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How to (Really) Decorate on a Budget

What They Don't Tell You on those Decorating Shows

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Sure, everyone talks about how you can have a fabulous home for next to nothing, the awesome power of doing it yourself, filling your home with things that you love, but how is one actually supposed to accomplish that?

Let’s look at the big picture, the basic things one needs to know to have a fabulous home, even if one doesn't have a fabulous trust fund. In other words, how to decorate on a budget.

Before you buy one new item for your home or pick out one more paint color, first read these tips on how to create a beautiful home on a budget.

1) Forget the decorating books.
And those shelter magazines. You know, the ones that feature beautiful homes where those who supposedly live don’t have mail, children, dogs or dust. The ones with the articles that start out like, “Jane saw the 18th century French chateau and knew that she had to have it, but it was in a total state of disrepair, having not had its original mahogany floors polished in at least a month…”

Real life – and a real home – is not a magazine spread. It has dings and nicks. Torn screens, dirty dog bowls and half finished children’s crafts strewn across the kitchen table. And no one shows up to perfectly arrange your oranges in a bowl.

Design magazines (and many decorating blogs) are fun to look at, but they are designed to sell a dream. You, on the other hand, do not live in a dream but probably in something that looks more like a 1980s Ranch in the suburbs. Or a tiny, cramped apartment in the city. Accept it and move on.

Now that we’ve gotten that one out of the way…

2) Be able to recognize quality.
I know you can’t afford the designer goods, but it doesn’t hurt (or cost anything) to look. Study what quality looks like and be able to recognize it even when it doesn’t carry a designer label and a hefty price tag. Good, even great, quality can be found at budget prices. The trick to finding it is knowing what it is to begin with.

3) Buy great quality at a great price.
The trick to being able to do this is knowing retail markup. Furniture retail prices can often run 200 to 400-percent higher than the wholesale cost. Flooring can carry a 300 to 600-percent markup.

What does this mean for you? Take this typical scenario: Say you score a $1000 sofa for 50-percent off, paying a final price of $500. You think you got a good deal. You may be mistaken because with a 400-percent original markup, you would have paid $500 for a $250 sofa (that probably cost less than $150 to make in the factory). Ouch.

Sometimes going cheap, and cheaply made, is a great idea. After all, a glass flower vase tends to be a glass flower vase, whether you pay $1 for it or hundreds. The rule of thumb is to not invest heavily in items that will need to be replaced frequently (like the shower curtain or that family room rug that hosts Friday night pizza parties) or updated in less than five years (like most electronics).

Buying used is a great way to cut out the immediate depreciation on most homegoods, and some older items will even grow in value. This is rare though, so don’t bank on it unless you know what you are doing. The best thing is (again) to buy great quality at a great price.

4) Know your style.
This is one of the greatest things you can do for you and your home – and your budget. After all, the best quality item at the lowest price is never a good deal if it doesn’t fit your home and your lifestyle. Knowing your style and only buying things that you love and that work within your lifestyle is a great way to save money. You won’t tire of the items and they will blend seamlessly into your life. Now that’s money well spent.

5) Understand scale.
This is a hard one, because I am convinced that some of us are born visualizing this kind of stuff, and some of us have to really, really, really work at it. But the single most important thing you can do to make your home look fabulous doesn’t cost you a dime, but it may cost you your sanity: It’s understanding scale.

Not that other kind of scale that ruins many a sanity – the bathroom scale – but the one otherwise known as “proportion.” Rooms are beautiful often because of the feelings that they evoke, and they give off good vibes usually because the proportions are correct. No postage stamp rugs. No huge sofas blocking traffic flow. No miniature doll-house-sized artwork.

Take a good, long walk throughout the rooms of your home. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably doesn’t look right. And vise versa. Rearrange it, remove it or replace it. There really aren't any other options.

Decorator's Hint: If comprehending the scale and proportion of a room and its furnishings tends to keep you dazed and confused, forcing you to rearrange your furniture and decor for hours on end, don't hesitate to call in a professional decorator. Hiring a pro can help save you money - and save your sanity - in the long run.

6) Be willing to wait.
I saved this one for last because it is probably the hardest. We want a beautiful home, and we want it now. But wisely acknowledge that having a home that fits – you and your lifestyle – is an ever-evolving process. A warm, inviting and beautiful home is not something that springs up overnight but is something that grows over time. And delayed gratification is never a bad thing, especially where beauty and a budget are concerned.
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