9 of the Best Budget-Friendly Kitchen Upgrades, According to Design Pros

published Oct 20, 2022
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Credit: RHG A+D

It happens to most of us — one day you’re at the stove scrambling eggs, when you find yourself staring at your tired backsplash. Or you glance at your drab cabinets with disappointment while breaking out your braiser for a dinner party. That’s when you start to think, maybe my kitchen has lost its luster.

Kitchens are notoriously expensive to renovate, especially when we’re also grappling with the rising cost of everything from gas to groceries. So whether you’re renting, or you’ve invested your funds into buying a new home, it might not seem like the ideal time to spend money on fixing things up.

But you can still make some high-impact changes to your kitchen without over-extending yourself. We asked experts to provide a few budget-friendly ideas to help jump-start the renovation process. Whatever your kitchen quandary, here are a few thrifty renovations, savvy upgrades, and helpful cost-cutting tips straight from the pros.

Credit: Nick Rochowski

But first, ask yourself the right questions.

Before you run with any of these ideas, the pros say it’s important to really zero in on what’s actually bothering you about your kitchen. “Sometimes, if you’ve been living in a place for a while, and you’re not an architect or interior designer, you know it’s not right, but you’ve never put it into words,” explains Washington architect Andrew Mikhael.

He adds, “Really ask yourself, what is it that’s bothering me about this kitchen? And when is it? Is it all of the time? Is it when I’m baking? Is it when I’m making a big meal? Is it when my partner is cooking with me, and we’re knocking into each other?”

Asking yourself these important questions is an essential jumping-off point for deciding which elements to upgrade, particularly when you’re trying to conserve costs.

Credit: RHG A+D

1. Give your cabinets new life.

Once you have sorted out the questions, one of the first and most noticeable elements to make a visual impression in the kitchen are cabinets. Our experts had a lot of advice to offer on creating an instantly updated look.

Painting cabinets is an inexpensive change to give a kitchen a facelift, according to architect Rachael Grochowski of RHG Architecture + Design in New Jersey. Just make sure, first, that your cabinets can take paint.

Architect Kevin Bell, principal and owner of New York-based Vestige Design Studio, recommends buying a tester of paint and trying it out on the back of a cabinet door. If you’re able to scrape it off with your fingernails, your cabinetry is non-porous and not a good painting surface.

Replacing your cabinets altogether can get expensive. But IKEA and Reform both have new cabinet options which are accessible and beautiful. Semihandmade also makes attractive fronts for IKEA cabinets that are made to be mounted onto IKEA boxes, explains Peter Seymour, New York real estate agent at Corcoran and homeowner who recently finished his own renovation.

Credit: Sylvie Li

2. Lift your look with new hardware.

Think of hardware as the jewelry of your kitchen, says Lillian Dunham, three-time home renovator and professional DIYer. “Switching out knobs is like keeping your outfit on, but zhuzhing it up with different jewelry.” she says.

“They can be the most trendy things in your kitchen because in five years you can just change them again,” she adds.

Switching out knobs is like keeping your outfit on, but zhuzhing it up with different jewelry.

Lillian Dunham, professional DIYer

Bell concurs. He says you don’t have to spend a lot of money on the rest of the kitchen if you have a really great set of hardware.

So where can you find high-end-looking accessories? Dunham suggests checking out Emily Henderson, Justina Blakeney, Vintage Revivals, and Daniel Kanter for inspiration. Best bets are on Wayfair, Overstock, Etsy, The Home Depot, Lowes and even Target. Look for things that are similar to the fancy, high-end stuff, she says. “The reality is right now, as with fashion, there are a lot of budget-friendly dupes out there.” 

Credit: Nick Rochowski

3. Spiff up your backsplash and countertop.

Another great way to add color and texture to your kitchen is to change up your backsplash, walls, or countertops. An increasing variety of peel-and-stick tiles, wallpaper, and designer contact papers have made these projects budget-friendly.

“Countertops and backsplashes are like the cardigan or blazer in the fashion metaphor. You can change the outfit by changing the outer layer,” says Dunham. Joshua Warr, real estate agent at New York’s Cooper and Cooper, says, “You can have fun exploring what it could be with the peel-and-stick. You can even seal it. Peel-and-stick wallpaper that you can wipe down for food splatter places is great.”

Still committed to replacing your countertops altogether? For starters, save by doing the demolition yourself, Dunham suggests.

As for inexpensive materials, she notes that you can get acrylic countertops in finishes that resemble quartz and natural stone.

For a true bargain, Bell suggests “scavenging” the treasure trove of remnants. “If you’re willing to do the homework, it’s there. Every stone yard has a bunch of scraps, and they are glad to get rid of them,” he says.

Credit: RHG A+D

4. Improve your lighting.

New York City architect Hedi Allameh says upgrading your lighting is a very inexpensive and effective way to upgrade your kitchen. “Part of creating something delicious is creating something that looks beautiful. You eat with your eyes — you’ve got to make your food look good, and nothing really looks good with single-source lighting,” she explains.

Part of creating something delicious is creating something that looks beautiful.

Hedi Allameh, New York City architect

She suggests installing a beautiful track light with six heads — it helps you create spotlights on cabinets and work surfaces. You can even install pendants off of a track light.

New York architect Eric Clough of 212box notes that task lighting is a really nice detail in a kitchen. One way to do that inexpensively is to use under-cabinet lighting. LED lights create a big impact with minimal skill required.

“I walk into any house that doesn’t have under cabinet lighting, and I’m like, it’s literally just a few dollars on Amazon,” says Bell. (Pro tip: LED strip lights last forever, but the adhesive can let go over time, so get 3M double-sided tape, and with two points of adhesive, they’ll stay up.)

Credit: Jody Kivort

5. Organize your drawers.

Drawer organizers may seem invisible, but if they help you put things away, your kitchen will look better. “The more divisions you have and the more compartments you create to discipline yourself to put things back where they belong,” says Clough, “makes for a more efficient kitchen.”

So where do you get started? “You can’t beat The Container Store where choices are abundant at various price points.” says Grochowski. Bell also says there are a myriad of organizing products for the kitchen that are such easy DIY projects.

“Even in small kitchens: a very simple thing is a metallic knife holder from IKEA, or a paper towel holder inside your cabinet. If there’s a lot of visual noise in the kitchen, then there’s noise when you’re cooking. You want it accessible, but you don’t have to see all of it all the time,” he explains.

That said, you don’t have to spend a lot on drawer organizers. You can save money by repurposing things you already have, such as using office equipment as fridge organizers or even old plastic containers as an inexpensive way to reinvent your drawers.

Credit: Devon Jarvis

6. Install a custom pegboard.

One of the hottest kitchen design trends right now is high-end custom storage, like larders. But consider the humble, versatile pegboard as an alternative. “I really like the classic Julia Child pegboard,” suggests Dunham, who installed a pegboard where a doorway had been. “People have nice pots and pans. They like to curate their pan collection — so don’t hide them,” she says. “You can also paint a pegboard any color you want, so it could be a pop of color behind your pans. It’s got a lot of potential!”

Credit: Sofia Clara

7. Invest in a kitchen island … on wheels.

If there’s one thing designers can agree on, it’s a kitchen island. “A big island is always nice with counter seating. It’s always nice to cook and entertain, or have your kids watch you cook,” says Clough.

But if a building a kitchen island is out of your budget, the pros recommend finding a portable or pre-built kitchen island. You can easy pick up one on Amazon, Wayfair, Crate & Barrel, or even at thrift shops.

If you find one on wheels, it’s even better! The bonus is that you can easily move your workspace wherever you may need it — as an extra counter for visiting guests, a place to prep foods, or even as a work area to watch a food class on Zoom.

Credit: RHG A+D

8. Become your own color consultant.

When it comes to colors, Bell recommends starting with the largest or trickiest update, or the element you love the most, and find your perfect color for it. “Test your cabinet paints — find the blue you love and buy a sample of every shade on the next page (even if you don’t like it). You might be on the right track. You just picked the wrong blue.”

Then, once you’ve found your color, take one of the cardboard boxes in your recycling bin and paint a piece with it. Bring it to Lowe’s when you look for all of the other components (backsplash, countertop, hardware, etc.). Seeing them all together is key, he says.

9. Be patient with yourself.

Another piece of wisdom, this time from a seasoned DIYer: Be patient with yourself, and learn to appreciate the process. “You will go over budget, and it will take more time than you thought. And that’s OK,” says Dunham. “There are always mistakes, and it takes more time than anticipated, but part of the joy is getting into a pickle, and then learning something new.”

What are the kitchen upgrades you’ve been working on? Share your ideas and projects in the comments below.