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love life at home week 3 - zero dollar refresh (aka the mind-trick remodel)

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Welcome back! In case you’re new to the party, we are on Week 3 of our Love Life At Home Series. If you missed week one or two, go back and read it first, and then come on back here!

zero dollar design refresh

In Week 1 we did a little brain-retraining to be grateful for the home we have, and to bring some intention and new rhythms to make the most of our space. In Week 2 we went small and tweaked annoying or plain old ugly things about our homes – the broken cabinet hardware, ugly soap bottles, nasty toilet brushes – the low-hanging-fruit-type items where making a small swap can make an impactful difference on high use items.

This week we are going to make some bigger changes – and the best part is we aren’t going to spend a DIME! First, a little backstory.

One might imagine that being an Interior Designer means that my home has always looked amazing. I’ve always worked really hard to have a beautiful home for us to enjoy, but for the majority of our married life that was on a shoestring (or literally non-existent) budget. We put my husband through law school on my small entry level salary, endured 18 months of unemployment during the 2009 economic crash, and then once again (this time voluntarily) became a single income home when I decided to stay at home after our second baby. There were many months that our monthly Home Improvement budget was $25…and many more when that line item was $0.

Here are a selection of photos from that time which now feels mid-level embarrassing but was nice enough to get us our first clients! Also, most of the furniture, art, and accessories are things we still have in our home. Thoughtful, intentional purchases that stood the test of time - more on that in next week's post!

affordable home design living room

The point I'm trying to make…I got really good at making our home look great without spending a bunch of money. And I’m going to tell you how to do it.

affordable home design dining room

Enter: The Zero Dollar Refresh:

AKA tricking your brain in to thinking you’ve redone your home

Humans crave variety in our lives. It’s why we don’t eat the same dinner every night or watch the same TV series over and over forever. We loathe boredom.

Variety = happiness + excitement

Complex creatures that we are, though, we also don’t love wholesale change and crave the familiar. We don’t want to constantly be scanning for new information and potential threats. It tires out our brains.

Familiarity = safety

Change = fear

We can play on our brain’s desire for new stimuli + love of the familiar and trick it, so to speak, into seeing our homes as “new and improved” but just moving stuff around. Even though we’re using the same objects (comfortable familiarity), putting them in a new arrangement feels new and different (happiness and excitement).

Let’s get that brain fooled! With a little curiosity and furniture moving muscles, we’re going to work with what you’ve got to refresh your space and make it feel fresh. We’re going to start with 1 room or even 1 little vignette, but you can apply these principles all over your house.

I'm going to use the entryway in my house to show you how to do this! It's so simple, guys.

STEP ONE: clear the space

This is the step that people usually skip and just go straight to moving their coffee table books around, but don’t. I’d instinctively done for years and years, but then I read about it in one of my favorite books, Cozy Minimalist Home, and it really brought it to life. She calls this “quieting the space.”

Over time we add a bunch of little things to our space trying to make it feel complete or “right”, but mostly we are just adding noise. One day the glass shatters and you realize your entire space is cluttered and awful and you hate everything.

Starting with “I hate everything” isn’t going to give you the best results. Instead we’re going to do a reset. You have two options here:

  1. Clear all of your surfaces. Take out your pillows, vases, throws, picture frames, art, etc. Give everything a good dust while you’re at it, OR

  2. Literally take everything out. Curtains, rugs, all smaller pieces of furniture. This will take more effort but will also yield the most valuable results.

I went whole-hog on this in our last house and documented the entire process on Insta Stories. If you’re a visual person, hop over and watch that and you can see how each room changed! Set up a space where you can move everything for a time – a guest room, the garage, the back porch under a tarp – whatever it takes. It’s temporary. Just be sure it’s fully out of the room you’re working in.

The reason why this is helpful is pretty simple – we get used to seeing things the same way and get STUCK there. We can’t visualize how to use the space any other way than how we’ve always used it. One of my favorite parts of being a designer is walking into people’s homes, hearing their struggles, and then coming out with a “what if we just move the door to this other wall” and literally blow their minds. The solution, when you don’t live in it ever day, feels more obvious than it does to the family that’s been stuck beating their heads (or doors) against the wall with a fixed problem.

Taking out all the clutter and unnecessary (or at least temporarily unnecessary) items and living with it for a bit will help you see the room’s possibilities. If it’s a living room, keep enough chairs/seats for your family, a table to sit drinks on, and take everything else out.

You’re going to be tempted to refill this room almost immediately, but resist the urge. Live with this for a minimum of a day, but longer is better. If you can spend days with your space “quieted” the more minimal feeling will go from feeling awkward and uncomfortable to relaxing and calm.

Sit with this for a bit, ride the emotional wave, and don’t move to Step 2 until you’ve moved past discomfort and into calm.

STEP 2: set the intention for the space

If this sounds familiar then CONGRATULATIONS, you did your homework from Week 1! Setting an intention is a mindfulness practice with hugely positive effects in many areas of life, and especially at home.

Quieted of backpacks, piles of kids toys and books, stacks of blankets, throw pillows on the floor, etc. your living room suddenly feels less like a clutter magnet and more like a room of possibilities.

Perhaps you realize that you’d like to use this space as less for TV binge watching and more for family game nights and grown up conversations. That intention may help you realize that the TV doesn’t actually need to be the focal point for this room and can move from its place of honor to another more discreet spot in the room. You’d likely not stumble upon this realization had you not quieted the room and dreamed up a different, more helpful, way to use this space.

This step doesn’t need to be overly woo-woo or take a ton of time. The great news is that you’ve already practiced thinking about being intentional with your space in Week 1. You might want to carve out a space for reading to encourage you to spend more time in actual books and less time on your phone. Or maybe you want family movie night to be your tradition. It can be anything, so long as it serves you and your family.

The important part is that you take some time to think it through. Remember, we are resetting our brains as much as resetting the space. The change of quieting the space + being thoughtful and curious about how it could be used are going to go a long way to making the end result feel refreshing. Maybe the intention of the room doesn’t need to change at all, but my guess is that it might even just a little bit.

To use my entryway as an example, this is the first impression that guests see when they visit our house AND the space I see over my left shoulder every single day as I work. I want this space to:

  1. Be beautiful and inviting for guests.

  2. Have clear space for guests to sit things down (keys, bags, sunglasses).

  3. Be uncluttered so I enjoy looking at it and it doesn't add stress. No bowls that will attract spare keys, LEGOs, rubber bands, and other nonsense.

STEP 3: thoughtfully add back in

Chances are that if you’re reading this design blog, you have at least some stash of home décor items in your house. Pillows, throws, candle holders, vases, and random odds and ends that have been picked up on the Target clearance aisle, garage sales, or hand me downs. While these may not perfectly speak to the style of the dream home you’re after, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make use of them. And hopefully in there are a few pieces you REALLY love that we’ll capitalize on.

You’re now going to shop your house and begin adding things back in. Yes, you’ll likely pull from the pile of things you took out, but be sure to shop all of the other rooms in your house too. And if you have a closet where you’ve shoved discarded décor of ages past, don’t forget to check there too.

Begin thoughtfully and remember your new intention(s) for the space. If you want to create a reading corner, move a cozy chair here, an ottoman if you have one, a side table, a lamp, a cozy throw and pillow. Put it by a natural light source if that makes sense. Create a space so cozy and inviting that you’ll want to use it in this new way. If it is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or ugly, your brain won’t form a new habit and it will fail before it’s even begun.

Some tips:

  1. Start with the big things, like seating, rugs, and tables, grab some felt furniture sliders (so helpful) and move things around. You might even try out new seating arrangements for a day or two before adding back more. Don’t feel like you need to rush this step. Time is your friend and a great teacher.

  2. Then medium things, like art, big lamps, plants. Think about not only how it will look visually, but also what makes sense functionally (while the lamp in my entryway would look good on the left, the plan actually needs natural light to live, so it goes on the left closest to the daylight).

  3. Finally the smaller stuff. Less is more here. In all likelihood, you should end up with less in the room than you pulled out of it. I’m not asking you to be a minimalist here (though here’s a helpful post on minimalism if this quieter space is really speaking to you), but I am challenging you to be a Curator of your stuff. Only bring back what needs to come back for the room to be comfortable, useable, and beautiful. Bringing in 18 mismatched picture frames on your entry console is likely not going to fit those categories, but perhaps your favorite 3 will. If you learn nothing else from this post, hear this: FEWER, LARGER OBJECTS over a multitude of small ones. Exercise restraint.

For more tips on styling, I shared some of my all time favorite styling tips in this post.

Stay curious, try new things, don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t look right on the first go. The only thing you’ve invested is your time, and perhaps some Advil, so there’s no negative consequence to getting it wrong. We have a term for this in the biz called “Revise and Resubmit.” Just try something else and see if it helps. If something works, note it, so you can try it again in the next space you tackle.

Even though I’ve called this a Zero Dollar Refresh, I’m not naïve to the fact that you might have realized you’re missing a few things that would bring your refreshed space together, functionally, aesthetically, or both. You don’t have to get bent out of shape or discouraged about it. Just jot down your thoughts on a notepad or in your phone, because we’ll come back to that next week.

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s completely do-able in the span of a week. Give it a try this week, either with a small space to get your feet wet, or go for it with a high use space that will give you the most impact. The end result is amazing – a feeling like new refreshed space – but going through the process itself can be enjoyable too and will be a great teacher for you as you make thoughtful purchases for your home in the future.

Come back next week for our 4th and final installment!

minimalism refresh dallas home design

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low budget redesign


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