How to Decorate Your First Real Apartment

Reader R wonders about how to decorate her first apartment after grad school…

I’m about to graduate law school and will be moving into my first “grown up” apartment soon. I’ve never really had to buy furniture, decorate, or do any of that kind of stuff before, so I would love to see a post on the basics of how to go about it. I’m not ready to invest in serious re-modeling or fancy antiques or anything like that, but I’d like to create a nice environment for myself and get some furniture that I can keep for at least a few years. Thanks!

Congratulations! I’m curious to hear what readers say. My own experience with interior decoration has been somewhat surprising. You see, I’ve always considered myself fairly fashionable and style savvy — so it kind of blew me away how much my first apartment (between college and law school) really looked horrible. My roommate and I decided to paint the living room a horrid shade of yellow… and then complement that with a pink rug. (I’m pretty sure this was all her idea.) My bedroom was even worse, if that’s possible. I had my posters from college, a really cheap rug, a huge folding table (which I thought would be a great idea to use as a really big desk… guess what was just a huge eyesore in my room?) and … wait for it … a huge La-Z-Boy reclining armchair, borrowed from my parents. It was like I forgot the “chic” part of “shabby chic.”  In addition to looking absolutely horrible, I hated spending time there — but didn’t know how to make it better.

I was determined to not let the same horrible decorating happen again after law school, so I read a bunch of design magazines, such as Elle Decor, and ripped a ton of pages out that inspired me. (These days I would probably spend a lot of time on Pinterest instead!)  Because I was going to be in a studio — and expected to be home only late at night, after a long day of work — I decided that I wanted one color scheme throughout the space, and that I wanted a happy, bright color scheme. So I chose one of my grandmother’s old scarves from the ’60s, with shades of navy, white, hot pink, and yellow, and based the entire “design” around that. (I had planned to hang the scarf as a piece of art on the wall, but at the last minute an ironing disaster happened and the scarf was ruined — you can see the tip of the iron in the upper left-hand corner.)  But here’s the crazy thing:  the apartment still looked great!  Well, it was still filled with Ikea “placeholders” (until I found great furniture I actually loved, I said — it’s amazing how much of it I still have now, even if it’s just in my son’s nursery), and it had a lot of hot pink and yellow, but I quite liked it.

My apartment now is still a work in progress, but the other main thing I’ve learned is that if you buy pieces that you love, they’ll all work together in a weird way.  For example, in our bedroom we have the strangest mixture of really modern things (such as our lamps, a bright blue wall, and large canvas prints of photos from our wedding) mixed with really traditional things (such as dark cherry furniture we had custom made for us from Amish Country in Ohio, a pinkey/green rug my mother-in-law bought for us as a gift during her travels in Turkey, and my wedding bouquet, dried and framed, hanging on the wall)… and the room totally, completely works.

So here are my tips:

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– Decorate your apartment with an eye towards your lifestyle.  If you won’t be home except at night, either try to avoid dark, somber colors or splurge for lamps you really love.

– Find something that inspires you for your color scheme.  If you’re in a studio, consider keeping this color scheme consistent throughout; if you’re not you might want to consider a color scheme for each room.  It can be anything.

– Figure out how much you can afford to spend on furniture right out of the gate.  This is kind of a delicate balance in that a) you don’t want to just buy a ton of stuff right now as your tastes might change and mature, and your odds of actually “loving” everything from the few stores you can go to right now are pretty slim, but — that said — b) you should probably face the fact that you’re likely to have these pieces for at least the next 10 years, so you should purchase the best quality you can.  With my couch, I remember thinking that I wanted a modern-looking couch, that was comfortable, that had a full-size sleeper bed in it, that was available in navy (to fit the color scheme), and wasn’t too huge.  There were very few couches that fit that description at the time I was looking, and I wound up having to decide between a leather Ikea couch, a custom couch, or just punting and using arm chairs until I found one that fit exactly what I wanted.  I got the Ikea couch, and while I don’t regret it, it’s something I’ve been meaning to replace for about 5 years now.

– Make your apartment as “complete” as you can before you start work.  This was part of my thinking with the couch (as mentioned above) — when I started work in BigLaw, I expected my life to be very, very busy, without a lot of leisurely time for wandering around New York or its suburbs to look for furniture pieces.  If I hadn’t purchased everything in the months before I started, I probably would have had a half-empty apartment with folding chairs until I was a third- or fourth-year associate.

Readers, what are your tips for interior decor — particularly for decorating your first apartment?

(Psst: don’t forget we’ve talked about how much to spend on rent, as well as how (and when) to buy your first home…)

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  1. My main piece of advice would be to go slow. You don’t need to furnish all at once. The only thing you really need in your apartment at move-in is a bed. Don’t buy anything, especially big ticket items, you don’t absolutely love. Visit a variety of furniture stores, antique stores, estate sales, and so on. Remember that your furniture is probably going to be the centerpiece of each room for 10 years or more and will be with you throughout multiple moves. Pick it out carefully.

    Also, make a reasonable budget and stick to it. Furniture can get really, really expensive; make sure you’ve planned for the expense, and if you splurge on one item, make sure you save on another to make up for it.

    • I agree, up to a point. You don’t want to get ugly furniture just to get furniture.

      But seriously, do get the basics. I didn’t have a kitchen/dining table for almost two years out of law school. It was such a huge relief once I finally got one – my apartment finally felt complete and livable!

    • I , too, feel much more comfortable when I have at least basic items, but I don’t think a bed is necessarily one of those – air mattresses can be pretty comfortable. Or, you can always get a real mattress and just put it on the floor until you find a bed you like. Better than wasting your money on something you dislike that you’ll just want to replace in a year.

      • Always a NYer :

        “Or, you can always get a real mattress and just put it on the floor until you find a bed you like.”

        That makes me think of a line from Two Broke Girls when the brunette walks into the apartment to find the blonde sprawled out on the mattress and she exclaims, “Oh no, we’re not having a mattress on the floor. We’re poor, not cr*ckheads.”

      • Huh? Aren’t cheap metal bed frames under $100 these days or am I missing something? I think when I got my bed frame it was like $60- well worth it to be off the floor.

        • Yup, those little metal frames on wheels are under $100. They’re not classy — but they’re cheap and they get your mattress off the floor! Geesh.

        • We found a metal bed frame at a thrift store for $10. There was a whole room of them in assorted sizes. We’ve lived with that and a $10 white bed skirt from TJ Maxx for 6 years. There are very, very cheap ways to avoid living with your mattress on the floor!

        • We bought our mattress set in a Labor Day sale, and the salesperson threw in their second fanciest metal frame to sweeten the deal.

        • One of the nicer Ikea items is a white metal frame with the swirly design. My mom has one in the guest room. I think it’s $99. It looks like something out of an Anthropologie catalog. I even considered getting one for my bedroom I liked it so much (we ended up going with a upholstered headboard).

          • momentsofabsurdity :

            I have that one! I’m considering spray painting it black to make it look like wrought iron. It’s super sturdy as well. If you like a high up bed, it’s quite tall with a box spring.

    • I lived on an air mattress for three months because I didn’t know what KIND of mattress wanted (living in a studio, so do I go daybed or queen sized). I’m glad I waited until I was able to feel my way around the furniture.

      I still just have a metal bed frame for my mattress, as an actual bed set (headboard/footboard) would take up the entire bedroom.

    • I’d recommend picking up a couch fairly quickly, in a basic, neutral color. My first couch was a cream color twill, on the small side, that I bought for $200 at Dillards on sale. I kept that thing for 15 years, it became a bedroom couch when I got married and moved into a larger house. I just kept buying different throw pillows for it.

    • Nolalawyer :

      I agree. Don’t go crazy buying furniture … You won’t be home much anyway the first couple of years. Buy yourself a nice new comfortable mattress and box spring (ifyou’re willing to haggle a little, most bedding retailers will throw in the bed frame for free.) on other pieces like the kitchen table, coffee table, etc., take your time. Check out places like Ikea for inexpensive pieces that will work while you get on your feet. Also, don’t discount getting secondhand pieces off Craigslist. It takes some patience to weed out the gems from the schlock, but it can generate big savings on quality pieces. As you get settled into your career, you can replace those pieces one at a time.

  2. Seattleite :

    Pick your paint colors last. It’s much easier to coordinate paint with existing furniture and curtains than it is to find furniture/curtains that work with the paint. It’s tempting to paint first, because the rooms are empty…but trust me, don’t do it.

    • I would, respectfully, disagree. Especially in this instance where the OP is going to be buying new furniture and can opt to coordinate the furniture to the paint. If you’re going to paint, do it when you first move in or it may never get done (or will be a huge pain in the ass to do). I say this from experience. I think it might be a somewhat different story if you’re buying a house and know you will stay there a long time, but I am guessing that if the OP is moving into her first post-law school apartment, it will be a rental and she will not be there for the next decade. So, if you’d like to, paint now, or you’ll end up like me, close to your lease end date, and too cheap to spend the money because you “might” be moving again soon.

    • Anonsensical :

      Great advice ~ I’ve done it the other way around and had a horrible time finding things to match the shade I picked. For example, the shade of plum in my bedroom is lovely, but I can’t find any curtains or bedding that look right with it. I finally found a quilt that comes close, but I need to repaint in a shade that’s just a little bit off from what I started with. Start with a piece of furniture, a painting, curtains – something you love and know will be in the room. Then pull a color out of that to make the room look pulled together.

      • Seattleite :

        Yes, that’s it exactly. That lovely shade of [whatever] might need just another squirt of blue or yellow to make it coordinate well with your soft furnishings. If the color isn’t right, it can be jarring every time you walk into the room. It’s really disheartening to be limited to beige or white because your wall color and the materials you fell in love with have different undertones.

  3. Join pintrest! :) Lots of ideas to go through!

  4. I actually just moved into my first place a few months ago! I took a week off to buy furniture and move, but I was on the lookout at Target and IKEA for furniture for weeks ahead of my move. If you haven’t been inside of your apartment before you move in, definitely bookmark stuff but don’t buy it yet. I almost bought a table at Target that was “perfect” and on sale but then I realized how BIG it was compared to my space and had to pass, but I eventually found a table that worked for me.
    I also have an IKEA couch and while it’s great for how much I paid, I can’t wait to buy a new one that will make me want to sit there and lounge.

  5. One thing I always advise people is not to get a sleeper couch as your only couch, unless you have a decent amount of time to spend on it. Cheap sleeper couches tend to be ultra uncomfortable beds, and most of the time they aren’t even comfortable as a couch either. Meanwhile you can get an air mattress for under $100 and a nice couch for the same price as an inexpensive sleeper.

    One thing to think about with furniture is that most showrooms other than Ikea may actually negotiate with you if you buy more than one piece. Sometimes it doesn’t really end up costing that much more to buy somewhere other than Ikea.

    • Agreed. My husband and I bought an expensive sleeper couch and love it, but the cheaper ones were awful and not worth it.

      • Agreed. Love the idea of a sleeper couch for guests in my small apartment, but the expensive ones are really, really expensive and the cheap ones are not comfortable. Also, they are all incredibly heavy! something to consider when you are in a phase of life where you may be moving fairly often.

    • locomotive :

      This. So much. I just moved into my first ‘real’ apartment in September and got a large convertible futon-bed (anticipating my friends/family/anyone visiting) and it is a horribly uncomfortable cough. I’m considering dumping it already and getting a real couch but am kind of just kicking myself for wasting $400.

    • I know it sounds dorm room-y, but I splurged right out of college on a very nice futon with a high-quality mattress , and have never regretted it. I think I spent $700 or so, including a custom cover, at a local store that specialized in futons. It’s held up to constant wear for six years now, it’s contemporary looking, and it allows for family visitors in what would otherwise be a too-small apartment. And it’s actually more comfortable than my bed.

  6. My suggestion is to go basic on the colors for the big things – like walls, sofas, and chairs. Then add color w/ throw pillows, throw blankets, stacked books, and other decor. I bought a sofa from Ballard design ($1000) with a slipcover. If (when) the slipcover gets too worn to clean, I can just order another slipcover for much less than the cost of a new sofa.

    Target has a lot of great furniture, some of which you will have to assemble. But it is cheap and looks pretty good.

    I second the advice to add pieces slowly. I think your place will look more grown-up with missing pieces rather than with junky hand-me-downs. (Some hand-me-downs are great!)

  7. Formerly Preggo Angie :

    Does anyone know someone who can help with interior design in Northern California? We purchased a beautiful home, and I’m ok with the family room looking like the Target toy aisle, but really need help making the bedroom the “retreat” I’ve always wanted.

  8. Christina :

    IKEA all the way. Relatively cheap, stylish and modern looking furniture, easy to put together, and will get you through the first few years until you have the ability to spend more on furniture. I’m a first year associate and that place has been my savior since getting my first apartment back when I started law school.

    • Ikea only part of the way? :

      I would say that Ikea is good for some things, not others. Our (higher-end) entertainment console, coffee table, couch (I love it, sleep on it a lot!), and dining room table are in good shape. Our dining room chairs and bookshelves, on the other hand, are creaky and wobbly. I love a nice, big floor lamp we got from them, but the small bedside lamp with the papery shade was a huge failure. You may want to ask around, see who likes what Ikea stuff and who wishes they had bought second-hand or saved to buy nicer stuff.

      I do love my Ikea alarm clock, which lets me record the noise that will serve as my wake-up alarm. I also get my dark chocolate bars from Ikea….

      For carpets, you can go to a carpet store and see if they have “ends,” which are usually a lot cheaper than the main stuff off the roll. We got our living room and bedroom rugs that way. (ABC in Manhattan on the west side of Broadway, down in the basement.)

      • I agree. A full ikea apartment does not look good but a a partially ikea furnished one can look great.

    • We just bought two armchairs at IKEA along with red slipcovers. I adore them. They are really nicely sized (on the slimmer side) and look a lot more expensive than they were (about $500).

      And that leads me to my advice that I learned from my decorator: buying two matching armchairs and putting them across from your couch can really make a room look put together. Ours sit next to each other with a little pedastal table in between, across from our couch, with a cute rug and coffee table in between. I adore it.

      Also, buy cool trays when you see them, especially at resale shops. Put your knick knacks on them. It makes the whole room look way more intentional.

      • These are the armchairs we bought:

        • Can't wait to quit :

          Amazing! I bought two of an earlier generation of that chair, and put them across from the couch! No wonder my living room is so nice!

      • Where do you put TV in that scenerio? Designers always do this and put the tv to the side and I never find that workable

        • Easy: We don’t have a TV in that room. :) I know that’s not that helpful if you have to have one in the room.

          • ha so there we go. I only have the one living room and we are very sports- good tv centered house. I always cringe when designers do it and put the guy or girls big beautiful tv to the side!

        • just Karen :

          I’ve seen it where people use low-back chairs that are easy to see over and put the tv behind the chairs, facing the couch. It takes a fairly good sized room to work, but I’ve seen it work well. Not great if you have lots of sports watch parties, but in theory you’d use the chairs more with company when you want to chat or play board games over the coffee table, and when you’re vegging on the couch you still have a clear line of site. Alas, my condo has an oddly shaped living room/dining room combo and this doesn’t work for me.

    • We have a lot of furniture from Ikea, and I agree that it can be hit-or-miss. Our winners are: coffee table and end tables, dining room table and more expensive matching bookcase, couch, desk, and poang chair/ottoman. Losers are: cheap bookcases, electronics tower (dubbed “The Leaning Tower of Electronics”), dining room table chairs (admittedly, we think that one was broken by a 300 lb guy at a party), and desk chair (if you sit in it a lot, which I did).

    • Disagree on the IKEA. Check out craigslist and you’ll see that about half the items for sale are Ikea items. They just don’t stand the test of time.

      I’m sitting on my leather chesterfield sofa I splurged on 20+ years ago from a custom design shop. It was a huge decision for me at the time, but in terms of cost per year, we’re down to less than $100.

      On the other hand, the cheaper armchairs I’ve tried saving money on have never lasted. I’m on my third pair.

      So, I’d say go slowly and spend big on one or two items you truly, truly love.

    • Anonymous :

      I respectfully disagree. Ikea is horrible, low quality furniture. For the same cost, I’d much rather hit HousingWorks or Goodwill and slipcover/recover.

      The only thing I’d really recommend from Ikea is their bookcases (Billy or Expedit), so you can do an entire library wall on the cheap. That said, both Target and WalMart have the same quality bookshelves for the same price, and both T & WM are more conveniently located for most people.

      As the first poster said, go slow. No need to fill up on cheap carbohydrate furniture.

      • “Ikea is horrible, low quality furniture. ”

        I was going to be snarky, but I’ll pass. You’re wrong. My Ikea furniture is lovely and has lasted years. Same goes for everyone else I know with Ikea furniture. If you buy the cheapest thing they offer, of course it won’t be the best quality. But if you buy something nice, it’s nice.

        • Anonymous :

          Its great that your Ikea has lasted a long time. Not to snark back, but go visit a Baker showroom — THAT is good quality furniture. Ikea is not.

        • ikea offers a range of furniture, from very cheap (for us poor folks) to more expensive and durable. And if you chose your purchases based on your needs and your lifestyle, it can work just great for a range of people.

      • Anonymous :

        I bought Ikea furniture (dresser, armoire, bookshelf, console table, and two nightstands) 4+ years ago and I’ve moved it 3 times. The dresser had a rough moment when the movers decided to be lazy and lift it from the top board instead of the bottom/sides, but a little wood glue fixed it up. The rest are all in great condition and the dark espresso stain looks nice enough for my one year out of law school lifestyle.

        Sometimes I think I’d like to replace it, but then I remember that I’m young, single, and considering moving cities in a few years. It makes no sense in my situation to spend a lot of money on nice stuff to have to move it cross-country, or potentially sell it if I get married and have to merge households.

        So some people may think IKEA is horrible, but without it my “furniture” would probably be milk crates and those white plastic Rubbermaid chests of drawers, or else I’d have an extra couple grand of student loan debt from buying the stuff that passes those people’s approval. I’ll take my IKEA, thank you very much.

        • 7 years out of college, still fully Ikea :)
          Ikea is awesome. You can experiment with furniture cheaply until you figure out what works for your lifestyle and settle down a bit; at that point you can upgrade to quality pieces.
          Bonus: when you’re ready to sell your Ikea furniture (b/c of moving or upgrading to other brands), you can easily unload it on Craigslist, often for 1/2 or more of what you paid.
          The only downside is that Ikea couches don’t last more than maybe 5 years in my experience, and the bookshelves don’t do well in moves. For some of the pieces it’s actually better to take them apart for the move (Expedit comes to mind) than to risk them breaking.

  9. I would suggest picking your priority pieces and spending decent money on those, and fill in the rest with more disposable furniture to be replaced in 2-3 years.

    For example, my bed is important to me, so I splurged on a great mattress and bedding. I was lucky to get a solid wood hand-me-down headboard/nightstand/dresser set, but would have happily forgone the headboard and gotten Target/Ikea nightstand and dresser. Then in 3-4 years gotten a furniture set.

    Similarly, I invested in my couch and chair, but got Target/Ikea tables. (I guess I value comfy sitting/lounging areas more than wooden tables.) Using this method I have a home that looks and feels nice, and I haven’t broken the budget.

    Also, check out Big Lots. I have found some great “disposable” find there.

    • Agree, agree, agree! Figure out what your priority pieces are and keep an eye open for surprise finds. (Before all that though, congrats and have fun!)

      I think the mattress you get is a HUGE importance since a comfortable, supportive bed will help your body rest (so you can go out and kick more butt the next day). I’m not saying spend a ton of money on a handmade bed that uses fibers that were spoken to lovingly while they were growing out in the field; go test a few beds and figure what you like that’s within your price range. In that same vein, bed linens might be important, too. They were to me since I get cold easily and and am particular about how sheets feel (can’t stand sateen) and the weight of blankets (love them HEAVY like a sheet of lead).

      Towels were also important to me since some leave you feeling slimy and linty. My favorite Lacoste towels I found at great prices at TJ Maxx and I got the matching beach ones that at a Macy’s sale (and used eBates, too). (I also adore my Aquis towel for drying my hair that I’ve had for jeez like 8 years now.)

      Closet organization stuff so you can find your things easily every day! (I’m a closet organization nerd and it’s mostly from Target/IKEA/Wal-Mart.)

      As for surprise finds…
      – My bed frame and dresser are a matching set that I fell in love with at first sight. They’re so beautiful to me, especially since the variation of color in the wood reminds me of my beloved (now gone) Brindle Boxer’s fur. That and the lines on the furniture are simple and elegantly minimalist. The matching nightstands I didn’t like and ended up with some plain dark wood Target nightstands I like.
      – While looking at the above set, I glanced over and saw the most beautiful, dark chocolate brown couch. With the way the seating was tufted, it looked like a big chocolate bar that I knew I must have. I still love my couch although it’s not comfortable enough for sleeping on for anything longer than a nap.
      – Another surprise find was a vintage desk from a consignment store (and where I discovered I like Queen Anne legs) that in my current (smaller) apartment serves as an entry table/storage for kitchen linens, slippers, office supplies… I just switched out the hideous knobs with some I liked from Target.
      – Gorgeous minimalist crystal lamps with square shades from TJ Maxx.
      – A kidney bean-shaped cabinet from a consignment store that I use as liquor storage.

      I think a home is created when you mix and match. I love that my home is a mix from different places and that everything in my home I really like. All my furniture is neutral– dark brown, white, clear, mirror and grey. (I LOOOOOVE grey.) It’s the accessories and art that are colorful. It does take time. My friends tease me because they know I have an audition process, will not hesitate to return something and that I’m very particular (and actually really enjoy the process).

      Oh! Another thing (before I write a freaking thesis on home dec and veer off into organization and storage) is to browse blogs for inspiration and even try some DIY.

  10. Ooooh, I love decorating. Here are a few of my tips:
    -Do paint. I know it’s a pain in the butt to do it and then (depending on your lease and/or safety deposit) paint back, but it makes such a huge difference in the look and feel of the room. On that same note, don’t forget about wall art and photos.
    -Buy the best quality you can afford, but still shop around. You’d be amazed at what you can sometimes find in the “discount” stores or even thrift/second-hand shops. It takes more time, but you can save yourself money. Yes, you may have to replace stuff in a few years, but if you spend some time hunting you can find some good quality stuff on the cheap.
    -This is your space so fill it with stuff you love, not just stuff that’s stylish or cool. You’re the one living there, so you should like it! I’m a total bookworm, so I installed some bookshelves and filled them with all my favorite books and ones I have yet to read. I may be exposing my slightly odd taste in books to my guests, but whatever – having them there makes me happy.
    -Two things I highly recommend splurging on – bath towels and bed linens. (1) I hate scratchy, cheap bath towels and it’s so nice to wrap yourself in a nice soft towel after your morning shower. (2) As a new lawyer, you’re gonna work your tail off and you’re gonna want some wonderfully soft and comfy sheets to fall into at the end of the day.
    -I whole-heartedly agree with Kat that you should do as absolutely much of the decorating/unpacking as you can before you start work. You’ll feel miserable if you come home from work to unpacked boxes and a half-finished space.

  11. I second Bluejay’s advice to go slow. No need to get everything all at once. Be on the lookout for good estate or yard sales and the furniture surplus sales (when furniture stores set stuff up in a warehouse to sell off quickly). I have a Droid and downloaded an app for Craigslist that lets you set search alerts, so when we’re looking for something, I set an alert for our area and the item to help find things more efficiently.

    If you are in the DC area, I highly recommend the Upscale Resale Thrift Shop in Rockville for furniture purchases. We got a china cabinet and hutch for $80 there (plus $40 for them to deliver it–not worth the hassle for us and still a great deal), and you can check their website to see what kind of furniture they have in stock.

    • Anonylawyer :

      Thanks for that tip!!!

      • Do you mean the Upscale Resale tip? If you’re going to check them out, I also reocmmend going to Patel’s Grocery in the same strip mall, if you like Indian food. We get spices, lentils, and lots of 99 cent heat-and-eat meals there.

    • Ditto! We moved to the DC area awhile back, and I really want to get some new furniture pieces that fit our (much smaller) place here.

  12. Craigslist can be a huge budget saver for furniture, especially if you are near a large city and have access to a vehicle with a lot of cargo space. I have about a dozen various pieces of IKEA furniture and I found all but two of them on Craigslist for about half price.

    • I second this! I got some fabulous Thomas Moser furniture (handmade, great design and materials) off Craigslist for less than half price.

      • Totally agree – I found wonderful nearly band new pieces on craigslist for my first few apartments. People in NYC always seemed to be getting rid of coffee tables and kitchen tables in particular, along with bookshelves. I never saw the need to buy those new.

    • I third this. I’d add on that you can often find much higher quality furniture on Craigslist (real hardwood!) if you’re willing to spend some time looking. I especially like Craigslist for anything not upholstered. I’m paranoid of bed bugs, so I’m not sure I’d buy a couch or anything from there.

    • Thirded, and want to throw in a rec to look at resale sites that many colleges run. I’ve found great stuff during move-out season from students and professors at dirt cheap prices. Watch out for signs of bedbugs on any furniture though!

    • momentsofabsurdity :

      Another good idea – rent a cargo van from uHaul for 19.99/day for a Saturday. Spend 1-2 weeks beforehand perusing Craigslist and scheduling pickups. Spend all day driving around town and getting furniture. BAM furnished apartment for (usually) under $200!

  13. Recent grad :

    I’m in a similar situation as Reader R. Does anyone have suggestions for places in Chicago to look for starter furniture and/or decorative stuff?

    • Kelly in Chicago :

      I’d recommend the Fort Pitt hotel furniture outlet in Chicago. ( Certainly do not plan to outfit your entire place there, but they have some great couches and great statement piece chairs. (I went and saw a couch I really liked the other day, but need to decide some things before I buy.) If you were to buy everything together, it will indeed look like you live in a hotel, but they have a lot of stuff from higher-end hotels and some great accent tables, etc for great prices. This place is particularly great if you had a particular color-scheme in mind and didn’t mind painting your nightstand/hutch to match, as there was a lot of blonde wood stuff that was kind of generic looking but could be “wow” with a pop of color. Also, they have REALLY great deals on mirrors and frames (I’d change out the ugly art). I also plan on going back this summer to get some outdoor patio furniture because they had some really nice wicker sets with huge glass-topped ottomans/coffee tables.

      • Nadeau Outlet on Ravenswood. Google it and get on their e-mailing list — lovely solid wood stuff for a fraction of what you’d pay at Room + Board.

        Crate & Barrel Outlet in Naperville, if you have a car, can turn up some good finds as well.

        • Backgrounder :

          Second Nadeau…they have great, unique pieces imported from India, Malaysia and other locales. I’ve purchased a pub table, two chairs, a coffee table, two camelbone trays and two Buddha heads from them. You can sign up for their email list and they will email you every time they get a shipment in.

          Also for the posters in DC above I believe Nadeau just opened a store in Alexandria, VA.

    • Frustrated Academic :

      Try Direct Auctions which is way up on Western Ave–like 7000 North (google Chicago Antique Auctions), There are auctions every other week and the items are fabulous. We’ve purchased dressers, a desk, bookcases, etc. and have been really happy with everything. The only caveat is that the items are preowned–but as we saw am oak dining set with six chairs go for $50 a few weeks ago, my fiance and I looked at each other and bemoaned the fact that we did not know about this place when we were poor starving students.

  14. Thread-jack. Posted later last evening, posting again today.

    I’d be interested to hear about people’s financial planning. Specifically, where do you go for affordable financial advice? I’ve been struggling with this issue for a while and need ideas.
    My situation is: mid-to-late-20s, first job out of law school, single and no kids. I work for a government which means my salary is modest. It has become very real to me that I’m fully responsible for my financial future.
    I’m not asking for specific advice so much as asking whether people do their own financial planning, go to a professional, read books, blogs, etc. I have tried to think it through and learn it by myself but feel like I’m running in circles. I’m very much at a loss but know that this is an incredibly big thing that I need to master. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • I have basically spoken to a few friends and family members whom I trust about money, and then read the random NYT article or other blog entry in my Google Reader feed. I am in a similar situation, and I plan as follows:
      1 – Put $20K into a savings account and forget about it. This is my rainy day fund.
      2 – Max out my IRA and 401(k) every year. (Both are Roths, so I am paying the tax now, not when I retire. And I have no matching from my employer, but this is still the most efficient way to save.)
      3 – I keep my expenses down and $2K in my checking account. Whatever I have left at the end of the month, I put into a mutual fund (Vanguard).

      If I ever had a gazillion dollars, maybe I would look into real estate and other types of investing, but for now, this seems like the simplest way for a money-phobic person to save/plan. It helps that since I don’t have kids and don’t want to buy a home, I don’t have any shorter-term things to be saving for than retirement. And I guess when I have costs coming up, like I know I am going on a vacation or will be attending 25 weddings and have to get gifts for each, I don’t put my leftover cash into my mutual fund, I just keep it in the checking account until I need it.

      I would recommend spending this year tracking your finances, so that at the end, you know roughly how much went toward “necessary” purchases, savings, taxes, frivolities, etc. Aim to max out your 401(k) and IRA. And then see where you are and how much you could be putting into other investment vehicles. And make sure you have a good-sized emergency fund.

    • I have a financial planner who I met through my church. He’s really dorky and tells us to pay down our mortgage agressively, so I trust that he isn’t just trying to sell us stuff. But I hear that a lot of them just feel like salespeople. So, I would ask people you know if they can recommend one.

      I also bought Personal Finance for Dummies based on the Hive’s recommendation, but I haven’t read much of it yet.

    • I do it myself and primarily learned from books and a few websites. My favorite book is The Boglehead’s Guide to Investing but there are many good ones out there. I like books better than websites for a deep topic like investing but websites have good tips for saving money.

    • I am in first job out of law school, 28, and married. We haven’t done much for financial planning. We both have life insurance through work that will cover our mortgage. I max out my 401(k). I’m not sure of my husband’s retirement plan (through the state), but I think they require a certain contribution and that’s all he makes. Other than that, we save at least 10% of each paycheck. We haven’t done any real planning, but I think we should. We have some friends who are financial advisors, so that is where we will go whenever we get around to it.

    • Anon for this :

      My husband and I are in our early thirties. He’s worked since undergrad, I worked for a number of years and then took time off to go back to law school. First job out of law school. No kids. We have a lot of credit card debt (which we are about to pay off in full!!), a lot of (my) student loan debt, and some savings.

      The vast majority of what we’ve learned has been through reading books or blogs. I have occasionally discussed financial planning with a select group of close friends. I thought Dave Ramsey’s ‘Smart Couples Finish Rich’ was helpful, and he has one called ‘Smart Women Finish Rich’ (or something to that effect. I’m sure the principles are the same). I did respond to a cold call from a financial advisor, and he developed (for free) a financial plan for us (obviously with the hopes of getting our business – we gave him an IRA to manage, and also bought life insurance from him since we needed life insurance). He basically did an analysis of our expenses, and said that to maintain our standard of living in our retirement, we needed to put aside a certain amount of money each year on top of maxing out our 401ks (in a basic brokerage account, so it’ll earn interest). Eventually we plan to do this, but we want to build our emergency fund before we start contributing to something like that.

      I think a lot of information can be very overwhelming, and a lot of people are convinced that their way is the right way. My suggestion is that you first build up a small emergency fund (usual recommendation is 4-6 months of expenses. Start by saving 1-2 months while paying the minimums on debts), and then once you have that in the bank, figure out your tolerance for debt versus savings (aside from student loans, do you have consumer debt? how quickly do you pay that off versus building an emergency fund?), and go from there (divvying up your leftover cash between savings and debt repayment).

      • Anon for this :

        Sorry, realized that it’s David Bach (not Ramsey – although people here recommend Ramsey too, I think).

    • I am in basically the same situation as you. We’re all learning at this point. I really think that knowledge is power [and it makes me feel more comfortable knowing others are in my situation!] I have started reading a number of personal finance blogs. You can google themself, there are SO many of them. I could reccomend some, but I’ve found that there are some I like, some I don’t. I generally read a bunch of articles and pick and choose what advice to follow. I’m still mastering it too, but from what I gather, there are few major points on which most people agree. Get an emergency fund [can start small, but continue to add], pay down debt ASAP, and start saving for retirement ASAP.

      Personally, this is what I have been doing. Never had a FT job, just out of law school, mid 20s, temping at a govt agency. I have little money to spare after bills, loans, etc, but after having read how much that pot of retirement money can increase, I started out very slowly opening the retirement account that was best for me. It’s a very minimal amount right now, but I hope it will grow in the future. I also picked my loan with the highest interest rate and try to put an extra $10 per payment. Thats really all I can afford at this point. I have $1000 in an emergency budget, but realistically that won’t help me all that much during a real emergency or if I become unemployed.

      • I highly recommend LearnVest. It has great personal finance content geared specifically towards women (in all life stages), free budgeting software (similar to Mint) and you can pay to have a financial planner review your finances and create a plan for you. The financial planners are independent – not tied to any particular financial service – so they do not try to sell you on any products. I just had my first phone consultation with the planner and am awaiting my “plan” but so far I’m impressed. It takes the financial stress away from all the upcoming life changes (graduating law school, trying to find job, moving cross country, etc.).

    • Middle Coast :

      Government workers do not have a 401K plan, rather a 457 plan. You might also have a defined-benefit pension plan. You may or may not be subject to social security, depending on your agency. A run-of-the-mill financial planner usually knows nothing about these plans and may steer you wrong. Make sure whoever you deal with has experience with government employees. If your agency offers the ICMA version of the 457, it comes with free online financial planning. Once your account hits $200,000, you get free personal one-on-one financial planning with an expert in government retirement planning.

    • I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I really liked Suze Orman’s book for twenty-somethings. I think it’s called Young, Broke and Fabulous…

    • I have a related question. I am getting married soon, and my fiance and I have very different financial backgrounds (he comes from wealth, I come from a middle-class background). Not only do we bring different debt/savings ratios into the marriage, but we have different attitudes on spending. I am nervous that if we don’t sit down to talk this all through with someone it will be something that comes back to bite us later on, but I don’t know where to find such a person without spending an arm and a leg that we don’t have right now. Any advice is appreciated!

      • Ask for it as a wedding present. If his family has money there’s a chance they have a family financial planner or will be really relieved that you’re serious about finances.

        I would also suggest some couple’s therapy (even if you’re in love and have no problems) just to have someone there if you need to hash out any other issues (children, communication, etc.). Think of financial planning and couple’s therapy as emotional investments that out your relationship on a solid (and professionally helped out!) footing. You wouldn’t buy a house or a used car without getting a professional in there to make sure it was safe, so why wouldn’t you get professional help for the most important relationship of your life?

  15. I agree with the advice to go slow.

    Buy basics. Visit second hand furniture stores and flea markets – you can buy some great “real wood” pieces that will cost as much or less than some particle board crap from Ikea or Target. Don’t discount Ikea, though, they have some legitimately great stuff, you just have to look for it.

    Don’t forget to decorate your walls, consider putting up some pretty curtains (Ikea has cute simple ones, actually), get a nice plant to brighten the space up and water it once a week (Ikea has plants ;)). If you can, get a nice simple rug. Overstock dot com has some really affordable, cute one; Homegoods has great 100% wool rugs for around $100-$200. A nice rug can really tie the room together …

    I think the advice to go neutral on most pieces and add color through accents is a great idea.

    Above all, just enjoy the process. It’s an ongoing adventure. Your apartment will look much better if you don’t try to do it all at once (when the impulse will be to just buy everything that matches).

    • I love Ikea for decor items. Bedding, curtains, mirrors, kitchen things (I have yet to find graters as good as my Ikea set), and other things like that.

    • Dude, that rug tied the whole room together!
      (Sorry — couldn’t resist.)

  16. MissJackson :

    Our strategy has been to buy high quality furniture, very, very slowly. That means that we live with a weird combination of some gorgeous furniture and some… old, crappy furniture (hello, decade old floral pattern couches inherited from my husband’s grandmother – we do at least have the slipcovered). Annoying? Yes. But, we buy several new pieces of furniture a year (we try to hit sales at the high quality places) and are slowly but surely outfitting our house with things that I hope we’ll keep for a very long time without breaking the bank. Plus, but building our rooms over time, it’s easier to know what will or won’t work. And, as a bonus, we have coordinating but not “matchy matchy” pieces. If you buy a bed one year, and your nightstands 3 years later, there is no temptation to just “buy the set” (I prefer non-matching items, by ymmv).

    As for decorating — I think that it’s most important to be true to yourself. That means we have art that has meaning to us, even if it doesn’t have a lot of “value”. Items we’ve brought back from travel, prints made by our artist friends, art depicting our home towns/states. We’re willing to pay $200 to frame a $30 map/poster that we brought back from our honeymoon because we love it (and, it absolutely looks amazing).

    I think it’s a good idea not to put too much pressure on yourself to make things look “perfect” immediately. Most people have some transition from student to adult (um, my transition is going on 10 years and I’ve still got the ugly couches). Of course, you want a space that makes you happy. But try to find a balance.

    • We have a $20 antique map reproduction hung over our mantle, and I LOVE it. I had it custom framed (Michael’s with a 60% off coupon). I couldn’t agree more about hanging things that are significant and meaningful to you….the next one on my list is a jazz fesitval promotional poster from our small town. To me, that is so much more personal and interesting than generic pictures of birds that look like they could go in a hotel room — but that match your color scheme perfectly. Of course, I also have antique squash racquets hung over a tv in our family room because my husband is a huge squash player. I bought them on ebay for $40. He loves it, and they’re a great conversation piece (and fill the space nicely).

  17. My first apartment 21-24 was awful. Everything was from IKEA, Walmart, Target, and hand me downs from my Dad. However at the time it was all I was comfortable buying. At 24 I moved into a much nicer building and was spending more than double on rent than in my previous apartment. So I went to Raymour and Flanigan and got zero interest financing for 24 months and splurged on my favorite living room set. I then slowly upgraded the bedroom and kitchen. I now enjoy being at home b/c I love my place. If your at a point where you can afford it I would suggest not skimping. You want to love being home and entertaining people there. It is also easier to unwind after a hard day of work when you love your place.

    Good luck – it is so exciting to get your first place.

    PS – Pier one is AMAZING!

    • Just as an FYI: I recently read somewhere (maybe from a link here) that those zero interest financing deals are pretty terrible for your credit history because it basically makes it look like you have a line of credit completely maxed out for the duration of that plan. If you need to increase your credit score or if you’re going to need it to be “good” sometime soon, I would be very careful to avoid going that route.

      • I did notice that it showed up as a LOC. However it improved my credit b/c it now shows $10 available with only $2k taken.

  18. This may not work for the OP, but I recently hired an interior decorating student at Parsons to redecorate my house. I knew her from before she started there and knew she had great taste, plus we got a great deal and she shopped for us from TJ Maxx, etc. So if you are around any schools like that, it is certainly worth a try. I adore what she did with our house; it is totally my style and so much better than anything I could have done.

    • Speaking of TJ Maxx, you can find a lot of interesting, good-quality home items there and at Ross and the other discount stores. I’ve gotten great kitchen stuff, pillows, rugs, towels, etc. at those stores at deeply discounted prices.

      I would also suggest looking at apartmenttherapy dot com for decorating ideas.

  19. Paralegal :

    I’m a huge fan of accent walls, especially in a small apartment where you don’t want a lot of dark colors. We have a beautiful sapphire blue accent wall in our hallway/living area which adds some nice color without making the fairly small space look like a cave.

    • If you are allowed to paint and feel inclined, I suggest going with Benjamin Moore paint. I wish I had known about it when I had my first places. The colors look so great when up and it is very nice paint to work with. I’ve seen the Consumer Reports info re: best paint at Home Depot, etc. And I have tried those and found Benjamin Moore is definitely worth the money.

  20. One tip: measure the dimensions of your apartment and keep them stored with you in your phone. That way, if you’re window-shopping and see something you really like, you’ll be able to make sure it fits into your apartment. When measuring, I like to sketch out a floor plan, marking in everything from windows to fireplaces to doors, so I can see exactly how the space is laid out. Also, bring a tape measure with you when you shop – even places with good data, like C&B, will often not give you key measurements.

    • agreed. I keep a tape measure in my purse and I use it all the time…even just checking to see if baskets from Target will fit on my shelves. You never know when you’ll spot something that’s perfect, so it’s much easier to know the space you have and the ability to measure whatever it is that you’ve found.

    • This. I had an envelope with floor plans (including present furniture) and sample pieces of my wallpapers for colour matching, and I *always* carried that envelope when I was out browsing.
      There was a couple at a furniture sale who would have been saved a painful phone conversation with their kid at home about exactly how much space there was between the couch and the bookshelf if they had done their homework before they went furniture shopping.