After living in apartments with white walls for most of my adult life, I was excited to become a homeowner when my husband and I got married. Paint options! Landscaping! Curtains! My house was a blank canvas, just waiting for me to decorate it. Well, the decorating buzz wore off quickly after I found out how expensive everything was. I thought, naively, that asking my mother-in-law to sew some curtains for me would be a cheap alternative…until I priced the fabric.
And that trend continued. Landscaping plants? Yee-ow! New flooring? My wallet felt pinched again. Despite the sticker shock, we have accomplished a lot in the six years since we've moved to our current home.
The first check I always need is a reality check
I love reading DIY blogs and magazines, though their ideas of inexpensive kitchen remodels are usually different than mine. But I have to be careful: When I flood my brain with picture after picture of fantastic home makeovers, my house with lots of character seems in need of a major face lift.
For instance, when we moved in six years ago, the kitchen was my least favorite room in the house.
Dark, peeling cabinets, atrocious drawer pulls that caught every bit of flour that drifted off the counter, chartreuse counter tops, lots of very shallow drawers, and more unpleasantness welcomed me every morning.
Such a room practically begged for some TLC, and I had ideas of how everything — even the layout of the appliances — could be improved. But I didn't want to do anything at all, until we had saved enough money to do things exactly the way I wanted to do them.
We planned to do most of the work ourselves which would have saved a bundle. But with the average kitchen remodels nearing $20,000 (and I think that's kind of conservative), it would have been expensive.
DIY, the answer to life meets budget
Anyway, somewhere between adopting our children and quitting my full-time job, we decided that a full kitchen remodel was not a responsible use of our money. Instead, I allowed my husband to do what he had wanted to all along: paint the cabinets and walls and replace the drawer pulls and handles.
For less than $400, we went from dark to for-$400-this-is-a-major-improvement. It's not really impressive, but we saved a lot of money.
Even though we still deal with shallow drawers and no range hood, I don't even think of making other improvements. I am also happy we don't have tens of thousands of dollars wrapped up in a kitchen.
I think I will cook here happily for another decade or two, beating eggs on my Formica chartreuse counter top. (If you spent money on a kitchen remodel, don't read this as a condemnation. We just did what was best for us.)
My best money-saving tip may actually prevent you from spending money at all: Figure out what you really like and what fits your house.
For instance, our house feels cottage-like.
Even though I think granite counter tops and stainless appliances and gorgeous cabinets are, well, gorgeous, it wouldn't fit in our simple house.
It would make the rest of our rooms look shabby by comparison.
Look for unexpected sources of inexpensive materials
Two rooms in our house were painted with leftover paint from my sister's house. I think I paid her some money for the paint, but I know it was below market value.
I was happy to get the colors I was looking for, and my sister was glad to declutter.
Many paint manufacturers are now selling small sample jars. As someone who can't pick colors well, those sample jars have saved me several times.
Even when I've picked the wrong hue, I have taken the paint back in and had the color changed slightly.
(This can be tricky, but I have a favorite paint guy who can usually handle my color-changing quirks!)
As I mentioned, I couldn't believe (and still can't) how expensive fabric is. But look beyond fabric stores. For instance, I found two king-sized duvet covers made of cool fabric at a thrift store for $3. While I plan to use one as a duvet cover, the other will eventually be made into curtains. What about bed sheets? Vintage bed sheets may have really fresh prints, despite their age. While I haven't done this, I would consider making pillows out of old clothes, if I found a pattern I liked.
Before we sold our first house, we wanted to put new linoleum in the bathroom. It just so happened that friends of ours had just put new linoleum in their bathroom and wanted to get rid of the extra. We had to make one extra seam, but it looked good.
And our new house had a similar story. Again I didn't want to do anything with one of our bathrooms until I had enough saved to do things exactly as I wanted them. Well, I decided that time was further off than I originally imagined, so we bought some paint (full price this time) and I stopped by our flooring place. “Do you have any remnants that are this big and in this color family?” They did. For $25, we put new flooring in our bathroom. Again, this was a major improvement with a minor effect on our wallet.
Don't underestimate the power of small improvements. And don't forget to let your family and friends know what you're looking for. Maybe they have just what you need for free or at low cost.
I spend a lot of time at home now. When I look around, I want to see reflections of our family and experience chaos-free living (or at least as much as Legos underfoot will allow — I never knew the pain of stepping on one until this year!). And it's best for my family if I can make our house a home as cheaply as possible.
Do you have any tips on how to find inexpensive materials for your living quarters?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).