14 Ways To Make Your Apartment Look Great On A Budget

Want to make your apartment look great on a budget or find cheap decorating ideas? You're in the right place! After 14 apartments, here are all my favorite ways to decorate on a budget!
My first post-college apartment had dark, dirty 1970s cabinets, a yellow stove and a green fridge, and a full-size window directly in front of the toilet.

And I loved it.

I took so much joy in making that weird, cheap apartment cute! I scoured thrift stores and Craiglist, I repainted and disguised and replaced and I positively

After 14 rentals, here’s everything I know about how to make an apartment look great on a budget.

Clean the Sweet Bejesus out of it

I mean like a really epic down-on-your-hands-and-knees kind of cleaning. Shampoo the carpet, dust the ceiling fan blades, bleach the grout. Rent an upholstery cleaner for $15 and clean all your furniture.

Cleaning supplies don’t have to cost a fortune, you can even make your own for a pittance.

Little details add up! Remove paint splatters from hardwood with nail polish remover and return the gloss to dry, faded wood with a $1 bottle of mineral oil. Use a magic eraser to get rid of that gunk around the bathtub and sink.

Replace and upgrade the hardware

Most of the things that come with an apartment are rubbish, or at least not particularly attractive – those beige light plates, the dirty blinds, the skinny towel bars.

It’s easy to replace these things and usually not too expensive. You can upgrade to nice brushed nickel light plates, bamboo blinds and towel bars that don’t leave a crease in your linens. And you can even take them with you when you move!

I splashed out on one pair of these insanely cute knobs for my dresser and complimented them with (much cheaper) brass knobs on the other drawers. I’ve even been known to replace cupboard knobs and light fixtures.

Repaint (with the right colors and the right paint)

If you are lucky enough to have a laid-back landlord, embrace the power of the brush. Even if you are required to stay within the confines of “neutral earth tones” a new coat of paint makes everything look clean and fresh. And painting over questionable wood paneling or dark cabinets can make a world of difference.

It’s also important that you choose the right colors and finishes. Remember that everything looks darker on the wall and muted, neutral  colors ‘age’ better.

Paint that’s completely matte is hard to clean and, yes, you need a primer. Here are the basics of how to paint your space (it seems intuitive and obvious, but it’s not!)

Delineate the spaces

When you’re renting or on a budget, you often find yourself signing a lease on a space with a less-than-ideal layout. Maybe you don’t really have an entry way or your ‘dining room’ is just an area off the kitchen.

There are so many clever ways you can delineate space!Strategically position your sofa and a sofa table to create a living room where you don’t have one. Use bookshelves or folding screens for ‘walls’.

Use wallpaper or a different paint color to signal where one room ‘ends’ and another begins. If you live in a studio apartment, buy (or make) an extra large headboard and use that to signal the edge of your bedroom.

Get nice window treatments

Maybe this is just a personal preference, but I find that dirty, old vinyl blinds make any space look less-than – even if it’s furnished with super expensive furniture!

When I added sumptuous velvet curtains to my living room, my $90 Craiglist sofa suddenly looked amazing! And you don’t have to spend tons of money on window treatments. Here’s a great list of ways to DIY cheap, classy window treatments!

Cover up the ugly

Cheap-o apartments usually have character up the wazoo. And by “character” I mean “windows in your shower, avocado green fridges paired with mustard yellow stoves, or a giant brown 70’s air conditioner mounted into the middle of your living room wall.”

Dude, just cover that ish up.

Obscure unpleasant views with a ‘frosted’ window. Hanging big pieces of art over unused air conditioners/fuse boxes/bad plaster.

If you can’t do anything about the color of the appliances in your rental kitchen or the color of the tile in your rental bathroom, find ways to incorporate those colors into the decor. I find if you paint everything white and then add a few pieces of art that incorporate the colors in question, things come together quite nicely!

Here’s a great post on ways to customize an ugly rental bathroom.

Add stylish storage

If I were to guess, I’d say that 98% of apartments lack storage space. But there are so many ways you can add more! Here are some great ideas for storage in a tiny bedroom.

Get a storage ottoman for your living room. Hang some cute, novelty hooks by the door. Hang a second, lower rod in your closet. Get those under-the-bed storage bins. And when in doubt: purge.

Tuck in some greenery

Houseplants make a space feel cozy and homey. Fresh herbs on the window sill can disguise a bleak view and dress up any dinner. Even a $5 bouquet from Trader Joe’s dresses up a table.

Here’s a great list of cheap, hearty houseplants. And if you’re particularly thrifty, you can ask your friends if they have any houseplants that are getting too big for their pots and if they’d like to split them and give you half!

One more thing: never pay full-price

But then with Craigslist, Ebay and garage sale season, why would you? I furnished my last (very tiny) apartment from scratch with a love seat, buffet, bed, dining room table and chairs, desk and chair, rug for about $400. At the most.

I also find that buying things on the cheap keeps me from getting too emotionally attached to stuff that is, ultimately, just stuff. It’s a lot easier to sell off your belongings and head to Russia when you found your sofa on the curb.

But I want to hear from you! How have you fancified your place on the cheap? Tell me all your best tips!

P.S. A tour of my apartment + How to score the best home goods at thrift stores

Photo by Stephen Di Donato on Unsplash

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  1. and then we laughed

    I am all about covering up the ugly! One time, I covered up a horrid backsplash with contact paper 'tiles'. It was a great inexpensive fix!

  2. Haddock

    That is a good point " that buying things on the cheap keeps one from getting too emotionally attached to stuff that is, ultimately, just stuff"

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks, Haddock! (Though I've become quite attached to my $90 Craigslist sofa!)

  3. Barbara Kelly

    "Finding your sofa on the curb" carries the danger of importing unwanted roomies (bedbugs). This has always been the case; but is now scarier, because the little b***ers have developed resistance to the chemicals that used to kill them. And, they spread like wildfire through a building!

    Having delivered that warning, let me make a few positive suggestions: 1. Sheets, shower curtains, and quilts (new or laundered thrift-store bargains) make great curtains, table covers (or cut up for place mats or runners), wall hangings, or furniture throws. I draped two thrifted Moroccan-type shower curtains over the back of my iron canopy bed frame , to create a changeable focal point (no need to paint the wall behind the bed, then). 2. In a small space, "less is more"; and yet, variety adds vivacity to living spaces. Solution: choose a few big-impact seasonal decorative items (an unusual wreath, zippered cushion covers, a glass cylinder jar filled with Christmas balls; an inspiring art piece) and box these for rotation with others. I have a "Spring & Summer" and a "Fall &Winter" box of decor items that change the atmosphere. 3. For easy maintenance, once a year, pretend that you are moving, and sell or donate what you truly don't use, need or want. I have just spent 4 hours sorting "stuff", and realize the time and energy cost of the unnecessary items…..time and energy that I could have spent in having fun!

  4. Christina

    Ah I will not miss my 70s air conditioning unit, as I am moving this weekend. But great tips to take with me to the next place!

  5. Kati Rose

    It's amazing what big changes a little bit can do. They seem so insignificant, but they all can make the place seem drastically different and new. I'd much rather take a place that needs a bit of DIY love and put my touch on it with that remaining charm!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! Good point, Anon. Edited and noted 🙂

  6. Meghan Arnold

    I swear by cleaning the sweet bejesus out of a small apartment. My parents always remark on how big I make my tiny apartment look. I take pride in that. 🙂 Love these extra bullet points. I definitely intend to cover up the ugly on my cabinets soon.

  7. My Girl

    Well, this really worked. I have an apartment, (hideous on outside: peeling paint, vines, the whole thing) that is a luxury apartment on the inside! Talk about judging a book by it’s cover. A jacuzzi in the bathtub, silk curtains, a home office.. The only thing I wasn’t really happy about was the kitchen. It’s a 1970s apartment but I definitely revamped it with your tips!

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