9 Tips for Decorating Your First Apartment, According to Designers

traditional ivory living room with stools

Kathy Kuo Home

Decorating your first apartment is an exercise in both frugality and discovering your own style. But where do you start, particularly if you don’t have the budget yet to splurge and you’re not quite sure where to invest?

We asked designers to share the nine tips for decorating a first apartment that helped them navigate making those spaces their own—or the tips they’d wished they had.

Decorate Slowly 

“When I work with clients who just moved into their first home there is a strong urge, sometimes anxiety, to decorate their space ASAP,” says Molly Costello of MMC Interiors. “My biggest piece of advice is take it slow because rushing the process always results in purchase regrets and a space that doesn’t meet your needs.”

Doing everything all at once is especially tempting when you’re in your first place and eager to have it feel like home right away. Costello explains that just because you can get something overnight from Amazon doesn’t mean you should. Take the time to get pieces you love. They don’t have to be expensive—look at Facebook Marketplace and secondhand shops—but if you slow down and get the right pieces, they can grow with you.

tartan blanket in apartment

MMC Interiors

Find Your Style Through Art

Looking back at her first apartment, Melanie Thomas of Melanie Thomas Design recalls, “I inherited a very, very used purple couch, which was probably found on the sidewalk.”

Yet Thomas still has some of the pieces from her first apartment hanging in her home. Some cost less than $20 when she first bought them, and they’re still hanging proudly around her fireplace.

“Art is the quickest way to find out what you actually LIKE. If you find yourself gravitating toward very graphic, strongly colored art or flowery, delicate things, then that will probably dictate how you decorate and develop your style,” Thomas says.

Plus, she points out that even as your style evolves, those pieces will still bring back fond memories of your very first place (yet, unlike the purple sofa, they won’t take over your living room).

Colorful decorated apartment

Melanie Thomas Design

Invest in Anchor Pieces

Kathy Kuo of Kathy Kuo Home believes in creating a strong foundation of pieces that you can build upon and take with you over the years.

“When it comes to your first apartment, invest in a couple high-quality anchor pieces that you really love—like a sofa or armchair—and then build from there as you find your design style," Kuo says.

Splurge on the highest quality you can comfortably afford, especially since this is where you’ll spend much of your time. Skip the trendy silhouettes and, instead, opt for something classic.

“A well-made sofa in a neutral color can take on any number of looks when you rotate throw blankets and decorative pillows,” says Kuo.

Dress Up the Windows

“Oftentimes, first apartments come with terrible window dressing. If there is a way to either remove or cover up those plastic blinds, do so immediately!” says Thomas.

In this space, white drapery from Anthropologie with teal tassels, hung well above the window frame, not only give the space a more polished look, but they also draw your eye up and towards the ceiling, making the room feel taller. And don’t assume you have to get expensive or custom window coverings.

“Go to big box stores like Target or Urban Outfitters to find something simple and modest," Thomas recommends, especially for first-time apartment dwellers.

vibrant coral room with colorful details

Melanie Thomas Design

Add Warmth and Wood

Interior designer Liz Marie Galvan, author of Cozy White Cottage Seasons, spent her early adult years moving around as a military spouse, so she knows what it’s like to move into new and temporary spaces for the first time. She says focusing on creating a cozy space filled with warmth and a place of belonging is the most important thing to do when you move into your first apartment. One foolproof way to do that is to add warmth through texture and tone.

“Use a natural fiber rug alone or layered under a patterned cozy wool rug. A jute rug is both easy to clean and the perfect base for any cozy space,” she says.

Then, she recommends adding wood tones, which, for too long, were overlooked for all white or painted furniture.

“A wooden piece of furniture or an accent piece is important in every space. A wooden frame, a wooden blanket ladder or a wooden armoire can up a room’s cozy factor,” says Galvan.

Utilize Books as Decor

"Decorate with books: they provide visual interest, depth, and you'll never be without something to read,” says Sarah Bogart Cooney of Fewer and Better, taking a page from her first apartment's decor.

Try stacks of books placed artfully through an apartment, styled on built-ins or even simply set on the floor for a boho-style library look. For a magazine-worthy vignette, opt for vintage books within a similar color palette to your decor.

Paint It White

If your first apartment has seen better days or it’s one of those old units that just never quite feels clean, a coat of white paint can help freshen up the entire place.

“If you’re moving into an apartment, it probably already has white walls, so you’re in great shape!” Galvan says.

But if you do need to paint, she recommends trying Benjamin Moore White Dove, which is a perennial designer favorite,

white library room with jute rug

Liz Marie Galvan

Save on Trendy Items

Liz Toombs of PDR Interiors is a decorator focused on sorority houses. She always recommends saving on trendy items that can be switched out as your style evolves.

“Throw pillows, curtains and decor should not be investment pieces. I recommend buying those items from sources like HomeGoods, Target, Wayfair and even Amazon. Or watch for sales from higher end brands or local boutiques for trendy pillows and decor,” says Toombs. 

You’ll get the look you want right now, but you won’t regret dropping too much money while you’re still starting out.

Treat Yourself to Little Luxuries

Your space will immediately feel more grownup with something as simple as a $5 bouquet of flowers from Trader Joe's, so treat yourself to the tulips and go ahead and burn the candle. Your first apartment should feel like your own sanctuary from the world and those little luxuries will remind you why you've worked so hard to create your own space.