From Cinderblock Walls to Adult Apartment on an Entry Level Salary

Let’s face it: did I really change so much in the two years it took me to leave college and get my first, truly-living-on-my-own apartment? With a degree in 18th century travel texts and French linguistics, I can assure you my annual income was not that much more than what I was pulling in working 14 hours a week at my school’s dining hall. My interests were still pretty much the same and I think I only made about three new friends, ensuring that my worldview had not suddenly or drastically changed.

And yet my first studio looked…amazing. Compared to my college dorm, it was like walking into the pages of a magazine. And my second apartment looked even better, even though I was still dwelling in less than 500 feet. With every subsequent move, I am learning that it doesn’t matter how cozy (read tiny) the space, nor how frugal the decorator: every living situation can be as inviting as your favorite B&B without breaking the bank.

What happened?

I learned how to edit.

A semi-hoarder and serious sentimentalist, I have had a hard time figuring out how to effectively dump the trinkets, trash and commemorative t-shirts that are acquired with every club and 5k run I join. In my experience, moving to a new (and small) location is the only way to weed out the unnecessary and keep the meaningful. At the end of my second move, I had given away about half of my wardrobe, donated a third of my possessions and recycled the collection of A+ term papers and book reports that originally seemed like keepsakes. I was left with a tidy closet and décor that I was proud to display – so I do it every time I move.

I started researching what I liked.

Rather than trying to decorate an entire living space the first weekend I move in, I let the boxes and white walls linger until I know kind of space I want to live in. I research great sites like apartmenttherapy.com and theinspiredroom.net and the pages of Crate & Barrel to discover the décor that speaks to me. I never try to recreate a room (impossible and expensive), but I focus on small, striking details I admire: color combinations, furniture formations, little moments. No more buying a rug “just because I need a rug.” I now only buy a rug because I love a rug and have the perfect place to put it.

I gave up double-sided tape for picture frames.

And I replaced mini-blinds with actual curtains, and I invested in a shelving unit instead of plastic Rubbermaid storage drawers. There are plenty of items that can make the transition from college to adulthood, then early-adulthood to later-adulthood (heck, I have a picture hanging in my kitchen that my grandmother gave me for my 12th birthday) but in order to consider them cozy decorations you can’t just tape them to the wall. Tuck that vintage movie poster into a frame and replace the dusty mini-blinds with window hangings. Small effects are cheap to purchase and make a huge difference.

I use white with purpose, not out of convenience.

There is a difference between the white walls and off-white carpet that came with your rental and the ones that you painted and placed there yourself. When I use white now (and gray and tan and any color, really), it’s because I think it is fresh and crisp – not just because it was the cheapest to buy or already there.

I started honing my DIY skills.

They are way cheaper than buying your entire room from a department store and, the better you get, the more proud of the pieces you create you are. What better feeling than, when responding to a compliment on your windowsill of bud vases, you can say, “Thanks! I painted those all myself” instead of the usual shrug and, “Oh…IKEA…”? Start small, start easy and know the arts-and-crafts skills you already have. For me, there is never any free-hand design, and I go from there.

When all else fails, I add some extra lights.

The warmer the glow, the cozier the space. If at all possible, I never turn on the overhead lights unless I am cooking in the kitchen or plucking my eyebrows in the bathroom. For any other location and occasion, floor lamps will do.

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