Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

I'm guessing you're here because you read my blog post about the makeover I recently did for my friend, where we created a boy's bedroom for just €75. If you haven't seen that post, you can check it out here: €75 Boy's Bedroom. 

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

Today I'm discussing how I created this cute-as-a-button boy's room on a shoestring budget, and sharing what I learned along the way.


The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

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Determine Your Success Criteria

Think about why you are doing this. What do you hope to achieve by it? At the end, how will you know if the project succeeded? Write these thoughts down.

Concentrate on how the room will make you feel, rather than on how it will look or even function. For example, I like a sense of calm in my house. When I think of a calming room, I imagine cool blue and grey colours and lots of cosy textiles to help me feel relaxed. Others might prefer their house to feel cheerful and fun, and so prefer more vibrant colours. Or perhaps you want a feeling of grandeur and elegance where glass and marble set the tone.

The point is that whatever feeling you want to evoke will determine what you choose to put into the room. For example, if you find a brass and glass coffee table for €3, it's might look like a great bargain. But if the feeling you want for the room is warm and cosy, a metal and glass table will not help you to achieve that feeling, and so buying it would be a waste of your money. In this example, a natural wooden table that costs €5, even though it costs more, would actually be a better purchase.

So determining at the outset what your success criteria are will help you to spend your limited budget wisely and to avoid wasting money on items that do not fit your vision for the room.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a BudgetThese are Julie's criteria for her home

Find Inspiration

Pinterest is a fantastic tool for finding and curating inspiration images. Start by collecting or pinning any images that appeal to you based on your current project, and which evoke the kind of feelings you want for the room.

Then see if you can see a common thread running between the images. Maybe it's the colours in the room. Maybe it's the textures and materials. Try to pin down the most important aspect to you. Then aim to incorporate those into your room design.

If possible, it's also a nice idea to print out a copy of your favourite inspiration picture and hang it in the room you will be working in. This will help to keep you focused, and also to keep you motivated during the messy and discouraging parts of the renovation.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

Make a List

Start making a list of everything you want to do in the room. And I do mean everything. Be specific. When working to a tight budget, you are only going to sabotage yourself if you don't take in the full scope of the job at the outset, making it inevitable that you'll have to add things at a later date. That can really blow your budget.

Equally, you need to be realistic. There's no point planning to knock through walls if you won't have the money for it anytime soon. Working on a limited budget means making the best of what you have while working to meet realistic expectations.


Here's how to edit your to-do list:

  • Prioritise the things you need. In our case, this would be things like the bed, the wardrobe, and toy storage.
  • Next look at the things that will make a big difference for very little money and effort, like the curtains (which lightened the room) and the lightshade (which added personality and fun).
  • Then consider things that will make a big difference, but which will take more effort or money. An example is the artwork, bunting, and cushions in the room. These cost nothing, but took a lot of time and effort. Yet, without them, the room would have lacked character and personality.
  • Sometimes it's also worth doing something that won't make a huge impact simply because it's so quick and easy and cheap. It's low-hanging fruit.
  • Finally decide whether you want to include tasks that will not make a huge difference, but which would take quite a bit of money and effort. In this case, we decided to work with the existing carpet rather than get new flooring. 

I have to give credit where it's due to Jackie Hernandez. Her book, Project Home: How to Prioritize Your To-Do List, Pick the Most Important Projects, and Get Them Done (affiliate link) was a huge help in executing this project efficiently, and particularly in knowing how to prioritise tasks. I highly recommend it for any DIYer.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

The List is FINAL!

Once you have finalised your list, DON'T ADD ANYTHING! I can't overstate how tempting it is to add in just this little thing or other. Don't do it! This is where you are most likely to blow your budget, and also your schedule. In project management parlance, this is referred to as scope creep - and it really can creep up on you! 

If you think of something afterwards, it doesn't mean you can never have it - just put it on a separate list to do after the initial list of tasks is completed. 

Assess Requirements

Look at your finalised to-do list and, based on that, make another list of everything you will need to make it happen. You need to factor in every screw and nail and drop of paint. Think about any tools or special equipment you will need to do the job. And don't forget the ancilliary things that are often overlooked, but which can add up quickly. If you're tiling, you may budget for the tiles, and the adhesive, and the grout. But did you remember the tile spacers and trim? If you're painting, did you remember to budget for roller sleeves? You need to consider every detail in order to properly budget for your project. 

If your project requires any special skills, do you need somebody in particular to do that for you? If so, do you need to pay them? Do you need to hire a babysitter so you can do the work yourself? Or, if it's a favour from a friend, think about their availability. Do you need to schedule them at a particular time? And do you need to buy them a cake to say thank you?

As they say, the devil is in the detail, so the more detail you include in your preparations, the more likely you are to complete your project successfully.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget
See what you already have that you can use

Evaluate Resources

I have occasionaly read about other budget makeovers and thought to myself, "Well, it's OK for them. Their husband is a carpenter." Or, "Yes, but her mother made the curtains for her." Or "Her friend is an artist and did all the artwork for free!" 

In such situations, it's easy to feel despondant and feel like this process is for everyone else, but not for  you. However, what I have learned through undertaking this challenge is how easy it is to see the advantages enjoyed by others, while overlooking our own. We are very unlikely to be starting with nothing. So take stock. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised by what is already right there under your nose that can help with your project.

In our case, we already had a carpet we could work with. And a pair of wardrobes. Julie's husband is a metal worker, so he made the bed base. He also had access to a trailer through his job, which made it easier to collect the pallets that we used for the wood to make the toy boxes. Julie's friend is a textile artist who helped with the sewing projects. Those are all fantastic resources that were put to good use in the completion of our boy's bedroom.

But remember, just because we had those resources does not mean the project is impossible for you to achieve. I still had to find a mattress for the bed and, in doing so, I came across several bed frames being given away free of charge to anyone who would come and take them. Lots of people also wanted rid of perfectly good wardrobes. We made the bunting out of fabric, because that's what we had. But maybe you could make it out of paper or card and create the same effect. If you don't have the skills or resources you need, find somebody who does. It's likely you have something they could find useful, and you may be able to arrange a barter.

Thinking creatively about how you can use what is already available will be the best thing you can do to help you complete a project on a tight budget.

Itemised Budget 

With your detailed list of requirements completed, now you need to add a column for an itemised breakdown of costs. Next to each item, estimate the amount of money it will cost. And don't just guess! Do your research and be as accurate as possible. If you have to make an educated guess, note that is the case so that you are at least aware that it is a potential variable. 

Review your budget. If you are happy with the total amount, great! You're ready to start your project. If, however, you find that it is going to cost more than you expected, you can either accept it, choose to wait and save up for it, or work to cut down costs. 

For example, when planning for the boys' bedroom, I noticed that the cost of bedding was more than half the entire budget - and that was after I worked extremely hard to find the best value. It sounds exorbitant, but in the end I decided that I had to accept it because new bedding wasn't something I was willing to compromise on. On other occasions, I had to come up with alterntive ways to achieve my goals, but for less money. 

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget

Find Alternatives

When Julie came to me with an idea for artwork for the room that required several art canvases, I decided that although they weren't such a high priority, I did want to find a way for her to contribute something to her little boy's new bedroom. I had to find a way for her to realise her idea, but at zero cost. I racked my brains until I came up with a solution. Because I already had some leftover wood and paint, I came up with a plan to use primed boards of thick MDF instead of sized canvases. This gave the same effect, but at a considerably reduced cost. 

Having prioritised your tasks at the outset really helps to manage the budget by determining where money needs to be spent and where alternatives need to be found.

Also think about alternative ways of achieving what you want. I saw a lot of wardrobes available for free through the online classifieds and considered replacing the existing wardrobes instead of spending money on paint for them. This was definitely a viable alternative but, when I found free paint to do the job, I gave up on the idea of replacing them; especially given that the existing wardrobes were almost a matching pair. But just know that there is usually more than one way to achieve your goal. This is where assessing your available resources will help you to keep your budget low.

Count the Cost

This was my first time applying proper project management principles to a home renovation project and, in doing so, I learned a couple of things about costing along the way.

Reading other budget makeover blogs, I often felt like they "cheated" because they didn't count the cost of items they already had. However, this is actually a perfectly legimate practice. And here's why ...

When budgeting items myself in the past, I would often try to spread the cost of an item over the total number of projects it would cover. For example, if I bought ceiling paint for €10, and used it to paint two rooms, I would have counted that cost at €5 per room. However, this is not good practice. What I should have done was to count the cost of ceiling paint for the first room at €10, and then considered it free for the second room.  

This might seem like it all amounts to the same thing in the end, and in that example, it would. However, what if I never got around to painting the second room? Then I would have only budgeted €5 for the paint when it actually cost me €10. 

Now if you know for certain that you will be painting two rooms, by all means buy the paint up-front for both if it is cheaper to buy in bulk. Just know that when you are doing up your budget, that it is only counted once for the first room. 

Measure Everything!

Know the measurements for everything you need. There is no point finding a bargain on a piece of furniture that won't fit in your space. Keep notes on your phone and a measuring tape in your pocket or handbag because you never know when you will come across something that might suit. 

It is also a good idea to keep swatches and paint samples with you so that you can make decisions with confidence. 

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget
Accurate measurements and a scale drawing helps with planning furniture layout


It goes without saying that you should shop around. These days, it is possible to do a lot of this online so that you don't waste as much time traipsing from store to store. But it still pays to do the legwork, as many stores will have items in stock that are not included in their online inventory. Thankfully, homewares is a growing market, so many discount stores are now curating beautiful collections suitable for even the most modest of budgets. 

Online Classifieds

Another vital resource when decorating on a tight budget are the online classifieds., DoneDeal, and even Facebook Marketplace are great ways of finding the things you need - often for absolutely free! Sometimes the exact thing you need is getting in someone else's way and they just want rid of it. And all you need to do is show up and take it! Reusing and recycling is not just environmentally friendly; it's pocket friendly too. 

Each of the different classifieds sites have their own unique quirks. Adverts has the advantage that you can read feedback on sellers from other transactions they have conducted through the site. However, it can be a slow process as you need to do everything through the website or app, and you cannot message the seller until they have accepted your offer. Also ads can remain in the listings long after the item has gone as sellers are not always diligent about marking items that have sold, so it can be frustrating to find the exact thing you need, only to then discover that it was sold weeks ago. DoneDeal has no feedback on sellers, but usually lists the seller's phone number so you can contact to them directly for a speedier negotiation. Facebook Marketplace is also good if you're in a hurry as people are usually on their social media accounts often enough that they are readily contactable. 

One thing to take into account when shopping for preloved items is availability. There isn't always a ready supply of the item you need. To overcome this, you either need to wait longer or travel further. Due to the Irish population distribution, most items will be in the greater Dublin area. Indeed, this is not unique to Ireland - the more people in an area, the more stuff. It's as simple as that. So you will find more items availalble in the larger population areas. 

Since Julie and I live in the west of Ireland, where the population is lowest, finding just the thing we wanted without waiting too long for it involved making a trip to the capital. Obviously, travel costs need to be considered in such a case. However, you can be clever about this too. I managed to schedule all my collections on the same day, and on a day that I was already planning on being in Dublin. This way, I didn't have to spend much extra on travel (just a bit to go over and back across the city) and I was able to get most of what I needed on the same day.

Overall, although it is less convenient, shopping the classified ads will allow you to purchase better quality items for less money than you would spend in the shops.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a BudgetThis was the listed price for the beanbag I purchased but I negotiated a lower price

Set Standards

Pre-loved does not mean unloved, and just because you are working with a lower budget does not mean that you need to lower your standards. If anything, it is the opposite: because you are on a limited budget, you need to spend your money very wisely indeed. 

In the course of decorating the boys' room, I did drive to someone's house having arranged to buy something, only to realise when I got there that it wasn't in as good condition as I thought. On that occasion, I walked away from the deal. Always put as a condition of your offer that it is subject to viewing. Putting things right will inevitably end up costing you money, and probably more than you think, so it's better to hold out until you find something of good quality that is ready to use. 

The second-hand market is a mixed bag. Yes there are people who just want to flog old tat, like the lady with the beanbag in a grubby cover and almost no beans left that I didn't purchase. But there are also genuine sellers who have quality items they no longer need. The curtains I bought for the boys' room cost just €5, but they are Laura Ashley lined curtains and are hemmed with invisibile stitching. They are in immaculate condition, and were even freshly laundered and ironed when I went to collect them. 

Stay Focused!

Julie's plan over the coming months is to do up in every room in the house, and even the garden. In fact, we started by making a to-do list for the entire house before using the criteria listed above to determine that the boys' bedroom would be the best place to begin. 

In such cases, it is important that once you start the project, that you not allow yourself to be distracted by other jobs that need doing in the house (unless it's a true emergency, such as a leaking pipe). As I was shopping for the boy's room, I can't even tell you the number of times that I saw something that I thought would be perfect for one of the other rooms that we will be working on at a later date. I can't emphasise it enough that you should put all other projects out of your head other than the one you're working on.

Once you have gone through the thought process of prioritising tasks and fine-tuning the budget for your current project, you will have gained an appreciation for how much is involved. Jumping ahead willy-nilly to another project without giving it due consideration is a recipe for disaster. You run the risk of spending money that you really need for your current project, or even blowing the budget for your future project before you get started! In fact, it may turn out that when you do prioritise your list for the future project, the thing you think you need now will not actually be required at all! Or even that buying it will limit your future decisions. 

It is easy to feel that if you turn down a good offer now, you will miss out. But fear not! The world is more full of stuff than we will ever need, and another will always become available. 

It is a good idea, however, to note what is available and the prices you can expect to pay. That way you will be more informed when the time comes to start decorating that next room.

The House that Will | Top Tips for Decorating on a Budget


In summary, the most helpful things you can do when decorating on a budget are:

  • Prioritise what you need
  • Make detailed lists
  • Make the most of what you already have
  • Budget accurately
  • Shop wisely

I really hope you find these tips helpful. I know that I could not have created a kids' bedroom from scratch for just €75 without sticking to these principles.

Next up is in my Budget Decor series is Julie's master bedroom, and I have a few more posts coming up about the boys' bedroom and the items we made for the room. So do check back here next Tuesday for the next post in the series!


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