I would define my decorating style as “Dumpster-Diver Chic.” I shamelessly decorate my home with found objects. I mean, I love West Elm, but I have a garage sale budget. I used to feel like this was a limitation, but have learned that there is always a way to make a place feel like home.

The goal is to be creative, not perfect!

I would like to share a few decorating-on-the-cheap tips that I have learned, sometimes the hard way.

Be careful with DIY projects.

Some projects end up being more expensive and traumatic compared to purchasing the actual item.


I once fell in love with an art print at Anthropologie. I wanted it and convinced myself that I was qualified to recreate it. $150 dollars later, I found myself scrambling to explain a nail gun and carpet cleaner purchase to my husband, and he is asking why I made a painting of a “bloody arrow.”

It was supposed to be trees and a bird.

Another time I decided to make my own dress. I read a blog about making your own “dress form.” It said, “To get an accurate picture of your form, wrap yourself in plastic, then stiff paper, then duct tape.” The blogger seemed knowledgeable, and there were great pictures.

I think it would have worked if I had an assistant older than my three-year-old. His inaccuracy of duct tape placement was made up for by thoroughness and quantity. So much so that I was not able to cut myself out as the tutorial directed. My husband is a very patient man, but cutting duct tape, Saran Wrap, and paper sacks off of an immobile, crying woman while she is yelling, “No! Don’t ruin it! I can still save it!” is his limit. I have learned this and am better for it.

Don’t spend money.

Make it a personal challenge to create without spending, especially with seasonal décor. Use what is happening out of doors and bring it in.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with leaves, sticks, and flowers, but check them for nests and critters. I once hatched thousands of baby praying mantises in my dining room from an especially beautiful branch. Although I resolved the matter quickly by leaping, swinging a broom violently through the dining room, and screaming like a tiny girl, I want better for you. Inspect before you infect.

See beauty differently.

Try to see things as potential, not as what they are.

  • That old, paint-splattered work table might be ugly, but what would the top of the table look like as a headboard?
  • Ripped pages from yellowed books are great to write inspirational quotes on.
  • Take the bulbs out of Goodwill-bought Christmas lights, spray paint that green electric cord gold, and screw the bulbs back in for cheap dorm room lighting.
  • Buy a painting because of its frame, not because of the art.

Think outside the box, but don’t be afraid to admit when you utterly fail. I bought an unusual, shallow wicker basket that I set up in my house as a backdrop for a small Christmas tree. Turns out, the “basket” was actually an antique, child’s coffin lid. The statement, “Kids, your gifts are in the coffin lid” isn’t a Christmas-y thing to say. It’s a therapy thing to say. See the difference?  This is an example of a failure.

1974 Bells Article
As the Associate Director of UMHB’s Museum, I frequently stumble across treasures like this 1974 article from The Bells. Looks like I am not the first one to write about “decorating with junk”!

Frequent thrift stores and resale shops.

When I say thrift stores, I don’t mean just Goodwill. Goodwill is great, but the best finds are often in dirty, gritty thrift stores that smell like cat urine and mildew.

It was in a store like this where I bought old buttons (as long as I bought the whole box full of junk they came in). When I opened the box at home, I found a beautifully cut topaz among the buttons. Just like you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, you have to haggle with a lot of toothless chain-smokers before you find a gem. Be patient, and go often!

Look into scrap yards.

A scrap yard will sometimes sell junk metal by the pound. Call ahead to inquire if they allow individual buyers, if they want you to check in at the office, and if they require you to wear a hard hat.

The scrap yard that I love sells metal for 18 cents a pound. I have found wonderful things like industrial springs, metal bins, windmill parts, and even tools. You also might want to bring your own gloves and tools in case a vintage bicycle wheel or basket needs to be disassembled.

After all these resources are exhausted, there are times when the pink velvet lampshade you want is only at that-one-store-online. When you get stuck on an item that you can’t find in a thrift store, buy to sell! Keep up to date on what people are buying used on Craigslist, Ebay, and resale shops.

I bought a bent tailgate from an old Chevy truck for $10 from the scrap yard, traded a plate of homemade cookies for the local body shop to straighten the tailgate, and sold the tailgate for $65 so that I could buy the rug that I REALLY wanted. It was a lot of work, but I am so proud of that silly rug.

And the best part is? A lot of the items in my home have memories and adventures that I think about when I look at them. So get out there, make memories, and happy decorating!

If DIY projects are your thing, maybe you’re looking for a great Art program! We invite you to visit our website for more information or stop by for a visit to see if UMHB is a great fit for you.