Ask EG: How To Determine Your Style Without Overspending

Stephen R. asks: How does one get started if they don't have a great eye for these things and also tends to think basically in the box? Can one "develop" a knack? I tend to overspend or just do without completely. Also, I don't have a great deal of time to shop with my extracurricular activities, Definitely not a strong suit for me, but I envy people who can do this and spend very little money considering.

EG Answers: That's a great question! I've been doing it for a long time and it's mostly second nature to me, but I do think I might be able to throw some suggestions out that could help. 

To begin with, spend a little time determining what your taste IS (I know you don't have a lot of extra time, but think of it as an investment!).  Try thinking about items that you already own and LOVE: a photo that a friend took, the color of your sheets, a lamp that you picked up in college...  What is it about those items that you like?  In addition, try to narrow down to three or four ideas that you want your space to convey.  For my recent living room re-do, it was Clean, Classic and Calming, but for you it could be Modern, Sleek, Cool, Edgy, Artsy, Bright... anything.

Use those ideas as a jumping off point.  Look at images that fall into those categories.  For example, do a Google image search for "navy blue bedroom" or "sleek living room" or even just "beautiful decor."  Use those images to narrow down your tastes even more.  "Okay, I now know that I like industrial chic.  Now let me look up 'navy blue industrial living room.'"  Essentially what you're doing is creating an arsenal of knowledge and keywords about your style.  This will allow you to feel more confident about decisions when the opportunity arises.

Once you have some idea of the style you want, the next step is to figure out what key pieces will transform your room and then work around them.  For my living room makeover, it was a rug.  Just one item hit all three keywords that I was looking for (Clean, Calming, Classic) as well as the color scheme that I liked.  It completely changed the mood and atmosphere of the room.  After I had that key piece, every item that was added simply had to be at least two of those keywords and/or colors (for example, the pair of Cane-back chairs I have are definitely Classic and they have the right shade of Blue in them, but I would not necessarily define their style as Clean or Calming. That's okay though, because the similarities are enough to anchor them).

Now on to the tougher part...

Regarding designing on a budget - you may not like my answer.  
I believe that there are two main commodities in this world: Money and Time. Generally speaking, you have to spend one or the other.  But if you've done your homework and already have an idea of the style you like, that can save you a little of both.

Anytime I decide to redesign, I start by looking at what I already have and whether or not I can do anything to re-purpose it.  A coat of paint is an inexpensive way to completely change anything from a wall, to a dresser, to a picture frame, to a cat.  Dining room chairs can be recovered in twenty minutes or less with a staple gun and some cheap fabric or an old curtain.  Even just shifting furniture to different rooms can give you that "aha!" moment.  (And please don't paint your cat, or call PETA on me - I'm only kidding). 

Once you've established the pieces you have, take a second to decide which pieces you want to add. 

Try trolling Craigslist, Ebay or Amazon on your phone whenever you happen have a spare second.  On Craigslist, use your style keywords to help pare down the listings (otherwise it's WAY too overwhelming), and view in gallery mode for easy skimming.  

To determine an item's value, think about Cost Per Use.  This means also taking into account the Quality.   The rug that I just bought is NOT the highest quality - I knew that going in.  But even if it only lasts me two years (which it most certainly will), that's still only about 12 cents a day ($89/730 days).  That's a great deal to me.  (And, if you buy something and immediately regret it - return it, or sell it yourself on Craigslist. I can't tell you how often I've done that.)

Developing an eye for design, quality, or bargains is really like any other skill... it takes a bit of time and effort and there's a definitely learning curve. But once that initial investment is made, the knowledge will actually make the buying/evaluating process much faster for the long run.  (Like speaking a language.  Eventually you don't even think about it.)

Hopefully, this will give you a bit of a launching point in terms of developing your own style and space.  If you have any other questions, I'd be happy to help!  

Best of luck!

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