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target australia office chair armchair and dining chairs 2022

Skimp in Style: 10 Tricks to Buying Budget Decor that Doesn’t Look Cheap

We love a bit of bargain decor, don’t we? But we kinda want that bargain decor to look more bougie than budget. We want cheap, but chic.

But how do you steer clear of the affordable furniture and decor that looks more Hot Dollar than it does high end? I’m going to tell all in today’s post.

Scroll on as I reveal the secrets to finding cheap decor that doesn’t look cheap, and some common mistakes you need to avoid making.

The hero image above is via Target.

target matte white ceramic vase and papaya vase in white

1. Avoid High-Gloss Ceramics (Matte is Your Friend)

This is probably the biggest rule of them all, and once you come to understand it better, it’ll honestly change the way you look at budget decor when you shop.

Budget stores stock a lot of glossy ceramics in a variety of colours, but they’re the pieces that really do look the cheapest. There’s such a mass-produced look and feel to them, and you want to avoid them at all costs.

What you want to gravitate toward are the vases, vessels and ornaments that feature more of a matte finish. They inherently feel more organic, handmade, earthy and in turn more expensive.

See it play out above. The $12 Orla Textured Vase from Target looks just as expensive as the $89 Lotus Vase from Papaya.

target green and white kids shelves   

2. Look Beyond the White Melamine

Budget furniture chains pump out white melamine storage around the clock, so it seems. But if you want your home to feel more expensive, you’d be wise to choose oak-look over the all-white.

All-white glossy melamine brings a cold nature to your room, so if you want warmth in your space this material won’t help you achieve it. Not only that, it’s been done so many times by so many stores, it’s become a little run-of-the-mill, and dare I say it… cheap.

The image above is a good example of this. Target’s Spencer Low Bookshelf looks a thousand times more expensive in the green tone than it does in the white. It’s more unexpected, it’s less common, and therefore it feels like a more custom solution.

kmart round timber side table and round marble top side table

3. Avoid the Faux Marble Finish

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a little imitation finish here and there. But there’s something about the really bad faux marble tops on tables that scream ‘budget’.

And I love to do things on a budget, but you don’t want pieces to stand out for all the wrong reasons. And fake marble is definitely going to do that.

You’d be wiser to choose a side table or coffee table in an affordable timber and place something marble on top if you’re wanting to inject a little stone into the mix.

Above you can see this at play. Kmart’s Finn Side Table on the left ($19) looks way more refined than the Faux Marble Table on the right ($37).

kmart and target timber rattan bedside tables

4. Look For Interesting Profiles on Furniture Fronts

Nothing gives away a piece of furniture being cheap more than a basic square profile with no interest or detail. Bedside tables tend to come in this shape all the time and they can often look quite inexpensive (especially in white melamine).

Look to options that have an interesting detail on the front profile and it’s going to elevate the room immensely. You want a piece that looks like some craftsmanship has gone into it.

Images above prove my point: Target’s Akira Bedside above, with its paneled front is a great example of this. Kmart’s Rattan Bedside Table is another; there’s a quality look and feel to it.

kmart glass fluted drinks trolley with pink vase

5. Choose Raw-Look Timbers Over Lacquered Ones

This concept is similar to the one I started this post with, around high-gloss finishes coming across as cheaper. The same goes for timber furniture here as it does for ceramics: the more matte the better.

We’ve all seen the yellow-tone oak tables and shelves with a high-gloss sheen. They’re affordable, for sure, but they don’t give a feeling of sophistication the way a more pure, raw-look timber will.

See the image above? The Fluted Glass Drinks Trolley above from Kmart has a raw-look finish and it could honestly be put in a more expensive store and sell like hotcakes for a lot more than its $69 price tag.

kmart ollie cushion black and white check rectangle cushion cover

6. Avoid Poly-Fill Cushions Like the Plague

You know how I feel about feather cushions; they’re the only option I’ll allow in my own home and the home’s I work on for clients. That plush, plump look appears way more sophisticated than the flatness you get from a polyester cushion insert.

You may think you’re bagging a bargain with a poly-fill cushion. But you need so many of them to fill the couch up, that you may as well have purchased a more plumper cushion to begin with.

Now, there’s no reason you can’t purchase the cheap cushion if you love the look of the cover colour, pattern or design (the one above from Kmart is divine, for example). Grab it, and then hit Spotlight or IKEA to buy some feather inserts. That way you get the bargain and your sofa looks well-styled.

spotlight homewares white and timber look affordable decor

7. Embrace Odd Shapes in Decorative Items

Cheap decor gets churned out in the same style and shape all the time. The chains want as many people to buy it as possible, so they often don’t take risks in the design of their decorative items.

The ones that do though… they’re the stores you want to embrace. You want to stock up on pieces that have a little quirk in the shape, or an interesting finish, or even a little imperfection in the patina. These elements can give the piece a greater sense of character.

Case in point: everything above is from Spotlight for under $28 (the lamp being the most expensive). The large Bohemian Bliss Vase on the left is stunning at only $10.50, but you have to cut those tassels off immediately if not sooner!

kmart dinner set grey with white speckles

8. Choose Dinnerware with a Handmade Feel

Cheap decor looks the most expensive when there’s a handmade feel to it. Sometimes you want the feeling that the piece was picked up on travels overseas even though you only traveled as far as the local shops to get it!

This is why you want the finish in things like crockery or dinnerware to have some etching, some embossing, or some speckling. You know, something that shows some more work went into it.

Basic white dinnerware looks just that – basic! The moment you embrace some speckling in the finish, or some embossing on a coffee mug, is the moment your affordable decor goes from dirt-cheap to designer.

spotlight australia canvas artworks

9. Avoid Unframed Canvas Art

Don’t shoot the messenger, but it must be said: budget canvas art without a frame looks cheap. There’s no way around this truth.

If you’re tossing up between an affordable artwork without a frame or one with a frame at a higher price, always go for the one with the frame. You won’t regret it.

Unframed canvas artworks from budget stores always look unfinished. There’s something very ‘kids room’ about them. If they’re going in a kids room you might be able to get away with it, but I would never recommend displaying one in a living space without a frame on it.

Some stunning, and super affordable, options from Spotlight are shown above.

target brushed brass cutlery set

10. Choose Brushed Metals Over Pure Ones

Last but not least when it comes to making cheap decor look expensive, is metallic finish. Now, this applies to cutlery, legs on chairs, lamp bases and anything else sporting a metal finish.

The key to it being cheap but not looking cheap and nasty, is to get the piece with an aged brushed finished, like in the brass cutlery above, rather than an overtly pure, shiny finish. 

The shinier and more pure the cheaper decor item is, the less expensive it’s going to look. If you find a metallic with more age to it, and a more worn look, it’s going to feel more character-filled and less ‘everyday’. This will make it feel more expensive.

Have these tips on buying cheap decor been a game changer for you? I’d love to get your opinion on all of this advice in the comments below. Let me know if you follow any of these rules already!


Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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15 Responses

  1. Hi Chris
    Great read! Very informative!
    Can I please encourage you to look into the feather trade more closely? I’m sure that once you find out the truth and the enormous cruelty that it involves, you will find another option for plump cushions.
    Thanks for reading

  2. Loved this article. Handy tips appreciated.
    I sometimes buy cheap canvases but get them professionally framed. Definitely worth the extra expense.

  3. Thanks Chris – I really appreciate this advice. It looks so obvious when you point it out!

  4. This is so good! You are a master of putting all the best tips into bite size pieces. I agree with it all – with one exception. The feather inserts from Ikea are just not worth it. I have some and they flatten down too much, whereas the ones I got from Adairs (when they were on sale of course hehe!) which ended up about $3 more than the Ikea ones area about twice as dense! Haven’t tried the Spotlight ones yet though. Thanks for another brilliant blog! xx

  5. Great article. Trying to balance where to spend money and where to save is invaluable. Thank you

  6. This is a great blog post. Always trying to balance between investment pieces and items and cheap and cheerful. Great suggestions. I’m off to spotlight

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I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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