Decorating your first adult apartment or home is so much fun and as interior designers, it's probably not surprising that it was one of our favorite parts about becoming grown-ups. You're able to develop your personal style and design a space that reflects your personality without having to answer to mom and dad or your resident advisor. However, the experience is also a little daunting. Most people only have a few pieces of furniture either leftover from college or found when rummaging through their parents' basement. Starting from scratch is expensive and with that first adult apartment comes those first adult bills. Reality will quickly set in that eating has to take priority over that $1,000 mid-century chair you've had your eye on.
Both of us have kids who are now out of college and have recently moved into to new homes or apartments, so we're well aware of the struggle that comes with balancing style and budget. The keyword there is "balance." It's a mistake to rack up serious debt furnishing your place but it's also a mistake to cheap out on certain items, especially the ones you'll be using a lot. It all comes down to knowing where to splurge and where to save.
Mattress - Getting enough sleep is essential for good health so this isn't an area to skimp. You can avoid insomnia, not to mention back and joint pain, with a comfortable, quality mattress. Considering you spend about one-third of your life in bed, make it count! Mattresses aren't all that exciting or aesthetically appealing but buying a good one should be a top priority nonetheless.
A Statement/Inspiration Piece - An inspiration piece, whether it's a stunning rug, piece of authentic artwork or a high-end furniture item, will set the tone for your space and dictate everything from your color scheme to the overall vibe. Find something that inspires you and will bring a smile to your face every time you see it. This will go a long way in making your new apartment feel like home. A splurge-worthy statement piece is also something you'll take with you each time you move and it will always give a room that "wow" factor. With that being said, an inspiration piece doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. It should be something that's really important or meaningful to you or eye-catching. If it happens to be a family heirloom or you're lucky enough to stumble upon it at say an estate sale, go for it.
Sofa - It can be tempting to save money in the short term but a cheap sofa isn't going to be durable and won't hold up to daily use. You'll end up having to replace it every few years, which isn't eco-friendly and will cost you way more over time. As Miles Redd said, "Buy the best and only cry once." Plus, who doesn't want to come home after a long day and just sink into their super comfy, beautiful couch? If you're worried you'll splurge on a sofa only to get sick of it, opt for neutral upholstery and incorporate color through accessories.
Area Rugs - Rugs are expensive. Period. Even a low-quality one made from synthetic materials will put a dent in your budget. Just like a cheapie sofa, a crappy rug will have to be replaced frequently adding to your long-term spending. You're already shelling out money on it, so invest a little extra on an area rug that will last and withstand everyday wear and tear. A stylish rug can pull together an entire space. As a bonus, it helps protect your floors, which is important if you're renting, and if you live on an upper floor, it will muffle noise. When you step on your luxurious, soft rug, your bare feet and downstairs neighbors will thank you. If it's really just not in your budget, layer a smaller, quality rug over a large, affordable natural fiber rug like jute.
Sheets – Once you sleep on high-quality bed linens made from long-staple cotton, there's no turning back. Not too many things can beat the feeling of crawling into bed at night and snuggling up to smooth, soft sheets. Yeah, luxury linens can give you sticker shock but those $30 bargain basement sheets don't measure up and like everything else we've mentioned so far, there will be a ton of replacements in your future. Why not just buy a set or two that will last for years and call it a day? Pro tip: Go for crisp, white sheets. They make any bedding ensemble look polished.
Accessories - The easiest, most cost-effective way to refresh your apartment or update it according to the season or your mood, is to swap out your accessories like vases, picture frames, decorative pillows, candles and throws. Don't spend a lot on these items when you can find really great ones at thrift stores and places like World Market, HomeGoods or Target.
Wall Decor - Mirrors, frames and fun stuff for your walls are other items you can score at a flea market, thrift store or a big-box store until you have the cash to invest in some lasting pieces. For art lovers, Etsy is an excellent place to get art prints that only appear expensive. For an eclectic look, buy your wall decor from a variety of different sources. You can also take on DIY projects to dress up walls. There's one caveat here and that's if you find striking artwork to serve as the inspiration piece we discussed earlier. If you come across an authentic piece, even if it's from eBay or a local consignment store, it could be a collector's item that keep you forever and that's always a smart splurge.
Occasional Pieces - If it's something you don't use all of the time, it shouldn't eat up your budget. Extra seating, end tables, poufs, ottomans, furniture for a guest bedroom, etc. can be found at a zillion different sources and you can upgrade over time as your budget increases.
Storage – With Pinterest and a little creativity, you can create storage out of pretty much anything. While, of course, attractive storage in areas where it will be visible is important, it doesn't have to cost a lot. Bins and baskets constantly go on sale and places like HomeGoods have them in spades. Bookshelves and dressers? They're a dime a dozen. Keep your eyes open at thrift stores, flea markets or the curb or take advantage of freebies from friends and relatives. If it has good bones, just break out the chalk paint and you have a gorgeous piece that you won't feel bad about getting rid of when you have the money for something more high end.
Window Treatments - We're big advocates of custom window treatments. Off-the-rack curtains only come in a few sizes (typically 84" and 96") and rarely fit windows correctly. Luxe window treatments pull everything together and add a level of sophistication to a space. However, when you're on a budget, pretty but inexpensive drapes can do the trick for a little while. Curtains should hang higher than the top of the windows, so those 84" ones are a no-go. If you can sew, you'd be better off getting creative with a remnant piece of fabric.
Dinnerware, Servingware and Glassware (essentially of the wares) - For your first adult apartment, focus on the bigger ticket items and save the fancy flatware, glasses and plates for one day down the road. Unless you're always entertaining, they'll just sit in your cabinet.
The bottom line? Prioritize. Invest in what you use every day, things that spark joy and pieces that will last for years to come. The rest will fall into place over time. Creating your dream space is a process and having patience and slowly collecting pieces just makes them more meaningful.