The Cheapskate’s Guide to a Stylish First Apartment

Wall art is an easy way to add style to your space

Finally, after a lifetime under Mom and/or Dad’s roof (or years in an awful dorm room), you have your own apartment! OK, maybe you have a roommate or two. Now comes the hard part: making it look like a grown-up lives there, without the aid of a decorator and deep pockets. (Most of your paycheck is probably going toward rent.) That’s where design and lifestyle blogger Joy Cho comes in to get you stylishly set up.

1. Start with the bare bones

Cho recalls her first apartment right after college: “It was 350 square feet, one big studio apartment space,” she says. Her strategy back then that still works today: She started out simply by buying a supercheap couch and a supercheap bed. “People feel like they need to furnish everything right away, but a lot of times it’s not in the budget,” observes Cho, whose new book “Oh Joy! 60 Ways to Create & Give Joy” is packed with budget-friendly ideas on how to decorate and entertain.

Make use of vintage objects that catch your eye.

“Get what you need, and add to it as you go,” says Cho, who advises getting simple basics for furniture and other necessities—think Ikea or Target—and then accessorizing your space with wall art, pillows, and more.

2. Make use of special finds

“Your tastes change through the years, and you start to figure out what style you like, so it’s good not to invest too much in one particular aesthetic,” says Cho.

Cho is a big fan of finding vintage pieces at flea markets or elsewhere and using them to decorate her walls—whether they’re intended as wall art or not. “Just keep an eye out for things that your eye is drawn to, and don’t be limited to what fits the traditional definition of art,” she says.

A scarf or a carved object can be mounted on the wall as well, she points out. Raiding your parents’ attic or basement can also yield some great art. High-quality color copies of botanicals, maps, or whatever you find interesting popped into matching gallerylike frames makes for a personalized display.

3. Splurge responsibly

Sometimes you have to break open the piggy bank. A rule of thumb: It should be for something attractive as well as functional. For her studio apartment, Cho saved for about a year until she could get a custom divider built. (When you live in a small apartment, optimizing your space is key.) It wasn’t as expensive as you might think: “I found someone on Craigslist who was handy and looking to build their portfolio,” she says. She sketched out what she wanted, and he built it for about $700 (back in 2001). Make sure the splurge can be broken down or easily moved—you don’t want to leave it behind for the next renter!

4. Make it look luxe!

One of Cho’s favorite decor tricks is making basic things look expensive. Her decor hack: contact paper. Yup, the kind you use to line drawers. “Back in the day, contact paper was considered sort of cheesy,” she says. “But now you can get beautiful gold and hot pink colors, and they’re really high-quality and durable.”

Gold contact paper is versatile and beautiful.
Gold contact paper is versatile and beautiful.

Gold contact paper, in particular, adds a luxe touch to many items—dressing up an accent piece, a table, or even a trash can.

“That’s such an easy way to decorate something that’s super plain, and it all of a sudden elevates it and makes it into something custom,” Cho says. Plus, it’s easy to remove—and that’s key at a time in your life when things change a lot.