Creating a Home Office On a Shoestring Budget

If you’ve ever priced office furniture, you know just how expensive some of those uber-cool desks, bookshelves, file cabinets, and chairs can be. If you’re thinking about telecommuting, defining your work-at-home space is essential. Creating a home office space, or upgrading your current work space, can cost a pretty penny. But guess what, you don’t have to spend a fortune to make your space functional and aesthetically pleasing.

In most cases, you’ll be spending quite a bit of money on hardware, software, and other work necessities. So remember, your home office workspace is all about your own productivity and comfort. Unless you’re an event planner or a photographer with a home office, your space probably won’t need to serve as a showcase business front and you’re probably not going to be sharing your space with too many people. Your home office is one place that can really be all about YOU and YOUR tastes.

My own home work space has gone through several evolutions over the past 14 years and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. So today I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned.

First of all, it really helps to define your needs and define your space:

Define your office needs
This is the fun, creative step. Depending on what you do, or will be doing, your needs will be different. List all of the equipment you’ll need to accommodate in your space. Things like a desktop computer, a desk, a chair, a laptop, a printer, a land line phone, headphones, speakers, calendar, bulletin board, filing cabinet, etc. Brainstorm with an eye toward the future so that your office space will be able to meet your needs today and in the future. Highlight the essentials, but list the future desires, too. Knowing what you need today and what you would like to incorporate into your space in the future is half the battle!

Define your office space
This is the not-so-fun, practical step. Maybe you’re looking to use a spare bedroom, or convert that formal dining room, or carve out a corner of the family room. A home office work space can be as small, or as expansive, as your space allows. Look at the list of items you listed as wanting to incorporate and begin to imagine how you might accommodate them in the space you’re considering. Does your space allow for a desk? Does it have enough room for the rest of the things on your list? If so, great. If not, you have a choice to make – whittle the list and/or figure out a way to increase the space enough to include your essentials. If necessary, pick an additional storage space for everything else on your list.

Now that you’ve got your list of needs and a suitable space defined, it’s time to start getting everything together. Here are some creative ideas for making your home office space your own, aesthetically pleasing and functional, even on a shoestring budget:

  • Re-purposing
    I love to recycle and reuse. Get out your list of items and start looking at the things you already own in a whole new light. Could that broken piano bench serve as your new printer table? How about that old changing table? Think outside the box and look everywhere – your basement, your attic, your garage, your living room, your bedroom. Gather, or take note of, anything you think might serve a new purpose without being missed in its old realm.

    Remember, you can refinish and re purpose lots of things with a bit of paint, stain, cloth, etc. Use it first and see how it meets your needs. You might not use it for long before you find it’s just not going to work – but it’ll certainly serve as a place holder while you’re working to define and create your space. And, if it turns out it’ll work for the long-haul, having it actually function in your office space will give you a clue as to what might need to be changed about it. Maybe that piano bench that’s now housing your printer would be even better with a skirt for hiding the reams of paper and other supplies that have accumulated beneath it.

  • Swapping
    Besides finding things you already own, swapping is the next best thing! Maybe your old diaper changing table just isn’t going to work as your new printer table for whatever reason, but it’s still in great shape. If you know someone who could use it, consider offering a swap. Tell them you’re working on a new office space and see what they might have to offer in exchange. A group of friends with a list of items is even better for working out swaps.
  • Craigs List, Classifieds, Good Will, Consignment Shops
    Sometimes you just need to go on the hunt. It’s fairly easy to shop for brand new items if you’ve got an endless budget to work with. If you’re budget conscious and you’ve already gathered what you can freely, the next stop might be to do a little creative shopping. While I’m a tad leery of Craigs List and local classified ads for obvious reasons I will readily admit I’m a huge fan of Goodwill, Salvation Army, and consignment shops. I’ve found so many treasures from second-hand stores that I consider myself a connoisseur. And don’t stop there. You can also look for inspiration and deals at garage sales, yard sales, flea markets, swap meets, and estate auctions.

    My most recent snag was a pair of matching file cabinets from an used office furniture store. I found them in the graveyard section, you know, the back of the store where you can barely walk between the beat up and abandoned goods. They were in awesome shape with one exception, neither piece had a top. I think maybe they were part of a huge office desk collection where they were featured underneath another piece of furniture. But without the top, they weren’t very functional. I got a great deal on both, took them home, cleaned them up and polished them and the looked nearly brand new. I could have topped them with a myriad of things, so I used them first, without any top at all, while I weighed my options. I considered natural stone, granite, a single piece of plywood that would span across both, and an old door. I ended up finding two pieces of chopping-block-type wood on clearance at Lowe’s. I cut them to fit and then decided to stain them to match the cabinets. Viola! I had two, wonderful, functional pieces of office furniture at a fraction of the cost.

  • Custom Builds
    While topping two file cabinets with wood doesn’t make me a carpenter, I consider those pieces of furniture custom builds. If you need a desk and have two short filing cabinets and an old door, you might put on your carpenter hat and create one. You’d be surprised what walking around a thrift store and a hardware store can inspire you to think of. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, ask an employee for help. Explain what you’re working with and what you’re trying to do, and they often have some great ideas. That’s how I found the chopping block clearance wood. Thanks to the helpful, red-vested Lowe’s guy who took the time to help me out.
  • Recruit the Kids
    Getting your kids involved ensures they’ll love and respect your space as a work-zone and they’re quite the little creative thinkers. Need a pen holder? Get them to dress up a small coffee can or help you look around the house for something that will work. Need some inspirational artwork for the walls? You can buy blank canvases from hobby stores and at a pretty reasonable price if you wait until they’re on sale. Get the kids to paint a picture, or have them create a canvas of hand prints, or decoupage things onto the canvas. Take the opportunity to teach your kids all about what you do and why you do it. Take the mystery out of the space, but have set boundaries. Let them know what they can and can’t do in your work space.

I’m frugal. I admit it. But the one place you don’t want to skimp when you’re creating your office space is the all-important work chair. It needs to be comfortable, it needs to fit you well, and it needs to be suited to the desk you’ll be using. Unless it meets all those requirements, it’s not a good deal even if you picked it up for a steal. This is the one office item I recommend buying new and test driving before you buy. Spend an afternoon at a local office supply store sitting in every chair you see. Sometimes the ones that look the most comfy aren’t.

Whatever your office needs, if you get creative and you’ll be surprised at what you can create – even on a shoestring budget.

Photo Credit
The photo above is fromFernanda Mancini’s photostream on Flickr. You can find a ton of inspiration looking at home offices on Flickr, HGTV, and interior design sites. I love the mobiles and am thinking of how I can incorporate something like that in my own space.


  1. I’ve collected a lot of great things for free from others via Craigslist. I was able to receive a desk, lamp, file cabinet, and a printer in great condition. Freecycle is another great place to receive furniture and other things for your home office. Great post!

  2. @Carla Easley: Sweeeeet! Freecycling – a perfect additional tip for creating a frugal home office space. Thank you.

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