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Ask A Chicago Expert: Decorating Your First Apartment On A Budget

You've got the keys to your first apartment in Chicago, maybe a roommate or two, and perhaps some furniture. But you're not quite ready to move in yet. Scooping up artwork or furniture for your apartment at a thrift store or garage sale is one way you can save money while furnishing and decorating your first Chicago apartment, but do you know where to shop? If you're looking for a way to make your first apartment look more like a home without breaking the budget, then listen up. We talked to two Chicago experts for their tips on how to furnish and decorate an apartment in Chicago without blowing your rent money.
Howard Brown Health Center
(Photo Credit: Howard Brown Health Center's Facebook)

Bill Joure
Senior Director of Retail and Operations at Howard Brown Health Center
4025 N. Sheridan Road
Chicago, IL 60613
(773) 388-1600

Bill Joure oversees The Brown Elephant, the Resale Shop of Howard Brown Health Center. The Brown Elephant has retail locations in Oak Park, as well as in Chicago's Lakeview and Andersonville neighborhoods. The resale shops include a mix of items for sale, including household goods, clothing and furniture. According to Joure, the retail stores' primary function is to raise money to support the health center.

Summer Thornton
Principal and Interior Designer, Summer Thornton Design

Summer Thornton is the Principal and Interior Designer at Summer Thornton Design. The residential interior design firm is located in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood and concentrates on high-end single family residences. "We are known for bold use of color and mixing with antique and vintage pieces," Thornton explained.

Know Where And When To Shop At Thrift Stores

Joure shared a few ideas when shopping at thrift stores, where you can pick up everything from a new-to-you couch to artwork, knickknacks and coffee tables. "We have new merchandise all day and everyday. The moving season is April through October. When it's warm, more people are moving and donating things. We get donations all year, but those six months are fast and furious with stuff coming in the door. Find out when managers set out stuff at your favorite thrift store," Joure said. He also advised to consider the quality of merchandise when shopping at your favorite thrift store. "Keep in mind everything [at the thrift store] is used and has been in someone's house. Look it over for condition, as different stores have different standards," he said, noting The Brown Elephant has high standards for what's sold at the retail stores.

(Photo Credit:

Modify Your Thrift Store Find

How can you make a print or chair you found at a yard sale not look like something you found at a yard sale? Joure recommends a few simple steps. "The best thing is to change the frame. You can always repaint the frame, too, to make the artwork look fresh," he said. He also recommended spray-painting fixtures and accessories to give them a new, updated look, and to use the website Pinterest for specific do-it-yourself projects.

Related: Ask A Chicago Expert: How To Start Your Dream Garden

Skip The Idea Of A Complete Set

You might envision a complete set of matching dining room chairs, plates and glasses, but if you want to save some cash and shop at your favorite thrift store, Thornton has some advice. "Forget the notion of a set and mix different styles of chairs. Make them all continuous, and maybe they're all white or have a similar style. They do need to have some element that ties them all together, such as color or similar shape. Buy what you love, so if you love all of them, make them work," she said.

Get A New Perspective

If you're shopping for decorative pieces at a garage sale, consider how it will look in your apartment. "Sometimes things look junky in a yard sale, but if you put them in a different environment, like in a front room, that can change how a piece is interpreted by someone," Thornton advised.

Know When To Splurge

You might be on a strict budget when it comes to furnishing your apartment, but you should still try to splurge on one or two pieces. "Some say to splurge on a sofa, but I would splurge on something with personality, including art or an amazing rug with a great pattern. It can add personality to your space," Thornton said.

Joure also recommended splurging on items for the living room, noting "That's the room most people spend the bulk of their time in." He also suggested spending on items that serve multiple purposes.

Know When To Scrimp

While you might want to go all-out on a rug, where should you scrimp when it comes to furnishing and decorating your first apartment? Joure recommended saving your cash on smaller items in the home. "You can get a cheap side table and get inexpensive lamps and so on for your room," he noted.

Related: Best Places For Used Furniture In The Chicago Area

Megan Horst-Hatch is a runner, reader, baker, gardener, knitter, and other words that end in "-er." She is also the president of Megan Writes, LLC. Her work can be found at
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