Design on a Military Dime

I have broken the cardinal sin of military families and renters everywhere on so many occasions I have lost count. What’s that sin, you ask? I paint the walls. I paint those white walls whatever color I fancy. Sometimes I paint those walls two, three times because, like Goldilocks, it must be just right.

My husband will come home and look at those walls and say, ‘you know, you’re going to have to re-paint that before we move.’ And I will nod, not really hearing him as I sigh, ‘but doesn’t it just…feel so much warmer?’

One year later, I’ll inevitably curse myself and rub my tired, aching arms as I whitewash every wall I’ve painted over the course of the year. But, like giving birth, the next duty station will grant me a new life and I will forget the physical pain because I love the labor of a fresh start.

painting wallsLike birds, we military spouses fly from place to place. Like birds, we strive to create our nest. We gather our sticks and other found materials and we plait them together bit by bit- constructing a stable place on unpredictable branches as the world rages outside the safety of our wings.

Every white wall and every empty room is a new possibility. What am I going to communicate in this house, how will I make the walls…talk? This, to me, is the best part of military life: we are constantly granted the opportunity to reinvent: ourselves; our homes; our priorities. As military spouses, we engineer creative solutions in order to meet the demands of our ever-changing lifestyle. There’s absolutely no reason that this creativity can’t be applied to furniture construction and rehabilitation. And it’s addictive: once you complete one piece and see how simple it really is and how much money you saved, you’ll want to apply it in other areas of your home.

As military spouses, we move from coast to coast and everywhere in between. Every home, every base, every move, it’s different. As we age and our priorities shift, so too do the rooms of our homes communicate who and where we are in life. What may work in an open aired ocean house may not in an arid desert climate, or, as the case may be, make us homesick. Because I let the individual spaces talk, I’m often left with a civil war of furniture after every move; the coastal pieces on one side of the room versus the geometrically edged modern city accents. As a response, I am forced to find a way to manipulate and transform individual pieces to end the turf war in my living room.

Unfortunately, my budget is more the ‘mulling around a hardware store in hopes that a television designer will see me and fairy godmother my wish to re-design my space,’ than, ‘buy furniture on a whim to suit my tastes at every new duty station.’

Over the years I have developed a few trusty tricks and go to sources on how to design a home on a military budget. One needn’t be a millionaire to redesign a space; the process of adding new elements should be relaxing and not financially frought. I’d like to share my secrets on where to find the best goodies, what to buy in each place, and simple tips on how to make the most of your dollar to create your dream design.

SHOP OUTSIDE THE BOX(Y STORES). I often prefer rehabbed, vintage pieces to brand new fresh-from-the store furniture. Not only is this often a cheaper alternative, but older pieces are generally more solidly built than the often mass-produced products that make up a large selection of furniture on the market today. Plus, I love the hunt for treasure. Styles are often cyclical, so even if you like clean, modern edges, a Mid-Century modern piece from the 60’s might give you the look you’re seeking. When I PCS to a new duty station, one of the first things I do is research the local classifieds: retail websites, social media groups, and the nearest paper.

When we were stationed at Quantico, I discovered a military community yard sale group on social media that offered furniture and other accouterment for sale and barter. Much like the popular website, Craigslist, these virtual ‘yard sales’ advertise local bargains. Spring and summer, peak PCS season, provide an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the many sales within the community. Caution and vetting should always be used when venturing from the safety of your home to meet a stranger, but because these sites are comprised of predominantly local military members, it may be easier to do a quick safety search. In fact, the sellers are often located directly on or near base.

Local newspapers provide a great resource to discover weekly estate sales and nearby flea markets. The early bird gets the worm, a cliche never so true when describing estate sales and flea markets. This will be your best opportunity to uncover a diamond in the rough.

Trick of the trade: When hunting for goods at a thrift store, look for solid wood or composite bookshelves, coffee tables, accent tables, buffets, non-fabric chairs and tables. Typically, I try to avoid anything made of MDF because it’s difficult to work with and cheap to produce, so you might as well buy new instead of wasting time, money and energy. Beware of cloth furniture from thrift stores as couches, fabric chairs and mattresses are difficult to clean and may carry bed bugs. Consignment and resale stores are a great place to search for couches and cloth chairs, as they are typically vetted before they are placed on the showroom floor.

FAM B AND ATrick of the trade: My mother, who has an incredible eye and has managed to find remarkable treasures in antiques stores and consignment stores, taught me an important trick: If you see a piece of furniture you like, don’t be afraid to ask the seller if that is the best price they can offer. Often times, they will come down at least 10%.

Design example: I purchased this coffee table for $30 at a flea market; it is a solid wood table circa 1960 that needed a little bit of updating and TLC. I liked the detailed design, something that you don’t usually see in contemporary furniture unless it is a luxury brand. Because I have a young child and it was going in my family room, I decided to add a pop of color for the legs and a chalkboard surface. During the day, it’s an instant play table. At night if we have guests over, it becomes a convenient place for games or a drink menu. The table plus the paint cost me a grand total of $45.

INVEST IN A FEW TOOLS. In my opinion, investing in a few good tools will save you an immeasurable amount of money in the long run. I recommend: a rechargeable power drill, a screw with a magnetic section that allows you easily to switch screw heads, a decent set of brushes, a brand of spray or regular paint in which you feel most comfortable working with, a staple gun, sand paper, a fast-drying primer, a sewing machine, a decent set of hardware (hammer, wrench), and a level. Who needs therapy when you have a power tool?

Trick of the trade: The staple gun is one of the best tools to have in your arsenal. Even projects that may at first appear too complicated for a beginner can be simplified with a staple gun. I have reupholstered dining room chairs, arm-chairs, a couch and even built a vegetable garden with the same staple gun.

When I moved to our new house, I really wanted to purchase new dining room chairs. Unfortunately, most of the styles I liked started at around $80 a chair, (and that was even in discount stores). A little research into local consignment/second-hand furniture stores led me to a woodshop that was filled with wood chairs that needed some restoration. I offered $20.00 for each chair to take them as is. When I took them home, I removed the padding (which was actually just placed on the seat), sanded the exterior and covered it with a fresh stain. I purchased two yards of upholstery fabric on clearance and a bag of batting. I laid down a layer of batting, stretched the fabric over the seat, flipped it, and stapled the fabric to the bottom of the pad. The description actually makes it sound more complex than it actually was to construct. With all materials divided between each, the final cost was roughly $28.00 per chair.

SELECT A COLOR AND USE IT, AND VARIATIONS IN THE SAME FAMILY, THROUGH THE HOUSE. Seriously. I don’t mean pick a theme, because rooms that feel too theme-y can and will get overwhelming after time and you will want to change it after living in it for a while. Finding a common color family will actually help you save money. Why paint the walls when you can pop the room with accent colors?

Perhaps you’re drawn to a color family that conveys a more neutral, gray undertone. Continue those colors in accent marks across your home so the rooms have a cohesive flow. Is there a pillow, a favorite knick-knack, or a painting that you love? Pull a color (or colors) from that and use it across the room and continue with corresponding colors in adjacent rooms. If you feel like changing it, you don’t need to completely overhaul your furniture, you can simply purchase a few accent pieces and voila! Instant room change.

Trick of the trade: It might be a personal preference, but I invest in a few traditionally designed pieces, typically couches or armchairs, in more neutral, muted colors. Depending on what I want to communicate, I’ll then concentrate on a few colors to pop in accent pieces and carry it through the house. If I get too tired of a particular color, I just switch out the pillows and knick-knacks. This even allows you to change the look and feel of a room every season!

FIND LOCAL CRAFTSMEN/WOMEN. Rehabbing furniture that requires additional expert assistence doesn’t have to cost a million, or even one hundred, dollars. If it has good bones, don’t be afraid of a piece that entails more advanced work. Local glassworkers, carpenters, welders and upholsterers are a great resource that will both save money and add a really professional touch.

COUCH TABLE B ADesign example:
I found this table in a thrift store, and bartered it down to $25. The glass inserts were cracked and the chipped wood exterior didn’t match the rest of my lighter furniture. I found a local glassmaker who agreed to accept the glass pieces as raw material for a discount on my bill. The room is mostly windows and receives quite a bit of natural light. I picked a pop of green from my curtains and spray painted the table with a high gloss finish in a corresponding shade. Since the rest of the furniture is neutral, the mirrors pick up the sun and reflect it across the room, while the pops of green bring color to an otherwise single shaded space. The total cost? $6 for the spray paint, $25 for the table, and $24 total for the mirrored inserts.

CONSIDER A BARTERING SYSTEM. I operate under the concept, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ What do you have in your house that you no longer use that you may be able to trade for something you need? Or, what service can you offer (the space in your car, a trip somewhere, babysitting) that you may be able to nix a cash transaction and instead offer to trade services. One of my friends had a very large SUV, and she would offer to help others move furniture or large goods for a family that was short of cash but long on handiwork talent. In repayment for her car and gas money, she set up a system of trade in which she could use their tools or their handyman, handywoman expertise.

Trick of the trade: If you’re working with a professional, offer to give them whatever material he or she is replacing for a discount on your overall bill.

WELCOME INSPIRATION FROM OTHERS. It’s always difficult to see outside a situation when you are entrenched within it. We build community by creating relationships. If you’d like to change your space and don’t have a lot of money to spare, invite fresh eyes over to give you their opinion. Perhaps that conventional table you hate might be able to be transformed, but you don’t see it because you’re biased against it. We move, we adapt, we strive to forge relationships. What better way to nurture a new friendship than by genuiney asking others for their opinions and creative ideas?

CLOSET B AND ADesign example: I love storage, but our new house has ample storage and an excess of closets that act as junk gatherers. I invited a friend over and while complaining about how dark it would get at the back door, she suggested I turn the closet into a nook. Because I own the house, I was able to take it a couple of steps further by removing the closet doors and accompanying hardware. I measured the diameter and had a single piece of plywood cut to the dimensions. I hammered the bench together in the closet, added a splash of fresh paint to the walls, and decorated it with discount finds I’d gathered over the years. If, however, you are a renter, it is possible to remove and store the closet doors and purchase a ready-made bench (IKEA has a number of coffee tables that might work for this purpose that start at $19). Simply place the bench or a desk in the closet and decorate it with whatever you’d like. When you move, simply reinstall the closet doors. The total cost of this project was $60.

When we think of home, we like to think of it as a safe, welcoming, comfortable place. The military life doesn’t always offer the opportunities to put down solid roots in one location, but we can bring our history with us on the road. Designing a home, weaving together our found materials, adding accents from our journeys, and creating new memories as we build our nest is the hallmark of our way of life. Be always on the hunt for new treasures and don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves- you never know what kind of gems you will create.

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