top 5 tips for decorating on a budget | part 1

Marian ParsonsDecorating, Secret Weapons36 Comments

When I was in New Hampshire, speaking at the Sage Farm Antiques Market, I gave a presentation on decorating on a budget.  As I prepped for that and then as I was teaching, I was reminded how passionate I am about the subject.

Yes, it’s nice to have a generous budget when you’re decorating and yes, there are things that are worth saving for and splurging on, but oh, the creativity you have to have when your funds are tight!  And honestly, while most of the “million dollar homes” I’ve seen are beautiful and there are some amazing amenities, they don’t look like “home” to me.  Some of my very favorite decorating ideas came out of thrifty necessity and make-do-itive-ness.


So, I decided to take that presentation and turn it into a series here on the blog.

And tip #1 is…


I think it’s a no brainer that you can save a lot of money by doing projects yourself as opposed to hiring them out, but I think we DIYers sometimes forget how intimidating a DIY project can be for someone who isn’t a natural DIYer.  (Well, that sentence is a mouthful.)

I’ve been asked simple things before, like how to hang a pictures or curtain rods.  To me, it seems like a non-intimidating, super easy project, but for some, I can see the hesitation in their face and the doubt that a nail pounded into a wall will hold something in place long term.

If you’re new to “do it yourself-ing” or new to a specific DIY project, start simple.  Give yourself success in a small thing, so you have the confidence to tackle more projects.  DIY failure can sting, it can be costly, and it can make you hesitant to tackle another new project.

So, start simple.

Paint & fabric are your besties and they can totally transform a room.

If you only sharpen two DIY skills, I would suggest painting and sewing.  You can dramatically change an entire room with paint and fabric.


Just imagine a room in your house that you’re not in love with.  Go look a it if you need a refresher.

I’ll wait.

Now imagine that room with fresh paint on the walls, coordinating pillows, curtains, maybe even slipcovers to unify mismatched pieces of tired-looking upholstery, if we’re really going to go nuts.  Wood furniture pieces that are dated, dark, or just the wrong color get a new look with some paint in a pretty hue.  And it can all be done with a brush & roller, a sewing machine, and I bet for less than $500 if you do some smart shopping.


DIYing can save big money.

This isn’t my top perk to DIYing, because sometimes it’s well worth the money to hire a professional.  It’s also possible to get yourself in a DIY snafu that ends up costing more than just having it done properly from the getgo.  But, if we’re talking about making slipcovers or painting a piece of furniture, unless you’re absurdly talented at royally messing things up, then you can venture into new DIY territory without too much concern that the effort will end up costing more money.

Making a slipcover is a great  example of saving big money, though.  Custom slipcovers can run hundreds of dollars (even thousands), but one can be made with an inexpensive fabric for a fraction of that.


(This slipcover is made out of antique hemp sheets, but I made many, many slipcovers out of drop cloths and white cotton twill before I worked with more expensive textiles.  The chair was free, though!)

You can knock-off decor that is out-of-your-budget.

This is my very favorite thing about DIY and is a motivator to me more than saving money.  When you are DIYing a room, you can create a custom high-end look with some smart shopping and elbow grease.


When I was a newlywed, I fell in love with some toile pillows at Tuesday morning.  They were $60/each, which was outrageous to me at the time.  I started frequenting my local fabric store that had an amazing remnant bin and everything in it was $5/yard.  Even the really beautiful designer fabric was just $5/yard.  So, I picked up toiles, checks, plaids, and other pretty fabrics that coordinated, along with some tassel fringe, and I made my own pillows for just a few dollars.



Now, you can do that!  You can!  I mean, if you mess up a small amount of remnant fabric while trying to make a pillow, is that really a big deal?  No, it’s not.  And you’ll get better and better each time you make one.  You’ll be making curtains, bed skirts, and slip covers before you know it!

I think it’s also fun to hunt and peck for pieces you can afford that will give you the look you want.  Oh, if you’ve never experienced the victory of scoring a $4.00 crystal chandelier, you need to get out more!


More to come on this series, but until then, here are some posts to encourage you through some DIYing…

Video tutorial series on making a slipcover

DIY Window Valance

Simple pillow tutorial (with piping)

How to make a ruffled bedskirt

Cleaning & sealing chippy antique pieces

Painting tips that could save $1000

Dear Reader | To the one who is scared to sew

Distressing Painted Furniture | tips & techniques

top 5 tips for decorating on a budget | part 1

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36 Comments on “top 5 tips for decorating on a budget | part 1”

  1. My favorite things in my home are either flea market finds, repurposed/reused items. I completely agree that so many high dollar houses are just that, houses. They don’t feel like ‘home’.

  2. Thanks for the excellent advice. I love seeing your creativity at it’s best with the furniture fabric you have crafted. I would add only that learning to sew is so valuable. Teaching begins with small boys and girls learning the basics.. They will always be grateful.

  3. I have never experienced finding a 4$ chandelier or anything! But it’s not for lack of trying, there just isn’t much here in west Texas!

  4. Love this post! Good reminder to all of us, regardless of what we can or can’t afford. DIYing can be so satisfying!

  5. Hi Marian – I love these ideas.. here’s one more….decorating on a budget is so much more fun, exciting and thought-provoking than popping into a _____________ and picking up the latest styling piece…you can get the look and keep it totally your own for next to nothing and then you get to chat about it forever. 🙂

  6. I’m loving this post! I am a chronic DIYer because I think I can do almost anything myself and so figure I might as well try! (and sometimes I am just plain wrong).

    I am curious… In your travels to various blogging conferences etc… So you think living in the part of the States that you do puts you at a bit of an advantage? I live on the very wear coast of British Columbia and the finds you share from Craigslist or your shopping trips just don’t seem to exist here. I felt I got a deal when my crystal chandelier cost me $140!! And I do desperately want a vintage quilt and just cannot find one… Unless I want to pay hundreds of dollars on Etsy…

    I think hubs and I need to plan a trip to your part of the world so I can fill my suitcases with treasures!

    1. I definitely think where you live can make a difference. I live in Kansas but I’d like to go flea-marketing in Michigan.

      1. Michigan has some great flea markets! The prices on items are low compared to other spots around the U.S. Make a trip out here some time! 🙂

    2. It was one of those right place/right time things. I bought it at a yard sale from someone who liked modern style and she thought this chandelier was so ugly. It was packed in a box in pieces, so I didn’t know what it looked like until I got it home and unpacked it. I figured the crystals were worth at least $4.00! 🙂

    3. Yes, I do think where you live makes a difference. The east coast is a pretty nice place for antiques and second-hand finds. Although, stuff travels and I think you can find nice things anywhere, but the cost and quantity will vary.

    4. You might try Craigslist in the larger cities around you. I know Seattle has a robust culture for Craigslist and estate sales. So does Portland OR. You could go on a Craigslist vacation!

      I spent 4 mos designing my sister’s house in Portland last year using Craigslist, even though I live in VA. I looked through all the listings every day and she decided whether she wanted to go pick them up. You could spend the week before your trip scouring craigslist and making apts to pick stuff up on that weekend, when you were in town. And you could also check the estate sale websites in advance, so you had several lined up.

      Wow. Even though I live in DC where there is a ton of good, well priced stuff, now I’m wanting to go on a Craigslist road trip!
      Hope that helps,
      The Other Marian

  7. Agree! I’ve spent time in both, and the small homes where we invested our time and talents have been our favorite “homes”, hands down!

  8. I always wondered what it might be like to walk into a store and select a room full of furniture, lamps, rugs, etc.

    Now I’m truly thankful I never had that kind of money. I’ve learned to make a home from what I was able to afford and had fun searching for it, painting it, refinishing it, repurposing it. Little surprises and bargains I’ve found along the way have given me so much pleasure…. that old “it’s the journey not the destination” is so true for me.

    If you came to my home you’d see some flea market discoveries, Craigslist finds, garage sale treasures and hand me downs all over the place…. and a few excellent bargains from going out of business sales, even a Sam’s Club item or two from the bargain corner…. It’s been so much fun to know a little patience and ingenuity pay off over the long run….

    1. As i travel my garage sale circuit I keep finding things that I dearly wanted a few years back but could not afford. Now I’m glad I couldn’t- they no longer appeal at all!

  9. I just want to add if you want to make pillows, curtains, etc. And don’t know how to sew, ask if someone can help you. Social media is a great place to ask family, friends and friends of friends.

    1. Oh Deb..if only it was that easy…been trying to get help with a simple rectangle for back of a sewing chair…even did the YouTube thing…my problem is I have no sewing machine.

      1. A local seamstress or tailor costs very little for something like that. Just look up who has a shop nearby. It might not even cost you $25. Just depends on what it is.

      2. Roseann,
        I would suggest asking around for someone who sews to help you.
        Check out the Basic Singer machines at Wal-Mart if you want to start sewing. I bought a second one, and it cost about $86 and it still has buttonhole stitch and many other stitches included.
        I also look for fabric all over. I have bought 9 yard piece for $5 at a garage sale and have used tablecloths for porch chair cushions.
        You also may trade what you are good at for someone else to help you.


      3. I have seen very basic old sewing machines in thrift stores, yard sales etc. you just need a straight stitch for most sewing. Even if you had to gave it tuned up it might be worthwhile. You can find sewing machine instruction books on line etc. good luck.

  10. You are so spot on Marion. When I move in the next few months to NC. I’m going to hire you! to help me pull it all together.

  11. Yo aprendi contigo viendo tus videos lo que era un imposible se convirtio en posible he cocido los forros para mis sillas del comedor para mis sillones de la sala y pintado varias piezas de muebles, no lo hago perfecto pero yo puedo vivir con eso pero ya no es un imposible gracias a ti ( yo entiendo ingles pero no lo se escribir disculpame) estare esperando la segunda parte 🙂

  12. I think most areas have a spectacular deal or two for an enterprising searcher to find, but I am astounded at how quickly you manage to stockpile a treasure trove of items for your Luckett show. I have yet to find anything as fabulous on my local Craig List offerings as what you turn up. I visit three thrift stores daily and their antique offerings are scarce and expensive. I live in a rural area of upper Michigan so large cities are distant. You go out and return with stacks of goodies. So I am guessing that where you live is a factor. I love watching you fill your studio and prime your pieces for Luckett, although it kills me not to be able to attend.

  13. Please delete this after you relocate the apostrophe in your graphic: Seed’s…. *wink* Not See’ds

    Wonderful tips!!!!!!


  14. I love this post. We are on a very tight budget, having gone through law school with three kids (and now we have a fourth) with plenty of student loans to pay off. You wrote awhile ago that if you didn’t have money to spend, then spend time working on skills, and that’s what I’ve kept in mind. For me, I had one class of home ec in 7th grade, so I went to Target and bought a sewing machine when we were first married. It wasn’t the best machine in the world, but it sewed straight lines and made pillows and curtains. Reading your posts has given me the courage to try re-upolstering our old sofa that was left in our home by its previous owners. I now know I need to move onto slipcovers, because with three boys, I need to be able to wash things!

    Our Craigslist scene here is not great at all. I have sometimes found things at thrift stores or Goodwill stores, and now am branching out and learning about local antiques or “vintage” markets that are popping up. I also am part of a private Facebook selling group where I have really started to find better deals. My favorite deal was when a wingback chair appeared for $15, then $10. I purchased it thinking I will make a slipcover for it. Then, a month or two later, I thought it would be nice to have another wingback chair to go with it. It would have been nice to have matching ones, but what were the chances? Then another wingback chair appeared for free on the Facebook group, and I was able to get it too. In the pictures, it looked very similar to the one I had, and when my husband called me after he picked it up, he said that it was the same chair. I mentioned that to the owner of the chair, and she said that the two chairs I had were originally a set that had been split up, and now I had both of them. I like the feeling of reuniting two chairs and giving them a makeover in the form of slipcovers.

    Even though we are tight on funds, what I like to do is save up my birthday and Christmas money to buy tools for building. In this way, I’ve gotten a compound miter saw, nail gun, and orbital sander. Between your site and Ana White’s site for building furniture, we’ve been able to do so much in our home!

    1. Back when I was a single Mom raising four kids, I learned a wonderful secret. Most home improvement stores and paint stores have a place where they store miss-matched paint! This is paint that the store has mixed for a customer but they have rejected it for some reason. I ask to see that paint first and more often than not there is some color/colors that I end up taking home! I even once purchased a $70. can of paint for $5. I have saved so much money that I can use the savings for brushes, drop cloths, pans, etc. My children are all grown now but I still use this money saving resource. So do my kids!

  15. My daughter has been married 13 years and has only bought one piece of new furniture, which they don’t even have anymore! Her house is beautiful and collected looking. In our new beach house she procured 4 dressers for $25 dollars. She is a whiz with paint and distressing. Never would I have imagined that this is the route she would take. She, like you, thoroughly enjoys the art of the find. Oh, her wardrobe and that of her 4 children are largely “procured” in the same manner.

  16. Hi Marian, Even though I have been DIYing for quite a while, I really appreciated your post – good reminders – Thank you!

  17. I just made a slip cover from a drop cloth for a $5 reclining wing back chair because of your blog :). A friend turned me one to it several years ago. I’m not a DIY novice but it took me a while to work up the gumption to tackle a project that complicated. WHY did I wait? As imperfect as it is, it made a WORLD of difference in my room. We’re a military family living in South Korea so I love your suggestions as they have really helped me embrace and make my government white walls into a comfortable “farm house white” home. 🙂

  18. For me it’s all about knowing I’ve completed the job and therefore I know it is a decent (and safe) result. That’s not to take anything away from tradespeople, but I just think psychologically people are always more likely to go the extra mile on their own projects, so I might as well be the one in control of mine.

  19. You’re the best! I took one class at Joanns to learn to sew. And now I am painting, sewing, upholstering…and my home looks amazing for very little money. I slipcovered my couch using your tutorial!

  20. You, your wonderful pins on pinterest, and your book encourage me very much. I just upholstered a bench I have had for years that had been a nice pattern but wrong for my color scheme and decor. I love the look now! I do paint (landscapes and animals), and I love decorating, so I do have an artsy bent, but I was intimidated about upholstery and diy furniture stuff. I was at Joann’s clueless in the fabric area but love the fabric I found for my bench. I did it, too! Upholstered! !!! For $6. 🙂 Fabric plus nailheads. 🙂

    I live in an apartment and with my sole income, I do have to watch my budget. I just put one of my scarves up as a center panel in an awkward 3 window setup in my apartment. It goes between the two other windows I put curtains over before. It is sheer and has a pretty design. It works! I have my own paintings and drawings in my place as my artwork. That certainly saves money. I used to work part time at a friend’s custom framing shop, and he framed two of my paintings very cheaply, one basically free and the other at a very low cost.

    I use my grandmother’s Avon bottles as a centerpiece sometimes, I have antiques she had (mostly not valuable except for one or two small things). I love thrift stores and two awesome consignment furniture places in my area (knoxville, TN). I found my coffee table (worth $600!) for $30 at a thrift store. It has drop leaves but a hinge that sticks on one side. It basically just needed a strong yank, and it works smoothly now. Lol! I think the store donated it because of the minor problem! I am using a desk as a dining table because it fits the space better, and I have a round dining table with drop leaves that I dropped to put my TV on it (lol).

    My friends and family thought I spent a fortune on things for my place. I definitely did not. I work at TJ Maxx (and a restaurant). I get a staff discount (10% off, occasionally 20% weekends happen) at TJ Maxx, Home Goods, and Marshalls. I have small things from those stores, too. I don’t think a person has to be filthy rich or the most gifted with DIY or artsy to decorate well, or be a professional designer.

    Good keys for me were to think of a color scheme and stick to it. I chose soft cream, green, blue and teal, silver ( in mercury glass), dark brown. I didn’t have to be a professional decorator to figure out in a complicated way what would look right. The colors are all soft (aside from dark brown furniture pieces). A bright pink bowl would NOT work in here. Lol!

    I think if someone gets hung up on copying someone to a T, or wants to do “what is being done”, or thinks what is in a magazine is beyond their talents, they are feeling they aren’t creative enough and need to gain confidence and be original. No comparisons! You don’t have to be rich, either. Thinking in dollar signs isn’t a help. I wouldn’t want to copy someone to a T, no matter how gorgeous their style, because I want to use my grandmother’s Avon bottles on my dining table and her carnival glass dish. 🙂

    What you said in your book about God touched my heart, too.

    Another key for my heart was waiting for and choosing just the right thing rather than getting a “placeholder item” I did not love. I had my books in boxes on the floor for two months until I came across my Pottery Barn ladder bookcase, which I saw at a used furniture store for a great bargain.

    I also think, “I am complete in Christ, lacking nothing.” I apply that to my home. I AM creative enough.

    You inspire me, and your home and book are beautiful.

  21. P.s. to my other long remark….. I think matchy matchy or too “perfect” is so boring! I don’t want it to look so perfectly coordinated it is dull! Plus dog toys on the floor add charm. Lol! I have dark furniture and light cream furniture in the same room (gasp!!!). 😉 I loved that you seem unfussy about that.

  22. P.s. one last comment. Your space is male friendly! I try to keep mine that way, too. My boyfriend might watch football over here on a date sometimes, and he has no decorating gene! He wants to sit in a comfortable armchair and put his feet up and not feel everything is so ruffled & delicate he can’t relax with a beer and the game and enjoy himself. He would be polite with that, but certainly if we marry later on and share a home, it needs to be a home where his-very- special-to- him Peyton Manning jersey can be at home with my framed artwork I have made. 🙂

    Your home looks man friendly, where your husband would feel cozy and relaxed, too.

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