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10 Decorating Tips to Make Your First Apartment Feel Like Home

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Craigslist, eBay, yard sales, consignment shops, and flea markets are all great places to start hunting for bargains when you’re filling your first place with stuff. And, sure, it’s fun to have an apartment full of mismatched furniture and decorations. But maybe your domestic side is yearning for something a little more cohesive, a little less "I just found this on the sidewalk and I think a bird is living in it." But that can hard to accomplish when you're living on an entry-level salary with looming student loan payments. Luckily, you can make your first place feel like home and on a budget too. It takes some creativity, savvy, and some of these tips gleaned from decorating insiders.

What’s the secret to knowing how to decorate? Trust your instincts. After all, it’s about making a place where you feel comfortable. Just stick to your budget and try not to worry if your apartment doesn’t come together right away. You will eventually create a comfortable living space that you will be proud to call your own, even if it means shooing away the bird living in your newfound furniture so you can repaint it. 

Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Determine your needs. You love to cook. Is your kitchen functional? You’re an avid reader. Do you have adequate lighting? You don’t have a bed . . . you need a bed. What is your most pressing need? At the very least, you can ask yourself where you spend the most time. That room should be your priority.
  2. Be smart with your budget. You know you need to be thrifty—buying or even making couch covers instead of getting a new couch, checking out garage sales and flea markets, etc. But it's also okay to buy things you really love, if you can. This doesn’t justify splurging on each great piece of furniture you see, but it can mean saving for one item because you know that it will make you happy every time you see it.
  3. Don’t follow the crowd. Fashion and home decorating magazines can be great sources of inspiration, but it’s their job to follow trends. As a recent graduate, you probably cannot afford to do that. Fortunately, decorating staples like black and white photography, comforting earth tones, and white sheets never go out of style. (And if you really can’t get enough of hot new trend, express it with a throw pillow or something else that’s cheap.)
  4. Color is your friend. A can of paint doesn’t cost much, and you can really transform a room with a fresh coat. You’ll need to ask permission before you paint any space you’re renting, but your landlord might even cover the cost of materials if you're willing to put in the work. Even painting one wall an “accent” color can make a difference; try brick red, earthy shades of green, or your favorite, go-to, makes-you-happy color. (Note: don’t paint the trim or molding if you have it; leave it white or off-white.)
  5. Light is your friend too! Soft light is inviting; bright light is harsh. That’s the easy part, but are you aware that light can change colors? That nice shade of yellow in the store can become gross in the wrong light. Use paint samples and swatches to figure out what works for your space.
  6. Time is on your side. Beautiful homes are a product of one of two things: a lot of money or a lot of time. You probably don’t have the former, but you are rich in the latter. Remember that you have a lifetime to find things that make you feel at home, so don’t feel pressured to create your dream house after one trip to Ikea. 
  7. Do the work. When you put the time into repairs or renovations, you will feel connected to your living space. Also, you might be surprised how rearranging the furniture you already have (or even just a thorough cleaning) can make your apartment feel like new. If you’re really industrious, you can try refinishing things (like that old coffee table you found on the sidewalk—score!) to make them more your own without buying something new.
  8. Beware of bits and pieces. Scattered small items can make any room look cluttered. Use groupings of smaller items, like a few candles or pictures, to accent a room instead. Or, exchange the little things for something bigger, like trading in a few small potted plants for one larger one.
  9. Think about the big picture. Like when choosing an outfit, you start with the basics, then you accessorize. Your decorating focus should start with the foundational elements: sofa, rug, coffee table, etc. and build from there.
  10. Share the space. If you have one or more roommates, or if you live with your significant other, you should always consult with him/her/them before undertaking any big household projects. You don’t want hurt anyone’s feelings or make someone uncomfortable, and you might even find someone to spot your ladder while you paint.
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