Let's be honest. The job of deciding who gets what in a divorce is no day at the beach. But once the difficult task of separating "mine" from "yours" from "garage sale" is over, you may find that there are some positive aspects to your new pared-down existence.
One: you have less stuff. As North Americans, we tend to have a healthy appetite for material possessions, an appetite that, like our yen for doughnuts and fast food, could stand to be suppressed just a wee bit. Two: you might actually like the stuff you have. That musty, old furniture that belonged to your ex-spouse's grandmother is gone -- forever. You no longer have to try to make that Victorian-style hutch work with your mid-century Eames lounge chair. You no longer have to sleep in a three-quarter bed that's three-quarters your size. And three: you're in the driver's seat. Remember the last time you felt excited about a sofa? Your ex-spouse gave it the thumbs-down and that was that. Well, now you don't have to compromise when it comes to buying new furniture or painting the walls. It's your taste, your design aesthetic -- and your home. Just think of the possibilities! There's only one problem. Where do you begin? It's been years since you gave any thought at all to decorating. And money is more than a little tight right now. How can you create a comfortable living environment for yourself and your kids on a shoestring budget? The answer may be to give your current home a "makeover." Here are a few tips to get you going.
First, work with what you have
Get the ball rolling by assessing your rooms and making an inventory of your furniture. Anoop Parikh, author of Decorator's Fact File (Soma, 1999), recommends that people think in three dimensions when trying to evaluate their living space. "Stand in the middle of the room and ask: does it feel awkwardly or well-proportioned?" advises Parikh. "Does there seem to be a lot of wasted space? (Is this perhaps because the furniture is awkwardly arranged or because there is more than one door into the room?)"
Start with the rooms you use the most: the bedrooms, the kitchen, and the living room. What do you like about these rooms? Sheran James and Joanne Eckstut, authors of Room Redux: The Home Decorator's Workbook (Chronicle Books, 1999), says that it's helpful to imagine which room you would save if a tidal wave rolled over your home. That room, they say, is your haven. The furnishings here are the building blocks for decorating the rest of your home.
Creating a floor plan can help you visualize each room's deficits and assets. Here, Parikh offers a "low-tech" decorator's trick: take progressive photographs of each room, then tape them together to create a panorama. Photocopy the collage then, using a magic marker, mark up the walls, doorways, and furniture. Presto! Instant floor plan. Make a few copies and use one as a template, so you can cut out your furniture. Now you can experiment with different arrangements without working up a sweat or upsetting the cat and dog.
If furniture arranging isn't one of your talents, you might want to call a friend or family member who has a better grasp of this skill. Either way, it's nice to have an objective pair of eyes to survey your situation -- not to mention an extra pair of arms to help you shove the furniture around! Another decorator's trick is to pull furniture a few inches out from the walls so that it appears to float in the room. This tip works particularly well when there are relatively few pieces of furniture to contend with. Once you start playing with your objets d'art, chairs, sofas, and other pieces of furniture, you might be surprised to realize that less really is more.
Make a list If less isn't enough, you'll want to make a list of what you need to fill things out. But take the time to do a little research first. Read every home decor magazine you can get your hands on and start keeping a picture file of things you like: sofas, chairs, tableware, curtains, etc. Educate yourself by hitting the high-end furniture stores. You don't have to buy at this stage, although one beautiful piece of furniture is often all you need to turn your living room or bedroom around. If the budget's tight, check out flea markets, antique stores, and neighborhood garage sales. Take a Polaroid camera with you on your field trips, so you have a visual reference of what you like for your files. (Write store names, prices, dimensions, and other info on the back of the Polaroid.)
One caveat to keep in mind: be careful not to overbuy. Shopping can be strangely therapeutic, especially for those who are newly separated. It provides visual stimulation and gives us something to do -- but it can be a very dangerous pastime. When Sarah and Michael decided to separate, the recovering flea-market and auction-sale addicts gave themselves permission to gorge themselves on flea-market and garage-sale finds. They each ended up with four times the junk -- and half the room to hold it all.
Speaking of junk, don't forget to check out your own basement before you go shopping. Anita, a recently separated mother of three, found a set of teak nesting tables and a chrome lamp that she'd completely forgotten about. The pieces, which she vaguely remembers seeing in her aunt's house in the 1970s, are right back in style today. They look fabulous in her new, contemporary living room -- and they didn't cost her a cent.
Get rid of excess baggage
Now that you're moving closer to the right mix of furniture, take the time to banish clutter from your life. You know the rule: if you haven't used it/worn it/loved it in a year, out it goes. Hold a garage sale, run a classified ad, call up a local auction house, or try the electronic alternative -- put your unwanted treasures up for sale on eBay.com.
If you're really having a tough time parting with something, loan it out to a relative or friend on the condition that should you ever want it back, all you need to do is ask. (Chances are, you'll won't care if you see it again.) Bob went to war with his ex-wife for the dining room set, then found that it wouldn't fit into his new apartment. His niece, who had just taken her first apartment in a large house, took it from him on a loaner; fortunately for Bob, she doesn't have a problem with visitation! Storage units have their uses, too, as a safe place to stash stuff. But again, be careful when choosing this option. Make sure that the things you cram into these oversized lockers are really worth the monthly cost of hanging on to them.
Think outside the boxes
If you've moved into a smaller space, you'll have some new challenges to face. When you're choosing furniture, keep the scale small so as not to overpower your rooms. Find ways to make rooms serve more than one purpose, as Martha did when she moved to a condominium with her six-year-old son, George. She traded her queen-sized four-poster for a Murphy bed (remember the one Rhoda had?). The sleekly modern contraption folds down from the wall at night and right back up again during the day, when her bedroom morphs into a home office. The room also serves as a place for George to do his homework and watch TV. It's these sorts of creative solutions that you'll need to look for to make your new, smaller place a comfortable home.
Paint yourself out of a corner
When it comes to home decorating, nothing can change a room faster or more dramatically than a can or two of paint. If you've always gone right down the middle and chosen off-white or gray, why not experiment with a hip new color? Flip through a few decorating magazines to get some ideas of hot colors, then head off to the paint store for some expert advice.
"A rented apartment is much cheerier when brightened up with splashes of your favorite colors," notes Julia Barnard in New Decorator: How To Combine Well-Being and Style in Your Home (Firefly Books, 1999). "This inexpensive way to make your mark on a place is immensely satisfying." Take your entire home into consideration before you order that first can of custom-colored paint, though. You'll want the colors to flow in harmony from room to room. While you're in the paint store, check out enameled, melamine, and aged metallic paints for furniture. Who knows -- a little color could completely change your life.
Make your new home kid-friendly
Whether you're the custodial parent or not, when you move to a new home after a divorce, it's critical that you create a safe and happy retreat for your children. If they're old enough, by all means involve them in the decorating decisions for their rooms. And you don't have to spend a lot of money to get great results: all it takes is a little bit of creativity.
Start by focusing in on something your child loves. For five-year-old Andy, it was fish. His father, Rob, painted his room a bright ocean blue. He added a school of glow-in-the-dark fish stickers to the walls, suspended a fish net from the ceiling to hold Andy's stuffed toys, and used colored fishing lures to hang natural muslin curtains from a couple of old fishing rods.
If you have older children, you might want to create a more sophisticated look. Sew two sheets together for a duvet cover and slip your child's comforter inside; have a friend help you if you can't sew. Then, using a matching sheet, create a tablecloth for a nightstand or cover a padded headboard. Paint the walls a coordinating color, and you've got a great designer look for under $100.
Maybe you've moved into a new neighborhood. Or maybe you feel vulnerable now in your old one. Whatever the reason, it makes sense now to make your house more secure. Get into the habit of locking your doors at all times, even when you're home. If your apartment or house has had a lot of tenants in a short period of time, you might also want to consider changing the locks; give keys out only if you must and ask for them to be returned. If you're in a new neighborhood, get to know your immediate neighbors. Ask them about crime in your area. Are there places you and your children should avoid -- in daytime hours or after dark? An alarm system can also provide great comfort at this time in your life. (Check under "Burglar Alarm Systems" in your Yellow Pages.)
Warming up to your new space
When your home makeover is complete, throw yourself a house-warming party. Invite your closest friends and family over to see your new place. After all, there's nothing like the company of people we love to "warm up" our home and make it come alive.
When you stop and think about it, the process of creating a new home can be renewing -- and very exciting. You're taking an active role in your own future. You're feathering your nest with your favorite things and creating a safe and comfortable environment for you and your children. And that, in itself, is a great new beginning. Welcome home!