Ryan Chartrand

Finally, I had found it. After months of relentless searching, budgeting, and worrying, I signed the lease on my apartment for the next year. The 800-square-foot townhouse was not that spectacular, but, after weeks of fearing the rejection of my application, the apartment may have well been the Taj Mahal. Once the day came to move into my new home, the transfer went off without a hitch.

Actually, it went off without much of anything. The clothes went in the closet, the couch fit through the doorframe, the cupboards made a home for the dishes. But, as I looked around my new digs, the once palatial space suddenly came into sharp focus: I was living in a prison cell complete with a cot for a bed, white walls, and a small window as my only source of light. I now had to tackle the monster of decorating the barren expanse I imagined as my sanctuary.

Most students face similar challenges when trying to make their new temporary home feel like their own: no paint on the walls, no large screws in the studs, and most importantly, no money in their wallet to fund a home d‚cor project. But students brimming with ingenuity discover methods to make their space convey their personality in a cost effective manner.

“I bet you can make a room look decent for under $50,” said art and design student Gretchyn Becher.

When on a mission to spruce up a humble or humiliating abode, start with a clear vision for change. Any bare-bones concept like a yen for large, colorful wall art or a table with clean lines effectively narrows the search. Most importantly, communicate clearly with roommates when attempting to alter a shared space like a living room. A united concept pools possible resources of free and unlikely accents that could come in to play later in the process. Pair that lucid idea with an open mind for colors and functions for conventional items because this helps keep the search entertaining and the bill minimal.

“What it came down to was taking a bunch of things that I could find and finding crazy uses for [them],” said Becher, who constantly updates her European-flavored decorations. She regularly looks to discount stores like Ross for “random” household items that she can make functional.

Beginning an expedition at chain stores perpetuates sticker shock and a general panic. Places like Target and Wal-Mart charge over $100 for new tables, desks, and dressers. Though the allure of “brand new” is tempting, vendors that focus on bargains do offer quality furniture and accent pieces that are worth the hunt. The Goodwill stores maintain high standards for the materials they sell, and students often donate good furniture they no longer need at the end of the school year.

A standard caveat applies when shopping for used or bargain items: patience is crucial. Allow flexibility to the overall vision to relax your search and make decorating fun.

Becher utilizes her knack of sewing to craft her own pillows out of discount fabric from Beverly’s on Higuera Street. She favors the versatility of homemade throw cushions to others sold for upwards of $10 at department stores.

“I had a lot of those laying around to give the place a relaxed feel because school is stressful and I didn’t want to feel like I lived in a stressful place,” she explained.

Undeniably, more inexpensive department stores do offer some essential contributions to an apartment on a budget. Certain purchases like bedding and cookware should be bought new rather than used. Target offers bed sheet sets for $8 on clearance, as well as basic kitchen utensil sets for $20. But overall, other tempting d‚cor items tend to be overpriced in such stores.

However, the most compelling discount to students is what others willingly give away. Most students use furniture handed down from their families, donated by friends and fellow students, or discarded by local residents and businesses.

“If you look around, you don’t have to buy new things,” Becher said. “Going dumpster diving is fun! You find the coolest stuff. I got my futon that way.”

Most male students on a budget focus on function and cost rather than style when it comes to furnishing their quarters. James Ruckdaschel, an electrical engineering junior, managed to create a living room out of thin air with a little searching and some helpful family members.

“We found the couches by a dumpster and the coffee table belonged to my roommate’s friend,” he said. “We just threw together what each of us had, and what we didn’t have, we found.”

If going head-first into a dumpster isn’t particularly appealing, using your connections ato obtain used furniture and accents fills your space and does not empty your wallet. In such a transitional environment, living situations can change frequently, and fellow students provide an easy way to find low or no cost household items. The Craig’s List Web site for San Luis Obispo facilitates business and bargaining between locals at great prices.

Once shopping is finished, the configuration of the space must be comfortable for the dweller and kosher with the lease agreement banning permanent changes. There are a few simple things that can give your pile of bricks personality while keeping your landlord happy. Most challenging is the ban on painting walls in almost all rented spaces. To negate the maddening white, create a simple wall hanging out of a few yards of sheer fabric and a tension rod. The fabric will take on the brightness of the white wall and project the color or print. Even if only on one wall, the color provides a natural focal point for the room. Materials for the project will cost less than $10.

There are other wall-covering options other than band or movie posters. Try taking pictures from cheap books at Leon’s Used Books on Higuera Street and framing them for interesting wall art. Corkboard collages with personal photos make the room feel like home for only a few dollars. Even abstractly arranged empty frames break up the dominance of a giant white wall. Methods of hanging wall accents provides an opportunity to trick the eye into seeing a bigger, better room.

“Put more things high rather than lower in an apartment because you already have so much furniture,” Becher said. “If you have shelves or a fruit basket hanging up higher, it’s a more holistic use of the bare space.” High accents like lights draw the eye up and make usually limited space seem bigger instead of cramped.

Renters tend to dislike tenants who damage drywall with large screws and nails. As an alternative, use Command Strips by 3M. They secure several pounds to any surface and detach without leaving sticky residue behind. These strips cost a few bucks and can save you your security deposit once it comes time to move out.

And in a few short months, the cycle of dreaming of my ideal room, realizing it looks like an insane asylum, and scavenging for new furniture will begin again. But armed with these tips and a whole lot of patience, my blank slate will become a sanctuary for me and my friends.

According to Becher, decorating should be a philosophy, a way of life. As she simply put it, “It’s learning how to find. It’s learning how to see opportunity and potential.”

Here’s to hoping it’s that easy this time around.

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