How I Furnished My Apartment for $500 (And You Can Too)
So you did it—you got a job offer and you’re heading to Washington, DC… or maybe you’ve been here for a few months but you’re finally upgrading your internship status for a full-time position and it’s time to find a more permanent crash pad.
After finding a place to live (which I’ll definitely be writing about soon) and putting down a deposit you might be left with severely depleted funds… so how are you gonna put furniture in your space? Follow some (or all) of these tips to save (or even MAKE) money and create a living space you’ll be thrilled to come home to.
DON’T head to IKEA, Wayfair, or Amazon for Furniture
You don’t need to! Here’s the big secret to furnishing an apartment in the city on a budget: You are not buying a bunch of new stuff. Just put that completely out of your mind and don’t even visit their websites unless it’s strictly for inspiration.
One of the things I love most about Washington is how transient it is. Most people (like you!) come from all across the country and around the world—so the possibilities for friendships, new food experiences, and learning never ends… and neither do the opportunities to snag some seriously great furniture from, say, a lady who just found out her NGO is moving her to Korea in two weeks and she needs to empty their apartment—STAT.
Why would you buy a new IKEA dresser when you can have a handcrafted antique for the same price? Those are the types of deals you can find courtesy of the non-stop revolving door of the DC metro area.
There’s no such thing as a FREE lounge chair
There’s an astonishing amount of furniture available for FREE on craigslist, Buy-Nothing groups, and Facebook Marketplace… but the biggest hurdle for most Washingtonians is how to move it if you don’t have immediate access to an SUV. This is where you’ll need to use a combination of 1. Friends with cars (bonus: an extra set of hands!) 2. A rental system (my favorites are Zipcar and Turo) or 3. A legit moving system—like Task Rabbit—where a guy (who’s had a background check!) with a van or truck shows up and helps you move a dresser into your new place.
To prevent yourself from blowing a TON of money on rentals, maximize your time with a rental vehicle by mapping out a full day of pick ups instead of renting a van multiple times for individual items.
Worried about spending too much money on tools and supplies to fix up your “free” furniture? Look for used tools and leftover paint on craigslist, too—trust me, you’re not the first to flip furniture on the weekend and people are eager to get that stuff out of their sight once they’re done. Don’t forget you can also rent really expensive tools for next-to-nothing. Another great tip: Head straight to the returned paint section at the hardware store. Most of your projects won’t call for very much paint so instead of buying a whole new can, find one with the color and finish you’re looking for.
Know Where to Look—And What to Skip
Join NextDoor and lists in your apartment building and neighborhood so if you don’t have a car to haul furniture in, you can snag stuff in carrying-distance (if you’re reading this, former roommate Alyssa: The 200 pound oak desk we carried half a mile down Pennsylvania Avenue in February was NOT carrying-distance).
Flip That Dresser
When people ask me how much I paid for my gorgeous mid-century sideboard I tell them I got paid $100 for it. How? Because I paid $300 for a dining room table and chairs that included the sideboard. I then cleaned it all up, kept the sideboard, and sold the table and chairs for $400. Capitalism rules.
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This is the same philosophy you need to carry into furnishing your apartment: If you get something for free, you’re going to add value to it (with your time, labor, tools, paint, and cleaning supplies). So if you decide you don’t actually want the item anymore, don’t feel guilty selling it for a profit. I made a weekend hobby out of this and while I didn’t make that much money doing it, I learned a lot about refinishing wood, getting stains out of upholstery, and how to paint furniture so that it looks like a million bucks.
I also used Youtube as a resource—some of my favorites are Lone Fox and Alexandra Gater – two city-dwelling 20-somethings who will show you every step you need to make a small space look amazing—and how to use a little paint and creativity to turn basic furniture into personalized masterpieces.
Never Buy a Used or Free Mattress
This is where the free & used party stops. You WILL want to order a mattress new—and the best part is you don’t have to move it! They’ll ship it right to you. Use this guide to pick a mattress for under $300.
The only exception I will make to this rule is if you’re moving into a group house that already has a bed in the room. If that’s the case, clean and cover the mattress with a new cover and buy a new topper so it feels new to you. Or just replace the mattress ASAP. I don’t clutch my pearls about much in the used-items space but this is a good place to draw the line.
Be Patient—and Have Fun
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Your apartment doesn’t have to look perfect the week you move in. Start with the basics/necessities and then build your arsenal up over time… and laugh about the ridiculous situations you will 100% find yourself in if you embark on craigslist adventures. Just like everything else in This Town, it’ll all come together in the end.