The Problem: A retirement apartment with no furniture or art.
The Goal: To decorate with high-quality furnishings for $2,000.
Decorating with money is easy—all you need is taste and cash. I’m long on the first, usually short on the second.
Decorating with a budget can be frustrating—putting off purchases until you can afford them, cutting corners here and there—but it works if you’re the long-term planning type. Which I’m not.
Furnishing an apartment from scratch, within a month and with a very tight budget? That’s downright fun. That combination of shopping, bargain hunting and creative mix-and-matching is at the heart of some of television’s most popular programs.
So when a friend’s father signed the lease on a 600-square foot retirement apartment, I jumped at the opportunity to furnish the place. Mike Riley, 88, reconnected with his high school sweetheart twelve years ago and moved to Texas to resume their romance. When she died, he moved to St. Louis to be near his children.
As Irish as his name suggests and a bit of a flirt, Mike liked the full meal service and busy schedule at a nice complex of retirement apartments. But he had nothing, no furniture at all. He had returned with his memories, a few boxes of mementos and a dog named Susie. The rest was up to me. My budget of $2,000 would cover the living room, bedroom, bath and a small office nook.
First, I settled on a traditional style to suit Mike’s age and taste. My second priority was quality, no matter how tight the budget—no pressed wood allowed. Finally, I wanted the place to look finished even before Mike moved in, so I wanted art and accessories as well as furniture. Since the apartment is white with neutral Berber carpeting, I also wanted to add warmth, color and texture.
My plan was to work with the colors of a 5-by-8 red and blue Oriental carpet, with touches of camel in the pattern.
I envisioned a lot of blue accents and, possibly, a blue couch. Instead, I found a warm caramel-chenille sofa with tiny red accents on sale at J.C. Penney’s Home Store in Fenton. Since my one firm instruction was “no used couches,” this was my most expensive purchase, at $817, including delivery.
Then I got lucky at TJ Maxx. I found two carpets that set complementary color schemes for the living room and bedroom. The first was a 5-by-8 Oriental for the living room with more camel than the one I had, less red and no blue—perfect for the couch. The second was a 2-by-3 rug in a pattern of mossy greens, brick red and a golden camel to go next to the bed.
I should have started with a definitive plan. But I didn’t. I began buying before I’d shopped around enough to really know what I wanted. Luckily, even Goodwill Stores have a seven-day return policy.
Once I settled down, I developed a core circuit of second-hand shops, antique malls, thrift stores and discount retailers that I shopped on a regular basis (oh, okay, I got a little obsessive and checked almost daily). It wasn’t as time consuming as it sounds, since they were clustered close to one another.
The Miriam Switching Post, a non-profit resale shop in St. Louis, was a key resource. The shop is “an estate sale every day.” Newly donated items come in almost daily and, while some are dated, others are attractive enough to provoke arguments between willing buyers.
I picked out a mahogany buffet at $175 as the main storage unit in the living room and a pair of mahogany side tables—complete with glass protecting the tops—for $113. A brass lamp ($20), a brand new desk lamp ($22), a fake fern ($10) and a decorative blue and white plate ($22) rounded out my purchases. I had already paid $30 for a cherry coffee table at one Goodwill and a desk with matching chair, also $30, at another. I topped a $3 brass lamp base with a $20 shade from Target. The TJ Maxx rug was $100.
My total on the living room was $1,365—getting close to the low end of my overall budget, and still no art work.
I found a headboard—sleek and blond, with a Fifties feel—on close-out at Pier One for $85. Mike would need a dresser and night-stands. Rather than try and match various woods, I decided to paint the rest of the furniture. I came across all sorts of little cabinets that could be painted, ranging in price from $25 to $75. A lot of them were already painted, badly. I determined to sand carefully and use an oil-based paint for a professional finish.
I browsed regularly at two local antiques/junk malls, the Big Bend Antique Center and Treasure Aisles. I found a pair of bedside cabinets for $90—a bargain for solid wood, thick protective glass tops, nice hardware and interesting doors. Painted a mossy green chosen from the $30 rug, they complemented the headboard nicely. And at Big Bend Antique Center, I spent $75 for a five-drawer dresser which was already a perfect Dijon-mustard color. I also picked up a mirror for $35 and, somewhere along the way, three lamps for about $60. I’d spent roughly $330 on the bedroom, without bedding or art. The cost of everything, so far, was just under $1,700.
Bedding could be easy. Linens n’ Things, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, K-Mart and Walmart all offer “beds in a bag,” a set of matching comforter, bedskirt and pillow shams starting around $100. The stores also sell coordinating curtains, sheets, towels and shower curtains. Too easy—I didn’t want that matchy-matchy look. And I didn’t want a puffy comforter or a skimpy bedskirt.
Of all places, I hit the jackpot at Walmart. A set of two striped canvas curtain panels in all the colors of the bedroom furniture and rug cost just $20. That was enough fabric for a lengthy bedskirt and a window valance (I cut the curtains lengthwise so that I had three hemmed pieces, then stapled them to the box-spring to make the bedskirt). A matching accent pillow was $12. Silky pinstriped sheets for $65 at Bed, Bath & Beyond, a silk coverlet from Dillard’s for $54 and a $17 faux suede pillow with leather buttons at Target added up to $169 for bedding.
That left just $136 from the top end of the budget.
For another $20 at Walmart, I bought a beautiful paisley fabric shower curtain that brought the color scheme into the bathroom, which I wanted to be nice but masculine. A waste basket ($10), two thick bath towels ($35) and a bathroom rug ($17) at Bed, Bath & Beyond brought the total to $82—a few bucks under budget.
Now, dear reader, I wish I could tell you that—having spent to the limit—I stopped. But that would not be true.
I kept track of the budget rather loosely and, all along, I was buying art. Not expensive art (I passed up a $45 painting at the Miriam Switching Post and saw it two days later for $175 in an antique dealer’s booth), but the cost did add up.
In the bedroom, I framed a small watercolor from a calendar for $25, bought a Georgia O’Keefe poster for $20 and put it in a $15 Goodwill frame. The Irish poem next to the bed, already framed and matted, was $50—the most I spent on art. The framed and matted Winslow Homer print in the living room was $20, and a signed print over the kitchen pass-through was $12. All told, I spent another $250 on art. So I was 10 percent over budget.
The end result? Just what I had hoped: “It looks,” said Mike, when he walked in, “as though someone already lives here.”