The 4-Step System to Decorating like a Park Avenue Millionaire on a Butler's Budget

Nesting on 02.02.12
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Last week I thought I could afford real grown-up living room furniture. Turns out I can't. But that's OK, because I am going to have a beautiful and stylish living room anyway. And save my money for something more important -- like when I'm really grown-up (read: old and gray).

In a minute I'll tell you how to decorate your house like a magazine without winning the renovation sweepstakes, but first here's the backstory. Last year we bought our first house. My husband just graduated from a lifetime of studenthood, we have no money in retirement, and we are raising four kids who will be in college before we know it (according to all the little old ladies in the grocery store). On the upside, we have no student loans (my husband did med school in Europe, where he's from) and we are debt-free (besides our mortgage).

We got a good deal on our house in Washington, D.C., because it's quirky (code: needs some work). And that's why I can't afford a grown-up living room. Because I could easily spend $10K on furniture and rugs alone, but then my kids would forever be playing in our gravel back yard, my bedroom would be stuck to my sons' room, my 1973 oven would always be on the fritz, and our guests would still be sleeping on a futon in the foyer.

So even though I thought I might have graduated to Bloomingdale's, I'm really still at TJ Maxx. Which is OK, because that's what I know. And I won't be out of a job anytime soon. So here is how I am going to do it, and how you can too.

1. Know Thyself

Go through magazines and decorating sites and tear out images that strike you. Organize them in folders according to project. I love being able to hold magazines (like House Beautiful and This Old House), but I also love how easy it is to pin images from the Web to virtual boards with Pinterest. You can see pictures I'm collecting for my "old-world glamour" dream kitchen and "cozy and peaceful" living room on my Pinterest boards.

2. Go for What You Love

Sift the images down to a look that you want for your house or room. The living room that appeared on the cover of last month's House Beautiful is what I would love for our house: casual yet traditional, breezy yet sophisticated. Ask a friend or relative with a good eye (my mom is the family decorator) to help you come up with a plan to tailor the look for your house. Sometimes we are too close to our homes to really "see" them, but an objective person can lend a pair of fresh eyes.

3.  Check the Warehouse

Go around your house and see what pieces you already have that could be moved, painted, recovered, or repurposed to achieve your look.

When I realized that a real adult couch that doesn't feel like cement was going to set us back $3,000, the ratty sofa a friend gave us started looking elegant. We are going to either paint the wood frame (it has great bones) and get it reupholstered with budget fabric, or we'll buy a new cover from Bemz for our IKEA Ektorp. For armchairs, we are going to use two we already own as placeholders. If we decide we love the layout and the feel, we'll save up for better design, and leather.

4.  Shop Smart. Really Smart

So the sisal rug cut to size and finished with a nice canvas border is going to cost us $2,800? So much for jute being a budget rug material!

Back to the IKEA catalog, where I can get a large sisal rug for $99. If I put two side by side, I can almost cover the same area. A zebra hide rug costs 600 buckaroos at West Elm, but I found a similar one at Overstock for $183. The Chinoiserie pots in the House Beautiful living room are not part of my plan, but if they were, Beth Connolly at the Chinoiserie Chic blog shows how we can find affordable copies of expensive pieces at places like Lamps Plus, Target, and Z Gallerie. Of course there are always old standbys like Craiglist, eBay, Freecycle, Amazon, and local consigment shops.

It's all a question of mindset. Instead of being luxurious and pat, I'm going to be resourceful and smart. And if people compliment me on my lovely living room, instead of saying a polite thank you, I can start a conversation: "Can you believe I found this old mantel at a salvage yard for 100 bucks?"

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