When New Yorkers run out of square footage in their infamously small apartments, they turn to sidewalks. Residents of all five boroughs throw out what they don’t absolutely need, making the most of their limited space.
We had the opposite problem.
My girlfriend and I were trying to furnish the whole floor of a Brooklyn brownstone. Doing it with less than $1,000 in America’s most expensive city to live? That’s no small feat, especially when you don’t want to get stuck with bargain items that will cost you more over time.
5 ways we found cheap (or free) furniture
The average American renter in 2016 spent $4,035 on their home (not including rent), a 6.1 percent increase from the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In New York City, you can spend half of that on your new bedroom if you’re not careful.
We trimmed costs using five strategies.
1. Skimming Craigslist
Craigslist is a free online classifieds website and is a popular option for finding apartments. It can also be a good one for filling them.
Like with all Craigslist transactions, however, you’ll want to proceed cautiously. We drove to strangers’ homes, knocked on their door, and haggled over their used stuff. It’s not exactly as safe as going to Macy’s.
We bought four bigger pieces of furniture:
- $25: Drawers from a man in a Financial District high-rise
- $100: Couch from a young couple in Park Slope, Brooklyn
- $100: Set of barstools from a woman in Midtown East
- $150: Dining set from an older couple in Downtown Brooklyn
Before buying in each case, we looked up the value of the product online. The drawers we liked were retailing for more than $125 at The Container Store, for example.
We also had a cautious friend inspect each item for bed bugs, an epidemic in these parts. Then, we handed over the cash and carried our newish pieces to the back of our pickup truck.
Buying used furniture is not for everyone. In our case, buying new just wasn’t as attractive an option. We visited Jennifer Convertibles and the Northeastern chain Raymour & Flanigan and asked about clearance items and floor models.
Ultimately, we decided that it didn’t make sense to spend four figures to bring a couch into a four-floor walk-up. Even a Presidents Day sale didn’t make a store the best place to finance furniture.
Bonus tip: If you’re open to the idea of using online classifieds for your next move, you might prefer the more sophisticated site Chairish. Like eBay, however, it’ll show listings that are further from your location, limiting the opportunity to try before you buy.
2. Sticking to a list
After spending $375 on Craigslist finds, my girlfriend and I made a list of what we had left to buy. It wasn’t short.
Although we kept much of our artwork, photo frames, and posters from our previous apartments, we now had a lot more wall space to fill. We also needed some essentials after sharing them with past roommates.
Here’s what we purchased at IKEA:
- $1.99: Kitchen clock
- $9.99: Bathmat
- $19.98: Two wall shelves
- $19.99: Floor lamp
- $19.99: Set of plates and bowls
- $379: Bed frame with drawers
Admittedly, some (frustrating) assembly was required on our IKEA bed frame. But the cost in time and money was still better than forking over another $200 to an online retailer like Wayfair.
We also bought a $10.99 hamper at Marshalls and a $149 wall map on Amazon. That brought our spending total to about $986 before taxes.
Bonus tip: Next time you’re on the move, consider the $750 in change-of-address discounts that the USPS delivers to your inbox. It could mean good deals on furniture and decorations at big wholesalers like Overstock.com, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Target.
You could also be in luck if you live close enough to a clearance center or furniture warehouse or are a member of Costco or Sam’s Club.
3. Recycling old wares
Using the latest data available, FiveThirtyEight estimates that the average American will move 11.3 times in their lifetime.
Already moving into my 15th home, I have become used to the idea of taking my old stuff with me — and so has my girlfriend. For our most recent move, our collective hoarding meant we didn’t have to spend on these items:
- Storage cabinet
- Shoe cubby
- Key rack
Going one step further, we also asked our new apartment’s previous tenant to leave any unwanted furniture behind, knowing that we could dispose of it ourselves. The tenant offered up a TV stand, a desk, and an office chair.
Bonus tip: It helps to split expenses with a significant other, but any type of roommate divides up the burden. Plus, when you’re not cheap, it can pay off. The items last longer. I’ve had a finely crafted nightstand since high school, for example.
4. Mooching off friends
We’re not big on social media, but word spread that my girlfriend and I were taking the big step of moving in together. Then came the gifts, including an antique armoire from a friend and living room chairs from parents.
We like that some of our friends and family had a hand in decorating our home because they get to enjoy it when they visit.
Bonus tip: There’s no shame in asking for help from those closest to you. Short of calling for freebies on Facebook, for example, you might use an upcoming birthday to put together a furniture wish list.
5. Hunting for discounts and donations
Without taking frugality too far, we did our fair share of browsing at The Salvation Army and Goodwill.
New York City — and Brooklyn, specifically — also has a culture of flea markets and stoop sales. New Yorkers are even fond of leaving unwanted items, from books to deconstructed bed frames, on the street.
New York City, for its part, advises residents to use donateNYC to avoid creating more garbage than necessary.
My favorite find was an IKEA side table that retails for $49.99. It’s made of metal, which alleviated concerns of infestation.
Bonus tip: The next time you switch addresses, don’t rule out the likes of consignment shops and estate sales. If you prefer flea markets, Collectors.org has a directory of recurring markets in most cities. YardSaleSearch.com and GarageSales.com might be good resources, too.
There might even be an online group specific to your needs. One of our Brooklyn friends, for example, belongs to a Yahoo group where moms pass on free strollers, cribs, and other baby-related items to neighbors.
If you have trouble finding a group, see what’s listed near you on The Freecycle Network.
Budgeting for your next move
Whether you live in New York City or Albuquerque, New Mexico, you’re probably working under the assumption that new furniture will be a big-ticket line in your moving budget.
But unless you’re going for upscale chic, stop worrying about the best place to finance furniture or the merciless judgment of interior decorators.
There are ways to fill up your new home without spending more than you should, and you don’t have to move to a cheaper city to save.
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