15 Designer Tips Under $500 for Kitchens

Experts share their best advice for satisfying an appetite for high style on a budget.

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1: Paint the Small Stuff

Paint the sashes (or inside frames) of your windows black for a chic and unexpected way to accent the kitchen, says Ili Hidalgo-Nilsson, architect and designer with Terracotta Design Build in Atlanta. This kitchen also has another design trick, depending on your budget: Install tile backsplash all the way to the ceiling. Here, dark tile grout ties in with the black window sashes.

2: Start With a Plan

Think contrast. For an easy designer look, paint perimeter cabinets and keep the island stained or in an existing contrast color, says Georgia designer Michelle Mentzer. You also can change existing hardware (knobs and pulls) to an updated bronze or brass finish, she says.

3: Use a Cool Illusion

When the kitchen is in the center of the house or in a windowless space, place an oversized mirror over the sink to create the illusion of a window, says Ili Hidalgo-Nilsson, architect and designer with Terracotta Design Build in Atlanta. This home also uses furniture in the kitchen for storage, instead of another row of built-in cabinets.

4: Intensify Your Backsplash

Change up your backsplash. A new backsplash, especially one with a unique tile shape, gives the whole kitchen an instant makeover, such as in this 2016 National Kitchen + Bath Association Design Competition winning space by Cheryl Kees Clendenon of In Detail Interiors. Choose tiles that are on sale or discontinued to save some money, and ask the store to check other locations to make sure you can get as many as you need. 

Don't Forget the Grout

Using gray grout with white subway tiles accentuates the tiles and provides contrast if your cabinets are white, says Patti Wagner, a senior product designer for Target. Plus, they easily hide food splatters, she says. David Heide Design Studio, a design company also in Minneapolis, won a 2016 National Kitchen + Bath Association Design Competition award for this kitchen. 

Going Gray Can Be Good

Keep contrast in mind. A honed marble subway tile backsplash pops with the use of gray grout and black silestone countertops in stylist and painter Jo Torrijos’ Atlanta home. 

5: Curate and Edit

Don’t let the backsplash area go to waste. Lean small pieces of artwork and family pictures against the backsplash, like in this kitchen by Atlanta's Terracotta Design Build. You'll decorate your kitchen and give the space added depth, without sacrificing valuable storage or food prep real estate. 

Color Can Tie It Together

“Undress your kitchen,” suggests Donna Mathis of Atlanta-based Haven Design Works. “Then thoughtfully put the accessories back in place -- maybe not all of them can truly make a huge difference in how your kitchen looks.” Designer Cheryl Kees Clendenon of Florida's In Detail Interiors thoughtfully picked a color pattern that went with the vibe she was creating for this coastal kitchen. With its unique tile, window shades and just a few accessories carefully chosen to complement the color scheme, this kitchen won a 2016 National Kitchen + Bath Association Design Competition award.

6: Boost Bar Seating

Instead of going overboard on a bright island color that you may question later, a vibrant trio of bar stools can give you the shot of color you desire. These stools were less than $40 each at a home decor store. New River Building Co. in metro Atlanta used just one bank of cabinets for the island, providing a deep space for seating.

Make the Switch

Simple changes, like switching out your bar stools or introducing a new metal through a lamp or stool, can really change the look of a space with a fairly small investment, says designer Donna Mathis of Haven Design Works. So look for the little ways you can make a big change in your kitchen, and don’t forget to look down in the process. Mathis says adding or changing a rug in a breakfast area can alter the feel of the entire space. 

7: Create a Chalkboard Wall

A chalkboard wall is a cute way to keep your kitchen stylish and fun, so Clay Snider Interiors added this wall when they designed this kitchen for a Dwell with Dignity install. Not only can you do this with paint or with temporary chalkboard stickers, it gives you a way to constantly change up your decor. Just draw, wipe and repeat. 

Even in Small Spaces

A little bit of chalkboard paint can go a long way. Carlton Walker and Tony McNeal of Atlanta's McNeal Walker Interiors created a wall with a message to fit the theme of the coffee bar area, complete with a thick wooden shelf with chunky metal bolts.

8: Display Plates on the Wall

Make a monochromatic statement in an eating nook--this one abuts the kitchen cabinets--with a curated collection of plates. Designer Jennifer Foster with Eanes Foster Design found these old platters and round plates at an antiques store, and buying some in small sizes also saved money.

Or in Glass-front Shelves

Don’t hide your collection of decorative plates. If you have a collection of cookware, pull the pieces out and let everyone see and enjoy them. Stephanie Andrews of Atlanta-based Balance Design showcased her client’s collection in this designer kitchen. “The blue and white pottery is not expensive, but it made an impact when there is a collection of it,” Andrews says. 

9: Seek Second-hand Style

When considering where to splurge and where to budget, make a list and update it during the remodeling process so you don't get carried away and splurge on everything, says Minneapolis homeowner and Target designer Patti Wagner. Her paneled refrigerator was a Craigslist steal, and the microwave was a floor model with a steep discount. A friend who was remodeling and needed different-sized kitchen appliances sold them the stove, hood range and oven. “At the end, no one can tell which items were purchased at a budget,” she says. “Also, be patient and don't be afraid to consider second-hand items.”

10: Freshen Up With Fabric

Replace boring pantry doors with an attractive curtain instead. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to add style and minimize clutter. If your kitchen already has a lot of patterns, then opt for a calm, neutral fabric. But if your space is minimally decorated, choose something with a little more color and flair, like this pantry curtain installed by Clay Snider Interiors for Dwell with Dignity to create soothing homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty.  

11: Make Use of Nooks and Crannies

Look for unused or unnoticed spaces to create storage for a kitchen design that combines style with function. Designer Diane Foreman, of Neil Kelly Co., used a pullout spice rack to optimize space in this 2016 National Kitchen + Bath Association award winner. The pull-out rack is not only conveniently placed next to the cooktop, but the narrow cabinet and hardware provide a touch of modern color and flair. For more inspiration, look at HGTV’s 20 Smart Kitchen Storage Ideas.

12: Get Thrifty With Artwork

Large pieces of art are dramatic and create a center point for a design. Stephanie Andrews of Atlanta-based Balance Design suggests looking through thrift stores for a painting that’s within your budget. She stumbled upon this one at a consignment shop for a couple hundred dollars.

Or Find Artsy Alternatives

Designer tips can work in any kitchen. Designer Egypt Sherrod installed these trays as great wall decor for this simple kitchen she helped design for Dwell with Dignity, a nonprofit group working to create soothing, inspiring homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty. Inexpensive trays make for interesting wall art and go with the universal theme of eating and entertaining that is the heart of every kitchen.

Books Work, Too

If you have a dining room, letting it serve double duty as a library is a great use of space -- plus your dining area will benefit from the style and warmth that comes with books. Susan Sully, author of Past Present: Living with Heirlooms and Antiques, says you could also put shelves in a dining area of an eat-in kitchen, even if they only came up halfway, which would be much more budget friendly. 

13: Be Transparent

Consider using see-through furniture in tight spaces. This contemporary acrylic table makes a great coffee station and uses the available space well, freeing the kitchen counter of a coffee maker, toaster and fruit bowl. The clear table doesn’t add visual clutter, while the stools add a place for guests or kids to perch. This room was designed by Clay Snider Interiors for Dwell with Dignity, which creates inspiring homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty.

Go With Glass Shelves

Install glass shelving to stock up a bar and display favorite bottles and garnishes. For an inexpensive industrial feature, Carlton Walker and Tony McNeal of McNeal Walker Interiors repurposed an old metal kitchen light with a cage purchased at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

14: Explore Underneath

Interior and under-cabinet lights add instant flair to this stylish kitchen, a 2016 National Kitchen + Bath Association Design Competition winner. Judith Wright Sentz of Judith Wright Design in Seattle used ribbon lights in the leaded-glass cabinets to illuminate the shelves within and low voltage lights under the cabinets to bathe the countertops below in warm light. 

Look for LEDs

Under-cabinet lighting can make your kitchen feel a bit more homey, especially if you don’t have a chandelier or pendant lighting. Lighting is probably the fastest changing aspect of building right now with the introduction of many new LED fixtures, says Brad Cruickshank, owner of Atlanta-based Cruickshank Remodeling. Under-cabinet LEDs are great, too, he says. “No more flickering fluorescents and no more burning your hand on halogen or xenon lamps,” he says.

15: Make Old Floors Sexy

Designer Karina Bryant of K_Souki Design Studio decided to cover her concrete slab in epoxy instead of putting in flooring, giving her kitchen an earthy, industrial look. Applying a coat of epoxy to an existing concrete surface costs about $4 to $5 per square foot. Her Atlanta home was built and designed by Imery Group.