There’s always that one Instagram account — you know the one: Soft light filters through the windows of a pristine kitchen, appliances polished to a sheen, counters clutter-free, a stack of artfully mismatched dishes on an open shelf.
Whether on social media, HGTV or flipping through the pages of a magazine, you’ve no doubt come across dreamy images of perfectly put-together living rooms, enchanting bedrooms and swoon-worthy dining areas.
But who can afford to shell out the thousands of dollars required for a total home makeover? It turns out, with a little ingenuity, you don’t have to. Mother Earth Living talked to designers and decorators from across the country to get their best tips on revamping any space in our homes … all with a budget of $0. Turns out, these experts have a whole slew of design secrets that don’t require you to touch your wallet.
The best way to start a room makeover is to take everything out of the room to create a blank canvas. “I first suggest that people totally clear the room,” says Julie Edwards, manager of home furnishings store Nadeau in Atlanta. “When you’re used to seeing something in the same place every day, you often don’t realize the possibilities and great pieces you have. Start fresh.”
Let’s say your living room has a couch, two chairs, a coffee table, various end tables and a cabinet. Clearing the space allows you to imagine new ways to mix up the room. Would the sofa look better in front of the windows? Can you angle the coffee table differently or separate that pair of chairs? Do you need that many lamps in the room? Taking everything out gives you a chance to decide what absolutely needs to go back in a space. Rearranging furniture within your home can make the space feel new to you again, says Daniela Guini of Daniela Guini Interior Design in Chicago.
Rather than disrupting those hard-to-move items, such as wall-mounted TVs, or fixed focal points, such as fireplaces and chandeliers, consider those anchor points and then arrange furniture in a new way around them. And try floating furniture away from the walls, too, to make a room feel larger and create depth. “Try moving the sofa or occasional chairs to the adjacent wall or opposite side of where you’ve kept them for so long,” Guini says. “The change will feel fresh if things haven’t been altered in a while.”
Mix and Match
As you begin rearranging, rethink how and where you use your furnishings. Perhaps the living room side table would make a great bedside table, especially with a new coat of paint. Maybe the knickknack hutch you don’t want in the living room could store dishes in the dining room. Release yourself from the constraints of using everything in the same way you have been.
While you’re at it, reconsider some of those matching furniture sets you’ve purchased. “If you got sucked into the ease of buying a matching bedroom set, swap the nightstands from an adjacent bedroom and split the matching dressers up between rooms,” Guini says. “This will give each room a more eclectic and collected feel, rather than the monotony of having all the pieces look the same in different sizes.”
Similarly, a dining set with all matching chairs can get boring over time. Consider painting half of your kitchen chairs, or adding a pair of occasional chairs to each end of the table for a different feel. “You’ll likely end up dining more comfortably, and the same table and existing side chairs will be given a whole new life,” Guini says.
That mix-and-match aesthetic also extends to accessories. “Move artwork, pillows, chairs or side tables to change the feel of a room,” says San Francisco interior designer Alice Chiu of Miss Alice Designs.
New Color, New Look
You know those half-empty paint cans stacked in your (and maybe your neighbors’) garage? Don’t be afraid to use them. Whether you have enough leftover paint for an accent wall or you just want to breathe fresh life into kitchen cabinets or a piece of furniture, “paint, paint, paint,” says Anna Gibson, owner of Reston, Virginia’s AKG Design Studio LLC. “You can even use leftover wall paint to make chalk paint,” she says. “Two-thirds cup of paint to one-third cup of baking soda mixed really well.” Gibson recently used that recipe to reinvigorate an old desk hutch. “I used the chalk paint and metal legs to transform it into my cookbook storage space,” she says. “I did buy the legs, but those can also be formed from leftover 2x4s or even bricks.”
You may be able to obtain free paint through your local chemical disposal site or recycling center, as well.
Remove Art and Mirrors
Yes, you read that right. Take those framed pieces off your walls. “We innately feel like we’re supposed to hang decorative art or mirrors,” Guini says, “but try setting the art or mirror on the console table, fireplace mantel or dresser and leaning it against the wall instead.”
Once you’ve changed where you place your wall hangings, create a layered look by dressing up the rest of the surface. “Add a stack of books, a candle or a decorative accent sculpture you already own,” Guini says. “This will help you declutter and centralize all these pieces into one collected space that makes a big statement.”
You may also choose to re-hang pieces in new locations, or to cluster all of your art or mirrors on one wall. Chiu recommends hanging mirrors opposite windows. “This greatly increases the perceived amount of daylight in a room,” she says. And, if something no longer speaks to you, don’t be afraid to donate it, trade it with a friend, or just put it into storage for a while. It may be perfect fodder for your next home refresh.
Find New Art You Already Own
That beautiful Christmas card someone sent you last year? Don’t toss it after the holidays. Wrapping paper, art paper, fabric pieces — even magazine covers or images — can all become modern, interesting and textural art in frames. Look for collections of vintage magazines for free or cheap at thrift stores or online, and pull out interesting ads and designs for a retro feel. Create a gallery wall by framing a bunch of your children’s watercolor paintings. You can choose to embrace the mismatched look of the frames, or paint them in a single color to create a more cohesive feel.
You can also find new art by rethinking a beloved item’s purpose. “Instead of putting it on the floor, hang a bold, patterned rug on the wall for lots of color,” Chiu says. “This will create a focal point in your space.” Do the same with a detailed vintage quilt or a large tapestry.
Pillows are a great way to add texture, visual interest and pops of color to any space — whether on dining room chairs, a porch swing or sofa. Most of us own throw pillows — and probably way too many of them. Before you decide to get rid of some, try refreshing those pillows. First try them in a new place: Swap bedroom throw pillows with living room pillows. If your sofa came with matching pillows, or you’re looking to add a new color or pattern, consider re-covering them. You know that set of napkins you bought at Anthropologie because they were too beautiful to pass up? Napkins, old tablecloths, dish towels, even placemats make inexpensive and easy fodder for throw-pillow covers. Search for online tutorials on how to quickly sew pillow covers, and find no-sew options as well.
Items from nature make beautiful seasonal décor that requires no investment and won’t pile up in the attic when you’re done displaying it — you can just toss it outside. Structural branches collected from your yard and arranged in a galvanized metal bucket on a dining table are great for adding texture, depth and an organic element. A stack of logs arranged near the fireplace, or fresh boughs of pine and holly also work well. Or make a more permanent display out of natural items you’ve collected: For example, if you collect shells at the beach each summer, put them in a glass vase and display on a mantel or side table.
And don’t forget freshly picked flowers and herbs from your yard in spring and summer. “Flowers always add a je ne sais quoi to any space and really enliven a stale room,” Guini says. “In summer, I am particularly fond of wildflowers and interesting greens.” Whether it’s knockout garden roses or black-eyed Susans from the side of the road, grab a vase and fill. “Place these on the entry console table, coffee table, kitchen island or bedside table to bring a little taste of the outside in,” Guini says.
1. Declutter. This may sound like an obvious step, but getting rid of excess can truly transform the vibe of our homes. “When people enter your home and see a clutter-free, open hall or mudroom, they are immediately impressed,” says Ben Soreff, founder of House to Home Organizing in Norwalk, Connecticut. “That includes removing excess furniture like that old chair from your parents’ home and items like the magazine rack to create open and flow-friendly spaces.”
Does that coat rack in the foyer really need a huge heap of jackets and coats topping it? Start small. Clear off all the surfaces in a room first, then replace only the items you really love. Next, declutter bigger items: Does that armoire really fit in the corner of your dining room, and is it the best way to store whatever is inside? If you remove it, does it open up the whole space? Donate all the extras — from knickknacks to furniture — to a local nonprofit (use Donation Town to find one), sell them online or recycle them.
2. Trade up. Organizing a neighborhood “swap meet” focused on home décor and furnishings is a fun way to get together and get new items for your home. Everyone can set out things they’d like to trade — “like a garage sale but no money is exchanged,” says Bee Heinemann, interior design expert and marketing director of Vant Wall Panels in Spring Valley, New York. Trade items “for keeps,” or just for a while, and refresh two homes at once.
3. Rethink your knickknacks. Before you run out to HomeGoods or Pottery Barn for a new tabletop item, look around your home. Want to display your grandmother’s collection of turquoise-blue snowflake Pyrex? Take the doors off one kitchen cabinet to create a colorful display. Have a stack of vintage suitcases in your attic? Stack them for an easy side table (with storage to boot) in a child’s room. “If you collect souvenirs on your travels, or if you collect books or stamps, display them as artwork to create a curated look,” Chiu says.
4. New to you and free, too! Check out these sources for free, recycled items:
• The “free” section of your local Craigslist site
• During “move out” days near college campus dorms
• On your local Buy Nothing group
Claire Vath is a freelance writer and the editorial director of Write Well Media, LLC. She writes for many national publications on everything from health and wellness to agriculture and design.