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9 tips for decorating your first home on a tiny budget


When your kid graduates from college — and let’s just pause right here for a big hallelujah — their décor level graduates, too. At least, one can hope.

When they take off that cap and gown, they also shed their dorm décor, leaving behind their futons, milk crates, frameless posters taped to the wall and fraternity-emblazoned glassware.

As my oldest daughter put it, “You want to scale up the maturity level to something a little more professional.”

Paige, 23, is making her foray into the working world — pause again to send up a prayer to the saint of jobs and work even if you’re not Catholic — and is decorating her first Real Place.

However, like the bazillions of other newly minted graduates, Paige still has a milk-crate budget.

Her new place in Houston is a cute second-story duplex, which she is outfitting with the help of her boyfriend, John, who has many fine attributes and endearing qualities, including the ability to paint, sand, lift heavy furniture and tutor younger siblings in physics.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Texas to give Paige a hand with the place, but no sooner had I set down my two bags — one of which contained a 9×12 needlepoint rug; three vintage French fashion illustrations (framed and nicely matted), a wire whisk and a pair of tongs (I wonder what TSA made of that) — than this bittersweet thought hit: My work is done here.

“Great job,” I said, with mixed feelings: pride (That’s my girl!) and heartbreak (She doesn’t need my help, sob!). “How did you do it?”

John didn’t miss a beat: “We saw how much DIYing you had done and how fearless you always are and just dove in.” Did I mention that he has many fine attributes and endearing qualities? I have made clear to Paige that if anything goes wrong between them, I’m keeping John.

They showed me castoff furnishings from friends they had revitalized and tables bought from Goodwill they had sanded and painted, while I marveled.

Paige, of course, promptly pointed out that I haven’t always been so supportive, and reminded John of the text from me that said: Do Not Buy That!

They bought it.

We spread the needlepoint rug in the living room, where it fell into place. The rug melded perfectly with the room’s tan sofa and crimson chair, but its French Country vibe conflicted with the Aztec-patterned pillows.

Because I needed this heirloom-quality handmade rug to work for personal reasons — I hadn’t been able to use it in my home and was far too fond of it to give it to charity — Paige and I zoomed to the nearest home store and found solid, celery green pillows to replace the patterned ones and tie the rug and wall art together. Finally, I felt useful.

When we had sufficiently primped the living room, we all stood back and admired it.

“I’m really proud of this little place,” Paige said.

“And I’m really proud of you,” I said.

For any other young professionals looking to frugally furnish that first place, here are Paige’s tips from the trenches. (Full disclosure: The first two tips are mine, because I can’t help myself.)

  • Start with a clean shell: Whenever I visit the kids at college, I want to bring my own toilet seat covers. First apartments aren’t much better. Before you move in, power clean.
  • Layer in the basics: Start with good sheets and towels. Some would call this a luxury; I call it an essential. To help Paige out, as a housewarming gift, I ordered her a set of nice sheets and two sets of towels.
  • Look for free stuff: “First, see what you can rustle up from friends or family,” Paige said. “People like to contribute what they no longer need if they know someone can use it.” Besides the rug, I gave Paige her bedroom set and some extra kitchen items. A family friend gave her a small, well-used kitchen table and four chairs, which she and John painted white. Then they recovered the chairs with $4-per-yard fabric and the help of a staple gun.
  • Check your local university: Most have sites where students post furnishings they are giving away because they are moving and don’t want to lug stuff with them. Not all of it is dorm dreck. “You can get tables, chairs, TVs, appliances and almost new mattresses,” Paige said. “You didn’t!” I gasped. “You put a cover on it,” she said. “That’s sick, and if it’s not illegal, it should be.”
  • Shop at Goodwill: “We got our living room coffee table and side table there for $15 total,” she said. They sanded and stained them and painted the base of the side table white.
  • Exploit the power of paint: They turned an old brown bookcase into a TV stand and wall unit by painting it white and removing the center shelves to make room for a television. “We thought about more novel colors, but white just works long term,” Paige said.
  • Avoid retail stores: Only go if you need to fill in the gaps.
  • Cultivate artsy friends: “We aren’t artistic, but we have many friends who are,” she said. “They offered to give us pieces they didn’t have room for. They are happy someone likes their stuff enough to display it, and we’re happy to honor their talent.”
  • Enjoy the process: “People stress out about their first apartment, but your friends don’t think twice if you have to eat at card table,” said Paige, with a levelheadedness she did not get from me. “We’re all in the same boat or have been.”

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