How to Decorate With What You Have 

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A slipcover can transform a hand-me-down couch.

Marketers lead us to believe that we need to buy things in order to have a nice, comfortable space. They make us think that it isn’t enough to simply be cozy, but our home must “express us” “say something about us” and be “on trend” with the current styles and fads.

This simply isn’t true.

I don’t advocate following every trend in the clothing realm. It leads to wasted materials, wasted money, and a general feeling of discontentment. This is true of clothing on a small scale, and true of home furnishing on an even larger scale!

1. Subtract for Greater Impact

You know what makes catalogues and store displays look so amazing? It’s often not the items themselves, it’s the lack of clutter. You can accomplish this for free in your own home! Start by simply clearing everything that doesn’t belong there. If your dining room table, countertops, or mantle where things gravitate that don’t have homes, scoop everything into a box, then set about finding permanent homes for those items. If it’s toys, return them to the kids’ rooms. If it’s junk mail, shred, recycle, and sort it.

In addition to the obvious clutter that doesn’t belong there, you’ll also want to subtract items that are no longer your style. Our styles change over time, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we need to spend a fortune on all new everything. I just helped a friend revamp the look of her house because her style had changed from burgundy with roses, to a lighter, more minimal chic look. We literally donated almost every pillow, throw, curtain, and piece of artwork in the house that had the burgundy / rose color scheme. What was left afterward was a sleek, airy space that reflects who she is now. She even had some beautiful, classic white linens and white slipcovers in storage, but nowhere to put them until we purged!

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Removing clutter instantly beautifies what is left behind.

2. Notice What’s Left

The immediate impact of the initial purge will probably be huge. You could even stop here if you wanted to. You may uncover decorative items or art or family photos that you could never enjoy before. Wow! You only thought you needed to go shopping. Turns out you already have a lot of home furnishings. And the cool thing is this – what you already have tells me something about you.

Those wedding photos and baby pictures tell me about your family. Those classic books, novels, and non-fiction on the bookshelf tell me what you’re interested in. Those awards on the mantle tell me a little about your hobbies and accomplishments. The little souvenirs from your travels paint a picture of where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. Your home is probably already an expression of you. All you need to do is subtract the clutter and focus in on the things that are important to you.

What’s left after the purge should be necessary. Either it performs a useful function for you or it makes you happy when you look at it. (“Sparks joy” as Marie Kondo would say.) What’s left should reflect your tastes and preferences to some degree. Again, this isn’t about keeping up with trends. If you like the ’70s look and that’s what you have to work with, great! Rock it with no regrets! Like I said, interior design is not about following trends and staying hip. That is a waste of money and time in my opinion. All it needs to do is make you smile and feel at home.

3. Clean, Arrange, Freshen

This part is fun. You are now allowed to look at Pinterest, catalogues, and online publications for inspiration. Find looks that you like that you can translate with what you already have, whether that be modern minimal, vintage eclectic, or traditional with a twist. Brainstorm with frugality and resourcefulness at the front of your mind. Do I have one of those lying around? Can I make this? Is a fresh coat of paint all I need to accomplish this look?

I’m into the vintage chic look, and I actually found several items in my garage (of all places) that fit the look I was going for. My headboard is old sliding doors from the previous owner. My coffee table was used as a workbench before I brought it inside. One of my plant stands is an old Radio Flyer wagon from the garage at my old place, and the other plant stand was found in this garage…I don’t know what they were using it for… My side table in the living room was found on the side of the road somewhere – it has more imperfections than I can list, but it also has a lot of character. My window seat in the kitchen is a simple bench built and left in the basement by the previous owner.

If you have these kinds of items and they fit the bill, bring them in and dust them off. They might look more distinguished in a fresh setting. Treat them like they’re special and they suddenly become a little more special-looking.

Dust off the decorations that survived the purge and maybe try arranging them in new ways so that you actually notice them. I find that when I never move things around, they collect dust and I stop noticing them altogether. A little rearranging can freshen up everything.

Do some free sprucing up while you’re at it. Place some fresh leaf cuttings in water on the windowsill. Put a single fresh blossom in a vase or empty jar. Those little touches cost nothing and make a big impact. Be thoughtful, not wasteful in your decorating.

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Some of the best little touches cost nothing.

4. Trial Run

There may still be things you want to buy at this point. That’s okay. But I say don’t buy them just yet. Make a list of the items you’d like – the things that you think would perfectly compliment and put the finishing touch on the room or rooms in question.

Then put the list away and wait two weeks.

You may think it’s bizarre, but trust me. I find that delaying purchases makes me a more thoughtful consumer. I spend much less as a result. When I first moved into this house, I had a frighteningly long list of things I thought I “had to have.” Among them were more trashcans, bar stools, seagrass rugs, and a fake fireplace. I easily could have spent $1,000 – $2,000 and “justified” to myself that these were legit needs. But I waited, and you know what happened? I didn’t end up buying any of those things. I would have wasted money and my home would have been more cluttered as a result. Lose / lose.

It wouldn’t have been wise to fill my new home with things before actually living in my new home and seeing what it felt like. Two weeks is a bare minimum. It might take longer to actually see how your space functions in your life. You might find you never eat in the dining room, so why not ditch the table and use it for something you do do like create music, scrapbook, develop photos, or break dance. My dining room is often used as a stage for live music at our house shows. There are no rules. It’s your space and you can be as conventional or unconventional as you see fit. All I ask is that you give yourself a waiting period to assess how your home actually functions before you buy the things on your list.

5. Fill Holes Reasonably

After your trial run, you may find that you truly do have some holes to fill. Fair enough. For this I recommend garage sales, antique stores, and Craigslist above the large home decorator stores. I’ve regretted most of my (few, but costly) new furniture purchases that I’ve made over the years. Used is the way to go unless you want a cheap, overpriced, particle-board piece that won’t even survive your next move.

The goal is to find items with a timeless style, that are well-made, affordable, and fill a need other than just looking nice. If a piece has all these qualities, then it might be a winner. Take your time and keep your eyes peeled. You really shouldn’t rush these kinds of purchases. Patience pays off.

And of course, don’t neglect to ask if anyone is getting rid of furniture in your area. My dining room table is from a friend who was giving it away on Facebook, and my chairs are from my in-laws and a generous woman I met via Freecycle. You never know unless you ask. And the stories of things all around my house being gifted by friends and strangers is such a beautiful aspect of community. I’m honored to be part of a story that’s larger than just me and my home. It’s about family. Neighbors. Friends. At the end of the day it’s about the people, not about the furnishings. It’s about community not consumerism. It’s about the life and hospitality that happens inside.

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Thanks to Elizabeth McKittrick for letting me photograph her lovely, frugal abode.

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