Maximize Your Decorating Budget

Our 10-step budget guide will help you set up and stick to a decorating budget — without blowing it.

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What's the dirtiest word in decorating? That's right: budget.

Whether you have just a few $100 for a room makeover, or tens of thousands, you'll need to plan carefully and make tough choices to meet your bottom line. But budgeting isn't all bad news: "Decorating on a budget isn't about being cheap, it's about being smart — making informed decisions and getting the best value for your money," says Kristan Cunningham, interior designer and Design on a Dime host.

1. Make a design wishlist
Give your imagination free reign. "Initially, at least, pretend that money is no object," says Angelo Surmelis, a Los Angeles interior designer and host of Rate My Space. Write down everything you'd like to do and buy. Be specific: Rather than listing "more storage and display space," think about whether that means adding built-ins or buying a freestanding armoire. Although you're indulging in a bit of fantasy, don't forget to include the practical stuff that needs to be fixed, upgraded and purchased. Your fabulous new furniture won't appreciate that ratty, old carpet and cracked plaster walls.

2. Determine your actual budget
Be brutally honest here: Take a look at your monthly inflows and outflows, as well as any funds you've set aside for rainy day projects, and see how much you realistically have to spend. If the money just isn't there, it might make sense to put off your project while you set a savings goal, rather than maxing out your credit card. Even if money isn't an issue, at the end of the day, your budget should be the amount you're happy to spend on your space without feeling guilty.

3. Familiarize yourself with price tags
Before you draft an itemized budget, hit the stores, catalogs and Internet to research how much the items on your wishlist will cost. If it's been a few years since you've decorated — or if this is your first major home project — expect some sticker shock. Couches, for example, can range from a few $100 to $1000+, so price out sofas that meet your style, quality and comfort standards.

"Figure out how much work you'll need to hire out, too," Cunningham says. If you're bringing in skilled trades people to paint, hang wallpaper, run wires for new lights, install flooring and so on, get at least three written estimates for each job before finalizing your budget.

4. Prioritize your purchases and labor
Start itemizing with your decorating wishlist, real costs and your total budget in front of you. Maybe that chic wallpaper you've been eyeing will need to be nixed in favor of colorful paint. If you have a whole home to decorate, decide if you need to tackle the project by room or category: furniture first, then window treatments, etc.

"Chances are, the budget you initially put together is just for the 'stuff,'" Surmelis says. "People forget to put money in the budget for upholstering, framing, painting and custom window treatments." If you're wallpapering, don't just factor in the cost of the paper itself — build in extra funds to pay the paper hanger, unless you're confident you can tackle that job yourself. To be safe, include 15 to 25 percent for labor, Surmelis suggests.

5. Draft your decorating plan
Put your design blueprint on paper. "A plan — a detailed vision of what you want to accomplish with your decorating project — is the best tool you can have," Surmelis says. Break down each element: List the work to be done, the items to be purchased and other practical projects (such as recycling old carpet), as well as the amount you plan to spend on each. Using a computer spreadsheet program makes it easy to keep a running tally of what you've budgeted for each item, what you've actually spent and how that affects your bottom line. To help you stay organized and on track, order each item chronologically and set a timeline for getting it done (or bought, delivered and installed).

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