If you've been watching home and garden television shows, or read home decorating magazines, it's probably crossed your mind more than once.

Maybe I should hire an interior designer.

And then another thought has probably squashed that one: Oh, that's right. I don't have a backyard swimming pool full of money.

If you're living paycheck to paycheck, it's probably best to keep enjoying your TV shows and magazines, but interior designers aren't only for the 1 percent. They can be affordable for the middle class, you just may have to be a little creative in how you hire one.

If you've ever daydreamed of hiring an interior designer but want to do it for relatively cheap, consider these strategies.

First, figure out what you need. This can be harder than it seems. Do you want an interior designer or an interior decorator? If you want your kitchen to be bigger or more functional, you'll want an interior designer. If you want advice on what to paint the walls or what types of cushions the living room should have, that would be an interior decorator. That said, designers do interior decorating, but interior decorators don't do interior design.

Decide you're OK with your interior designer not actually coming inside your home. There are a number of interior design firms online, and they keep their costs down, since with many of them never leave their office. A few sites you may want to check out include: Decorist.com, Decorator in a Box (mydiab.com) and LaurelandWolf.com.

Decorist.com offers tiered pricing per room – classic for $199, elite for $499 and celebrity for $799. Decorator in a Box has a la carte pricing ($75 for paint selection) to full room design ($400 for the foyer, hallway or patio is the lowest price; $750 for the "great room" is the highest). Laurel & Wolf has an online platform in which consumers virtually create a room profile, pay a one-time flat fee (lowest is $299 per room) and receive designs from multiple interior designers.

These prices may or may not sound crazy to you, but keep in mind that interior designers are humans, too, and enjoy being able to go to the supermarket and pay their electric bill. For some price comparison, consider that the average cost of hiring an interior designer or decorator, according to HomeAdvisor.com, which makes no distinction between the two, is $5,019, based on 1,289 projects reported by HomeAdvisor members. Six hundred dollars is considered on the low end, and $14,000 would be considered on the high end.

Find an interior designer fresh out of college. Hiring a recent college graduate can be a smart idea because these junior professionals offer lower rates, says Tricia Huntley, who owns Huntley & Co. Interior Design in the District of Columbia. "They need projects to photograph in order to build a portfolio," she explains.

Jill Knittel, a financial advisor in Rochester, New York, seconds that idea. She hired a college graduate, and it worked out very well for her.

"There is a college close to us that has a degree in interior design, so I connected myself with a recent graduate from that school through my network," Knittel says, adding that the graduate had a job with a prestigious firm, and so in that sense, she was vetted. But because she was just getting her start and didn't have a portfolio, the interior designer wasn't just willing to work for reduced rates, but was excited about the job assignment.

Knittel was excited, too. "We were thrilled to pay somebody trying to get her start in a field that is built on experience and reputation," she says.

The one caveat, Huntley says, is to make sure you're hiring an interior designer who has an education or is aligned with a professional company – especially if you're making serious changes to your home that are hard to undo, like taking out a wall. You don't want a college student who is in his or her first year of interior design school and still might have a lot to learn.

Design mistakes can be very costly, and novices and dabblers are unfamiliar with the pitfalls," Huntley says.

Pay by the project, not by the hour. Many interior design firms do charge by the hour, so you aren't being ripped off if that's the route you take. But if a project takes longer than you or the designer anticipated, you could feel like you're being ripped off. If you need to keep your budget to a manageable level, paying a flat fee is the way to go.

Keep in mind some companies will say they charge a flat hourly fee. That's a nice try on their part, but that doesn't really help you keep your budget down.

Knittel says she paid by the project and not by the hour, incidentally. And that's how Lauri Ward operates. Ward, who has written four home design books, operates her firm Use What You Have Interiors, located in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida, with a flat fee for clients.

"The clients know what the charges are before we walk through the door," Ward says. "We also provide a written design plan for each room we work on, with resources and suggestions for future purchases that they may want or need, when time and money allow."

Be realistic. Huntley suggests you remember this if you're continually disappointed that interior designers want to charge more than you are willing to pay for their services. "Interior design is a luxury business, so be realistic," she suggests.

DeAnna Radaj agrees. Radaj, based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, is an interior designer and the author of "Designing the Life of Your Dreams from the Outside In" and "Feng Shui for Teens," and she points out that interior designers have degrees in the field and in most states are licensed, which means they need to keep up and pay for education that keeps them licensed.

"They are professionals, and this will come at a price," she says.

If you try too hard to pay too little, you risk hiring an inferior interior designer, which is kind of fun to say but probably not much fun to experience.

Tags: real estate, home improvements, personal budgets


Geoff Williams has been a contributor to U.S. News and World Report since 2013, writing about a variety of personal finance topics, from insurance and spending strategies to small business and tax-filing tips.

Williams got his start working in entertainment reporting in 1993, as an associate editor at "BOP," a teen entertainment magazine, and freelancing for publications, including Entertainment Weekly. He later moved to Ohio and worked for several years as a part-time features reporter at The Cincinnati Post and continued freelancing. His articles have been featured in outlets such as Life magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cincinnati Magazine and Ohio Magazine.

For the past 15 years, Williams has specialized in personal finance and small business issues. His articles on personal finance and business have appeared in CNNMoney.com, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes.com and American Express OPEN Forum. Williams is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" and "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America"

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his two teenage daughters and is a graduate of Indiana University. To learn more about Geoff Williams, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow his Twitter page.