How I Decorated on a Budget in NYC
We previously featured this guest contributor’s home-buying journey. Now Tiina is back, and she’s sharing the ups and downs of renovating and decorating her new home in the city …
Cheddar for Pizza (or Dough for Dough)
New Yorkers love three things above all else: pizza, bagels (not pizza bagels) and—most importantly—money. Lots and lots of money. See, in the city, all of us ride the same delayed trains to work every morning. It’s like the Subway has a conspiracy to make the have-nots feel bad about our shoes, handbags and watches by giving us ample time to compare ourselves with the haves.
Yeah, New York works pretty hard to convince us that we need to spend more money than we make (or at least every penny of it). The absurd cost of, well, everything is a recipe for financial ruin … unless you’ve got a budget. Spoiler alert: we do, and this is a peek into how we use it.
My husband, Danny, and I have lived in the city for the last eight years. In New York terms, that’s just two years short of making us “New Yorkers” (unless they changed the rule, I haven’t checked my guidebook recently). Accordingly, I assumed that owning a home—a lifelong dream of mine—would remain just a dream.
Still, in 2015, I couldn’t resist the urge to look around a little. I never assumed I’d get past dipping my toes into the waters of home ownership, but I just wanted to see. At open houses, I insisted that I was, “just looking.”
You can see where this is going. Looking turned into crunching numbers, making new categories in the budget, pre-approval for mortgages, dragging the huzz along to open houses, making offers, BIDDING WARS, worrying about passing co-op inspection and—finally—securing a one-bedroom, pre-war co-op in Brooklyn. It didn’t have a functioning kitchen, but I swear I heard angels sing.
No More Take-Out!
By December 2016, we had the keys. It was time to experience the joy of simultaneous homeownership and home-renovation. And that “no kitchen” thing? It was cute for a hot minute, but one cannot survive on take-out Thai alone.
We had $30,000 left after closing and no idea how much a kitchen would cost. I was sure that our budget would explode—this is New York, home of the $300 hamburger, but I had to believe anything was possible (seriously, I’d had enough Thai) …
D – I – WHY?
A handy couple might have gone the DIY route. That’s not us. Danny and I learned the hard way that DIY mistakes often cost more than hiring a pro in the first place. Plus, we wanted to spend our renovation money on something that would last for years, not fall apart the second we left the room. I mean, we couldn’t even find a stud, why on earth would we think that we could skim-coat a bathroom?
So, playing to our strengths, we opted to hire professionals—but we did it strategically. Rather than hiring a general contractor do the whole job (and praying that he/she took mercy on us and our budget), we employed an age-old art: micromanagement.
We gathered quotes and selected separate contractors for flooring, paint, electrical and kitchen installation. This approach gave us more control over where our money was going, and faster brakes if we needed them. Plus, our piecemeal approach helped us truly prioritize what we needed in our new kitchen. And committing to smaller portions of the renovation? Way less scary!
The Urge to Nest …
But what about the rest of the house, you might be wondering? After we moved in, the urge to nest hit me like a five-ton truck full of vintage Persian rugs and brass light fixtures—I was shocked to discover that it was much harder to stay in budget with our decor than with our kitchen renovation!
I needed my budget—more than ever—to avoid spending every penny of our renovation money on an army of wicker baskets and sheepskins. (If you’ve ever stood in the aisle at Target, staring at the perfect throw pillow, but unable to come to grips with the $25 price tag, you understand.)
“Just Looking—But For Real This Time.”
New York has some of the best design stores in the world that will gladly charge skyscraper-high prices for their astonishingly handsome and/or charming wares. So, in this case, when I said that I was “just looking” I meant it.
I toured these stores with a keen eye, took note of the local wildlife, and left with loads of inspiration—large, leather sofa with plush throws and patterned pillows? I see what you’re doing there. I snapped lots (and lots) of photos with my phone and, once I was safely home with my wallet intact, used them to make my shopping list.
The list was key, for me. It was so much easier to spend money on what I “needed” once I had a clear vision! With my focus on what I wanted my rooms to look like “after” I was able to prioritize my purchases with confidence.
Enter Craigslist, AptDeco and eBay.
Here’s a secret that helped me a lot: things are cheaper when they aren’t new (unless you’re in one of Brooklyn’s fine vintage boutiques, then they’re more expensive). So, being budget-savvy, we opted to shop via Craigslist, AptDeco and eBay—and took advantage of the incomparable garbage day in a nice, local neighborhood. Never underestimate the insanely great stuff New Yorkers will throw away.
The key to shopping a previously adored selection (and to successfully wade through all of the literal garbage), is to know what you’re looking for. In my case? Vintage rugs. So, like a good student of design, I researched the types of rugs that I like.
Then I set up notification alerts for keywords on Craigslist and eBay that would tip me off, immediately, when a seller listed a rug that fit my taste. (Dibs are a critical element of second-hand shopping.) I also stalked sellers on eBay—in a non-threatening, I-just-want-to-buy-your-stuff way.
In the end, I bought four vintage rugs totaling $1,300. Definitely not chump change, but The Big Lebowski is right: a rug can really tie a room together. And in our small space, they make a huge visual impact, and I know I’ll love them for years.
Budgets, Not Bed Bugs.
Used furniture and decor have kept us on budget with the added bonus that our space is uniquely “us”. (I love it, actually, and it’s kind of nice that our home doesn’t look like a showroom in a furniture store.) Still, some things are better new.
… especially if you’ve had bed bugs in the past. Fool me once. But just because you’re buying new, doesn’t mean you have to buy full-price! Coupons and deals, for the win!
I subscribe to Overstock’s weekly emails (a.k.a. coupon distribution channel). Be alert: not all coupon codes are created equal. I used Honey to monitor available coupons so that I got the best deal, which was just over $900 for our mattress, bed frame and end tables—with free shipping! Not too bad for a girl used to sleeping on a thrifted mattress from Treasures and Pleasures in Leesburg, Florida.
And then there’s IKEA—whose “Family” program has a few big perks, including special sales and price protection. Of course, I’m a member. During one of their regular sales events, I waltzed right back into their store and used my IKEA Family 90-day price protection to recoup the difference on our, now-discounted, kitchen cabinets that had already been installed. To the tune of $1,800!
No money is as sweet as the money that comes knocking on your door after you’ve already budgeted to live without it. Into the buffer, you go!
Home, at Last.
Back in 2015, I never would have believed that, through the power of budgeting, we’d own a home in New York City as a social worker and a teacher.
… but to stand here today, in the middle of a space that is beautifully decorated (if I do say so myself) and has a spanking-new kitchen in New York City? It feels like a dream, even though it’s probably much more akin to a very competitive goose chase through piles of discarded “curb specials”.
Gotta Prioritize Your Pizza and Bagels …
If you have a dream that feels out of grasp, I’d just say this: take baby steps, have a plan and, for Pete’s sake, make a budget! Whether I was shopping for an apartment, an area rug or new fixtures for the outlets, every decision I made was based on my budget—and my budget is based on the priorities that I set after researching “How much?” and “Is it possible?”
Whatever your goal is, it might seem impossible, in the beginning, but you won’t know unless you try! We splurged on things that really mattered, and we skimped (oh, the skimping!) on things we didn’t care about as much.
The result? A home in New York that works for our budget, with a bit of cash left for the oh-so-important pizza and bagels—because sometimes budgeting for your home renovation means allocating dollars towards getting out of the house to enjoy the city you’ve spent so much money to live in, in the first place.