1. Live in a space for a year before committing to changes.
Though I have held true to a fantasy with every one of the past 5 houses we've lived in that I wouldn't move one stick of furniture into that dwelling until it had been painted and re-floored where necessary, that has never been my reality and I'm actually glad my wishes didn't come true. I have learned that for me, it takes about a year before I really figure out the natural light, times of use, and degree of usage for the rooms in my house. You'd like an example, you say? Well when we moved into our current house the half bath off the foyer was painted mauve with a cabbage rose border. My teeth hurt everytime I looked at it so I decided that I would repaint the half bath the same color as the entryway, a color called Tree Moss by Benjamin Moore.
2. If you prime first, tint your primer!
I am always so excited to start a decorating project that I like to pop open that gallon of paint and get to work, but when I am making a major color change I have disciplined myself to prime first. Since I rarely buy my primer from the same place I buy my paint I always forget to ask to have the primer tinted. I have finally learned to make it a priority to tint the primer because I realized that I was doing a lot of extra work and spending a lot of extra money just because the primer wasn't tinted. Since I usually buy a sample of the color I'm going to paint before committing to the full gallon, I almost always have some color around that I can mix with the primer to give it a tint. Instead of painting a coat of primer and 2 coats of base color, I can usually paint one coat of tinted primer and one coat of base color. The savings in time and money is huge 'cause let me tell you, that Benjamin Moore Aura paint isn't cheap!
3. Make everything neutral but your accessories.
I'm sure this flies in the face of many a good design principle but here's the thing: my decorating budget can usually be measured by tens, not hundreds or thousands, of dollars, and that means that I need every single major piece to have longevity. I have found the best way to achieve a timeless look is to keep my major pieces of furniture, curtains, and flooring neutral. I even extend this to the wall color because I'm the one who does the painting in my house and I like to do it once and then love it for 5 years (even though I've never actually lived in a house for 5 years, I like to imagine that I would still love it...) rather than having to repaint (see the half bath issue in Lesson 1!). After living with a hunter green and red plaid couch and love seat for 15 years because they seemed like a good idea in 1992 and then I didn't have the money to replace them until 2007, I have learned this lesson well enough to never forget it.
4. Beware of scented candles, potpourri, aromatic oils, and room fresheners
I love walking into my in-laws' house because it smells like soap and mashed potatoes. I know that sounds weird and like it somehow it wouldn't go together, but it creates the most warm, welcoming, homey scent I have ever smelled. Perhaps the scent is so comforting because it's reminiscent of family dinners and holidays, but perhaps it's because the scent is so natural. I have embraced every form of scented candle and potpourri ever sold but have found that I feel most comfortable in my home when it is scented naturally: a bowl of lemons on the table, coffee beans in the candle holders, and a hint of lavendar from the fabric softener I use. Using artificial scents can create a, well, artificial smell and I find that I suffer from more headaches, allergies, or upper respiratory infections when I have those things around.
5. Fewer, bigger pieces always look better than many small pieces
I remember the first time I ever saw a Mary Engelbreit decorating book. It was the early '90s and I was fully into my sunflower/country cottage/more is more phase. I remember thinking that if I could just have the money to buy all those accessories life would be perfect. I had cut-out-heart-wooden shelves, quilt racks, and a passion for "vignettes."