Everything is beautiful. And cheap.

Since we have be learning to live on very little, I’ve been harnessing the powers of imagination to furnish and decorate our home cheaply. My strategy is simple- thrift stores, trash trips, and flea markets.

Thrift stores are what you make of them. To make the most of your thrift store shopping, you should walk in to the store looking for things to use in unusual ways. For example, I found some really neat handmade quilts for $3 a piece at America’s Thrift Store, which I keep in a bin near the fireplace for those who like to nestle under a blanket in the evening. I also bought an old nightstand for a couple of bucks and then whitewashed it. Whenever I stop in, I make sure to keep an eye out for cheap baskets, cheap Mason jars and coffee mugs, and old wooden wall hangings or shelvings, which I then use as backboards or foundations for photo and art projects. For ideas and inspiration, wander around your local thrift store for a few hours and imagine that your job was to create furniture from odds and ends that you found there. Come up with at least four ideas for furniture pieces based on your finds. Or, peruse the winners of the Thrift Store Art Revamp contest.

Every Tuesday and Friday I put Max in the car seat and take a little spin around the neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa for a “trash trip” around the “floating flea markets”. We keep out eyes open for furniture, lamps. and wood or metal scraps that people have left for the garbage man. When we see a prospective treasure, we pull over for a closer look and a possible trash collection. So far, I’ve found a wonderful old wooden entertainment center (which we whitewashed), lots of neat wooden pieces and chairs, lamps aplenty, and poster frames for my maps. Trash trips are always fun- the biggest challenge is getting the heavy old wood furniture into my rickety Avalon, though someone always stops to help.

Ever since I was about 7 years old, and believed that flea markets actually doubled as flea zoos, I considered family trips or stops at the flea market to be an esoteric type of rural safari. Finding old mugs and love letters made the personal historical. Of course, flea markets carried “merchandise”, but this merchandise was more raw for its use and history. Everything I touched wore its age and suggested a story, the scent of secrets made my nose itch.

But life is more pragmatic, and some people prefer their flea markets on the margins. If you aren’t a fam of flea markets and haven’t yet found a reason to savor the flavor of other people’s memories, Better Homes and Gardens offers a free online guide to flea market shopping that even the most stringent pragmatist would respect. If you are of the “flea markets are nasty” school of thought, then you can still get your flea market thrills from a pleasant distance using the Country Living online flea market.

In general, when I see the following for a good price (no more than $5), I scoop them up if the weekly budget permits.

  • Old suitcases have many alternate uses. You can use them to make tables, 3-D art pieces, and benches.
  • Antique spools and bobbins double as rustic candle-holders.
  • Old glass doorknobs always look neater than the usual doorknob. You can also use them to make an outdoor candle chandelier or mount several on a plank for a quaint coat hanger.
  • Old garden furniture- the sky is the limit.
  • Old skis and poles can be used as curtain rods. Alternately, use the skis as chair-backs for home-crafted chairs
  • Aged canes or golf clubs make fun curtain or shower rods.
  • Vintage hand mirrors make a neat wall hanging.
  • Old window frames can be used as freehanging room dividers or mounted picture frames. You can also use them as frames for mirrors.
  • Antique children’s toys and signage can be worked into any room under any decorative guise.

If your imagination feels the weight of all this imaginative responsibility, you can explore a few of the neat-o crafts and projects below. I especially loved the suitcase table and all the wild ways in which you can use old garden tools to make furniture.

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