Whether you are just starting out in your first apartment or you are downsizing, you probably don’t want to break the bank when furnishing your apartment. Unless you plan to be in the same apartment for several years, save your furniture budget for a more permanent living situation.
If you’ve been reading La Vida Frugal, you know that we recently retired and sold our home, getting rid of all of our furniture in the process. Our plan is to live in a few different cities over the next year or two in order to decide where we might want to buy a condo. Since we moved to Boulder in November 2014, and only plan to be here through July 2015, we really didn’t want spend a ton of money on furnishing our apartment. It might sound crazy, but we set a budget of $200.
Here are some of our favorite resources for finding free and cheap furniture, and though you may have to weed through a lot of junk, there are treasures to be found.
The quality of what you you can find on Freecycle is heavily dependent on the area you live in and how many people are participating in your local group. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always had better luck giving things away on Freecycle rather than finding things I could use. The best way to find good stuff is to subscribe by email so that you are immediately notified when something is posted. You have to be fast to claim any of the most desirable stuff. You can occasionally find great pieces of furniture that are a little beat up, but would be wonderful if you have the time and inclination to paint or strip and re-stain them. The only thing I’ve gotten from our local Boulder Freecycle is an ink jet printer that “definitely works,” which we had to drop off at Best Buy for recycling because it didn’t work.
Keep in mind that you should be extremely cautious when acquiring used upholstered furniture or mattresses, as bed bugs are a huge problem. When we signed our lease, there was actually a clause in there saying that we promised to carefully inspect any used or secondhand furniture we bring onto the property, and that we also would not bring in used or secondhand furniture removed from the garbage. You can easily find articles online about how to check used furniture and mattresses for bedbugs, and I highly recommend reading up on it before you bring used furniture into your home.
Craig’s List is another resource for free items that is hit or miss. They do have a free section, but again, you have to be fast to score the best stuff. Sometimes people list free stuff as a “Curb Alert,” provide their address and whoever gets there first gets it. We posted a couple curb alerts for the last few items from our home that we weren’t able to sell and it was amazing how fast people showed up.
Dumpster diving is not for the faint of heart, but it is amazing what some people throw away. There is a TrashWiki devoted to dumpster diving, and there are even apps you can download for finding good spots for diving. Some folks just don’t want to deal with Craig’s List or Freecycle, so they dump it. I would never pick a couch up off the sidewalk, but if I found something high quality that just needed a little spiffing up, then I’d go for it. In the past, we’ve found a great CD shelf that I used for art supplies (and that I actually sold when we moved) and a high quality metal filing cabinet with lots of scratches but with drawers in perfect working condition (also sold). Dumpster diving isn’t something we go out of our way to do, but if we happen to spot something that looks promising, we do stop to check it out. I figure we are keeping it out of a landfill if we rescue it. If you are going to try dumpster diving, be sure to check out local regulations first.
USED, BUT NOT FREE
Craig’s List is probably the number one local source for finding used stuff for sale, and most people can now find a Craig’s List for their general vicinity. You have to have a lot of patience waiting for good stuff to show up at the right price, but using their search features can help you weed through the junk to find what you are looking for.
When you search, you can use a filter to limit the price range so that you can avoid big ticket items you’re not interested in. There are a surprising number of very expensive pieces of furniture and antiques on Craig’s List, but you are looking for cheap stuff people just want to get rid of quickly. You should probably search for your wish list at least once or twice a day. You’ll end up looking at a lot of the same posts over and over, but when good stuff gets listed, it disappears quickly and you could miss it. I don’t recommend asking the seller to reduce the price on an item, unless you’ve seen it listed for several days. If a new item appears at a price you are willing to pay, then don’t try to negotiate the price at that point. If the price is higher than you’re willing to pay, then ask, or wait to see if it doesn’t sell right away. A lot of people overprice their stuff on Craig’s List – we all think our possessions are priceless, don’t we?
Since we are only going to be here in Boulder for nine months, we set our furniture budget at a whopping $200. We did have a little luck buying used furniture on Craig’s List. We noticed a post from a company that was consolidating from two to one floors, and they had a ton of desks, chairs, bookshelves, and other office type furniture. We ended up buying a work table, an office chair, a small bookcase (for our shoes), and a used cork board from them, for a total of $65. They threw in a free trash can and recycling bin. We needed two office chairs, but all but one of their chairs were in horrible shape, with torn foam arms and spills all over the upholstery. So we bought that one nice one, and later found a second office chair for $15 on Craig’s List from a private home.
Our biggest find was because we were checking Craig’s List on a regular basis. We got a six-month old (with the manufacture date on the date) full size mattress with a metal frame for $100. It looked brand new. It belonged to the home owner’s former roommate, who bought the mattress, then decided to move in with her boyfriend and didn’t need it anymore. He told us he couldn’t believe how fast we responded. We were on our way home with it less than an hour after he posted it.
Thrift shops aren’t quite as good as Craig’s List, since they require that you get in the car and drive somewhere not knowing if there is anything you might want. Also, thrift stores vary widely in how much, if any, furniture they carry and how much of it is actually desirable. Find a list of the thrift stores in your area (Yelp is a good place for this), then see if they have websites. If you can tell on their website that a particular shop doesn’t carry furniture, then you can cross that one off your list.
Boulder has a huge number of thrift shops, and we went to five or six of them when we first arrived in town. Several of them had very junky furniture (or even just junky furniture parts). One had tons of nice furniture, which was also really expensive. There were several items over $1000. In all the shops we visited, I saw one chair that I would have wanted, and it had a sold sign on it. In fact, my only purchases were a 5 cent highlighter and a 50 cent mug to put my pens in.
Ikea is my favorite place for buying new furniture at reasonable prices. They actually have a wide range in prices, so you could end up spending a lot of money there if you didn’t have a tight budget. But there are a lot of bargains to be found, if you’re lucky enough to have an Ikea within driving distance. I recommend checking out their website first for the items you need, then making a list of what you want to look at. If you’ve never been to Ikea, you need to know that the store is vast and knowing what you are looking for helps a lot. Leave plenty of time for your first visit, as it can be fun to look at all the sample rooms and quirky items they have for sale. We have been to enough Ikea stores now that we can practically run through to get to what we need, but even so, a visit to Ikea is seldom quick.
Before we even started buying furniture on Craig’s List, we picked out a couple tables we wanted to use as desks on the Ikea website. The Ikea in Colorado is south of Denver and bit of a hike from Boulder, so we knew we only wanted to make one trip. We compiled a list of things from their website that we wanted to check out, including the tables. There was no reason for us to buy desks with drawers since, as you may have read in last week’s post, we’ve gone paperless. We just don’t need desk drawers, so we went the cheaper route of buying tables. I was set on a white table top with red legs, which cost $30, and Stephen got a slightly deeper black table for $40.
Here’s what we ended up spending on furnishing our apartment:
Red & White Table $30
Black Table $40
Work Table $20
Blue Office Chair $20
Gray Office Chair $15
Mattress & Frame $100
As you can see, we went slightly over budget. However, once we are ready to move, we hope to sell most of it on Craig’s List and we’ll see how much of our costs we recoup. We didn’t get a couch, a dresser, or a dining table and chairs. Adding those things might have pushed our budget a little higher, maybe around $500. But we don’t have room for a couch, and buying a fourth table seemed kind of strange, even though the three we have are for computers. There is a ton of closet space here, so we only would have picked up a dresser if we had found a bargain we really liked.
It is pretty easy to cheaply furnish a small apartment, especially if you’re not in a hurry and can wait for bargains. It may not be the fanciest decor, but if you’re in a temporary living situation, it’s better to have serviceable rather than beautiful. If you have stuff you don’t mind getting rid of when you’re ready to move, then you’re going to save money on moving costs as well. Even if you are in your own home and have a larger budget for furniture, it is still worth checking out some of these resources to find an inexpensive treasure that will fit right in.
Update July 2015: We ended up selling all the furniture we bought for exactly what we paid. The only thing we kept was my $30 Ikea table, since it is pretty easy to fit in the car. We sold Stephen’s Ikea table after we arrived in Santa Fe. It was easy to sell since there is no Ikea nearby.
Update November 2015: We just moved into a new apartment in San Diego and are once again starting out with no furniture. I managed to score a beautiful antique library table on Freecycle. There is a lot of junk offered for free on Craig’s List and Freecycle, but occasionally treasures do appear. You just have to be ready to jump on things right away.
Photo Courtesy of morgueFile