Material comforts on a budget?
January 17, 2009 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Small apartment management: What cheap supplies should a person in a 1.5 have as far as organizing, cleaning, pantry staples, etc...?

I'm a student in a 1.5 with hardwood floors and a ceramic tiled bathroom. I've already seen basic instructions on what not to buy (Don't buy a waffle iron! Scrimp on pots and pans! Save the good china for a wedding gift!), because I'm liable to be uprooted after my education's through and shipping costs money, but as far as cleaning supplies, kitchen goods, etc, while I tend to be frugal I'm not sure what the average dwelling space of this scale functions best with.

So, what are your must haves?
posted by Phalene to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Clarification request: 1.5 what?
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:53 PM on January 17, 2009

1 full bath, and a half bath?
posted by woodway at 3:56 PM on January 17, 2009

In general, though: I got by fine with an all-purpose cleaner, some dusty-spray stuff, windex, and a bunch of rags. Recently I bought a Swiffer for my new hardwood floors, on the (correct, as it turns out) assumption that something wasteful and inefficient that actually gets used because it's so easy is better, in net, than something efficient and frugal that never gets touched.

Kitchen-wise, it obviously depends a lot on how much, and what, you cook. My own minimal set is just a medium frying pan (lid helps), a 4 quart (or so) pot, a small second pot with a good handle for sauces. Utensil-wise... everything for a first-apartment can be cheap if you don't really make great use of it, but small and easily transported items are reasonable places to make an early 'investment,' eg, non-crappy knives. All I ever really use are a small steak-type knife and a big chef's knife, with a couple of cheap wooden spoons, flippers, etc.

My own system for this kind of thing: Get an ultra-basic set, and then just buy each new item as it's needed and not before. Obviously this isn't always ideal - "dammit, I'm trying to make brownies RIGHT NOW and don't have a pan!" - but it helps avoid the "why did I buy that again?" issue that left me with a wok and rice cooker.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:03 PM on January 17, 2009

Response by poster: Full bath. 1.5 means 1.5 rooms in Montreal lingo, or a 'studio' apartment.
posted by Phalene at 4:09 PM on January 17, 2009

Best answer: Well... the best way to do this, I think, is to work out what *you* need in the particular apartment, make a list, prioritised by how much you really REALLY need stuff to live comfortably, and then frequent cheap stores on pay day to tick off your items.

So, for example, if your hardwood floors just get dusty, you might get a cheapie broom, dustpan and brush.

But if they get sticky (do you spill stuff? I do. Sigh.) you might need a mop as well.

Do you cook much? You'll need a cheap frypan (cast iron from camping stores is good) and saucepan. If not, don't bother. Do you like Asian food? Swap the frypan for a cheap wok from an Asian supermarket.

And so on.

But, having said that...

Cleaning. A couple of cheap cotton or linen dishcloths for drying dishes; two or three washable cleaning cloths (you could just cut up an old t-shirt if you're trying to save every penny); broom; dustpan and brush; maybe a mop; one bottle of all purpose cleaner; some dishwashing liquid, scrubber for the dishes.

Cooking. Cheap cast-iron frypan or wok; saucepan; wooden spoon; bunch of plastic cooking implements, the sort where you get a ladle, potato masher, scooper and other stuff in a bundle for $5; $1 plastic chopping board; 1 x stay sharp knife. Maybe 1 x Pyrex dish to make casseroles and baked things in. And some cheap plastic storage containers for storing your food after you've made it. Leftovers = money saved!

Eating. Where I live you can get four setting dinner services for $20 at supermarkets and discount warehouses. They're not flash, but whatever! It'll let you eat from a plate. And you can have a friend round for tea without one of you eating out of the saucepan. Same for knives and forks and stuff - get the cheapest set you can from the discount store. Or, if you don't want a whole set, buy singly from Asian supermarkets. Plate, bowl, cup, knife, fork, spoon. That's it!

Pantry staples. Rice, rolled oats, pasta, your favourite cereal, cans of chickpeas and other beans, cans of tomatoes, stock cubes or powder, olive or other cooking oil, spices. Some more cheapie plastic containers to store everything in.

For where to buy, dollar stores and Asian supermarkets are great. So are thrift stores, especially for baking pans and Pyrex and things.
posted by t0astie at 4:15 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out the links at the bottom of this page.
posted by billysumday at 4:27 PM on January 17, 2009

A small pot, small frying pan, and small cutting board. If you're cooking for just 1-2 people, you don't need big family-sized pots. And the smaller they are the more likely you are to wash them!
If you like smoothies or home-made soup, an upright hand blender is more space-saving than a counter blender.
Imagine the biggest dinner party you'd ever throw. My guess is it's under 6 people. So you only need max. 6 of each thing- 6 plates, 6 glasses, etc. Probably even 4 of each would be fine.
You probably also only need 3-4 Tupperware containers. Get them all the same shape so they can stack in the cupboard to save space.
Buying food for one usually means you'll have a lot of extra space in the fridge. Use that space! Keep dry goods in the fridge to save space- cereal, flour, crackers, cookies, etc. Maybe in the crisper drawer if you tend to spill stuff in the fridge like me.
A loveseat is better for space than a full-sized couch.
A small number of tall bookshelves is better than several low bookshelves- Montreal apartments have high ceilings, so take advantage of the space by getting high bookshelves.
Furniture that sits up off the floor on legs will look more spacious than furniture that lies flat on the floor or has little front panels that touch the floor. You want to be able to see under the furniture for a feeling of spaciousness.
White sheets make the bed look more like sculpture and less like clutter.
One broom, one tiny dustpan, one mop, one bucket. One bottle of spray cleaner (pour some in the mop water to mop). A pack of J-cloths from the dollar store, and toilet paper or paper towels to wipe things in the bathroom.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:03 PM on January 17, 2009

and then just buy each new item as it's needed and not before.

Seconded, quoted for truth etc.

I've lived in various small places over the years, and yes a few times I've thought "oh I wish I had this now", but honestly very, very rarely.

You don't live in the middle of nowhere, so even if you miss something at 3am, you can get it the next day & it won't be the end of the world. Don't stock up, find out as you go along.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 5:24 PM on January 17, 2009

Best answer: I'll second Tomorrowful's comment.

Get a few basics, and then buy what you need when you need it. For certain items, go for quality even if it's the first one you ever buy. I would list a chef's knife (quality doesn't mean pricy, restaurant supply stores often have good workhorse models that will keep an edge for $20) and a cast iron pan in this category. For the pan, looking used is a good route to go, these things are nearly indestructible and should last a lifetime (I have a friend whose parents still cook with one from the 1600's). I'd go for a 12 inch or so and remember, never wash it with soap! Scrub it with hot water then dry it off, oil it, and put it away. Also, while not necessary, if you are only buying a few pots and pans you could put the money you save by not buying a huge set into upgrading the quality of the pieces you do buy. The difference between a $10 pot and a $50 pot is usually a lot, and will make cooking nicer. That said, you can make do with the cheap version of anything as long as it is not so cheap that it won't properly perform its function.

In list format:


boiling/soup pot (for pasta, etc...) with lid
sauce pot with lid
frying pan with lid
cheap set of spoons/spatulas
decent chef's knife
small place setting kit (corelle is cheap and looks good. relatively durable too)
4 person+ silverware setting. Having multiple settings means not having to do dishes every time you use a fork
4 person+ set of cups (lowball and highball)
vegetable peeler
cutting board (ikea is a good source for a lot of this stuff)
can opener
wash rag or sponge
2-3 nice drying cloths
optional: rice cooker, lots of people say these are unnecessary, but you can cook more than rice, plus if you eat rice frequently, it is worth the time savings

Honestly, you could subsist with less just fine, but if you don't want to share your plate with your friends then having those extra 3 plates and such on hand are nice.


depending on your floors: mop and bucket+swiffer or broom
optional: mop soap
some washing cloths/rags
all purpose bathroom/surface cleaner
toilet brush
optional: dusting spray (I am lazy, I use windex for most everything)
optional: ajax if your bathroom surfaces get bad

Helpful article on outfitting a first kitchen.
posted by jellywerker at 5:47 PM on January 17, 2009

Everyone has great advice, but here's something else you might want to keep in mind: never underestimate the power of good design. Having cheap, ugly plastic around for any reason drags you down and shoves your crappy financial situation right in your face every time you look at them. Why not get at least one bowl, one plate and one mug you really like? The same goes for everything else in your house, really. You can find well-designed things at Ikea and Target that won't break the bank. A little thought and a tiny bit of effort go a long way.

Stephen Fry wrote a wonderful essay about the psychological impact of bad design: Wallpaper (iTunes link)
posted by aquafortis at 6:46 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

For cleaning: you get a lot done using just plain white vinegar, hot water, baking soda and lemon juice. Which are all also things you can cook with.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:54 PM on January 17, 2009

For cleaning supplies, basic chemicals like vinegar, bleach, baking soda, ammonia, lemon juice, alcohol, and possibly a few others for specific tasks (acetone, perhaps) are probably the cheapest way to go, if you know what you're doing. There's a book / PBS series called "Haley's Hints" that describes how to home-brew effective and cheap cleaning products from basic commodity chemicals. That said, you wouldn't be saving all that much money--I don't know about you, but $30 or $40 a year keeps me in all the windex, toilet cleaner, comet, and so forth that I need--but I bet if I went the Haley's Hints route I could cut this down to less than $10 a year. A large bottle of bleach will last quite awhile. Of course, there are certain caveats--mixing bleach and ammonia can kill you, for example--so some research would be a necessary first step for this approach.
posted by kprincehouse at 6:58 PM on January 17, 2009

I post on organization and homey sites, and this list is a fave of mine. Yes, it's commercial, but it is a very good, basic list.
Perishabs and non-perishables
posted by jgirl at 7:02 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's a pantry list I put together in response to another question about foods to keep around. This is basically the list I live and shop by. It won't be useful unless you like to cook from scratch. A step more processed from this, while still cooking cheaply at home, would be things like frozen cheese tortellini + jarred pasta sauce, or bell peppers + onion + protein of your choice + jarred stirfry sauce + quick rice.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

My keyboard is getting perishable.
posted by jgirl at 8:10 PM on January 17, 2009

When I divorced at age 26, I never learned how to cook or make a home. My mother and then my wife did that. To show how stupid I was when I went to the grocery store all I could think to buy was a bag of apples. After reformatting my mental hard drive and developing a new os this is my condensed advice: Iron frying pans, bread machine, crock pot. Be your own manufacturer of food. Bread is the basis of civilization, there is nothing like the aroma of bread cooking to feel homey. I like to use the bread machine to make the dough and put it in a iron skillet to rise and bake. Don't buy new, These can be had for $5 used. For more smell goodness use cinnamon on top. Go to farmers market and get vegetables, throw in a crock pot with NO water. I usually don't eat these right away, I throw them in the pan to fry when I cook other foods. This extra step adds lots of flavor. Buy lots of spices, add them to the bread dough too. Buy sage incense.
posted by JohnR at 5:07 AM on January 18, 2009

If you want to stay mobile, or just don't have much money to spend, you can get by with very little.

So for cleaning products, I'd suggest (in addition to dish soap, hand soap, etc, of course) buying generic or store-brand versions of Windex and one of those "all purpose" kitchen and bath cleaners (409, Simple Green, etc). That covers you for counters, windows, mirrors, sinks, and nasty spills on the linoleum. You can make homemade versions of all these, but unless you clean twice a day, it'll take forever for it to be worth your time. Add a cheap sponge, some rags, and dishtowels, and you are set.

That New York Times article linked above is spot-on. Buy cheap stuff at a restaurant supply store if you have one around (or order online); avoid shoddy miracle and single-use products from the dollar store or Walmart. Better to buy the $10 chef's knife he suggests than a $20 "knife set" of crappy serrated knives, for example.

Exactly what you need depends on what you like to eat, obviously -- for some people, a rice cooker is a luxury, and for others it is an absolute essential. Personally, my minimal kitchen setup is two knives (one large chef's, one paring, but I can manage with the chef's knife alone), cutting board, metal spatula, wooden spoon, cast iron frying pan, sauce pan, and large soup pot, plus a few dishes, silverware, and a metal or plastic mixing bowl that can double as a salad serving bowl. If you like to bake, you will want a measuring cup and spoons, cookie trays, etc.

A cast iron pan is heavy, but it has the advantage of being able to go on the stove and in the oven, so you can bake, roast, and grill with it as well as frying things. With minimal care they end up as non-stick as the high-tech stuff, with no off-gassing or flaking concerns, and they are cheap. But if you are a dedicated non-stick person, buy one like is suggested in the Times article.

If you are on a budget, get used to repurposing and making do. Don't buy a rolling pin, for example -- use a wine bottle to roll out your dough. Glasses or mugs make perfect circle-cutters for biscuits and cookies.

And get one or two classic, multi-purpose cookbooks (not specialized fluffy cookbooks). If limited to two, I'd suggest considering perhaps Bittman's How to Cook Everything and either The Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer, but adjust for your preferences and needs -- if you are vegetarian, then make one of those the Moosewood cookbook, for example, or maybe Laurel's Kitchen.
posted by Forktine at 7:27 AM on January 18, 2009

Response by poster: So I'm not missing anything except for cleaning rags. ^_^
posted by Phalene at 8:38 AM on January 18, 2009

Go to the nearest Goodwill and stock up on .99 cotton t-shirts.
posted by Miko at 8:56 AM on January 18, 2009

Oh, and for cleaning windows and mirrors, newspaper is actually the very best thing you can use. It's highly absorbent and leaves no streaks at all, unlike paper towels. And if you get as many sales circulars as I do, it's free.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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