Oct 17, 2023

10 easy DIY projects to upgrade your home for $20 or less

I’ve always hated flipping on a bright light first thing in the morning. Until recently, I assumed there was nothing to be done about this — at least not without buying a new bedside lamp or paying an electrician. Then I read that I could simply get a cheap dimmer that attaches to any lamp. Now, when I wake up, I slide it to the lowest possible brightness and sip coffee in groggy peace. For $20, I significantly improved how I start each day.

My dimmer-DIY was a lightbulb moment (bad pun intended). It got me thinking of all the other easy fixes that could probably make our apartment more comfortable or attractive. Home decor and DIY experts confirmed I was right: Here are 10 ways to upgrade your space for $20 or less.

As I learned with the table lamp dimmer, lighting can seriously affect your mood. Adding it to my lamp was simple: I just plugged it into the wall outlet, then plugged my lamp into it, like you would with an extension cord.

Or, try trading a regular bulb for a smart lightbulb, with brightness and temperature that you can control through your phone (no special smart home system required). Monica Benavidez, the interior stylist behind DIY blog Monica Wants It, recommends the kind by Bulbrite, which cost about $18 each (or less if you buy a pack of several). "If I’m crafting, I want the brightest and coolest setting, but when I’m working on my blog in the evenings I prefer warm, dim light," she says.

You might not realize it, but switch plates (the covers over light switches and outlets) can visually clutter up a wall. To streamline them, Lauren Comer, of home decor blog Pinch Plate Party, suggests swapping in the kind that conceal the screws, which you can find for under $5 each. With a bigger budget, you could also choose a color that better matches the room — for instance, replacing white with brass.

Many large museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, include downloadable public domain art on their websites that's free to anyone. Just be sure to download a high-resolution version so it won't be blurry when printed.

"Once I find art I like, I print posters using a one-hour photo service to create my own art for super cheap," says Benavidez, who has printed 16-by-20-inch images for as little as $8. "Then, I use thrifted frames to create a gallery wall. It's a great way to get high-end looking art."

Extra large art can get expensive, but you can make your own using little more than wood furring strips (long, flat pieces that cost a couple dollars apiece at hardware stores), and — of all things — a shower curtain.

To start, use four 1-by-3-inch furring strips to build a frame, says Cara Newhart, an interior designer and host of the Make Space podcast. She suggests using a miter box to make it easier to cut the strips in a straight line (or try asking an employee at a hardware store to cut them for you). Attach them together using staples and a $5 bottle of wood glue, then stretch the shower curtain over the frame and staple the edges.

To wrangle keys, mail and other household ephemera, interior designer Cassandra LaValle suggests buying decorative boxes or trays. Visual clutter can contribute to stress, but having nice places for everyday items helps keep the chaos at bay. While small storage solutions, sometimes called "trinket dishes," are cheap at large retailers, you can also find unique pieces at thrift stores. Vintage candy bowls, for instance, make elegant holding places for jewelry and toiletries such as cotton balls or Q-tips.

Research shows that houseplants can make us feel happier and more peaceful in our homes. Though large or rare plants tend to get pricey, more common types — such as pothos and snake plants — can easily be found for under $20. Research care instructions in advance to choose a variety that will thrive in your space.

Or maybe you have a plant that just needs a snazzier home. Retailers such as Target and Ikea have a host of stylish planter options for under $20.

Home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's often sell "mistint" paint at a steep discount. In many cases, these paints have been returned by customers who realized they’d chosen the wrong color.

"It's kind of a crap shoot in terms of what will be available, but they’re definitely worth checking out," says Benavidez, who has used this strategy to buy a gallon of paint for $15.

Depending on the cost, you might be able to coat a small accent wall for under $20 (use a paint calculator to estimate how much you’ll need). You could also paint a door or trimwork, or an old piece of furniture.

While cabinet knobs and handles range widely in price, Benavidez says you can update your existing hardware using only spray paint.

She transformed the chrome drawer pulls in her bathroom with gold paint that she usually finds at Walmart or Home Depot for $6 to $8. Before painting, she sprayed all the chrome parts with heavy-duty primer and let them dry near a fan for 20 minutes. Then she applied a light coat of gold, let it dry and repeated the process a few more times.

"That's a quick afternoon project that can make a big impact," she says. "It still looks great five years later."

To add a jolt of pattern to a relatively small surface area, such as an accent wall or the inside of a bookshelf, try fabric as a less expensive alternative to wallpaper.

Lifestyle blogger Amber Oliver used a floral print she found at Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts for a wall in her former home office. To attach the material, she sprayed Elmer's Craftbond Spray Adhesive directly onto the wall, then had a friend help her carefully spread the fabric over it. In a few spots, Oliver added staples to keep edges in place, but she says one benefit of such a busy print is that it hides imperfections.

Another perk of choosing fabric over wallpaper: It's easier to remove. Oliver says her accent wall held up for several years before she moved, at which point she peeled the fabric off without leaving a mark. Though this specific project cost about $40, she has used the method on the interior of a bookshelf for less than $20. And, of course, the cost of fabric varies widely, so you can decide how much or how little you want to spend.

DIY blogger Carrie Waller loved the vintage end table she’d found secondhand, but not its sponge-painted top, so she covered it with about $5 worth of peel-and-stick wallpaper.

She sanded down the painted surface, then cleaned it with tack cloth and a dry towel. (If your tabletop is smooth already, you could possibly skip these steps.) She applied the wallpaper using a wallpaper smoothing tool to get rid of air bubbles and a handled razor blade to trim edges. She says it took only about 30 minutes to transform the table.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer in Seattle who covers culture, lifestyle, business and parenting.

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