25 First-Apartment Décor Ideas You Can Actually Afford

Rental bedroom with DIY bedframe

Design: Brady Tolbert for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Tessa Neustadt

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 first apartment décor to look like, but your wallet may not be there to support your vision, leading to tough design decisions.

Luckily, we've outlined an easy roadmap to decorating a space from scratch, and it starts at least three months before the move-in date. While you don't have to buy everything at once, there are some first apartment décor ideas you should focus on before the rest. Read on for our 25 foolproof steps to decorating your first apartment without breaking the bank.

01 of 25

Have a Plan

Small and chic apartment with open layout

Maite Granda

It takes time and money to outfit your first place, so be sure to start planning well in advance—at the very minimum, three months out. You should make lists, have a budget, and stick to both! Know your timeline and start saving asap.

02 of 25

Make a Mood Board

Apartment office nook with open tablet

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Tramp-Ligorria

Start putting together a design mood board of your favorite looks and pieces to get a clearer vision for your new space. Scroll through Pinterest and try to pick up on common themes as you accumulate a board of your favorite rooms. Take your time and make sure your vision reflects your taste and fits your lifestyle.

03 of 25

Prioritize

Clean and simple bedroom with neutral bed and nightstand with lamp

Amy Bartlam

Once you have a better idea of what you need and what you want the space to look like, start nailing down specific pieces that are in your budget. Prioritize the most essential things first, like a mattress, lamps, and dishes, and wait on things you can live without right away.

04 of 25

Start Early

Cozy living room with Mid-Century vibes

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Start ordering the larger pieces well ahead of the move date (about 10 weeks is ideal). Next, focus on the essential smaller pieces: storage, lighting, and accent tables. Lastly, take your time to round out the finishing touches on your space like decorative accents.

05 of 25

Choose an Investment Piece

Cozy sofa setup in slate blue tones

Bespoke Only

Budget furniture can show wear and tear pretty quickly, which means shelling out for a replacement sooner than you might want. While that's fine for your first place, we'd recommend choosing one investment piece to splurge on that will stay with you for years to come, like a dreamy sofa or sturdy bed frame.

Make it a goal to purchase one investment piece each year to slowly build a collection of high-quality furniture you love.

06 of 25

Give Old Pieces New Life

Painted black desk in an apartment

Becca Interiors

Embrace the DIY mentality and give new life to thrifted and hand-me-down pieces with a little elbow grease. Sand and stain salvageable wood or slap on a coat of paint to disguise an irreparable finish, then finish it off with some cute hardware or lining.

07 of 25

Get the Right Tools

Apartment kitchen with rolling island cart

Becca Interiors

Hear us out—this isn't décor strictly speaking, but we'd wager that you won't get far in outfitting your new digs without a few basic tools. Before you start assembling furniture or hanging curtains, pick up a starter tool kit with a hammer, screwdrivers, utility knife, pliers, level, tape measure, and an assortment of nails and screws. You can thank us later.

Tool kit with tool bag
Home Depot King Combination Tool Set With Tool Bag $30
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08 of 25

Clean Up First

Fresh and clean white bedroom

The Home Consultant

Take our word for it: You'll want to give your new place a thorough scrubbing before you start making it home. A few basic cleaning supplies should do the trick—all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner, disinfecting wipes, microfiber cloths, a broom, and a duster. If you can swing it, a hand vacuum will be your best friend.

09 of 25

Paint if You Can

Dark gray living room with simple furnishing

Reena Sotropa

You're probably well aware of the transformative powers of a can of paint. While many landlords are staunchly against painting, there are plenty who will let you, especially if you offer to pay for the paint and run the color by them first. Don't be afraid to ask—the worst they can say is no.

10 of 25

Make a Good First Impression

Apartment entryway with small console and hooks

Reena Sotropa

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. 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.

11 of 25

Cook With Confidence

Rental kitchen with open shelves and swapped hardware

Design: Brady Tolbert for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Tessa Neustadt

First apartment kitchens aren't typically 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 new cabinet hardware. Add a small dining table if space allows, and adorn your countertop with pretty (but useful) storage containers.

Antique brass kitchen hardware
Crate & Barrel Antique Brass Knob $7
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12 of 25

Sleep Soundly

Rental bedroom with DIY bedframe

Design: Brady Tolbert for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Tessa Neustadt

You may already have a mattress, but that doesn't mean it has to sit on the floor. The next 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).

13 of 25

Freshen Up

Vintage rental bathroom with eclectic decor

Design: Julie Rose for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

If your bathroom feels a little retro, work with it instead of against it. First and foremost, accent your space with pretty but useful items: fresh bath linens, a shower curtain, bath mat, wall storage, and a mirror. You can always keep accessorizing with luxe bath products, sleek candles, and bath accessories, but the mantra here is less is more.

Rust runner bath mat
Urban Outfitters Looped Geo Runner Bath Mat $49
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14 of 25

Transition Thoughtfully

Apartment hallway with rug and woven hanging

Design: Sara Tramp for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Tessa Neustadt

While hallways and transition areas don't need to be at the top of your priority list, they shouldn't be entirely forgotten either. Depending on the space, these little areas can be great for overflow storage with a small table or dresser. Lay down a runner or rug and consider adorning the walls, then you're all set.

15 of 25

Live in Comfort

Cozy living room with the basics

Cathie Hong Interiors

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 light source. Once you have that covered, you can keep adding to your space with rugs, pillows, artwork, and accent chairs.

16 of 25

Get to Work

Clean and simple home office nook

Bespoke Only

This may not apply to everyone, but many of us need a reliable spot to work from home. While working from the couch sounds like a dream, after a couple of hours, your back will remind you why we sit in chairs. Get yourself a small desk or table that tucks in wherever you have space, a comfortable chair, and a lamp for late nights. Once you've got the basics covered, art and a small rug can help polish off the space.

White and woven wishbone chair
Poly & Bark Weave Chair $149
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17 of 25

Double Down on Storage

Apartment living room with dresser media center

Reena Sotropa

Once you've covered those absolute essentials and have started replenishing the budget, it's a good time to look for extra storage your apartment may be lacking. Think in terms of both form and function—pieces like tall bookshelves, media centers, and dressers and drawer units will look good while providing storage space.

18 of 25

Invest in Linens

Neutral bed with cozy linen bedding

Anne Sage

Another non-necessity that will make a big difference in the overall feel of your place? Linens. Pretty and practical textiles like hand towels, bath towels, and bedding will go a long way in giving your apartment a polished, grown-up look.

We'd recommend springing for the highest quality sheets you can afford—you'll sleep better slipping into what feels like a 5-star hotel bed every night.

19 of 25

Lay Down Rugs

Living room with large and colorful geometric rug

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

It should come as absolutely no surprise that rugs are a foolproof hack for making any space feel more comfortable and homey. They can hide unsightly apartment flooring (even the grungiest carpet) and bring the right dose of personality to any room. But rugs are investment pieces, so don't bite the bullet until you and your wallet are ready.

20 of 25

Upgrade Lighting

Small eat-in area with upgraded light fixture

Amy Bartlam

Interior designers everywhere agree that lighting is one of the easiest ways to transform an apartment. Layer up on lamps for ambiance and swap out existing fixtures for more stylish options. Just be sure to keep your landlord's originals safe so you can swap them back when it's time to move out.

21 of 25

Dress the Windows

Bedroom with soft white curtains

Black & Blooms

Window treatments are another easy and surprisingly affordable way to make your place feel like home. They also provide some oft-necessary privacy and filter harsh sunlight. It's easier to find attractive budget curtains than blinds, but both are good options for renters.

White curtains with tiebacks
IKEA Ritva Curtains $30
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22 of 25

Accessorize

Modern apartment decor: art, vases, and a book

Maite Granda

At the tail end of your priorities should be accessories to make your space look pretty. Vases, books, baskets, bowls, knick-knacks—anything like that. The best place to score décor on a budget is thrift and second-hand shops, or even castoffs from friends and family. With a little elbow grease, well-loved pieces can be cleaned up or reimagined for your space.

23 of 25

Hang Art

Living room with art gallery wall

Anne Sage

Sprucing up your walls is such an easy way to class up and personalize your place. Sites like Etsy, Minted, and Society6 are great resources for art prints, and affordable frames can be found at IKEA, Target, and the like. Surround yourself with art that makes you smile so every day is happier.

24 of 25

Reflect on It

Rental kitchen with a large mirror

Design: Jess Bunge for Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Tramp

Can't find the right art pieces, or just not sure what you like? Hang a mirror instead. They look great anywhere in place of or alongside art and pull double duty by reflecting light to make your space feel bigger and brighter.

25 of 25

Add an Aroma

Hanging shelf with oil diffuser and candle

Black & Blooms

Cover up the odors of previous tenants and invoke an instant mood with candles, incense, and essential oil diffusers—arguably the easiest and cheapest tip on this list. Fresh scents leave you feeling clean and refreshed making them great for bathrooms, while warm florals and woody scents can give an extra cozy vibe to bedrooms and living spaces.

New home candle
Homesick New Home Candle $34
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