Furnishing your home can cost a bundle, but it doesn’t have to be a budget-breaking experience. The key: Know where to shop, where to find the best discounts, how to revamp things you already have and where you can even find furnishings for free. Here’s what shopping and saving experts recommend.
Do your homework first
Start by making an inventory of what you already have. Then list what you need, rank your list in order of most-needed priority and get to work!
“The first step is research,” says Lauren Fleming, online content manager at American Freight Furniture, a Delaware, Ohio-based discount furniture store with about 130 locations across the country.
“Find what you love and what matches your style, what you want to look at every day and what is comfortable,” Fleming says. Take your time, even if you’re impatient to furnish your home quickly.
Pick a focal point
It’s not hard to find low-priced, comfortable and attractive furniture, says Baltimore, Maryland, real estate investor Brian Davis, co-founder and lead real estate and personal finance blogger at SparkRental.com. The hard part is pulling together furniture you’ve bought piecemeal and creating a cohesive visual theme, he says.
“Start with the most important or expensive piece and build a ‘look’ around that,” advises Davis. “For example, in my living room, I started with a black leather sofa that a friend gave me.” He bought a black leather loveseat on Craigslist for $75, and added a black leather ottoman, black shelving and black and white photographs to create a clean, modern and unified look.
When Davis needs to coordinate similar colors that don’t really match, he adds a multi-shade item to pull the room together. For example, if you found furniture in multiple shades of blue, adding a throw rug that contains those colors can make the pieces look coordinated rather than hodgepodge.
Know what to buy
“Really good collectible furniture is still out there to be had at bargain prices,” says Beverly Solomon, creative director of Musee-solomon, an art and design business near Austin, Texas. But be aware that there are fakes, remakes and poor quality pieces that should be avoided. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning all you can,” she states.
“The big thing is to understand what is fixable, what is good quality, what should be avoided for health reasons” such as stuffed furnishings (unless the piece is in almost perfect shape and can be exterminated), Solomon says.
Look for well-made solid wood furniture, wood frames and throw rugs, Solomon says. “You can often buy very valuable old carved wooden frames for next to nothing,” she explains, and “throw rugs can be a real budget buy if they can be cleaned [and] do not have a lot of damage.”
Score new items at bargain prices
“If I am buying new furniture, one of the first places I look is Big Lots, a closeout retailer with more than 1,400 stores nationwide,” says SavingFreak.com author Paul Moyer, of Greenville, South Carolina. “You can check [the company’s website] to see what furniture is on sale and it will tell you if the piece of furniture is in stock at your closest locations.”
“I typically buy anything that I am going to sleep on new,” Moyer says. That includes mattresses, couches, recliners and similar pieces.
Fleming notes that “furnishing an entire home can be really expensive” but you can find low-cost pieces at budget furniture stores. Wherever you shop, she adds, “don’t forget to ask your local stores for special deals and check social media for price and inventory updates.”
Plus, take advantage of your NEA membership by searching NEA Discount Marketplace for deals on furniture at retailers such as West Elm and Cost Plus World Market.
Ask about price reductions on store display furniture. Solomon says she bought floor models for huge discounts in expensive big name department stores.
Check store bargain basements, outlets and scratch-and-dent sales. A minor cosmetic defect that’s barely noticeable or easily hidden could save you money. For example, appliance and furniture prices are reduced as much as 50% or more at Rooms to Go Outlet.
And when you're ready to buy, you can earn 3% cash back when you select “Home Improvement & Furnishings” as your choice category on the NEA® Customized Cash Rewards Visa Signature® credit card.
Find deals on used items
Buying used is fine for wood, plastic and other solid surface items and you’ll usually get a better price, says Moyer. Try Craigslist or a local yard sale Facebook group, he suggests. “Either of these can get you some great deals.”
Shop charity stores. Professional organizer Lauren Williams, owner of Casual Uncluttering LLC in Woodinville, Washington, keeps a list of charities for clients who need to let go of possessions, but that list is also a great place for others to find bargains. “Everyone knows Goodwill’s physical sites,” Williams says. “But few people know about its online auctions at ShopGoodwill.com. The online items are often higher-end and still just as affordable as the items in a Goodwill bricks-and-mortar store,” she adds.
Anne Luong, an associate with Inner Circle Labs, suggests a peer-to-peer selling site and app called 5miles that lets users buy, sell, trade and give away furniture and other items and locally. All sorts of pieces are available, including room dividers and wall curtains that Luong notes can “give your home some personality” and add visual interest to empty spaces.
Revamp what you already have
“I like to boho up furniture when I can,” says NEA member Dawn Casey-Rowe, who teaches grades 9-12 social studies at William M. Davies Career & Technical High School in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Casey-Rowe also blogs about saving and life hacks for teachers at broketeacher.com and cafecasey.com and is finishing her latest book, A Broke Teacher’s Guide to Success about elegant living on teacher’s pay.
“More and more I see people reusing old wood furniture with a coat of paint or some fabric,” Casey-Rowe says. She repurposed an old wooden stool by decorating and shellacked it and says it has “been both in my classroom and house for years.” Repurposing pays double benefits, she adds, because it’s “good for the budget and the environment.”
For a small investment in glue, big clamps, sandpaper and various hardware pieces, “you can make furniture solid, safe and attractive,” Solomon says. “A great fabric on a chair seat can often save the day.”
Can’t fix it? Camouflage it. Many stores sell new and used slipcovers in a variety of styles, fabrics, colors, textures and patterns. Some are custom fitted to specific pieces, such as the slipcovers Bemz makes to fit IKEA sofas, loveseats, chairs, cushions and more.
Check the free, nonprofit Freecycle network to find—or give away—furniture and other things.
In addition to scouting flea markets, thrift stores and Craigslist for low-cost decor items, Casey-Rowe suggests “side of the road shopping” for free items you can fix up or repurpose.
Maybe that discarded or give-away item looks a little tattered right now, but Casey-Rowe says if you’re “willing to see the possibilities, you can make one-of-a-kind treasures for your home, cheap.”
Solomon agrees. She and her husband had a business furnishing cafes in antiques and collectibles, and she says “You would be amazed at how many wonderful things we found in dumpsters and on the side of the street for free.” Other places they tapped include “yard sales, junk stores, salvage stores, storage space auctions” and garages and barns that they offered to clean in exchange for items they wanted.
Many communities have a discarded furniture pick up day or week. Find out when yours is so you can curb-shop before collection day. Or, ask city office staff where they take discards and when you can check them out before they’re gone. If there’s a college dorm in your area, look for items students jettison.
Ask fellow teachers, suggests Casey-Rowe. They may be willing to give things away if they know someone else needs them, she says. Post a “who needs to get rid of” (whatever you need) message on social media to connect with people who are decluttering or upgrading, she adds.
Ready to shop?
Learn as much as you can so you will be able to recognize a bargain when you find one, Solomon advises. “Be ready to deal in cash as you can always make a better deal,” she suggests, and keep an eye out for items you can trade for pieces you want.