Updated on 06.12.07

The Art Of Filling An Empty House Without Losing Financial Balance

Trent Hamm

Early next month, my family and I will be moving into a house with more than three times the square footage of our current tiny apartment. This, of course, means that after we move, our home will be very spartan. For some, this might be an excuse to bust out the plastic and go on a credit-based buying spree, but we’ve actually been planning for this situation for quite a while (one of the few smart financial moves we made before our meltdown and after).

First, we established a house fund with the money gifts from our wedding. This fund was originally intended to help with a down payment, but given our new financial discipline, it will now actually be used for furnishing the home.

Second, our current furniture selection was extremely inexpensive. We both realized that we would be moving into a much nicer home in the next few years, so rather than buying some nice furniture for our apartment, we bought cheap furniture and contributed to a home furnishing fund that was basically impossible to touch (CDs, actually).

This leaves us right now with a substantial ball of cash that we’ve been saving up just for the purpose of furnishing our home, but we have very little to start with. Right now, our plan is to fill the home with a mixture of items of differing levels of quality, while still leaving at least a couple of rooms quite spartan. Here’s our plan.

Very spartan living room We’re basically going to have a couch and a bookshelf in there to start with, cutting down on furnishing one of the potentially expensive rooms without intense spending. The focus of our wall decoration in here will be a large canvas by my great aunt, an established artist who regularly has gallery showings in the Midwest.

Bookshelves from Ikea While part of me would love to commission similar shelves from a local woodsmith, the price for exactly what we want is incredible, and we saw exactly what we wanted at Ikea (the large version of this in birch). Given that we also have young children and will be using one of these in the family room as well, the price point feels very appropriate to us.

Family room furniture (and a few other items) from a local furniture outlet This is, of course, after checking local consignments and estate auctions. There’s a furniture outlet nearby that has a huge mishmash of items in it at very nice prices, especially considering the quality of it. We plan on two rocker-recliners and a couch from here for the family room, the couch for the living room, a desk for the office, and a bed for the kid’s bedroom will all come from here.

Other items We plan on leveraging most of the stuff we currently have in various ways. Our primary bookshelf now is made out of two by fours and bricks (seriously), and that will be converted into shelving in the garage. Our current dining room furniture will also continue to work, as it was the only quality furniture item that we purchased after our wedding (due to a gift certificate with an expiration date). Our current bed will be put into the guest bedroom.

We’ve already calculated things up and it appears as though we will be able to furnish our house while still severely under the money we’ve saved. If this is the case, we’ll use that remaining money as the basis for a house emergency fund.

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  1. Josh says:

    But are you throwing money away on cheap furniture that has to be replaced in a year? Would you be better off to buy nicer furniture that withstand usage for quite a few years?

  2. Amy Haden says:

    This may be going too cheap — but what about your local landfill or dump? Ours has a section under cover where people can leave furniture & appliances for other folks to pick up. We got what looked to be a brand new rocking chair from our dump. And I’m all for unfinished furniture stores, outlet stores, Salvation Army. I’ve never gotten the whole home decorating craze & don’t understand why one would need matching suites of furniture. I’ve been married 18 years, in our own house for 14, and I have furniture from my childhood, plus stuff we’ve bought, gotten for free (just love freecycle.org), gotten from relatives, or built ourselves (I’ve built lots of shelves). And whatever we don’t have, I haven’t missed yet (we still don’t own a bed…).

  3. Vincent Ma says:

    Someone once suggested on a blog (not sure if it was Simple Dollar) to check with an outlet that specializes in hotel furniture. I check out some of the online ones (and now I can’t remember the site names, but google “hotel furniture outlet”) and they had some great looking furniture at Ikea prices.

  4. Felis says:

    I have the large Expedit bookcase in Birch and I love it! It feels really lightweight when you are putting it together, but once it’s up, it’s TOUGH. After 2 years of being used for heavy books it’s still holding strong.
    For inspiration, check out http://www.curbly.com, they have a LOT of good DIY house projects and tips and tricks for decorating on the cheap!

  5. allergicmom says:

    I can totally recommend the Kura twin bed from Ikea. It’s low-down for toddlers who might fall out of bed. And it flips over to be a 3/4 height bunk bed for older kids. Then you can reclaim the space under the bed for a small play space or another bed on the floor. My 4-year-old loves his bed.

  6. You have a great plan. Less is more than more: it leaves room for flexibilty and potential! The less furniture you have, the more room for hosting kids’ birthday parties, sit-down meals for many (with rented or folding tables), for dancing, for kids’ sleep-over parties with tents pitched in the living room, for whatever you might imagine.

    I’d invest in quality for the very few pieces in public rooms that would see constant use. I’d pay extra for low-maintenace, timeless materials. And I wouldn’t buy anything permanent that I didn’t love.

  7. Elaine says:

    “less is more” ftw. I read an excellent article a few weeks ago on minimalist home decoration – one guy decided he didn’t want to buy a couch, so he did it all traditional Japanese style with a low table and some pillows on the floor. It looked really really nice.

  8. I think you’re taking the right approach. My wife and I have Too Much Stuff. We’re cutting out some crap lately, but still…

    Also, we’ve learned from experience that it’s better to stock your home with cheap furniture to start, and then, over time, to gradually add nice, expensive pieces that appeal to you as you find the need or desire. The first nice piece we bought was a dining room table, which has been great. Because we host a lot of dinner parties, this made sense.

    Actually, we don’t have much other nice furniture than that. I covet a nice desk, but I also recongnize that would be a foolish expense…

  9. Madame X says:

    Sounds like a good plan. From going through this myself lately, I can appreciate how easily this kind of spending can get out of control. I don’t have kids, so I didn’t worry too much about buying brand-new stuff that I knew would last, but if I had a family, and a family room, I’d furnish it the way you are!

  10. Amber Yount says:

    I know exactly how you feel. Ladst November we went from a two bedroom townhouse to a three bedroom house…had pretty much NO furniture. My guest bedroom is STILL pretty much empty….my living room and kitchen are finished,my bedroom still needs a dresser, and my office only a reading chair and filing cabinet….i’ve been wanting to visit our local flea market…but cash has been tight lately :(

    Also check the free listing on Craigslist. Looked like they had alot of good stuff.

  11. girl150 says:

    This sounds a lot like our current situation: moving to a bigger house, with little furniture (most of which was used/free from our families). But we didn’t have the savings for furniture, like you. However, we have enough furniture to get us by, and decided we would just prioritize our purchases from here on out.
    It felt kinda good to have a bunch of people over for a cookout and see the empty living room last weekend (literally, just a bookcase and a fan… the sofa’s in the family room). Because we hadn’t gone into debt to buy furniture, we were able to afford a little shindig with our friends! And it was a way of saying: hey, we’re not too proud to admit we don’t have a ton of money (but we are proud to admit that we don’t have a ton of debt).

  12. Meg says:

    My husband and I got a lot of furniture from family, and a few pieces from dumpster diving. Well, not so much diving as spotting out of dumpsters. We live in a college town so there is an abundance of furniture available for the taking at the end of each semester. We also got a few pieces from Goodwill and a few very cheap bookcases from big box stores.

    It’s been working up until now, but I am looking forward to the day when we can buy nice furniture that matches. Our house does look a bit like a college student place, but then I did only graduate last December. When we do buy new stuff, it will be nice. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but I’d rather wait until we have enough money to buy stuff that will look great and last than simply upgrade from freebies to cheapies that still don’t look great and will likely fall apart within a few years. Unfortunately, real wood furniture is hard to find for cheap, but I wouldn’t mind shopping antique stores and flea markets for things that I can refinish.

  13. My boyfriend & I just bought the medium (4×4 compartments) Expedit bookshelf, in brown-black; I love it. It’s quite sturdy for IKEA (sturdier than the Billy bookshelves in our hallway, for sure), and well-proportioned. I give it two thumbs up!

  14. Kevin says:

    Expensive furniture and young children don’t mix anyways. I decided it wasn’t worth buying anything that might potentially get ruined. Aside from our bed which I got practically free since my brother works at Serta every piece of furniture we have was free. I really don’t want to buy anything until we move though I’m not sure the coffee table is willing to accommodate me on that.

  15. I know people have found treasures on craigslist and at the Goodwill store. They might have some a limited selection, but if you can find only one piece that you like, it might be well worth it.

  16. plonkee says:

    If you don’t already have them, don’t forget to alot some money for the finishing touches – lamps, pictures, vases, cushions etc. Lots of guys don’t seem to think of things like that but to me they make a house look more personal / lived in. And a little goes a long way.

    I’m also in the same position as you (moving from a flat to a house) but I’ve got fewer new rooms to fill. I’m planning on getting only the essentials to start with until the place starts to feel like my own. Then I’ll have a better idea of what will fit in (to the space and my life in it).

  17. Jessica says:

    Don’t forget outdoor stuff! I didn’t even think about the amount I would be spending outside. I just moved into a house from my parent’s house, I had a house fund. I am using almost all hand me down items but it is costing me a lot, just for cleaning, fixing, painting. There are a lot of hidden costs.

  18. reulte says:

    I’ve used outdoor “patio” stuff – wicker chairs, small table – indoors and it even looks pretty good.

    However, make sure to wire/stabilize your shelves and dressers so they can’t be pulled over as your toddler starts to climb.

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