How to design a small apartment on a low budget

Your place is gonna look reaaal cute

Colorful and compact living room
(Image credit: @picsfromcandice)

While decorating a small apartment can be a lot of fun, it can also be intimidating, time-consuming, and hard to get just right. However, these tips from Catherine Hooper, interior designer and founder of iSpy Home Design, proves that your space can be stunning and functional — even on a low budget. 

Here, Hooper points out what’s worth investing in, what can be skipped, what design mistakes to avoid, and more. Here’s to having the cozy yet chic living space of your dreams, bb.

1. Invest in the right pieces

When working with a small space, Hooper recommends making the largest investment in a modular sofa or sectional that offers a substantial amount of seating. This should eliminate the need to add accent chairs, which helps in the budget and clutter department.

Hooper says that a good trick is to purchase a sofa that comes with an ottoman. That way you can make it work double time as a coffee table by adding a nice big tray on top. You can also use an ottoman as extra seating when necessary.

Another investment that Hooper believes in is paint. While this might not be possible if you rent, it can make a huge impact on the overall feel and design of your space if allowed. “A lot of older apartments tend to have beige walls, and many of the more modern flipped apartments opt for cold gray tones," she says. "Neither of these choices do a small space any favors,” she explains. 

If you have a friendly landlord that's down for upgrades, investing in painting at least the living spaces in a warm white, like Benjamin Moore's Chantilly Lace or White Dove, is a smart way to add the illusion of more square footage. 

“When you have one color, the rooms flow together and seems bigger," says Hooper. "When you get into too many accent walls, it starts to close in the walls. That being said, I'm all for adding some drama by painting the bathroom a dark green or black (yes, I did say that) or adding wallpaper to the bedroom.”

While painting can be an overwhelming concept, Hooper has consistently noticed that it’s the one element that truly transforms her clients' homes.

2. Makeshift your own zones

Apartment living has its perks — there’s no long-term commitment, it’s more budget-friendly, and you can feel a sense of community — but one thing it often lacks is ample space. Depending on your unique floor plan, you might not have room for all the furniture or home elements that you were hoping for. 

One common area that lacks square footage is the kitchen. If you don’t have space for a proper dining set, Hooper suggests utilizing your kitchen island as a makeshift dining area. If your kitchen doesn’t have an island (one can dream, right?) another option is to purchase a standalone island, like this IKEA find. “This would provide you with an eating area and additional cooking prep space,” Hooper explains.

3. Ditch these items

One area that tends to get crammed quickly is an apartment living room. “There's often an expectation that every living room needs a coffee table, but if you don't have space for one and aren't going the ottoman route, then I'd choose a couple accent tables instead,“ Hooper says. “Opt for something that comes in two sizes and can be moved around easily.” 

Similarly, Hooper points out that a lot of people think they need a big media console for their TV, but mounting it is really the answer. There are plenty of streamlined, modern options out there to choose from, too.

Colorful room in an apartment with artwork

(Image credit: @picsfromcandice)

4. Keep style and function top of mind

When it comes to decorating a small space tastefully, Hooper says it’s all about making choices that are as stylish as they are functional. “If you only have space for small nightstands you don't want to take up half the real estate with a lamp, so I'd opt for a plug-in wall sconce like this one from Crate & Barrel,” she explains. Utilizing strategies that are realistic for your space will not only free up some room for your other necessities, but it will also make your apartment less cluttered — not to mention easier to live in.

As it turns out, lighting is one of the most functional and stylish ways you can amp up your apartment’s vibe. Hooper notes that one impactful way to style a small space is to replace boring or old-fashioned flush mounts with dramatic pendants or chandeliers. Another idea: Instead of choosing a table and adding a lamp to it, Hooper suggests purchasing a lamp with a table, like this one from Homary. “Light is necessary to make a space feel bigger, but being smart about what kind of lighting you add will make all the difference,” she says.

5. Avoid these common mistakes

One of the biggest mistakes Hooper notices in apartment design is that many renters crowd their space with heavy furniture from online marketplaces or resale sites. She also consistently sees people overdo it with too many textiles. “Less is always more," she says. "Even if you're going for a maximalist vs. minimalist look, focus on unique ways to keep the amount of furniture to a minimum while making the space feel personalized."

For example, instead of placing a large rug in the living room — which can close off the space — choose a sheepskin runner and set it in front of the sofa. Hooper says that a dramatic gallery wall in an entryway can be another vibrant decor addition as opposed to the often overdone console table. 

In addition to crowding an apartment space, Hooper notices that many renters opt for only white, gray, and beige tones, steering clear of color. Many renters think that colorful furnishings make a space feel smaller, but if the walls are mostly white, a few pops of primary hues or pastels can really spruce things up. Hooper suggests trying a splash of color on a shower curtain or bedding, which can train the eye to focus less on the size of the space, and more on its contents.

6. Make a big impact with this one upgrade

When asked if there is one “must-have” design element included in an apartment, Hooper said new kitchen cabinet hardware. “I know it sounds weird but kitchens often get discarded, especially in rentals where you can't really do much to them," she explains. "This often means they end up looking like the only unstyled space. It's so easy to replace knobs or pulls without spending a lot and it makes a huge difference.” 

When it comes to executing the design, Hooper says there's no harm in mixing metals. If you have stainless appliances, you can go for gold hardware. If you have black appliances, maybe a copper finish would look cool. “The cheapest fix is to spray paint the existing pulls and/or knobs a fun but sophisticated color, like a terra cotta pink or mustard yellow, or sage green. It's a small but really easy DIY fix to a space that can get overlooked.”

Kara Thompson

About me: 

Kara Thompson is a Denver-based journalist with over five years of experience writing lifestyle content. She has written for a variety of publications, including,,, and Parents, where she covered all things home, food, fashion, travel, and holidays. During her time on staff at Parents, Kara launched her own home decor and organization column named Save My Space. In 2022, she left her full-time job as an editor and started her own writing, editing, and social media firm, Kara Thompson and Co.

Tennis, New York City, bourbon cocktails, and her sister's German Shepherd are a few of her favorite things.