I never appreciated how great I had it in the dorms until I had a space of my own. I spent my first year living in a double in Hitchcock, and despite grimy carpets and the occasional mouse in the shower, I had an adorable, well furnished room. With desks, dressers, bookshelves, beds, armchairs, and a fireplace, my room was cramped but cozy. The biggest problem was trying to find enough storage.
Later I moved into an apartment and faced a problem I never encountered in the dorms: What to do with all the space? Since my room in Hitchcock was pre-furnished, I had no furniture of my own for my new place. I decorated my dorm with posters duct-taped to the wall, but I felt that this wasn’t decor befitting a more mature space. I wanted to have an age-appropriate apartment—one that was classy but casual. I was totally clueless about how to create a functional and fashionable living area. Though my obsession with interior design meant I had lots of ideas about decorating, I worried that my tiny budget would make outfitting my apartment impossible. Right after signing my lease, I felt panicked instead of ecstatic. I wondered, Now What?
Furniture was the first problem. My roommate and I like to have friends over for movie and video game marathons, so comfy and copious seating was our first priority. We wanted to make an enclave of couches surrounding a TV, but our modest paychecks meant that retail stores were out of the question. Instead we found great deals on marketplace.uchicago.edu, a Craigslist-esque website just for the U of C community. In addition to a huge corduroy couch for $75, we scored a monster TV that was ours for only $70. Our purchases needed a little renovation—we went through many lint-rollers before our couch was fully free of cat hair—but buying from Marketplace allowed us to purchase furniture we never would have been able to afford otherwise.
Another thing I learned is that a coat of paint can make a dramatic difference in a space. I painted my bedroom a husky gray, and the muted silver tones added substance to the airy room without overpowering it. If your apartment is less-than-spacious, you can use paint to differentiate areas in multi-purpose rooms. My roommate and I have a combination living room/dining room, so we painted the dining room a light green, which echoes to the decorations in our living room but creates a distinct separation.
I felt that moving into an apartment meant that it was time to retire the posters and get some “big girl” decorations. I took the DIY route and got creative with room decor by expanding my notions of what could be mounted on a wall. I picked out some sheets of wrapping paper from Kate’s Paperie and mounted them in Ikea frames that I had painted burnt gold. One sheet of paper has beautiful flora and fauna motifs, and the other looks like a collage of vintage postcards. Each frame and sheet of wrapping paper was only $4, and for less than $20, I adorned my walls with pretty, dainty decorations that are much more sophisticated than my old posters.
You can also take a thrifty approach to decorating by recycling your glass bottles and creating easy table centerpieces. Wine bottles and Martinelli apple juice jars can be used as adorable vases for fresh flowers. The aesthetic is vintage-y, and since you’re using things you already own, the cost is minimal.
Next, I added pizzazz to plain surfaces with decoupage. I used Modge Podge glue to affix pages from vintage magazines to my boring white desk and chair. Any printed materials suitable for cutting and pasting, such as postcards, newspaper clippings, or pages from books, will work too. One of my friends used antique bird books to create a beautiful and unique desktop, and old medical textbooks would be quirky additions to a Spartan surface.
When confronted with the problem of where to put my stuff, I learned to make my decor do double-duty as storage. My two bookshelves did not come close to housing my massive book collection, so I used the books that didn’t fit to adorn my apartment. My collection of oversized artists’ monographs make great coffee table decorations, and I placed novels along the windowsill in the dining room to make the space feel cozy and plug the draft from under the window.
Though looking in my near-empty cupboards sometimes makes me wish I still had a Bartlett meal plan, I’m happy to be in a space of my own. While it’s daunting to face furnishing and decorating an apartment on almost no income, it is possible to make an empty space feel comfortable without spending a lot of cash. With creativity and a DIY–attitude, any budget-conscious student can live in style.