Decorating On A Dime

By: Charlotte Klein

Daytripper Contributor Charlotte Klein (Wesleyan ’19) is back sharing her dorm room style secrets, this time with creative and stylish tips that won't break the bank. 

While the idea of “decorating on a dime” began more out of necessity than creative instinct, doing so has become one of my favorite ways to design a space. Between boarding school and college, I’ve lived in seven dorm rooms. Year after year, I look forward to the bare walls of an empty dormitory bedroom, accepting the challenge of turning a jail cell into a home. But recently, when it came time to set up my living space, I found myself bored with some of the stuff I already had. I recycle most of my art prints and photos from year to year, but everyone's style changes from time to time. I was equally bored with the décor I saw online, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Here are some of my best tips for decorating a bedroom on a dime.  I think you can use these tips in any space, whether it be a dorm room or an apartment. Mixing in some of these tips with what you already have (or plan to buy) is the best way to curate a cozy space people will want to hang out in. Budget-friendly décor is not only easy on a college student’s wallet, but I find that it also makes the space more authentic, reflective of the person who lives there.


Going abroad taught me a thing or two about decorating economically. When I was packing to head to Scotland this fall, I didn’t have space in my suitcase to bring any room décor with me. And, upon arrival, I didn’t want to spend money on items that I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring home. To fill up the empty bulletin board in my room, I headed to a nearby bookstore and went straight to the children’s section. Most (if not all) children’s books are wonderfully illustrated; you’d be surprised how much a torn-out page looks like an art print. Plus, these books are far more inexpensive than art books, so you won’t feel guilty breaking them apart. I picked “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” for reasons both sentimental – my mother used to read them to me – and visual. I ended up tearing out most of the pages to fill the bulletin board, but even selecting just two or three from each book will work. I also like to mix in pages that only have text on them with the illustrated pages, so that there’s not too much going on visually. Pick the text pages that mean something to you. You could also mix in some of the children’s book pages with other photos/postcards/prints to make a grid, and, with different media mixed together, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a print and what you ripped out from a three-dollar kid’s book. 


While I was traveling around Scotland and other parts of Europe, I picked up pamphlets from almost every museum I went to. Whether from the student exhibit at The Glasgow School of Art or the military museum in Toledo, these pamphlets looked just like the postcards you might purchase from the museum gift shop, except they were free. Plus, I like the idea of having something on my wall that’s more personal, corresponding to the time I visited those places. 


To balance out the image-heavy décor I pulled from pamphlets and children’s books, I hand-wrote a poem or two on watercolor paper, but any paper will work. The little black lettering stood out against the illustrated pages, keeping the room from looking too much like a nursery. 


I save everything! This is something I started to do a long time ago, collecting material for my visual journals, but lately, I’ve found that most of what I save ends up on my wall. I keep everything I gather in a folder or tape them into a big craft notebook. This keeps them in good condition after each year, and I always know where to look when it comes time to set up a new living space. I try to save things that have meaning to me, like the striking graphic menus from a restaurant where I worked last summer. Most restaurants will give you their menu, just ask. (Where I worked, 10-15 cocktail and dinner menus were discarded every day due to typos or other minor issues. Sometimes I’d put a few in my backpack before tossing the rest in the recycling bin.) 

I also love taking the little business cards that restaurants have at their hostess stands. These cards almost always have interesting graphic designs and color schemes. Because the cards are so small, they work great for the little, hard-to-fill spaces that often emerge when you’re hanging a wall grid. 

Save old palettes! Or ask any friends you know who paint to save theirs for you. Recently, I was making an acrylic painting for a friend, using an old notebook as a palette. After a few days, I realized how much I liked the colors that had accumulated on the page. I tore out some of these pages and added them to one of my wall grids. It looks great and cost me nothing. And, because I made it myself, no one else will have the same palette.  

My mother still uses a leather-bound agenda book as a calendar, which she keeps on her desk at home. I like looking through the pages of her books, even those from several years ago. Hanging up one or two of these pages serves as a nostalgic personal chronical: old records of what you did and who you saw. I love the way chaotic scribbles look when put on display. You could even buy a cheap frame and frame adjacent pages. 

Some more ideas for things to save: coasters from your favorite bar, letters, hotel stationery, “to-do” lists from your notebooks, bookmarks that bookstores give out, paper shopping bags with cool designs, the removable cover of old books that you’re giving away, printed emails that you have saved, shopping lists. 


One of my favorite t-shirts is a replica of Jenny Holzer’s “Raise Boys and Girls The Same Way” that I found online. I liked the Jenny Holzer saying so much (and the way it looked on the shirt) that I decided to hang it up over my bed. This way, I get to see it every day, even if I’m not wearing it. Plus, the way that I pinned up the shirt filled up an awkward amount of space. This could work for any piece of clothing. I once went into a clothing store that had some of their sweaters hanging up as art pieces, mounted in shadow boxes. Think of it as a great way to enjoy a retired piece of clothing, perhaps one that is too small, but too special to give away. 

Last year, I saw a photo of a wall covered with plastic flowers, the kind sold at craft stores. I immediately wanted to try this. The process took awhile, as I had to use washi tape to combine several different assortments of flowers before actually hanging them up on the wall. It was a tedious way to do it, but it allowed me to keep the flower chains together at the end of the year so that I could reuse them. This year, instead of hanging the flower chains up parallel to each other, I decided to rest a bundle atop my window. I like the rustic look of this. If you don’t feel like taping together different flower combinations, craft stores like Michael’s sell long plastic flower and plant garlands. I think it could be fun to do a natural-style wall of all green plants or even a monochrome collection of flowers. 

I used to see graphic towels in stores that I loved the look of, but couldn’t see myself buying. I wanted to hang up the towel like an art piece, not use it after a shower. This all changed when a friend showed me his wall art: a beach towel from his favorite beach in Massachusetts, attached to a large canvas with a staple gun. I realized this would work not only with a towel but with a graphic bed sheet, or, on a smaller-sized canvas board, even a t-shirt. 

Instead of purchasing a throw blanket for my bedroom in Scotland, I used a large, thick scarf that I had packed. If I needed it for a weekend trip, I could grab it off the bed, though I ended up liking it so much as a piece of bedding that I still use it as a throw. I hang it over the corner of my couch to add some color and texture. 

I’ve always loved the look of neon signs but had a hard time finding an affordable sign: most are priced, at the cheapest, around $500. After some extensive eBay browsing, I discovered that several sellers on eBay offer customized signs for less than $200, some for less than $100. I splurged on one, customizing it with a quotation I have always really liked. My sign says, “Wait here I have gone to get help.” Some other good phrases I’ve seen on signs include “Shhhh” for over a bed, “This is the sign you’ve been looking for,” and “Stay awhile.” If, like me, you love the look of neon art but are looking for something more affordable, check out the neon sign sections of websites like eBay and Etsy.  I know this sign will travel with me next year in my senior house, and possibly to my first apartment post-graduation.