How to Decorate a First Apartment (Without Going Broke)

Updated 05/05/19

Whether you're just moving into your first apartment after college or starting over in a new city, furnishing an entire home from scratch can be a daunting process. You may know what you want your space to look like, but your wallet may not be there to support your vision, leading to questionable design decisions. The mistake that most people often make when furnishing an apartment from scratch is wanting everything to be done at once but leaving big purchases to the last minute. This often leads to sitting on the floor for the first three months and purchasing a lot of small accessories to overcompensate for the lack of furniture.

Thankfully, there is an easy three-step roadmap to decorating a space from scratch, and it starts three months before the move-in date. First, start putting together a design board, paying special attention to the prices and lead times of larger pieces and finding alternatives if they don't meet your needs or budget. Start ordering the larger pieces well ahead of the move date (about 10 weeks is ideal). Next, focus the smaller pieces that are nonetheless essential: storage, lighting, accent tables (which can typically be ordered two to three weeks before).

Lastly, take your time to put the finishing touches on your space—ensuring that these smaller accents will reflect your taste and personality. The moral of the story: You don't have to buy everything at once, but here are some first apartment décor ideas you should focus on before the rest.

In the Entryway

First Apartment Décor
Courtesy of Fantastic Frank

Entryways typically serve two functions: making a good first impression and keeping you organized as you walk in and out the door in the morning. At the end of the day, it doesn't take much to make this tiny space feel organized and welcoming. Start by tackling storage with a multipurpose coat rack and a catchall or tray. Add a console table or bench, and finish the space off with a small runner. As long as you have space for your coats, bags, keys, shoes, and mail, you should be set. Once the basics are there, you can accessorize further with lighting, art or mirrors.

Your Starter Shopping List:

A coat rack
A console table or bench
A small runner

CB2 Hidden Channel Wall-Mounted Coat Rack $100
Shop

In the Kitchen

First Apartment Décor Ideas
Courtesy of Fantastic Frank

First apartment or rental kitchens are never the most appealing. It may be looking a little tired or cheap if the materials were installed with renters in mind. Beyond buying the cooking essentials you'll no doubt need, you can easily upgrade your space with hardware and paint. Add a small dining table if the space allows, and adorn your countertop with pretty (but useful) storage containers. You can keep adding to your kitchen by adding art, herb planters, and pretty kitchen linens.

Your Starter Shopping List:

Hardware and paint
A small dining table and chairs
Storage canisters

Park Studio Sutter Hardware $38
Shop

In the Bedroom

First Apartment Decorating Ideas
Courtesy of Brady Tolbert

You may already have a mattress, but that doesn't mean it has to sit on the floor. The first thing your bedroom needs is a bed frame. If you're working on a budget, consider a DIY project like the one interior designer Brady Tolbert tackled in his bedroom. Add window treatments for privacy and darkness, and finish off with a nightstand (or two). Over the months, upgrade with new bedding, lighting, and a rug to anchor the space.

Your Starter Shopping List:

Bedframe
Nightstand
Window treatments

West Elm Fabric by the Yard $29
Shop

In the Bathroom

Best First Apartment Décor
Zeke Ruelas ; DESIGN: Brady Tolbert

If your bathroom feels a little retro, work with it instead of against it. Brady Tolbert illustrates this brilliantly in his Los Angeles bathroom, where he was inspired by the turquoise-and-beige scheme to create a tropical oasis. First and foremost, accent your space with pretty but useful items: fresh bath linens, wall storage, and a vanity mirror. You can always keep accessorizing with luxe bath products, sleek candles, and bath accessories, but the mantra here is that less is more.

Your Starter Shopping List:

Bath linens
Extra storage
Mirror

Schoolhouse Brake Angle Shelf $148
Shop

In the Living Room

Best First Apartment Décor Ideas
Courtesy of Fantastic Frank

The living room is probably where you'll spend the bulk of your budget, which is why it's important to segment your purchases over multiple months. Start with the things you simply cannot live without: a place to sit, a small coffee or accent table, and a source of light. Once you have that covered, you can keep adding to your space with rugs and pillows, artwork, and accent chairs. The rule when decorating your living room especially is to save on bulkier items as they are harder to transport from one apartment to the next.

Once your bases are covered, you can start splurging a little more on smaller accent pieces (but not the other way around).

Your Starter Shopping List:

Sofa
Coffee or side table
Floor lamp

IKEA Gladom Table $30
Shop

This story was originally published on April 27, 2017, and has since been updated.

Related Stories