guide to decorating on a budget Tips and Tricks

Faking Fancy: A Beginner’s Guide To Decorating On A Budget

You know that expression champagne taste on a beer budget? I’ve been hearing it since before I even knew what alcohol was — I resented it then and I resent it now. Aside from this being a wildly inappropriate thing to say to your 7-year old, it forced me to acknowledge some things I wasn’t in the mood to:  Namely, that I was NOT Sara from The Little Princess, and my real father wasn’t returning from war to whisk me back to my palace where I’d eat ice cream served on gold platters, sip from silver tea sets, and lazily twirl my pearl necklaces while telling stories of humble beginnings.  Since I clearly was going to be denied such luxuries, I started learning the special art of what I like to call “faking fancy” (FF).

FF is a particularly helpful skill when you’re in your first apartment, or even in a college dorm. With the holidays coming up, buying someone a set of perfectly mismatched plates and glasses is also a wonderfully thoughtful and unique (and cheap!) gift idea. My FF skills were recently awakened from their dormant state when I set out to plan my first dinner party in my 250 square-foot apartment. Among my major concerns was the fact that I had empty cabinets – I didn’t own much (OK, anything) to eat on, drink out of, serve from, or even to boil in. But that would simply not do for my dinner party, and my philosophy remains that there’s no reason you can’t impress, no matter the budget. But is it possible to get an enviable $300 look for $30? I discovered that, yes, you can. Here’s how:

1) ECLECTIC is a good thing. With so many plates, glassware, and utensils styles and options out there, it’s easy to become impatient and overwhelmed. It’s also tempting to compare what you have/want to those beautifully staged Crate And Barrel catalogs. But newsflash – matchy-matchy can be boring.  I recommend starting with some hand-me-down from your relatives. Even something like your Nana’s ancient spoons can be a starting point. From there, assess the theme and build off of that. For example, are your hand-me-downs basic mono-colors, Japanese, or florals? Modern or rustic? My inherited inventory consisted of a set of 4 plates and 4 bowls, all having a chevron design of different colors, and 2 more smaller glass plates with a floral pattern. They definitely did not belong together, but by adding in other pieces I was able to create my own set that was unrepeatable and uniquely mine. When planning my plate and glassware shopping, I decided to stick to buying pieces that had similar color schemes and no busy patterns that would clash with the chevron look. When in doubt,  the safest bet is to stick to neutral solid colors (especially a bone white or charcoal gray), and the classic, most plain glasses you can find. I made a list of what I needed and set out. Obviously, in order to find the best deals and most unique pieces, you’ve got to…

2) THRIFT. Being broke forced me to start dabbling in the thrifting scene, and it changed the way I shopped forever— it’s addicting! I love it because you never know what you’re going to find.  Thrifting tends to be an acquired hobby, but it’s easy to make the experience more enjoyable. For those of you who get impatient with thrift store’s tendency for piles and clutter (I get it), my advice is to hone in on your mission, put imaginary blinders on, and stay focused. In this case: fly past the clothes, accessories, and shoes, and head straight to the homeware section, list in hand, and look for dishes that fit your theme. Go in with little expectation beyond just the color or pattern you’re looking for because it helps you to unearth those gems. For example, if you say to yourself, I am ONLY going to buy a blue plate that looks like this, you might overlook a beautiful gray plate with hand painted blue flowers that would have fit nicely and been more special. If picking out dishes one-by-one sounds like torture to you, there’s good news: A lot of times you’ll be able to find complete sets of dishes, glasses, etc., even at thrift stores, which makes the mix-and-match game a lot less stressful.

If you find an individual piece that you just have to have but doesn’t go with your theme, get it anyway – there’s never buyer’s remorse with thrifting because everything is so cheap. Plus, with a little imagination, you can make almost anything work. For example, last year I found a single, absolutely stunning fire-engine red plate with gold trim for $1. I knew it wasn’t going to blend at all with what I was working with, but because I loved it so much, I hung it as part of my gallery wall. It brightened up the room and always made me smile. I also once bought an adorable butter dish that ended up not blending at all with the others, so I spray-painted it rose gold and it now houses my rings and loose earrings.

Here’s a list that includes some of my fave local NYC spots.

keyplate_minivase clear-tray_statuelib-plate_minivase
In under 3 trips, I’ve found 6 plates, 3 vases, 4 glasses, miscellaneous dishes, various mason jars and a serving tray—all totaling under $30. Two cool finds pictured: the mini flower vase, and that dish being used for my keys (left) has the same Statue of Liberty print as the serving plate (right)— found separately.

3) Find the bargain! Admittedly, I have found cobbling together a unique collection of plates to be way easier than doing the same for glassware and utensils. But the good news is that stores like IKEA sell boxed sets of glassware and flatware, and also sell the products separately. And guess what? Purchasing 12 individual wine glasses versus a 12-count set is oftentimes a third of the price! You can also grab staple pieces like measuring cups, cloth napkins (so grown up!) and table cloths for super cheap at The Dollar Store, K-Mart, or Target.

4) Never pay full price on anything. It’s amazing how much you’ll save if you just do a little research. Do a quick Google search to check out local store ads to see what sales are running and when. There are often promo codes, coupons, and other discounts available when you search for them specifically. Also, check out sites like this one that sell at wholesale/discount prices. Another trick of the trade is to check out what’s selling in your neighborhood on Craigslist. A great time to browse is at the beginning and end of the month when people are moving. You can score a lot of goodies on a dime because of tenants needing to ditch their stuffs fast!

Obviously, these tips are urban based because, well, that’s where I live. If you’re based in the country, garage sales and yard sales can also be treasure troves. In today’s industrialized, one-size-fits-all/one-style-suits-all society, it is so refreshing and special to have a collection of things that are unrepeatable. When I look at my collection of plates, I love that it tells a story about me. Perhaps in our minds when we were growing up, we fantasized that we’d be little princesses living in our perfectly coordinated, catalogue home… But, really, where the hell is the fun in that? Life is messy and crazy, you are unique, and being a princess would suck. So be proud of your mismatched plates, glasses, and flatware — they show off YOUR story and your style, not to mention you can always brag you got it all for $30.


Join the conversation