Tried & True Decorating Ideas for Really Small Budgets

Decorate your home for less with these tried and true budget decorating ideas to transform any room in your home.

Do you remember decorating that first room, space, apartment or house that you could finally call your own? When you got to choose every decorative item for the space, not your mom, sister, or roommate – but you… and you alone got to choose? It was probably a first apartment or house when the decorating passion hit you hard. You wanted everything you saw in magazines and furniture showrooms, but didn’t have much cash to do anything but dream.

When I look back, I remember those days fondly – they are what helped me build and edit my decorating style, DIY skills and gave me confidence to keep going.

When I first started blogging, many DIY decorating blogs were all about thrifty and low cost home decor. It was back in the days before Pinterest and Instagram perfection began to invade the scene and budget and thrifty took a back seat.

I enjoy coming up with new ways to decorate for less, like I did my first apartment and then on a much larger scale with my first house, so much so that I even wrote a book about it back then, called Instant Decorating to show others how they could do it too.

Kitchen-Decorating-Ideas-on-a-Budget-using-colorful fabric ad giftwrap

Even though I share many posts about how to decorate on a budget, they get buried deep in my blog’s archives, like when I posted how I used cardboard from large boxes to make the decorative backdrops for the shelves and the memo board in the kitchen of my previous house.

I was recently made aware of all these forgotten budget decorating projects after reading a comment from reader, Katie. Her comment brought me back to my early decorating days and how I was able to decorate my house on a tight budget.

In my response to her comment, I told her I would elaborate on my reply in the way of a new post.

Here is Katie’s comment and question:

“I love to decorate for holidays but my house looks so empty when I take the decorations down. I’m already sad that the holidays are over and then looking at my plain house makes it worse. I love how you talk about looking at a post-holiday home as a blank canvas. Interior decorating is one of my favorite hobbies and now I can look at a post-holiday home as an opportunity. Unfortunately, as a college-student, I do not have a lot of items laying around the house that I can use as decoration. What is your advice on cheap or DIY decorations to create a cute white-on-white themed home?”

I remember when I was in college being in the same boat as Katie and trying to decorate my first apartment with the little that I had. I remember buying a wicker chandelier at a flea market in NYC where I went to school and a poster of the NYC Ballet.

At the French Country Flea Market looking for items to decorate a home on a really small budget.

It was then that I started to enjoy the thrill of the hunt for bargain decor. I had a roommate back then and when she came home after I hung the new light and mounted the poster on the wall, her jaw hit the floor – she couldn’t believe how good the room looked. This gave me the confidence I needed to continue on my quest to make our teeny NYC apartment as nice as I could. You know that I went back to that flea market every week and learned other ways to find items to decorate.

I also remember the first house that Ed and I bought. It was filled with nothing but hand-me-downs that I was happy to have. As I started to put my own style into the decor, I bought a brand new navy blue lamp at a discount store called Wacamaw Pottery in Burlington, NC.

I was so happy and proud of it. A few days after getting the lamp, I was hanging drapes I made from sheets. I accidentally hit the table the lamp was on and the jolt sent the lamp flying to the floor. It broke into pieces.

I cried big time tears. When Ed saw I was crying about a lamp, he didn’t understand since we had quite a few other hand-me-down lamps in the house we could use. I told him it was so much more than just a lamp – it was the first thing I was able to buy for the house – it was something that I bought because I liked it – it fit my decorating style.

With 10 years of posts, I have quite a few budget decorating ideas to share with Katie and others looking for affordable ideas on how to create a beautiful home when they are just starting out. Even if you have money to spend or have been decorating your home for years and have a stash of decorative stuff that you can shop your house to change things up, we all love to find ways to decorate for less.

How to Makeover a Room on a tight budget. One option is the clearance section of most stores.

Katie likes the white on white look, but you may like a completely different color scheme and style. The ways to go about it are the same – it is what the “thrill of the hunt” is all about.

Below I am sharing what I did when I started out decorating the spaces I called home and still do. Being able to decorate a room didn’t happen overnight, but with my eye on the prize, lots of effort and resourcefulness, I was able to go from that college apartment to another and then my first house and 5 houses later, here I am, still enjoying finding bargains and ways to decorate for less.

10 Decorating Ideas for When You Have a Really Small Budget

Yard sale items to use to decorate a home on a really small budget

1. Plan – Just because you don’t have a lot money or stash of items to decorate your space with doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come up with a plan.  It can be a simple notebook where you keep room and furniture sizes, ideas, magazine clippings, and a list of items from fabrics to spray paints you want or need. This helps you to focus. You know if something you find will fit, ensuring you spend your money wisely.

2. Never forget the found, free, or flea mantra – You’ll not only save money with this mindset, but truly design a personally designed space that you can proudly call your own. Your best bet for finding items to decorate with on a small budget is frequently going to thrift shops, resale stores, flea markets, yard sales and don’t forget the Dollar Store.  Do you remember when I made this 3D gallery wall? All the items I used to create it were all free, hand-me-downs or from the dollar store.

  • Do a local online search for “thrift stores near me” or “thrift stores in “Your City”.  Check your local paper for yard sale listings each week.
  • Make a list and a plan to visit as many stores and sales as you can. Talk to the employees to find out when new items come in. If you find something you like, but it is still out of your budget, don’t be afraid to ask if they will take less for the item. I have done this many times with success as most stores want to make a sale.
  • Ask for hand-me-downs. Tell your family and friends if they are getting rid of anything, to ask you first before they give it away.
  • Free stuff – Don’t be shy – if you see something you pass by in the way of curbside trash, go grab it. Everything can be cleaned and reused or repurposed for your needs.  The desk in my studioffice was one such find.
  • Head to the clearance section  – every store from thrift stores to HomeGoods has a clearance section. Always check it out. A white vase may have a chip on the back and a price tag of $2.50, but on your mantel or open shelving, no one will see the chip, just the pretty vase. I found white quilts marked down and bought them all for $30. I used them to make slipcovers for the seating in my living room.
Pink craft storage cabinet for DIY home decorators

3. Start a Stash – Save every scrap of material, gift wrap, jewelry, paint and more in a box or cabinet. Organize it so you can find the contents easily.  Place supplies like scissors and fabric glue in the stash also. Having this will make it easy to transform second-hand items you find. Over 35 years, my supply stash has grown from a box, to an armoire to an entire room.

4. Everything can be altered with paint and fabric. Search for items from books, vases, pitchers, frames, furniture and more for a few dollars. All of these can be changed with paint or fabric. It is more about the shape and size of the items to fit your space and needs, anything can be painted to the color you want.

Sideboard-Decorating-for-Fall on a small budget
  • Books can be bought for a dollar or less sometimes. Look for spines in colors that you like.  Use them to fill empty shelves. Another use for them is to find similar size ones with white pages and hard covers.  When you get them home you can spray the entire book or just the covers any color or cover them with free printable paper or gift wrap.
Blue sideboard in foyer all painted and decked out for fall.
  • Once covered use them as lifts to add height to lamps, plants and vases to make them stand out more and create balance and flow using decorative accessories.
Amazing transformation of dated and faded fabric to the look and feel of white leather.
No Sew window white window valance made using a sheet.
  • When searching for drapes, don’t limit your search to already made window treatments. You can drape a sheet or tablecloth over a rod or use clip rings to hang it on a rod to create very budget-friendly window treatments. Yard sales are great for finding used curtain rods and clips.
  • You can buy white or any basic color of spray paint (off-brand) very inexpensively at most discount and home improvement stores.  They are always on the bottom shelf.  There might not be a full-range of colors, but if using a basic color, you can save money.  I used it all the time when I worked in retail display to change the color of the props we used to decorate the store to red, black or white. It works just fine and I actually prefer it over the more expensive brand names.
  • For inexpensive paint – ask at the paint counter at the home improvement store if they have any “oops or mistake” paint in the color you are looking for. These mistake custom colors usually are half price or less. If a piece of furniture you are making over is small, consider using acrylic craft paint in a semi-gloss sheen.  Generic brands at the craft store are 99 cents a bottle.

5. Get apps on your phone and wait for sales at craft and fabric stores like Michaels and JoAnn’s Fabrics. They always have coupons for 25% -40% off.  I never buy anything at these stores without using one of these coupons. They update them every week.

6. Learn how to sew a straight line on a sewing machine or learn a few no-sew techniques. If you don’t have a sewing machine, ask around to see if someone’s mom or grandmother no longer uses their machine. This is how I got my sewing machine 35 years ago, a slant needle Singer from the 1940’s. It is still the sewing machine I use today.

  • I learned to use it by reading the instruction manual that was still in the cabinet and took a basic sewing machine class at a local fabric store.
purple leaf fabric getting made into a pillow using a no sew fabric glue.

7. Go on a nature walk to find things from branches, rocks and pinecones. All can be spray painted or even left as is to add to your decor. You can even add glitter to them to use as inexpensive, but impact making Christmas decor. 

8. Repurpose – Need a side table? Think out of the box and create one using an old TV tray table or a tall stool. When decorating, repurposing items in new and creative ways will not only save you money, but make your decor unique. Look at everything you see with new eyes and ask, What If I did ____ to it?

Desk-organizer-made-by-repurposing-packaging sitting on desk top.

9. Recycle – Don’t throw items out that you normally would place in the trash, find ways to make them into something you want or need. This Desk Set was made with scraps of gift wrap and items I would have normally thrown away – VCR tape boxes, and an orange juice can.

decorating ideas for really small budgets one is Free artwork ideas for your walls

10. Take advantage of  free printables. Online free printables are offered on many blogs and on Pinterest that you can frame to create wall art for the cost of a few thrift store frames. You can find them by doing an online search for “Free Printable Art.” 

  • Another free way to make artwork for your walls is to use the covers from DVD cases. I found inexpensive frames at IKEA and made a gallery wall using the covers from my favorite movies.

Once you start to gather a few items and begin to transform them to fit your style you will be on your way to decorating your space in a style that makes you feel good and functions the way you want.

Be prepared to experiment and know that you will make mistakes. It is just part of the decorating process. There will be items that you buy that you transform that don’t look the way you envisioned. Don’t let this stop you though as some of my misses actually turned out to be wins when I took the time to change them again.

For instance – 30 years ago when I spray painted a black stone planter white and then sponge painted it purple. It looked awful. I took it to the sink and started scrubbing the paint off and something magical happened – the scrubbing gave the finish a lighter distressed look. It looked amazing.

That planter now graces the front porch of my daughter Mandy’s house. My mistake turned into a keeper that still looks good after 30 years.

Do you remember your first decorating purchase that made you giddy with excitement to bring into your space to start making your decorating style come alive?

Do you have any budget decorating tips for Katie or readers like her who are just starting out with nothing and want to decorate their home in their own style throughout all seasons of the year?

10 Decorating Ideas for really small budgets. All have been tested, tried and work. If you follow the advise and tips in this post, you will find new pretty and creative ways to decorate your home. #homedecorating #budgetdecorating #decoratinginashoestring #DIYdecor


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  1. What brand and color of paint on the armoire?

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Mary – To paint the armoire in my craft room, I made my own paint mix using craft paint. I mixed Apple Barrel Brand craft paint in the color Pin Parfait with white craft paint until I got a pale but vivid pink. I have to head to Home Depot tomorrow. I can see if there is a ready made color that matches the pink I created. I will email you again with a name.

    2. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Mary – I had a chance to find a paint color that is a match for the pink paint color I made up myself for the armoire in my craft room. Take a look at Home Depot – Behr brand paint in the color – Funny Face M140-2

  2. Linda L Weeks says:

    That’s the idea. Come up with furnishings that don’t cost a lot, and make them over! I keep going to yard sales and thrift stores for whatnots, and now I don’t have the money to do another thing! But it will accumulate again, and back I go!

  3. Drop cloths! They’re inexpensive & fairly neutral in color so they can be adapted to most styles. I just “reupholstered” 2 chairs(they were heading to the curb on our next bulk trash day). I’ve also used them as curtains by using clip on rings to the curtain rod. My next project is to use them for outdoor curtains. They’re very versatile & come in big sizes.

  4. DIYPD Peter says:

    Amazing article and lovely photos!

  5. This is going to sound odd, but thank you for being normal! ? There is a place for Pinterest perfection and all the slick design blogs, just not in my house or on my budget. I truly enjoy your voice and perspective, as well as your actually helpful advice.

    One other amazing source for me for furniture in particular has been There are great free and low priced items all the time but you have to be vigilant and quick! I use the app and love it. I also find it relatively easy to verify the identity of sellers either because they are actual neighbors or by a quick google search.

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Cathleen –

      Thanks – It doesn’t sound odd at all. I appreciate you telling me as it makes me realize that I should just keep on doing things the way I have always done them. I have never looked into Nextdoor, but will check it out. Thanks for the tip.

  6. Thank you for the explanation of how to find your most recent post. I’ve got it now!

  7. I have always loved your blog but the new format is outstanding! So colorful & beautiful. I think your new format looks like a magazine but much better. I have trouble knowing which posting is the most current though. I can’t tell you how much I love your bright happy colors!

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Linda –

      Thanks you. It was time for an update. I am still tweaking the design to see what works best. The most recent post can be found when you first land on the main page. Under the words “Recently From The Blog” – the image on the left is the most recent post. You can also simply click on the words – View More Recent Posts >>. (It is under the words “Recently From the Blog”). It will take you to the BLOG view of my site – which has the most recent post on the top, followed by all the other posts in dated order.

      Let me know if you have any trouble. Thanks for reading.

  8. Sandy Mcallister says:

    I love all your cheapie suggestions. I have one that I used so many years ago. I needed a table so I used a large box and topped it with a wooden game board and draped a cloth and topper over that. Looked amazing and filled the space and I was able to put a light and accesories on it.

  9. I was so happy to see this ,I am down sizing and am in the middle of saying good bye to so many things that I’ve loved in our homes .Time to enjoy life more than cleaning and fixing things in our house . My husband will be only working part time and we’re looking forward to re doing a smaller house . You always have such great ideas and I’m so happy to have found you .We live in SW Florida and have so many great thrift shops here which can help in my re doing our new little home . I’m ready to get started !

  10. Great reminders for some of us and new ideas for newbies to your blog.
    Thank you for taking the time to write a blog? I have enjoyed your written voice for years!!!

  11. These are great tips! I remember doing so many projects like this over the years~esp. when the budget was really tight. I have always been a DIYer, and I have learned a lot. My tip is that just about anything can be framed. Like your free printables and DVD cases, you can get art anywhere…old calendars, kids artwork, photos that you can blow up at places like costco, souvenirs from a favorite trip, wine corks, etc. I have found frames at thrift stores and even just spray painted them different colors and put them up without art in them. It add a fun punch of color by itself.
    I still enjoy projects like these and am currently “re” reupholstering an old ottoman my mother in law gave me years ago. It is probably the 4th time I’ve done it, but with fresh paint on the legs and a new velvet cover stapled on, it feels fresh again.
    Thanks for all of your inspiration!

  12. For Katie….those are all great ideas. I remember our first apartment. It was basically whatever we could scrounge from parents and friends. Our one new thing, was new wooden boards that we either stained or painted, supported by concrete blocks. Our first bookcase…worked quite well, and chic for the times…the 70’s. I’ve been blessed with some new and inherited furniture for a collected look over the years…but I’m still a frequent thrift store shopper.

    You are always a great source of ideas Diane. So keep ‘me coming! ;)

  13. What I love most about your blog is your genuineness. Thank you for remaining true to your style – “in my own style”.
    I went from stressed, on the edge single mom to married to a man of means. When we decided to retire a few years after we got married, we go rid of almost everything and started over. We were blessed and able to build a custom home. So how did I decorate? Just about everything in the house is from thrift stores and Goodwill! After all the years of grabbing things off the curb and repurposing what I had, decorating this way has become a natural thing. People always remark how they love our home but it’s our little secret that most of it is second-hand. I have an educated eye and I can afford new but this is so much more rewarding and makes for an edited and comfortable look.
    Thank you, Diane, for reminding us all of this simple life habit – make do, make it your own, and make it your mission to make it work beautifully!

  14. You bring joy back into the world, take care from Wynn, Canada BC

  15. Sheryll $ Critters. says:

    From my first view of your 3 D Gallery wall, I was in total love! It has and will continue to be a special favorite of mine. I love mirrors and clocks and you have not ever disappointed me!
    Thank you for years of inspiration and those ‘aha! ‘ times!

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Sheryll – Thanks – I think you are the reader that has been with me since day one. :-) When my daughter was working for me, she always saw your name come up in your comments here and on social media. Last week when I was chatting with her on the phone and talking blog stuff, she asked about you as she became very fond of your interaction with me. XO.

  16. I couldn’t agree more that having limits on the budget & resources is the best for creativity. It makes us think outside of the box. I’ve personally applied every single one of your ideas to our homes. Even though I’m no longer limited, I am so glad for those meager fund years now. They taught me to seek other resources that I find much much better than just going to a retail store to add interest, personality and history to the story our home tells. I sew a lot and when I consider buying off the rack for convenience my husband always tells me I won’t be happy with the finished product because of the shortcuts they make and he’s always right. We’re on house #7 now and I still have and enjoy many of the items we cobbled together in those penniless days. Great post. Keep them coming as I fear much in the Blogging world has become so slick and consumer driven…and dare I say boring?

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Pamela –

      Wow – house # 7. You have lots of experience and even though you enjoy being able to fund your decorating now, I like that you still have a few of your first pieces of decor. They give your home character and history and I am sure make you smile every time you see them.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about the blogging world becoming slick and consumer driven. So much so that it has given my pause to stop and think how I want to move forward. I love blogging the way I have always done it and will continue to do it my way and forget about what every one else is doing.