How much does it cost to nicely furnish a living room?
A lot -- at least that's the perception we get from some of the home-decorating programs on TV and articles in decor magazines.
Even "shabby chic" can be expensive -- if you buy it from Martha Stewart.
For someone moving into a first apartment or starting over after a divorce or separation, the thought of furniture-shopping can be scary. If you're on a tight budget, visions of credit card bills for furniture can be enough to make you resort to using those moving boxes for tables and chairs.
There is a way, however, to furnish a living room -- or even a home -- stylishly at a fraction of the prices paid by folks on those HGTV programs.
I furnished the "living room" shown here on a budget of $250 by mixing new items purchased at discount stores and "gently" used furniture found at thrift stores, tag sales and through online ads. We know some might cringe at the thought of a used couch. But others, including some interior designers, know that buyers with a good eye can find fabulous deals on quality furniture if they buy at a thrift store or from someone who is redecorating and getting rid of all of their "old" stuff.
I shopped for this living room over about six weeks. Here are some things I learned during the process:
1. You can't furnish a room in a day. Be prepared to do a lot of legwork. Typically, you will do a lot of "stopping by" the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other thrift stores before you find something you like. The merchandise changes every day, so if you don't see something one day, you might the next. You also need to troll the clearance aisles at hip budget stores such as Target or discounters like TJ Maxx.
2. Buy the couch and chair first, because these large items will determine the color palette and style of your room.
On my third trip to a Salvation Army store in my area, I started to get nervous. So far, I had purchased only two things -- a nicely framed poster of a harbor scene from the America's Cup in Newport, R.I., for $9.99 at one Salvation Army store, and a mint-condition brown-and-gold Naugahyde ottoman on gold rollers for $10 from a Hadassah Thrift Store. Someone told me another Salvation Army had good stuff, so I checked it out but didn't find anything.
I knew I needed a couch and chair before I could go any further. But so far, everything I had seen in the classified ads in the newspaper and on www.craigslist.com had been beyond my budget of $125 tops for both items.
I again stopped by the first Salvation Army store I had visited, where I was gazing over the sea of couches, when a gold one caught my eye. I pulled it out for a better look and saw the clean "modern" lines of a piece that appeared to be circa 1950 or earlier. It had a fitted upholstered back with a single row of button tufting, square arms and tapered legs (covered by a skirt that I later took off). It resembled a couch I had just seen in the Design Within Reach Catalog for $1,598.
It had a matching chair, and the care the previous owners had taken with the pieces was evident in the four upholstered armrests that covered the pieces. The price for both: $69.99.
The problem: That gold color. It was not just any gold but the gold-that-goes-with-avocado hue that was so popular in the 1950s.
I wavered. I left. I returned. I bought. An extra 25 percent off at the cash register was a surprise. The total price for a used couch and chair in excellent condition: $55.
Buying that couch and chair gave me focus.
3. Don't bypass clearance aisles. My next stop was Target, where a tall, royal-blue glass lamp and shade provided a nice contrast to the gold couch and was marked down to $19.99 in the sale aisle. The blue also picked up the blues in the sailing poster. I was on a roll.
4. Don't be too proud to take hand-me-downs. Most people move into a place with at least one piece of inherited (usually junky) furniture. Mine was a spindly, dark-wood end table I found in my attic. I painted the top with two coats of glossy black paint and left the legs dark brown because I liked the contrast. Another place to look for freebees is your local www.freecycle.org, a Web site where people post items they no longer want -- but are not ready for the landfill -- for others to pick up for free.
5. Buy energy-efficient lamps and bulbs. I found an energy-efficient lamp that provides the equivalent of 250 watts of light at www.smartlivingcatalog.com for $30 plus $5 home delivery. (I had to be a customer of my local utility to get that price.) The lamp, which I purchased in a nickel coating, has a dimmer. It was easy to screw together and came with a bulb and lampshade.
6. Always be on the lookout for art. Art isn't just for the walls. You need it for the tables, too. I was in a Goodwill store searching for a coffee table -- which turned out to be quite hard to find -- when I found the perfect piece for a coffee table. It was a handmade, funky-looking glass bowl with wavy sides and subtle black stripes here and there. I had seen similar bowls up the street at a pricey craft shop for close to $100. Clearly, this bowl, with its rough edges here and there, was a reject. But not by me. I paid the unheard of thrift-store price of $25 for the bowl and carried it carefully to my car, wondering the whole time if it was really ugly or really cool.
7. Don't give up. I looked everywhere for a coffee table. I inspected several times -- and rejected several times -- a glass table with blond bamboo trim for $27 at a thrift shop. Maybe I could paint it? Wouldn't work. After several other near misses, I started trolling www.craigslist.com three times a day. That's when I found it, a coffee table advertised for $5 as part of a moving sale. It was a "modern" 1950s dark wood table with an asymmetrical top and asymmetrical legs. It was low, perfect for my low couch. I told the owner she had underpriced it and paid her $10. Then I took my coffee table back to the office and gave it the top two coats of glossy black paint.
8. Be prepared to change. Everyone's a critic. In this case, my theater critic colleague told me he loved everything about my room except that poster, the America's Cup scene. It was so-o-o 1980s, he said; it didn't go with the style of furniture I'd bought. At first I ignored him. Then I went home and pulled out some shades-of-blue Marimekko fabric I had purchased long ago at a tag sale and put it in a big frame I had purchased at another tag sale. That would set the wall art back to the 1960s.
9. Pillows -- don't forget them. Pillows can really make a couch "pop," to use an overused word. In my case, a pillow debate ensued in the office as my colleagues gathered around the couch and chair. I felt the prima donna decorator arise in me -- It's MY room," I hissed to myself -- but outside, I was calm. In the end, I made bolster pillows from an old purple skirt, and another colleague covered old pillow forms in zebra fabric I had bought for $11.
Suddenly the gold sofa looked pretty good.
Valerie Finholm writes on home and garden topics for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune publishing newspaper.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times