Monday, March 24, 2014

From Expat to Repat: How to Furnish a House From (Almost) Nothing

Tomorrow you'll get the apartment tour!

Like most expats, we moved to Germany with the bare minimum. This was partly because we were fresh out of college and had nothing to begin with. Fionn came with clothes, Army gear, and a computer and was lucky enough to land a sweet furnished apartment in Bavaria. When we got married and I moved in, I came with two suitcases and shipped 3 moving boxes of hand me down kitchen and house supplies my mom had given me when I went to college. Shortly after, our friends and family sent us some wedding presents to help get us started, I bought a few travel souvenirs to decorate the bare shelves, and we were pretty set!

The blissful days of living in a German furnished apartment!

When we started planning for our move back to the States, I knew we would have to buy quite a few things. But when we actually got to America, I was shocked at how much stuff we suddenly had to buy. Sitting in an empty apartment with nowhere to sleep, eat, or sit was a bit overwhelming! So here are my tips for furnishing an apartment without breaking the bank.

1. Let your friends and family know you're in need.
Ask your parents, your grandparents, your aunt, cousins, friend's boss's sister...we discovered that people often have furniture or household stuff they're willing to part with. My parents offered to let me have my old bedroom furniture along with some antiques from distant relatives they just didn't have space for. My grandmother's preacher heard we needed furniture and showed up at my mom's house with two beautiful vintage chairs. Friends from back home asked if I needed curtains or kitchen supplies. Ask around!

2. Decide right away what you MUST have
When you're starting from scratch, the small stuff can add up quick! Pick the big must haves and buy those first. For us, that was a couch and a bed. Furnishing a house from scratch can feel overwhelming, but if you start with the big stuff it makes it easier.

A week on an air mattress showed us what our "must haves" were!

3. For big purchases, shop around and ask for a discount
We spent a whole day scoping out furniture stores and discount places, comparing prices. I'm so glad we did, because big box furniture stores can really rip you off! We found our couch and our mattress at outlet stores. The couch had a small stain on the arm and was marked down 50% because of it. We asked for a military discount and they gave us an extra $100 off! 

When we bought our mattress and our dining room chairs, we went with family owned retailers. Neither one of them did military discounts, but they were willing to work with us on the price. The wood furniture store offered to pay the tax and the mattress store offered us a free bed frame and free delivery, both of which were better deals in the end than 10% off. It never hurts to ask.

4. Determine where you can cut corners.
When we bought our bed, we decided to forego an expensive headboard and foot board and just buy a metal bed frame. They usually run $50-100, but we got ours for free. Score! 

We found a local wood furniture store that sells unfinished Amish made furniture. You have to stain or paint the wood yourself, but it saves you $100 per piece of furniture. We bought 5 pieces from them, and saved $500 right off the bat! Yeah, it requires some DIYing for us, but that was a compromise I was willing to make to have the quality furniture I wanted.

My DIY staining job in progress!

5. DIY where you can!
The decorating touches really add up. Curtains, throw pillows, and tablecloths can all be easily made with a sewing machine. I'm planning on framing our pictures myself after my brother (who's an art major) showed me how easy it is. If you can make it yourself, do it!

6. Thrift stores are your friend.
It's so frustrating when you go to big furniture stores and see how expensive basic stuff like coffee tables and bedside tables are, especially when they're mostly Chinese particle board crap to begin with. I started scouring thrift stores and Craigslist and found our end table and vintage coffee table for $40 and $35 respectively. They've got some character, they're made of real wood, and they're cheap!

$35 coffee table and $25 vintage chevron stool, both thrift store finds!

7. Decide what's temporary and what's an investment.
We spent money on our bed, couch, and dining room chairs because we plan on having them for a long time. We decided to compromise on things like a cheap thrift store coffee table and buying plastic drawers instead of an expensive dresser. We can always upgrade in the future.

Plus, if you move all the time like we do, it's just not worth dropping a lot of cash on every single thing when there's a chance it could get scratched or damaged in the next move.

8. If you're an expat with a return move coming up, start planning in advance!
About 8 months before we left, I realized we wouldn't have anything when we moved back to America. Fionn and I started shopping around and buying some big purchases for our new house (like a dining room table and china hutch) so it wouldn't all come at once. I love to cook, so we had a well stocked kitchen all taken care of. It was nice to not have to worry about buying that stuff!

Keep in mind, you'll probably have to replace ALL of your electronic items. Lamps, alarm clocks, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaner, stereos, etc. I forgot about this and am in the process of replacing it all...not fun. It adds up quickly!

Such a happy sight-kitchen boxes!!

Finally, SAVE MONEY!! Fionn and I saved up some money before the move but I still wish we had saved some more. No matter how you slice it, moving is going to put a dent in your wallet. Especially if you are military stationed OCONUS planning on returning stateside-kiss all that sweet COLA money goodbye! Dealing with a decreased paycheck in addition to all the moving start up costs can be a sucky experience. Don't get caught by surprise!

9. Consider renting appliances
Washers and dryers are stupid expensive. We were able to rent a washer and dryer set from our apartment complex for $35 a month. Since we only plan on being here 6 months, it made perfect sense for us!

10. Space out your purchases.
Figure out what you need right away, and then slowly start accumulating the rest. We bought the essentials right away and plan on gradually buying the rest of the things we need as we go. For example, we started off with no dining room chairs. We bought two this month, next month we'll buy two more, and so on. If you can live without it, put it off.

Any tips I forgot? Any tips you wanna share with me as we continue our adventure into buying grown up stuff?

Tomorrow, a tour of our new place! :)


  1. Can't wait for a tour! You guys really have been busy!

  2. I'm repatting (is that a word?!) for 6 months in 2 weeks time. Because it's only for 6 months (and then I'll return to Tanzania) I'll be getting a furnished apartment, but I have to say I am nervous about when we move home permanently in a few years. We have nothing, because we've never lived in the UK together (and what little I had I've got rid of over the years because we never went back for it). We'll start from scratch and these tips are great. I love the idea of putting word out with family and friends - you'll end up with a really great, eclectic collection!

  3. MOES!!!! I'm glad you ate well while your kitchen was in progress.

  4. This is very much on my mind, because I'm moving back in about six months. On the plus side, I can stay at my brother's house for a little while, which gives me time to sort things out.

    My priorities are:
    1) Car.
    2) Apartment
    3) Bed
    4) Everything else.

    Good thing I'm not in a hurry to furnish!