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Decorate without debt

Get the home makeover you always wanted without the high cost
/ Source: TODAY

There are few things that stress people out as much as money, but home decorating may very well be one of them. The process can turn from exciting to daunting pretty quickly, and the various options, no longer limited to striped or solid, might make your head spin. Add that to the fact that these options tend to come with a hefty price tag, and you start to understand why there are so many people living in big houses (or apartments) with one empty room after another. That was how I did it for a while.

But I learned that, like your finances, decorating shouldn't be something you fear. It can be great fun to create the perfect room, and even more fun to live and entertain in it for years to come. So how do you complete your project, whether that means the living room, the bedroom or the whole house, without draining your savings and piling up debt? Careful planning and creativity, in both your shopping and your design, is the key.

  • Don't rush into anything. Before you make any purchases, you need to get to know the space and consider how you plan to use it, said Nate Berkus, host of an "Oprah & Friends" XM radio show and designer of the Nate Berkus line of home accessories. Will you be entertaining often? Do you have children? Are you going for a formal or a cozy vibe? Asking yourself questions like these will not only help you decide what kind of look you want, but it'll also eliminate impulse buys. "The mistake that people make when they're trying to stick to a budget in decorating is that they buy the wrong things, often because they're on sale or a floor sample," Berkus explained. Finding a deal can be great, but only if it's on something you really need. Also, when buying samples or sale items, it's important to be extra cautious, because they often come with limited return options. You don't want to wind up with an extra rug in the garage.

  • Budget. It sounds like a no-brainer, but setting a spending plan in advance will save you time as well as money. With a budget in mind, you'll be able to narrow down your options right off the bat, without wasting precious moments on the sofa that's way out of your price range. It will also allow you to roughly distribute the funds throughout the project, whether that means between rooms, if you're tackling the whole house, or among pieces of furniture, if the project is limited to one area. When mapping out your plan, be sure to set a range that's realistic, and then create a bit of a buffer zone in case you go over slightly, with slightly being the key word.

  • Get organized. Mitchell Gold, co-founder of the furniture design company Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, co-author of the new book "Let's Get Comfortable," suggests pulling pictures out of magazines and keeping them in a folder. "It's when you just leave everything up in the air — that decorating becomes difficult," he explained. It doesn't take any time at all to rip things out as you see them, but it can pay off in a big way down the line when you can't remember where you saw that couch you loved. If your project covers the whole house, keep a folder for each room, and include everything from paint colors to pillows and blankets.

  • Make the most of your resources. With the Internet, you can compare prices on just about everything, which is a great way to save money. But don't be afraid to go off the beaten track, either. "You can really start to get creative and save money by utilizing all the sources that are available to you — you can find fantastic things on eBay, in local antique shops, and at flea market and garage sales," said Berkus, who also vouched for mixing old and new pieces. If you do decide to hit the flea market and garage sale circuit, it can be helpful to go with a list, and always keep your design and budget at the front of your mind.

  • Go with timeless pieces, which may mean picking solid fabrics over striped. When purchasing something as expensive as a sofa, you really want to select a piece that you can live with for a long time, said Berkus, who has had his own sofa for 15 years. Go with a neutral color or pattern that you won't tire of, and buy the best quality upholstery you can afford. Likewise, when selecting accessories, consider starting a collection instead of purchasing items willy-nilly. Both Berkus and Bob Williams suggest pottery, which is beautiful when displayed and can often be found at competitive prices, especially on one of those trips to the flea market.

  • Get creative. You can save a ton by looking at things you already own before making additional purchases — the chair that looks terrible with the old design might be a perfect accompaniment to the new — so don't get rid of anything just yet. Another way to trim your budget is by taking old pieces and making them new. This could mean reinventing an old piece of furniture with paint, or turning fabric remnants into throw pillows. Bob Williams created a beautiful photo display for Mitchell Gold's home simply by taking all his old mismatched picture frames and spray painting them white. "You can make beautiful custom pillows by finding any fabric and bringing it to the tailor on the corner. That even means you can use an old dress," Berkus said. Little — inexpensive — touches like these really start to make the room feel like home.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .