PICKING UP the glossy catalogs, I can't help but drool: rooms furnished in coordinating colors; sofas that beg you to settle in and snooze; and afghans, throw pillows and other accouterments that say it's not just a room but a home.
My mouth goes dry, though, when I glance at the $500 price tag just for the coffee table.
Furnishing an apartment or new home is an expensive venture. But don't let those catalogs fool you. There are ways to fill your space without draining your savings (or going deeply into debt):
Study up: Like any major investment, you should learn something about furniture before you make a purchase. The American Home Furnishings Alliance offers a Web site (www.findyourfurniture.com) where you can brush up on style terms, as well as how upholstered and wood furniture are constructed.
You also should visit furniture stores to get a feel for price.
It used to be that retailers held major sales in September and March as they prepared for new inventory the following month.
Now, with imports regularly flooding the market, "there's virtually a sale every weekend," says Mike Pierce, director of communications for the National Home Furnishings Association. "So you've got to shop prices, not the percentage off, to make sure there is a verifiable sale."
Pace yourself: Don't rush to get your new space settled. "You might want to live with a couple of pieces for a while and then add to them gradually," said Paige Gilchrist, author of Decorating Your First Apartment: From Moving In to Making It Your Own (Sterling Publishing Co., $14.95). Otherwise, Gilchrist said, "You could end up with a lot of stuff that doesn't fit your needs."
Plus, you won't be tempted to overspend.
Store-offered zero-percent financing, in which you typically pay no interest for 12 months, may seem like a good deal. But fail to pay off your debt within the year and the 20 percent interest is applied retroactively. As a result, the $500 coffee table suddenly costs $600, regardless of how much you've already paid.
Instead, limit your budget to a few key pieces, such as a bed and couch. "Bag the futon and get a bed with a good mattress that you feel like a grownup in," Gilchrist says.
Opt for "naked" furniture: For furniture that will last, solid wood is the way to go, experts say. But these pieces are expensive, and many stores sell predominantly furniture made of less-sturdy engineered wood or particleboard.
As a compromise, try unfinished furniture, made of solid wood that's often imported (and therefore less expensive than American-grown wood), fully assembled but unstained.
"For a solid-wood desk, for example," says Christian Kleven, owner of Bear Naked Furniture in Reno, "you could save 10 percent to 15 percent."
Go to www.unfinished- furniture.org for staining tips.
Save with imperfect pieces: The real deals, of course, are to be found at weekend yard sales and consignment stores.
Don't turn up your nose: A friend of mine found two Anthropologie lamps for $15 total at a yard sale, and I know of beach houses entirely furnished with cozy secondhand items.
Just stick to buying what you need instead of throwing one dollar after another on clutter. And ask to test whether lamps, appliances or that pullout couch actually work.
Enhance what you have: If you really can't afford to splurge on new furniture, work with what you already own. You don't need to have Martha Stewart-like talents, Gilchrist said.
Update old lamps with new shades. Change the hardware on a dresser, desk or chest.
Brighten up a droopy couch with new throw pillows or an afghan. Buy black frames for photos you already have and hang them on your walls.
"It may be an investment of effort on your part," Gilchrist said, "but not so much an investment of your money."
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at firstname.lastname@example.org.