Tips for Designing on a Budget

by Cait

Since I’ve scored some great deals recently I thought I’d share a few tips on what Robert and I do when we’re trying to stick to a budget. This could probably be broken up into a several posts, but I figure I’ll at least lay the groundwork here, and expand on things if anyone has questions. Also, these tips probably won’t work for everyone, it’s just what we do.

1) Determine how much you have to spend – In the case of our guest bathroom our budget is roughly $2000-2500. It’s best to determine the budget before you start a project, but in the case of our guest bath that wasn’t really an option. After a pipe burst in the wall we found black mold while trying to repair the pipe, so we pretty much jumped headlong into demolishing things and never looked back. Which is basically the reason it sat for six months while we saved up to redo it. Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote about the Guest Bath budget a while back before we started hardcore crunching numbers.

    “…we’re hoping that when it’s all said and done we’re under $5,000. To me that seems like a huge jump from $485, but Robert points out that we have to redo all four walls, the ceiling, insulation, the floor (and parts of the subfloor), some of the electrical, and all of the plumbing (inside the walls as well as moving the toilet and shifting the sink over). I know all of that is going to add up to a lot more than I was expecting, but hopefully it will still end up being a lot less than $5,000.”

2) Research – Figure out what it is you want to do. Search on Pinterest, read blogs (in addition to all my blog friends’ blogs I sometimes troll sources like Apartment Therapy, Decor Pad, Design*Sponge, Desire to Inspire, Fresh Home Ideas, and Houzz), flip through books & magazines, ask your friends, ask your mom (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – my mom is creative, resourceful, thrifty, well-informed, eco conscious and hilarious. She is the perfect person to bounce ideas off of, and often picks out design elements that I never would have considered.), bounce ideas off your blog friends by email. Whatever works best for you.

3) Measure – Take some basic measurements of the space before you start shopping. Better to know ahead of time that you have 96 inches to play with instead of falling in love with a 103 inch sofa and not being able to fit it in the room. The same goes for tubs, sinks and shower arms. If your bathroom is 76×93 inches, you probably don’t have room for both a garden tub and a stand up shower. Consider having your smartie husband do the math for things like square feet to avoid trying to remember algebra to make him feel included.

image from Home Depot

4) Price It Out  – Now that you know how much you have to spend and what you want to do, start estimating how much the material costs are going to be. Loving white shaker cabinets with honed carrara marble counters? Shop around to figure out what the average price is at the usual suspects – Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ikea, and any regional chains you might have. This is also a good time to start adding the prices of everything you want to see how it fits into your budget. (Robert created a spread sheet for the guest bathroom because he’s a big nerd we like to be organized.) It might work out that there is a way to get those honed marble counters and still stay within your budget, but sometimes you have to get creative.

5) Consider Your Options – This gets its own step because this is where you somtimes have to get creative. Once you’ve figured out how much things typically cost see if there is a way to make it work for you. Maybe Ikea cabinets paired with marble from a local outlet is the best option, maybe it’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore cabinets retrofitted to work in your kitchen & countertops you splurged on, and maybe it’s a less expensive countertop for the majority of the kitchen and a marble remnant topping an island. If your heart is set on something there is usually a way to make it work, or at least there is an agreeable compromise until you can pull the trigger and go for it. (We pretty much hated the crumbling tile in the guest bath from the moment we moved in, but we made it work for a while with a coat of paint, a new mirror, shower head and spa-like shower curtain. A full bathroom redo was simply not possible with our budget when we first moved in.)

6) Shop Around – Be sure to check out local places, ask around (friends, relatives, other bloggers close by) if you aren’t sure where to start. Most of our best deals came from a local home renovation outlet and our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Also check online at places like Amazon, eBay, Overstock, Craigslist, Freecycle. Thrift stores and salvage yards are great, too, and I’ve heard some cities have a “Love it or Leave it” section at their local garbage dump. We aren’t lucky enough to have that here, but Robert and I aren’t strangers to the occasional curb-shopping-on-trash-night episode (that’s where our yellow Art Room chair & front porch bench came from, as well as a few other pieces). Read sale ads, search for coupons (online and in the newspaper), consider asking family members for gift cards for holidays or birthdays, ask stores to price match, and haggle if you have to.

7) Buy – This part is probably obvious – when you find what you want for a price you’re willing to pay- buy it! Hypotheically, if you find 351 glossy white 3×6 subway tiles at your local ReStore, consider looking like a crackhead sitting on the floor counting them all to makes sure there are enough. Also hypothetically, it’s good to know how many of something you need before you start looking around, to avoid making math errors while hurredly counting tiles.

A few other tips:

  • Make a design board to see how purchases work together. I’ve made several variations of our guest bathroom plan, it helps make sure everything looks cohesive.
  • Keep an updated list of purchases (including where you bought it from and prices) to help keep yourself on track. Keeping receipts is good too if the places accept returns.

What about y’all? Any tips of your own? What works for you when trying to stick to a budget? I’d love to hear any tips you have!

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10 Comments to “Tips for Designing on a Budget”

  1. Good list. I don’t have anything to add really, but I can tell you that while saving, it sure gives me a lot of time to research!!! I did have my kitchen gutted back in February, long before I knew I could do any updates. BUT I needed it cleared of the eyesore it was, so I could better visualize its potential and work in the emptied space and figure out a better layout for it. Some people may be hardwired to save and then do it all at once; others may prefer to do a renovation in stages (currently my preference, especially when it will take a long time…I like to see progress, even if its in tiny). Our next stage for the kitchen reno is flooring and stove area (so I can finally bake), in Nov/Dec. And then the half bath, and then, in feb/march, the rest of the kitchen, so goes the plan!

    • I think I’m becoming a fan of renovation in stages. And I agree about researching while saving! Maybe I should go back in and add that. In the case of our guest bath, we tried to repair the leak in the guest bath, then demoed it all and started saving & researching. I also think it’s easier to save when you have a specific goal in mind.

      And I totally understand needing the eyesore to be GONE before you could visualize. For us, I realized that even before we demoed I was pretending the bathroom had white tile instead of bisque, so that was an easy decision. The rest was more difficult, and having a blank slate helped.

      Good luck with the kitchen stages! I’m sure it will be fantastic when it’s all finished!

  2. I spend hours upon hours online….but then I also look at local stores. WIth our kitchen, I was shocked that the appliances I wanted were CHEAPEST (with $15 delivery and installation, you serious??) at a local appliance place, rather than online. Sign me up!

    • That’s almost exactly what I do, research prices online and then scour local places. Sounds like you got a great deal on your appliances! Can’t wait to see your kitchen!

  3. These are great tips. We don’t really follow any of them. ;) Mostly because we buy houses that need 100 percent redone before moving in, so we have an overall budget for the entire house and then we try to allocate as we go. We usually come pretty close and by the end we usually have to be a little more flexible. (Which is why we leave some of the less important rooms for last. Kitchen and bath eat up the budget.)

    But, one thing that I’ve learned is to be flexible and practical. It’s easy to look at Pinterest and other blogs and fall in love with something that just doesn’t work – maybe it doesn’t fit with the period/style of the house, it’s way out of the budget or it just wouldn’t be practical for the way you use the space. I think functionality is the first thing you need to think of. And if you aren’t planning to live there forever, you should also think of resale. It’s easy to price yourself out of your neighborhood if you go too crazy.

    I really like this post. I think you have some great tips.

    • Thanks Kim! You make some great points, too!

      We are fortunate that our style is pretty “classic” and goes well with our 50s house. Also, this is our forever house but we think most of our design choices would also work well for resale. Win-win.

  4. I love it Cait! I’m going to keep this somewhere to remind me what the heck I should be doing…

  5. Awesome list. I admit to being weak on the “determine how much you have to spend” step, but I do have a set amount of dollars set aside for home improvement/DIY/decor projects. If I spend too much on one thing, I’ll have less money for the next project!

    • Thanks! And I know exactly what you mean, Kate! We generally do the same thing with our budgeting, but sometimes we come up with a rough estimate of what we want to spend on one thing (like the guest bathroom) to avoid spending all our project money in one place. I may do a slightly more in-depth post on how we budget soon.

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