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Dorm Design on an (Almost) $0 Budget


Dorm Design on an (Almost!) $0 Budget

It’s the eternal dilemma of college fashionistas — what do you do when you have so much creativity and inspiration, but so little cash? My frequent trips to Pottery Barn and Anthropologie fill me with ideas for dorm rooms and apartments alike, but my tiny budget brings me (sharply) back to reality.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to decorate a dorm room or apartment on a truly tiny budget (e.g. zero dollars). Of course, the added benefit is that, with cheap decor, you won’t feel bad when you change your mind and want to redo the entire place (which happens to me about four times a month).

Whether you’re a DIY genius or someone like me, who hasn’t touched a sewing machine since eighth grade Home Ec class, these tips are bound to get you started decorating. After all, with September just around the corner, we need to save money for things like late-night pizzas, unexpected coffee dates, and fall fashion trends.

Try some of our best budget interior design ideas below, and watch your room transform — on a dime!

Paint Chips

Paint Chips
Photo Credit

How to Get Paint Chips

Paint chips are the quintessential $0 decor solution. Collecting enough to use might feel a little awkward, but take it from me — it is so worth it!

  • Every self-respecting hardware store will have racks and racks of these. Simply arm yourself with a large shopping basket and get to collecting!
  • Some brands even have books of paint chips that will save you the hassle of picking them off the shelves individually. Call ahead to inquire.
  • Yes, they are for you to take, but make sure to leave some for people who actually want to paint their walls. Pick out a project to do first, and then head to the hardware store. That way, you won’t waste as many.


  • Make a paint chip wall.
  • Put them on a frame, and then stick letters on, à la A Beautiful Mess.
  • Decorate a clipboard, and Mod Podge them on. Make a few, then hang up said clipboards instead of a bulletin board.
  • Write notes on them à la Tumblr, and put them on your wall.
  • Cut them up and make a garland out of them. Hang it above your bed, your desk, or your door.
  • Take a pixel image and recreate it on your wall. (Only for true DIY experts!)
  • Attach them to your wall in a grid behind your bed to make a faux headboard.


Empty picture frames on the wall
Photo Credit

On my very first trip to the Salvation Army, I wanted to buy every frame in the place and take it home with me. An empty frame is very much like a blank canvas — it could once have been anything. I’ve always been attracted to the beauty of frames, and thanks to thrift stores, they can be upcycled into beautiful dorm decor!

How to Get (Cheap) Frames

  • You can nearly always find a pile of old frames at your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other thrift store. Make sure that the piece is still relatively sturdy, but don’t worry if it’s an awful color — you can always paint it.
  • I wouldn’t recommend going to a craft store, because frames can get really pricey there — I would save the craft store frames for something more permanent, like this incredible mail holder that I’m making next week! However, great and cheap frames can also be found at Hobby Lobby, the sale racks of discount stores, and your local Marshall’s or TJMaxx.


  • If you want to paint your frames, go to a hardware store and ask about their “Oops” paint. This is paint that they made a mistake on — it was probably the wrong color or type for a customer, so they’re selling it for next to nothing!
  • Learn how to mat a frame yourself. This will save you hundreds of dollars, and matting a smaller graphic in a large frame makes a beautiful and tremendous statement!
  • Design your own gallery wall layout above your desk or dresser.
  • Dig through your room for old greeting cards, drawings, or even important papers, like your college acceptance letter or your very first paycheck. Frame them!
  • Buy a copy of your favorite book from a thrift store or a garage sale and frame one of your favorite pages.
  • Frame your Instagram pictures.


Photo Credit

When designing on a small budget, paper will instantly become your best friend. The possibilities are absolutely endless, and you might even hone your crafty side!

Kinds of Paper to Get

  • Construction paper
  • Origami paper
  • Ordinary computer paper
  • Card stock
  • Magazine pages
  • Washi tape (Okay, it’s not really paper… but my sister and I call it “paper tape” – that counts!)


What do you think?

Were our tips helpful? What are your tips for decorating on a $0 budget? Have you tried any of these ideas before? Which is your favorite? Do you have one that we didn’t list? Let us know in a comment! 

Posted on on August 11, 2012 / Filed Under: Dorm Room / Tags: , , , , ,

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14 Responses to “Dorm Design on an (Almost) $0 Budget”

  1. 1
    August 11th, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    awesome!! :D brb gonna make a paper chips garland :P

  2. 2
    August 11th, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I love this post! :) My favorites are the paint chip wall, the gallery wall layout link, the paper cranes, and the origami box.

    The link for the “Frame your Instagram pictures” link doesn’t work for me though. I got this error: “ProPhoto 4 requires that you are running WordPress version 3.2 or higher. Please activate a different theme, upgrade your WordPress installation, and retry.”

    The faux headboard link didn’t work the first time either but that one is easily fixable, as there’s a “v” in front of http://.

  3. 3
    August 11th, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    Some beautiful ideas here! Something I want to try out is making large 3D paper letters ala Karen Kavett on YouTube. Search “karen kavett papercraft typography” and it should be the first result. I hope that inspires someone!

  4. 4
    August 11th, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    These are actually some really cool ideas. DEFINITELY going to make something with the paint chips, probably the garland. I’m looking for inexpensive ways to add some color/homey-ness to my dormitory.

  5. 5
    August 11th, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Taylor – Thank you for pointing that out! Fixed both links!

  6. 6
    August 12th, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I always buy two rolls of craft paper from AC Moore (like $2.99 each) and I paint all the paper. Then when I get to school, I tape it up to one of my dorm walls. As long as you make sure it goes up smoothly and you can spray glue the seams together, it looks like real wallpaper! I always get a ton of compliments… bring a pop of color to a small jail-like dorm!

  7. 7
    August 12th, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Loved these ideas, and just in time for my new apartment! Thanks so much!

  8. 8
    August 12th, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    These are SO creative!! I’m gonna go out and stock up on paint chips right now : ) i love the idea of arranging them on a grid on the wall.

  9. 9
    August 12th, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    The paint chips reminded me of a priceless technique: decoupage! You can turn any blah piece of furniture into a unique piece of art using this age-old technique, and the paint chips would work great for redoing a table like that too.

  10. 10
    August 12th, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks so much for this post!!!!! I’ve been searching out different DIY projects for my apartment and you’ve put some really great ones all in one place! lol great job

  11. 11
    August 12th, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    My proudest (origami) accomplishment is making a 1000 paper crane chain, so that is definitely a great decor item. Not very quick though.

  12. 12
    August 13th, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    I’m not sure about the paint chip ideas – they are intended to help *customers* choose a color (i.e people who are actually planning on purchasing paint from the store) rather than being provided as free crafting supplies. Going into a hardware store to collect paint chips (even if you leave a few for customers) would be like going into Starbucks to collect massive amounts of sugar packets to use for a cake recipe. They are complimentary, but it still seems like stealing. Kudos on the other ideas though :)

  13. 13
    August 14th, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    this is hands down the best post on this site.

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