liking.

    • 12.14.20

      Afton, Thank you so much for stopping by! I know that decorating an apartment with pieces you truly love can be a true challenge. I wish you the best of luck!

  6. 6.29.22
    Olivia said:

    Thank you for explaining that you can save on the couch while splurging on the pillows. I’ve been wondering how to get the look in our living area that we want. I’ll have to try this out for our new apartment.

    • 7.11.22

      Hi Olivia, Thank you for taking the time to stop by. I am happy to know that you found a tip that is useful to you!