30 Budget Kitchen Updates That Make a Big Impact

Ready for a mini-makeover? These quick-and-easy ideas will give your kitchen a new look in no time, whether you can spend a lot, a little or nothing at all.

By: Amanda Lecky
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Photo By: Kristen Forgione

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Free: Repurpose a Rug

If your kitchen’s looking a little drab, try bringing in a rug from another room to add color and, more importantly, pattern. “Updating with prints and patterns is one of my favorite ways to add a current take on any space,” says designer Kristen Forgione. “To take it one step further, work in textures as well. We always think about the scale (size) of the print, pattern or texture and work that scale around the space to create more depth. For a balanced look, keep the prints neutral with one or two color variations. For a bolder look, pile on that color and keep your texture quieter.”

Free: Style Your Shelves

Existing open shelves or glass-door cabinets are the perfect opportunity to give your kitchen a new look. Clear everything from the shelves, and then add decorative (and useful) items — keeping everything within a limited color palette as much as possible. In this project, neutral tones tie the reclaimed wood floating shelves and trim in with the white cabinetry and glass backsplash while also marrying the rustic and modern styles of each feature.

Free: Create a Coffee Bar

You’ve seen them in magazines and on TV, no doubt — built-in coffee bars complete with a sink, fridge and lighted shelving, like this one that Lisa Robazza designed “to utilize an awkward space under a stair in a small kitchen for a client who entertains often.” All those pricey perks are nice, for sure, but you can get the same effect for free. Just reorganize a corner of your kitchen (ideally a spot near your sink) so that all your coffee-making supplies are together: The machine on the counter, mugs or cups in a cabinet above, and filters, pods or grounds in a drawer underneath.

Under $50: Add Color to Cabinets

A fresh coat of paint is a relatively easy way to update cabinets that are sound and functional but less than lovely looking. You’ll have to remove all the hardware (number doors, drawers, knobs and pulls so you’ll know how to replace everything correctly), clean and sand all surfaces, then paint with two to three coats of a premium-quality self-priming paint, like HGTV Home by Sherwin-Williams Ovation Interior Latex Paint, $29 per gallon.

Under $50: Create a Focal Point

In a long or awkwardly shaped kitchen, adding a bold focus at one end of the room can help the eye move through the space, de-emphasizing its flaws. Window treatments are one way to get the job done — if you have a window at the end of the room — or, if you’re working with a sink, consider a bold new light fixture. “Lighting over a sink should not only be decorative but also functional,” says designer Debbie Talianko. “Be sure to install the fixture so that the beam of light is in front of the person standing at the counter, not pointed straight down at their head. This eliminates shadows and offers the best type of task lighting.” Check the sale sections of sites like lightinguniverse.com and lampsplus.com for bargains well under $50.

Under $50: Warm Up With Color

“Kitchens are truly the heart of the home,” says designer Michelle Ruber. “They are the room where people gather, foods simmer and conversations flow. Using color to induce that warmth draws people in, and creates a space where people feel comfortable, and therefore want to linger.” You can give your own kitchen a warm and colorful personality by painting a wall or two in a rich shade of yellow or earthy green, or by adding a few accessories in warm metallic finishes like copper, rose gold or bronze.

Under $50: Go High-Contrast

A quick fix for a dark kitchen: introduce some bright white. A pure-white mat around a favorite photo or a few white serving pieces displayed on existing shelves can add just enough relief from the otherwise-moody palette. Head to a local craft store for a pre-cut photo mat, which shouldn’t set you back more than a few dollars. Target or HomeGoods are great sources for simple white accessories; pay attention to shape, since it will stand out against a dark backdrop. Designers Lauren Levant and Jennifer Gilmer also used modern track lighting to great effect in this space. “Against the paneled ceiling, it draws the eye upward in the narrow space, making it seem larger,” they say.

From: Lauren Levant and Jennifer Gilmer

Under $50: Label Those Shelves

“When organizing a pantry, categorize, contain and label,” say the professional organizers at NEAT Method. The organizing part doesn’t cost anything but time; you will, however, have to shell out a few bucks for a label-maker or stick-on labels. Look for labels you can wipe clean and reuse, like the chalkboard labels shown here, widely available for $10 and under, like these from amazon.com.

Under $50: Put on a Tuxedo

One of the hottest trends in kitchen design right now is “tuxedo” cabinetry — or two-tone cabinets, usually a darker color on the bottom units with a lighter shade or white on top. Black and white is a classic combo, but gray and white or blue and white create a similar, but softer effect, as in this kitchen. “The two-tone color scheme complemented the stained original pine floors in this over-100-year-old home. And going lighter on the upper cabinets kept this smaller sized kitchen feeling light and open, without sacrificing storage,” says designer Carla Aston. You can get this of-the-minute look with one can of paint — if your cabinets are already white, just paint the lower ones.

Under $100: Pick a Piece of Art

A single splashy piece of artwork — a flea-market painting, a poster, a photograph — adds instant character to the kitchen. To add a splash of color to this space, designer Denise Davies of D2 Interieurs hung a vibrant framed print above one end of the counter. Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend a fortune on art to get this effect. Try Etsy for a wide range of files — many are under $5 — you can download and print at the local copy shop, then head to IKEA for a RIBBA frame: the largest size is only $18, and they come in three colors and with a pre-cut mat included.

Under $100: Hang Open Shelves

New cabinets are the most expensive part of any kitchen update. Minimize your investment (or replace unattractive upper units) by hanging open shelves. “They will make any kitchen feel larger, and you can accessorize the shelves to add a unique touch of your personal style,” says designer Lindye Galloway. Have reclaimed wood planks cut to size and mount on wall brackets, or choose “floating” shelves, widely available for under $50 per shelf at Home Depot, IKEA and amazon.com.

Under $100: Show Some Shade

Window treatments do not have to break the bank — search online for “bamboo blinds” or “woven blinds” for many options under $100. Blinds to Go and Smith & Noble carry similar products at slightly higher price points. And, take a designer’s advice when sizing and hanging: "Sometimes less is more with window treatments. Adding natural texture can go a long way. Woven shades are a great stand-alone look or can easily be layered with drapery panels. One of the biggest mistakes can be covering too much of the window. Whenever possible allow the natural light to be your friend and frame the window,” says Tiffany LeBlanc, the designer of this kitchen.

Under $100: Brighten With Lighting

A single pendant over the island or peninsula can take a space from okay to OMG. For the most contemporary look, seek out styles with geometric shapes and patterns and warm metallic finishes like the one shown here. Shop for bargains on overstock.com, wayfair.com (check the sale section), or, scour garage sales, then pay an electrician to rewire the fixture for you — you’ll likely still come in under $100.

Under $100: Make it Match

Sorting the contents of your pantry or kitchen cabinets into categories — baking supplies, grains, cereals, etc. — is the first step to an organized storage space. But for maximum efficiency, you’ll want to transfer everything into matching (clear) bins, and baskets, each with their own label. This makes it easy to find what you need at a glance, and creates a sense of visual order in the space. “We typically purchase all of our bins, baskets and labels from The Container Store,” say the professional organizers at NEAT Method. The Good Grips 10-Piece POP Canister set by OXO, $99 from The Container Store, is similar to the canisters shown here.

Under $100: Hang Up a Valance

Even if you have no sewing skills to speak of, you can still add style at your kitchen window with an eye-catching valance. You can buy a premade valance and rod, like the Sweet Jojo Designs Trellis Valance, $22, and Threshold Curtain Rod Set in Nickel, $24, from Target. Or, find fabric you love (check out spoonflower.com for fun, modern patterns, about $18 per yard), and then use iron-on fusible web like Dritz Stitch Witchery, $4 for 20 yards at amazon.com, to hem the edges and create a pocket for a curtain rod. Slide onto the rod and voila: almost-instant elegance.

Under $500: Find a Fab Faucet

“The sink and the faucet are often the central focal point of the kitchen, so why not make a bold statement with a distinctive faucet?” asks Carolynne Arnold-Plowman, who designed this rustic kitchen. You can easily find a graceful new spout for under $100 (for a traditional look, try the Delta Windmere Two-Handle Faucet in Chrome, $70 from faucetdirect.com). But if you want the matte black finish used in the kitchen shown here — which is among the boldest and trendiest looks in hardware and plumbing fittings right now — be prepared to spend more, at least $250. And you may want to swap out the rest of your hardware to match, bringing you closer to $500.

Under $500: Create a Gallery Wall

“Our goal with this kitchen was to really open it up and brighten it to be a fun and inviting space for our client and his children,” say designers Dorianne Passman and Thea Segal. “The gallery wall across from the island gives the kitchen a whimsical energy. Bringing art into the kitchen makes it more of a living space and less of a solely utilitarian space.” To create your own art gallery, select favorite photos, postcards, children’s art works, menus — anything that delights you and your family — frame, and hang. There are two keys to a cohesive look: The frames and the composition. Your best bet is to choose frames that match or all fall within the same color family (like the variety of simple wood frames shown here). To arrange a perfect composition as painlessly as possible, roll some brown paper onto the floor, then arrange your frames on top. When you’ve found an arrangement you like, trace each frame on the paper, cut out each shape, and then tape (use blue painter’s tape to avoid damaging the wall) into place on the wall. Move around until you’re happy with the spacing. Mark the spot where you’ll hammer in the nail or picture hanger on the paper with a pencil, then nail right through the paper. Tear away the paper, hang the pictures, and admire your gallery.

Under $500: Update the Hardware

Chrome, nickel and stainless steel finishes will never go out of style, but warm metallics offer a fresh, modern look. For a quick update, consider replacing your lighting, faucet or cabinet hardware with products in gleaming brass or bronze like the ones in this chic space. “The updated satin brass cabinet hardware is really striking against the simple shaker cabinets,” says designer Elizabeth Lawson. No need to replace everything at once — mixed metals are on-trend, too. So just try one at a time. Delta Faucet’s Trinsic Pull-Down Faucet in Champagne Bronze is $377 at build.com; Hickory Hardware’s Metropolis Satin Rose Gold Cabinet Pulls are $9 each at doorhardwarecenter.com; Savoy House Morland Adjustable Wall Sconces in Warm Brass are $150 each at lumens.com.

Under $500: Build a Bar

Actually, there’s no building involved. Do as architect Anjie Cho did in this fun kitchen and living area and use a pre-fab unit to create a bar area. “We wanted to use furniture rather than a built-in to create a more open feel. It's also more flexible and can be moved around, and it saved us some money we could focus on elsewhere. The homeowner also loves entertaining so we used chalkboard paint behind the bar to share the menu of the evening,” she says. For a look similar to the one in this space, try the Signature Design by Ashley 14-Bottle Wine Bar, $233, or for a more rustic look, the August Grove Irwin 24-Bottle Hanging Wine Rack, $423, both from wayfair.com.

From: Anjie Cho

Under $500: Have Fun With Wallpaper

“Unanticipated components elevate routine spaces,” says designer Andrea Schumacher. “The hand painted silk wall covering we used in this client's kitchen was custom, down to the last butterfly.” Silk in the kitchen? Yes. “We sealed the one-of-a-kind wallpaper to protect it from the wear and tear of everyday life.” Gorgeous as it is, you don’t have to splurge on custom silk wallcovering or worry about sealing it. Add a splash of pattern with a paper designed for use in the kitchen (so it’s water-resistant and scrub-able), like the leafy Dixon Blue Floral Leaves or classic Flourish Pink Cameo Fleur, $90 per roll, or exotic Maisie Coral Batik Flower designs, $140 per roll, all from Brewster Home Fashions.

Under $500: Go Big on Color

For a bold impact, pick a single accent color and repeat it around the room in window treatments, small appliances, furnishings and accessories. If your color is red, and, like the owners of this kitchen designed by Joni Spear, you want to make your space “more inviting and less formal,” consider the following: KitchenAid Artisan Series 5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer, $430, kitchenaid.com; Riviera Side Chair, $228 each, serenaandlily.com; and Threshold Gingham Pillows in Ruby Ring, $22.50 for two, target.com.

Under $500: Add an Island

A center island is number one on many kitchen renovators’ wishlists, but a large, built-in island doesn’t always fit the budget or the space. No matter, freestanding islands perform the same functions, adding counter prep space and storage, but usually require less floor space and cash — as designer Liz Miller found in her own home. “The freestanding island was a must in a small kitchen with two little kids. When we need more space, to say, have an impromptu dance party, or when we have friends over, we just push the island against the side wall to open up the room,” she says. A quick online search for “freestanding kitchen island” turns up multiple options under $500, including the Crosley Natural Wood Top Rolling Kitchen Cart/Island, $370, from bedbathandbeyond.com, Orleans Butcher Block Carmel Kitchen Island in Gun Metal, $345, from homedepot.com, and the Darby Home Co. Pottstown Kitchen Island with Wood Top, $389, from wayfair.com.

Under $750: Cut a Rug

Differentiating each room within an open-concept floor plan can be tricky: All too often such spaces feel exposed and disjointed. Designer Kenna Stout not only created the flowing layout in this home, but took care to make the kitchen feel warm and inviting — with the help of a boldly patterned woven rug. Prices on rugs have come down dramatically in the internet age, and it’s possible to find a high-quality design in long-wearing wool for well under $750. Examples include the Darya Rugs Shirvan Onita Rug, $647 for 5’x8’, from rugsusa.com, and the Kala Printed Rug in Midnight, $499 for 3’x5’, from potterybarn.com.

Under $750: Triple Up on Lighting

If one gorgeous pendant light makes a style statement, three make a splash. Choosing fixtures with clear glass shades helps keep sightlines through the space clear, an especially important consideration if the kitchen is open to an adjacent living or dining area. Here, three fixtures to consider ordering in triplicate: Glass Jug Pendant Light, $99 each, from shadesoflight.com; the Birch Lane Sutton Pendant, $189 each, from allmodern.com, or the Addie Pendant in Clear, $199, from ballarddesigns.com.

Under $750: Bring in a Bistro

In a tight galley kitchen, there’s often not enough room for an eat-in banquette or full-size dining table. Don’t sacrifice reading the newspaper over soft-boiled eggs: Do as the designers at 2id Interiors did in this small space and add a bistro set to an unused corner — the 20” Marble Eero Saarinen Tulip Style Side Table, $174, and a set of two Eames Style Molded Plastic Dowel-Leg Dining Chairs, $110, from polyandbark.com.

Under $750: Weave Threads of Color

To unify an eclectic style and a lifetime of collections, designer Heather P. French used bright, sunny yellow in her clients’ kitchen. The boldest use of the color is in the barstools, which turn the island into a convenient gathering space. Find your own bright stools at sears.com: Flash Furniture 30” High Backless Yellow Barstools are $56 each.

Under $750: Add Character

If your house is builder-basic, consider applying a little surface interest. New crown moldings and baseboards or shiplap paneling on the walls can give a space its own rich personality. Prices on these materials vary, and unless you’re handy they’ll require professional installation. Another option: Apply reclaimed wood to the island base like designer Kristianne Watts did here. “We reclaimed boat wood from Indonesia. With the original paint still on each plank, it brings an authentic feel to the space,” she says. Depending on your source, the wood could be free, but, again, you might need to hire a pro to install it.

Under $1,000: Add Splash to the Backsplash

“When my clients' cabinets and countertop are in great shape, changing just the tile backsplash can refresh the whole kitchen. Using a detailed mosaic, like the one shown here, instantly boosts the 'wow' factor in any kitchen,” say Deanne Bridenstein of Pure Design Interiors. Decorative tiles range in style and price, but it’s easy to cover an entire backsplash, including installation, for less than $1,000 if you shop carefully. Lowe’s and Home Depot both carry a range of styles from about $10 per square foot; assuming a kitchen with roughly 30 square feet of backsplash, you’d still have $700 left over for grout and installation. Or, pick a pricier tile and install it yourself — a fairly simple DIY job if you’re patient and careful.

From: Pure Design Interiors

Under $1,000: Bring in the Beauty of Wood

In this neutral galley kitchen, designer Antonio Martins eschewed the ubiquitous stone countertops in favor of warm, homey butcher block — a material that is at once stylish and functional, and in perfect keeping with the home’s cozy, cottage look. Replace your own worn counters with butcher block for $20 to $60 per square foot, installed. If you plan to cut directly on the surface, go with an oiled finish and treat regularly with food safe oil; if you’ll always use a cutting board or want a shinier finish, opt for a varnished style.

Under $1,000: Create Drama Without Color

To maximize space in a 1960s bungalow galley kitchen, designer Nathalie Tremblay chose appliances carefully and stuck with a very simple black and white palette. White counters and cabinets appear to float on the black floors. A black pendant over the dining table draws the eye through the space to a large-scale black-and-white photograph, and a clear, black-rimmed glass lantern pendant over the sink repeats the motif in the workspace. Give your own kitchen some black-and-white sophistication with slate-look floor tiles, like Janeiro Slate Tiles in Montauk Black, about $2.75 per square foot, from builddirect.com; a black dome pendant like the Matte Black/Matte Gold Astro 1-Light Bowl Shaped Pendant, $230, from build.com; a landscape photograph like photographer Beth Wold’s Alaska Wall Art, $192 for 20” x 30” print, from etsy.com; or a classic lantern like the JVI Designs Oil Rubbed Bronze Four-Light Lantern with Glass, $450, bellacor.com.

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