When I was in college, there was an older student that all my friends had a crush on. He was a brooding musician, but affable and kind-hearted. Legend goes, in his early years there, he got a brand new acoustic guitar that he adored and probably would have given the white glove treatment, except that you can’t broodingly play guitar wearing white gloves. In his swoon-worthy wisdom, he realized that he wouldn’t always be able to keep this guitar in its original condition, so, with a small audience (of course), he took a key and dragged a wobbly scratch down the body of his guitar baby love. He was released from his obsession; he was free to play and croon and swoon all of us (I mean them!) without worrying that he’d accidentally damage what he’d now intentionally marred. Herein lies my philosophy when it comes to buying pieces for your home when you don’t have a big budget, but you do have little ones (human or animal) who are probably going to eff things up in the near term:
Prioritize form and function over condition.
I am not advocating that you get out your keys and go to town on your high-end furnishings. I am suggesting that you get you some furnishings in your aesthetic that are already bumped, bruised, and weathered. If your toddler is going to ram a toy garbage truck into your credenza, just have a credenza that is ram-able. If your Great Dane has a habit of always lying in the sunny spot, even if that sunny spot is on top of your dining table, your stress levels will be lower if your table just isn’t that precious. I may be speaking from experience.
Once you’ve blended these imperfect items into your home with all your other pieces, whether they’re fresh-out-of-the-box or not, the scuffs and scratches won’t be the primary focus. This is why God/Target makes decorative trays and vases to put flowers in and frames for interesting art; your home can be full of interesting and attractive things and you don’t have to cringe every time your kid starts banging the toy hammer or anything that’s remotely hammer-like, which, as it turns out, is most things if you’re 3.
While things have come a long way at our favorite big box stores (looking at you, Target, my sweet), you may not be looking to furnish your entire home, or even an entire room, in mass-produced items. There is also the reality that, for some of us, even these more-affordable lines can add up when you’re in need of a lot of items. In my experience, you’re more likely to get an AMAZING price and a unique item if you’re searching off the beaten path. You also get a few environmental bonus points for not buying something new that you’re pretty sure is destined for the landfill.
Let’s also not discount the thrill of the chase. Putting in time and effort, digging (either literally or figuratively) and searching your soon-to-be-acquired top secret locales will make finding the right piece even more rewarding. It’s a little bit adrenaline, a little bit confirmation bias (It’s good because I found it!), very addictive. The search can seem off-putting if you’re already busy, but it’s a necessary evil if you value finding unique pieces and you really need to find a good deal. You also have a great story to tell, if you choose to reveal your sources, when someone asks where you found that light fixture or side chair or mannequin you use to store your hats and coats. I don’t have a mannequin, but now I kind of want one.
Disclaimer: If you have young kids and/or pets, there is always going to be a baseline of quality you need in your furnishings. Things need to be safe, for one thing. That wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table (name that movie!) might actually fit perfectly in your living room, but if it’s rickety with rusty nails curling out or has an old coat of probably-lead-filled paint on it, it’s a no go. You also need things that can handle some additional wear and tear. Have I mentioned all the wear and tear?
Where do you find these unicorn pieces? If you have an elderly great aunt with flawless taste who can pass along some vintage items that physically and aesthetically fit your home, go with that. Otherwise, I got you. Let’s get you going with a strategy for finding perfectly imperfect items that your rugrats can approach without your blood pressure Spacex rocket launching skyward.
Know your needs
Have an idea of what kind of pieces you would like, both in form and function. Do you need media storage? Do your guests look at you strangely because there’s only one chair in your living room and you won’t let them sit on it? Should you be adding more warmth with woods and leathers or cooling the vibe off with metals and whites? If you know where you want to put something, take measurements and keep them in your phone. You’re about to be so good at finding things when you least expect to find them, so you want to be prepared.
Always be on the lookout
Early in our relationship, my husband and I left a coffee shop and stumbled onto a small theatre that was closing and selling all of its furnishings. The theatre seats made a nice conversation piece for awhile, but we still use the matching metal side chairs we took home that day. Our molded fiberglass “dining” chairs were being sent to the dumpster when a local college library was remodeling. My favorite dining table was a originally an apparel merchandising piece from my days working retail. Think outside of the (big) box.
Find resale and used furniture shops in your aesthetic
Stumbling on a perfect mid-century style coffee table at Goodwill is possible, but unlikely. If you do your homework and visit used furniture stores or antique store vendors that bring in pieces in your preferred style, you’ll save yourself some time and effort. You also are more likely to form a relationship as a “regular” that will work in your favor -- they want you to keep coming back so they might give you a price break or they might even help you hunt down a particular item you need.
Use social media to your advantage
True confession: I buried the lede and I’m not ashamed of it. This is the good stuff. If you have a favorite store that you can’t afford to shop at full-price, follow your LOCAL store’s social media account. For example, I live in Denver and I like West Elm, so I follow @westelmdenver. I find out when the sales are happening, I know when the store is trying to sell off discounted floor models, and, best of all, I hear about their dock sales, which is when they bring out returned merchandise and let people swarm the loading dock for pieces that can’t be sold on the floor, but hit that form and function sweet spot. Seriously, this is the business. It works for my local modern furniture store, which sells vintage and new pieces, too. Any clogging of your feed that may happen in the off-season will be so worth it.
Obviously there is so much inspiration and so many resources if you’re following the right accounts. You already follow Emily, so you know about her and you are well-connected so you also remember to follow Orlando too. I suggest Jenny Komenda who shares so many good cost-saving tips (I always feel like she’s giving away her secrets! Keep some of it for your paying clients, Jenny!) and Apartment Therapy will always come through with round-ups and DIYs.
Be chatty and social and inquisitive, even if you’re not really
If the chair in the dressing room at your favorite clothing boutique would look perfect with your couch, ask if you can buy it. See what happens! If you see a unique piece you love, ask your friend or the Instagram influencer or the barista who makes the best oat milk lattes where it came from. People like to hear that you like their taste and they might share their sources if you’re nice to them! If they don’t, no harm done! The world is your oyster! I am not a Chatty Kathy by nature, but I will bond with just about anyone if I think I might get a unicorn out of it.
Practice patience and creativity
What a mom thing to say, amirite? It just needs to be said that even if you’re not searching for perfect-condition used pieces, it will take some time to acquire all of the items you’re hoping for. In the meantime, you may have to live with pieces that don’t meet both the form and function ideals. A “contemporary” overstuffed sofa will be just fine to hold up your bum until you can find one that meets your aesthetic criteria. A sleek shelf can serve as your landing zone until that perfect, but not too perfect, vintage sideboard turns up.
Truthfully, I shopped this way before I even had kids. I wanted my home environment to give good vibes, but I worked in mental health and my partner was building a brand new small business; our budget for furnishings was just so very tiny and our dogs were so very big. It was easy for me to get bummed out about what we couldn’t afford and to feel wallow-y when even the “budget-friendly” design blog posts seemed aspirational. However, finding my own scrappy little way has been so satisfying and having these pieces now that we have small kids has been a bit of a revelation. Kids are going to be kids, no matter how you set up your home, and I think being intentional about having imperfect, bump-able items can bring an air of relaxation that you maybe didn’t know you needed.