Maximize Your Decorating Budget

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

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).

6. Invest in important room features

"Spend the big money on the big 'wow' items — the things you first notice in a space," says Angelo Surmelis, a Los Angeles interior designer and host of 24 Hour Design. Consider big splurges for the things you'll use every day; are hard to change; will hold their value over time; or will add value to your home. That could be new flooring, built-ins or other permanent components, well-made furniture with lush upholstery or investment art. Don't feel guilty about splurging on the things that will "make" your room — just make sure they're worth what you're spending and will serve you well over time.

7. Scrimp on the cosmetic changes

Once you've earmarked the bulk of your budget for the big items, divvy up what's left for the extras: linens and other textiles, lighting and decorative accessories — anything that's available at a wide variety of price points and is easy to switch out or upgrade later. Instead of buying trendy furniture, for instance, "follow trends in accessories," Surmelis says. "They can make a big impact and help a room feel up-to-date without a lot of expense."

8. Make trade-offs to juggle your expenses

"Budgeting and decorating are a process — calling for review, rethinking, reevaluating and adjusting until you arrive at choices you can live with," says Patricia Hart McMillan, interior designer and co-author of Home Decorating for Dummies. For instance, if the hardwood floor you chose eats up a bigger chunk of change than you planned for, downsize the amount you allotted for an area rug so you still hit your overall number. Or, as Cunningham did when she was furnishing her own home, you may find a to-die-for dining table (at an equally to-die-for price) and opt for cut-rate chairs to free up funds for the table. That's the beauty of having a line-item budget: You can still stay under the overall budget cap if you juggle wisely.

9. Keep common budget busters in mind

Just as you would with a remodeling budget, tuck away 10 to 15 percent of your total for unexpected expenses. If, you've set aside $5,000 to create a bedroom sanctuary, do your best to draft an initial budget that tops out at $4,250. That way, you'll have money in reserve to pay an electrician when it turns out that hanging the bedroom chandelier isn't a simple matter, or when the reading chair you've decided on is discontinued and you're forced to order a pricier alternative. Other common errors and oversights that can break the budget:

Impulse buys: It's easy to get distracted when you shop, so "carry your list of must-haves and your budget sheet with you to keep you focused," says interior designer and Design on a Dime host, Kristan Cunningham. Deviate from the list only if you find something that's an incredible deal (and that you know you can use in the room) or something that you absolutely can't live without — and can use.

Freight and delivery charges: These can be substantial, especially for large items purchased from distant manufacturers. Prices can add up, too, for smaller items bought online or via mail-order. Whenever possible, ask that shipments be combined to cut costs, even if that means waiting on certain items. Ask furniture manufacturers if your shipment can piggyback with other orders destined for your town to save on freight charges.

Supplies: Are you a rookie do-it-yourselfer? Then don't forget to budget for a few trips to the hardware store. Paint, for instance, is relatively inexpensive, and painting itself isn't terribly difficult — but once you buy the stepladder, rollers, brushes, paint trays, extending poles, painters' tape, tarps and other tools you'll need to do the job right, that pro painter's bid may suddenly look a lot more reasonable.

10. Phase it in

Unless your budget is unlimited, you may not be able to do everything right away. But don't lose heart — you can spread out the expense by making a long-range plan and implementing your design in phases, as time and money allow. "If you have high standards but not much money, phasing a project is the way to go," says McMillan. Designers tend to tackle jobs in this order: backgrounds and surfaces (ceilings, walls, floors), buildables (built-in shelving), furniture, fabrics, lighting and accessories. "Don't pressure yourself to do it all at once," Cunningham says. "Take your time to do it right."

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