College is so over and now it's time to move on -- into a first, empty apartment that must be furnished on the cheap. There's no shower curtain, no chair, no fork, not so much as a tissue awaiting you. Family generosity notwithstanding, there's a lot you must do to fill the space.
In search of some practical advice, we spoke with several people who recently moved into their first apartments. Following is a distillation of their experiences, augmented by our independent research.
Craigslist.Apartment leases in college towns typically start on the first day of August or September, with the last tenants vacating by the end of the prior month. Many of those departing must offload furniture collected during the year, which gives newcomers an opening to furnish a first apartment on the cheap. Some generous souls list their belongings on Freecycle, but most try to make a buck or two by selling through Craigslist. As most young adults know by now, this is the go-to online shopping center for just about anything, from kitchen tables to lamp shades to … roommates.
One of our interviewees moved cross-country to Los Angeles following graduation and knew there would be no furniture inheritance in her future. To compensate, she became a relentless Craigslist hound, found what she needed, rented a truck, picked up her finds, and set up her first apartment on the cheap. Her counsel for apartment newbies: Keep an open mind and start out by looking for anything considered "furniture." And ignore listings without a picture unless the description sounds totally awesome.
For anyone looking to furnish an apartment cheaply, the "free" postings on Craigslist should be checked first. A recent search for "free" furniture in Poughkeepsie, NY turned up a set of dishes, glasses, and mugs. A find like this can save you money on paper plates and cups for years.
Bear in mind that most postings on Craigslist and similar sites refer to used items. They might be called vintage, retro, or even antique, but second-, third-, and maybe even fourth-hand is what they are. There are two types of used furniture you should never (almost, that is) bring into your apartment. The first is a mattress. If you find one sitting on the street corner, there's probably a good reason someone put it there. The second is upholstered furniture, as in couch or easy chair. Unless you're willing to pay to have it re-covered and cleaned up, you don't know what kind of pests might be lurking in the folds. Our friend in LA did buy a couch through Craigslist and it was fine, but consider yourself forewarned.
Salvation Army/Goodwill/donation stores.Nearly every town has at least one Salvation Army/Goodwill/donation store, where prices are cheap and the policy is to accept only items in good repair. A friend in Brooklyn found an antique dresser for $100 at Housing Works, a New York area chain of thrift stores whose earnings benefit HIV/AIDS-related programs. A correspondent in Chicago found a coffee table at Goodwill for $25. Church bazaars are another option, and as one informant pointed out, the better the neighborhood, the better the deals on really good pieces.
An often overlooked source for low-cost furnishings is the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. These venues stock lots of salvage items, like doors and sinks, but also a fair share of furniture and appliances -- the former in good condition and the latter less than five years old. A recent perusal of one ReStore yielded finds such as microwaves for $10, pianos for $50, and unopened packages of sheets for $2.
If you're at all handy try the DIY approach to furnishing a first apartment on the cheap. One enterprising fellow we know attached four legs to a piece of plywood, topped the surface with a piece of foam, covered that with a sheet, and voila! … a couch. You could do the same thing without the foam and end up with a table.
Budget Retailers.A recent college grad who lives in Boston was using her pencil cup as a mug until discovering that a pottery studio in her area had a discard bin. Potters make kitchenware all the time, and often don't like the results; studios may sell mugs and small bowls for $1 each and larger pieces, like serving bowls, for not much more. You won't end up with a matched set of dishes this way, but whatever you pick up will be interesting and unique -- not to mention cheap. Of course, you can take your chances at the thrift store, where full sets are rare but assembling a cheap mix-and-match dinner service can be fun. Ditto for flatware, where boxes of unmatched stainless and plate go for practically nothing.
If you prefer to grace your table with complete sets, you'll find cheap options at budget outlets. Ikea sells a 12-piece (service for four) dinnerware set for $14.99 and Walmart stocks a 16-piece set (service for four) with a $16 price tag.
You won't want to eat take-out every night -- even on nice plates -- so cookware is essential. There are good deals at stores like Home Goods and Marshall's, but your best bet is a few Lodge cast iron pans. They last forever and cost hardly anything; a 12-inch skillet costs less than $20 at Target. You can usually find used cookware at church bazaars, tag sales, and flea markets but beware of any nonstick cookware with scratches in the cooking surface; the coating can be dangerous if ingested.
For other household items, check out the bargain bins at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Here you'll find discontinued blankets, sheets, pillows, lamps, and the like for a fraction of their original cost.