Furnishing a Fabulous Home on a Tiny Budget

I don’t remember my parents buying a new sofa until I was in college.  For most of my life, it was kind of a running joke in our family and with my parents’ friends that if they were getting a new sofa, we would want their old sofa.  My mom got sofas out of dumpsters at the local college, off of strangers’ front porches, at yardsales, and from friends and family.

I kept this spirit alive in college with my first furniture purchase, a sofa at the local thrift store that I had to borrow a friends’ standard transmission car to pick up (that was an adventure in itself as clutches and me were/are barely acquainted).  The couch was a hideous brown and cream plaid made out of some scratchy 1970s fabric that certainly had not started in nature. But, “Squishy” as my friends and I instantly dubbed the couch was loveseat size, fit perfectly under our lofted beds, and was quite comfortable as long as you were wearing long sleeves and pants.  My roommate and I felt very sophisticated as the only residents in our hall with our own couch.   Our room was popular for movie watching, and my roommate would come home in the middle of the day to drink Slimfast and watch Oprah (she was an Oprah super fan!).

The $200 budget

After college I was a live-in nanny for  a year and had a fully furnished room as part of that job, but then I started teaching at a music school and moved into my first apartment. I rented the 4th bedroom in an old brownstone apartment at the very edge of Boston’s rapidly gentrifying South End.  My rent was the staggeringly low sum of $300/month (about 1/3 of what most of my friends’ paid).  My room was the 8×6 former dining room, but it had a closet, a window, a door with a charming glass transom and I thought it was paradise. Yes, one of my roommates was a reclusive, OCD women who still somehow managed to be filthy, yes the apartment had mice regularly running out of the fireplace, and yes we regularly heard gunshots, but we had a roofdeck (dilapidated as it may have been, I loved it), I had two other amazing roommates who became close friends, I met and started dating Dr. B, and I was a working musician living in a city. For this small-town girl, life at 612 Columbus Avenue was perfect.

I had no money and no furniture. I literally moved out of the nanny position with a few trashbags of clothes, a duvet cover and a poster of Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”, suitcases of books and music, and my french horn.  I had about $900 to furnish my room, pay two months of rent, and support myself in the two months until my job began. It was stressful but exciting. My first furniture purchase was a futon. I bought the basic frame and upgraded the mattress to a medium thick one.  That purchase took $150 of my money (and proved to be the most uncomfortable sleeping surface I have ever had the misfortune of using!)  I carried that futon frame (and then the rolled up mattress) the 7 block walk home and up the four flights of stairs to our 4th floor walk-up apartment.  I spent $100 on two months worth of beans, rice, ramen, frozen spinach,  and yogurt and my remaining $50 on a gallon of Siamese Blue paint ($24), a quart of french blue paint ($10), a dresser that I swear was made of cardboard that I found at Goodwill ($3.94), and $10 on a bookcase that I carried home from Central Square in Cambridge–walking across the Mass Ave bridge on a broiling August day.  I will always remember that day as I had to stop by the Christian Science Plaza to take a call from Dr. B telling me he had a great first date the day before:-)  I slathered that Siamese blue paint over the walls, dresser, and bookcase, painted the ceiling French Blue, hung up my inspiration poster of Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”, and periodically chased mice out of my room.  Eventually I also found a small media center/hutch on the curb so I stacked the bookcase over the dresser and added this piece to my little room to store all my scores and sheet music.  I hated the mice, but loved my tiny blue room and made some wonderful memories during the three years I lived there.


The $1000 budget

Next I moved for grad school. I sold everything that didn’t fit in my car and drove with my newly acquired dog Max and now serious boyfriend Dr. B to Louisiana.  Dr. B was still living in Boston, but nicely helped make the three day drive from Boston to Baton Rouge.  I had bought a house for $89,000 on a no-doc mortgage to live in during grad school and needed to furnish it on a budget. I had two roommates who helped me pay the bills and one of my roommates had a couch (it basically looked like Squishy’s big brother).  I bought an iron canopy bedframe on overstock.com for $299, a mattress and box spring from Sears for $399, and a glass topped dining table/chairs from I can’t remember where for $150. I got a heavy wooden desk and chair from the Salvation Army for $40, and bought my realtor’s old washer for $40 and $70 of Glidden paint to paint basically the whole interior of the house.  Over the next two year I got to experience the DIY joys and trials of homeownership, hosted “Wendy’s Christmas Work Camp” which my parents and one of my brothers were active but less than enthusiastic participants in, and bought a few more pieces of furniture–my favorite being a folding, wrought iron bookcase that I sanded and spray painted black. We still use it today in the boy’s room.  Most of the rest of the furniture I got, including a pair of red “pleather” wing chairs one of which was pretty scratched up by cats before I got it, was from the side of the road on trash day, inherited from roommates, or from freecycle.

The $100 budget

My next move took me to NYC in 2006. This time I rented a truck and my younger brother road tripped to the City with me.   My stuff went into storage for a month or so and I lived in NJ with my Nana, commuting into work everyday and apartment hunting after work each evening. I found a 1 bedroom I could afford that did not require any kind of crazy guarantor or broker fee. I rented through the super, paid first and last, and got ready to move in.  My rent was $1275/month which was astronomical for me, but was pretty decent for Upper Manhattan. In NYC landlords are required to paint apartments every so many years, so I got to pick colors and the super painted before I moved into my very own, 1 bedroom apartment.  I was working in the arts, singing opera in the evenings and exploring NYC in between.  I met an opera singer couple just after I moved in. They were moving to Germany for a singing contract and I purchased a laptop, kitchen island, and some ceramic ramikens from them.  They introduced me to craigslist and that soon became my new obsession. A parade of craigslist furniture purchased at bargain basement prices and wrestled home in my station wagon soon furnished my place. At one point I had two sofas, a large pair of slipper chairs, a coffee table, the dining table set, a bookcase, a TV stand, and an electric keyboard in my little living room!  But, through a strategic resale program I was able to figure out what worked for that space and then for a bigger space when I purchased a 2 bedroom apartment in 2009.

The Craigslist Upgrade

Over the past 10 years, we have slowly upgraded our furniture, almost entirely through craigslist.  Persistence and creativity in search terms and transportation options are certainly required, but it can be a fun hunt.  Most of the upgrades were done around when we got married in 2009–namely a new to us bedroom set, sectional, and leather recliner.  The recliner was destroyed by my nephew sleeping in it for 2 weeks when he came for a visit and the sofa will be the centerpiece in Dr. B’s basement media room/family room when we move as it is still going strong but won’t fit in our new living room.  The glass topped dining set was sold when my Nana gave us a cherry dining table and chairs.  The chairs have moved on and been replaced by IKEA Ingolf chairs as the original chairs didn’t fit in our tiny dining area.  We got bunk beds for the boys’ room when I was pregnant and an IKEA dresser.

Boys Room

Photo by Tina Gallo at VHT Studios

The $5000 budget

We have allocated $5000 to furnish the Cape (not counting paint and lumber which we are including in the renovation budget).  We think that is a lot of money and know that for some of our readers it will seem huge and for others it will seem impossibly small.  The Cape is 1500 sq. feet and we are planning to renovate the basement, adding another 500+ feet.  Our NYC apartment is 900 sq. feet, so we definitely need some more furniture, but we are working within a pretty tight budget given that I am absolutely in love with a $2000 sofa (the Basel from Roger + Chris) and we are getting a $500 Joao Isabel brass bed for our room (which a lot, but is a comparative steal since it is almost identical, but sturdier and higher quality, than the $1,200 Pottery Barn Mendocino we loved).


Follow along on MamaBeeMakes to see what we do with this budget and if the sofa really does break the bank:-)


    1. MamaBee Author

      Hi Sarah,

      I just found a whole page of unanswered comments in wordpress. I am so sorry I missed this! We did get the Basel, loveseat and sofa both in crypton velvet and love it! I will post an update next week.


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