5 Rental-Friendly Upgrades to Prioritize When You’re on a Budget

published Aug 31, 2021
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Over the past five years, I have moved eight times. I’m not alone: in a world where increasingly more people are choosing to rent and rent prices have been rising astronomically, many people have been more transient as a matter of necessity. The stress of moving can be reason enough to prioritize some tasks and put others on the backburner “for later.” For me, thinking about upgrading whatever space I eventually moved into — and would inevitably move out of — completely intimidated me. 

Recently, however, I decided to prioritize decorating my home. I was spending significantly more time at home as a result of the pandemic and shelter-in-place guidelines, and wanted it to be a place I truly loved. Because I had just moved to a small town in remote Alaska (known locally as the Alaskan Bush) and had to stick to a strict budget, I knew I would have to get creative, but I was still determined to cultivate a space that looked and felt like it belonged to me. 

Between thrifting and making use of what I already had on hand, I was determined to transform my house into a place I’d be happy to call home. Here are five simple and inexpensive ways I upgraded my space.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Wall or Furniture Paint

For my first four years as a renter, I assumed painting the walls in my home was off the table — partially because I never asked any of my landlords if it was allowed. As a result, I lived my life in the drab white walls emblematic of an inexpensive rental unit. It turns out, however, that I was incorrect: Many landlords do allow tenants to paint the walls, with stipulations. 

Painting my current apartment’s walls was the most noticeable upgrade I made. I reviewed different options and decided on a light lilac shade that I felt would easily match furniture and various accents. I bought two cans of paint and borrowed the tools from a friend, making the project an affordable upgrade. The shade brought me a sense of calm amidst an overly chaotic year and my living room became a space that I wanted to spend time in. 

If painting an entire apartment or house seems too daunting, an accent wall can do wonders as well. Likewise, if your landlord simply won’t allow you to paint the walls, you can add a pop of color by painting furniture.

Personal, Meaningful Art

In addition to being white, my walls used to be bare. I didn’t own any art and was unsure where to start, given that every step of the process — from picking art to display to hanging each piece — seemed daunting. I told myself that I didn’t spend enough time at home anyway, so I never got around to adding art to the walls. This year, however, a friend gifted me a beautiful painting of the Aurora Borealis to celebrate my move to Alaska. The dreamy colors inspired me and I knew I had to make it work in my new home. 

Whether it’s photographs, art, or postcards, a gallery wall-inspired set-up of personal memories enhances a space in meaningful ways. Once I successfully mounted one painting (it turns out you can mount them with push pins!), I hung up alcohol ink paintings of an orca and a map of Alaska I had done but never felt comfortable displaying, as well as pictures students have gifted me over the years and repurposed postcards and greeting cards. By the end of the afternoon, my walls were charming, homey, and uniquely me. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Nostalgic and Sentimental Candles

Whenever I stop by TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or Homegoods, I try to collect new candles whose scents are nostalgic for me. I gravitate towards pine, ocean, and earthy aromas, and place them intentionally around my house. These scents help remind me of my childhood hometown of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and candles are a portable, effortless way to evoke favorite memories.

Because the scents of Cape Cod Soy Candles also bring me back to my childhood town, I keep one in each room in my house. The Nantucket Lavender is as enchanting as promised and the perfect complement to a Sunday night bubble bath. I also channel different locations by stocking up on Homesick’s robust collection; their United Kingdom candle is perfect for when I’m feeling nostalgic for my time abroad. Though purchases like this do come with a higher price tag, they are long-lasting and provide endless comfort. 

Plants and Flowers

The many benefits of living in a home filled with plants are well-documented. I loved the idea of filling my space with greenery, but I was worried about the practicality of having plants shipped to my apartment. Enter Etsy, which has a surprisingly robust greenery section. Plants of Joy’s mystery succulent box was an easy choice, because succulents have a better chance of surviving during the dark Alaskan winters and the mystery added some excitement to my planning. 

I have slowly been working to fill every corner of my home with plants and flowers, which has brought life into my house. Even those who don’t identify as “plant people” or don’t have access to live plants can experience some of the same benefits with fake plants, which have some comparable benefits — they also benefit a person’s mental health without the worries of having to keep them alive. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Calming, Coordinated Accents

No other upgrade felt more seamless than including matching linens throughout my house; it’s a long-lasting purchase that completely elevated both rooms and required (nearly) no work. From matching my linen shower curtain to the bath mat and my kitchen towels to the oven mitt, making a few small but intentional changes sparked something in my common areas. I feel serene when things match, so buying blue towels and bath mats to match the curtain made sense. 

There are plenty of places to source new linens and other textiles, but when in doubt, I go for the tried-and-true options: Target and Bed Bath and Beyond both offer various matching sets of all types of linens and a variety of rugs. I also use Etsy and thrift stores to find more interesting pieces, such as vintage curtains with geometric shapes that can add dimension to any room. Accents like this used to feel frivolous considering my tight budget, but they have helped me curate a home that represents who I am.