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The art of thrifting: how to transform a space on a student budget

With these savvy tips, I built a miniature bistro on my balcony
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As most of you relocate near campus for the beginning of the school year, you may come to a realization that you don’t own enough furniture. Maybe you want a specific piece of furniture, but you can’t afford it.

I’ve been there. I’m a fourth-year student who recently moved into a new apartment. It was not fun to do, especially during a pandemic.

Before moving in, I had this dream of setting up a cute miniature bistro on my new balcony. I didn’t have enough money. What I did have, however, was patience and an apartment situated in a large building. After a few months of dedication and ingenious thinking, I achieved my goal of a bistro setup. Along the way, I established a few rules of thumb about getting resourceful that you may find useful.

This balcony was decorated entirely through thrifting. REBECCA ROCCO/THE VARSITY

1. Avoid fabric

Unless you’re an upholstery aficionado, or you own a proper fabric cleaner and vacuum setup to deep-clean your fabric — don’t do it. There’s always a chance that secondhand fabric contains bed bugs or grotesque substances which will negatively impact your living situation. When I moved into my apartment, the former owners had left me a cushion and black chair for the patio — the cushion was small enough to throw in the washer to be safe.

2. Some things can be fixed

Some items you find may be banged up, and that is okay. In most cases, the famous saying applies, ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’ 

If a piece contains semi-malleable metal, one good effort of your body’s strength can restore the functionality of the furniture piece. My bistro table was mangled when I discovered it outside my building; now a permanent resident of my balcony, it’s become the setting of many philosophical debates among my friends. 

3. Invest in an all-purpose cleaner 

If you’ve found a home decor piece outside, please clean it. As Cardi B would say, “Bring a bucket and a mop” — or a brush — and wash it down. Listen to some good music while doing it — for instance, “WAP.”

If you find a piece of furniture and you’re unsure if using an all-purpose cleaner is appropriate or effective, search it up. The internet is, in this case, your friend. I used an all-purpose cleaner on the bistro chairs, but I had to use a gentler cleaner for the table so as to not remove its paint. 

4. Try to clean outside with some personal protective equipment 

On a warm day where water can evaporate, working outside can help with cleanup. Most of the time, you’ll want to clean in an environment with open airflow so that whatever you’re cleaning off doesn’t get into your lungs. In any case, it’s advisable to wear a mask and some sturdy gloves when cleaning thrifted furniture.

I usually clean my pieces out on my balcony, where I have to be careful not to let any water fall off its edge so I don’t upset any neighbours below me. I use a small amount of water at a time for each piece of furniture to mitigate the risk, especially when it comes to cleaning a large piece like the bistro table.

5. Be patient

It took me four months to create the bistro setup, but it was well worth it. Sometimes, you won’t be able to find a free piece of furniture that meets your goals in a short amount of time. 

A suggestion: check out some apartment buildings in your area. I do this at the end of each month because it’s usually the time that leases end and renters move out. That’s how I found the bistro-esque table. I also found that Facebook Marketplace is a good bet for finding inexpensive furniture that you can’t find in stores. I found my bistro’s white chair on Facebook marketplace for $15; the same chair usually retails for $50 in-store at IKEA.

Happy thrifting!