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How to Set Up a Home Office on a Budget – Organization Ideas & Tips

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You’ve done it: You’ve convinced your boss to let you work from home. Or perhaps you recently decided to go solo and launch your own home-based business. No matter who you’re working for or what you’re doing, you’re going to need a comfortable, well-equipped space to get your work done.

You don’t have to spend a fortune setting up your home office, nor do you necessarily require an entirely separate room in your house to do your work — though that’s a helpful way to avoid some of the unforeseen challenges of working from home. It makes sense to outfit your new workspace on a budget, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, when no one is sure what the future holds and the country is preparing for a recession.

Here’s how to plan, budget for, and save on everything you need for your home office, from electronics to furniture to supplies.

Make a List of What You Need

You can spend hours on Pinterest scrolling through beautiful, well-staged photos of people’s home offices. But your home office needs can be a lot different from what you see presented on social media. Do you need a designer couch in your office space? Probably not unless you’re a therapist who’s going to see clients at home. Do you need fresh flowers brought in daily? Most likely not unless you’re an Instagram influencer.

Some essential things people need for their offices include:

  • A Work Surface. You’re going to need somewhere to do your work, such as a desk or table. How large a work surface depends in large part on how complicated your setup needs to be. I have a small desk in my home office, but the only thing I need to work is my laptop and a notepad with the week’s to-do list written on it. I have friends who need to use multiple large monitors, so their work surfaces are considerably larger than mine.
  • A Chair. Even if you decide to buy a standing desk, it’s nice to have a chair to sit on from time to time. Your chair doesn’t have to be fancy or full of the latest ergonomic bells and whistles. But it should be comfortable and the appropriate height for your workspace.
  • Computer Equipment. You need a laptop or desktop computer for most remote jobs. How complicated your computer setup needs to be depends on your job. Some workers also need a printer, copier, or scanner or a machine that does all three. Start with the most simple setup and upgrade as needed.
  • Specialized Equipment. Some job types require more specialized equipment, such as lighting for photographers, microscopes and beakers for scientists, and kitchen gear for personal chefs or cookbook authors.
  • Office Supplies. It’s easy to go overboard when it comes to office supplies, especially when setting up your home office for the first time. A less-is-more approach is usually best. That way, you don’t end up with a stack of sticky notes you never use or a lifetime supply of yellow highlighters. Be realistic when picking out what you need for supplies. If you don’t see yourself mailing documents often, you can probably wait to buy envelopes until you need to mail something. If your work is purely digital, you probably don’t need the 100-pack of pens or the stack of notepads.
  • A Secure Place for Documents and Files. Even if you mostly digitize your documents, you could have a few important work-related documents. Those documents need a place to live, and ideally, that place isn’t on the corner of your desk underneath your coffee mug. It’s a good move to invest in a locking file cabinet for sensitive files and documents. If you get a fireproof one, even better.
  • Internet and Phone. You’ll need a reliable high-speed Internet connection and perhaps a dedicated phone line for your home office. One option is to get a landline alternative, like Skype or Google Voice, to use for business phone calls. That way, your boss or clients don’t have to call your personal cellphone or home phone to reach you.

Since concerns about COVID-19 have closed so many stores, you’re probably stuck doing your home office shopping online. There are several things you should check before you buy furniture or equipment.

  • The Size. Will the desk, computer, or chair fit in the space you have for it? Will you be able to get bulky furniture in through your front door or a tight hallway? How much does it weigh, and can you lift it on your own?
  • The Quality. Look for online reviews to see what people have to say about it. Red flags include unresolved complaints of equipment that arrived broken, broke quickly, or weren’t as described when they arrived.
  • Speed of Shipment. More people than usual are shopping online amid the pandemic. That means shipping times are delayed at many stores. Double-check shipping times so you know when to expect delivery.
  • Return Policy. Some retailers have extended their return policies as a result of COVID-19. Confirm you can return whatever you buy if it doesn’t work for you and how long you have to make the return.

Choose a Space

Where in your home can you work? You need an area that can accommodate all your equipment while giving you enough space to think and work comfortably. If you have an extra bedroom, a den, or a finished basement you can commandeer for your workspace, that’s perfect. If not, it’s time to get creative. To help you find the right location for your office:

  • Focus on Activity. How active is the area you’re considering using for your home office? If you plan to work from home while your kids are around, do they play in the room after school or in the morning? If you live with roommates, do they lounge or walk through the space regularly? The goal is to choose the area of your home that gets the least amount of foot traffic. A quiet corner in a kitchen or living room can be ideal if you don’t have an entirely separate room to use.
  • Mind the Light. Peace and quiet are essential, but so is having enough light in your home office. If you can, pick an area that gets natural light, such as a corner by a window.
  • Avoid Your Bedroom. If possible, avoid using your bedroom, especially if you have trouble sleeping. As the National Sleep Foundation points out, using electronic devices in your bedroom can keep you alert when you want to fall asleep. A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that using light-emitting devices before bed negatively affected sleep. You want to avoid light-emitting devices before bed as much as possible, and that’s challenging when your workspace is directly across from your bed.
  • Set Up a Room Divider. If you don’t have a separate room to use as your work area, a room divider can create a sense of separation. Especially if you have to work where you sleep, set up a screen or other type of room divider to set off your office space from the rest of the room. In a living room or den, you can place your desk on one side of a large bookcase and have the living area on the other.
  • Convert a Closet. Another option if space is a premium is to set up a desk or work surface in a small closet. If all you need to work at home is a laptop, even the tiniest of closets can provide enough room. When the workday is over, just shut your laptop and shut the closet door.

Create Your Budget

It can be easy to overspend when you’re setting up your home office, especially if you’re not sure what your numbers are or what you have to work with. Before you start shopping for furniture and supplies, take a look at your household budget to see if you have any money to spend on an office. You can also use the money you’ve saved in a household expenses account or in a savings account you’ve set up for planned purchases to pay for your new office setup.

If you’re no longer commuting to work, you can funnel the money that would usually go toward your transportation and meals out toward home office expenses.

Decide how much you can comfortably spend on your new office, whether it’s $100 or $1,000. Then, start to price out the cost of the things you need. Make a list of one-time expenses and recurring expenses.

After looking at your budget and comparing it to the cost of your needs, you might realize the numbers don’t line up. If the amount you can spend is lower than the cost of what you need, it helps to prioritize.

For example, if you need a desk, you can buy one at Ikea rather than West Elm. If you need a new laptop, you can choose a Chromebook instead of a MacBook Pro. Where you can realistically afford to cut depends on what you do for a living. If you’re a professional photographer, you probably need the MacBook, but if you’re a freelance writer, a Chromebook should be sufficient. If you sit at a desk all day, you can benefit from spending more for an ergonomic chair.

Another thing to consider is your Internet connection. If your job needs the Internet in any form, it pays to spend more in this category than elsewhere, upgrading to the fastest, most reliable connection you can afford. Shop around for the best prices from providers like AT&T or Xfinity.

It’s also advisable to get an unlimited mobile data plan from a carrier that lets you use your phone as a hotspot. That way, if your home Internet goes out, you can use your phone for emergency Internet access until your Internet service provider restores the connection.

How to Get What You Need for Less

After you’ve identified your big-spend categories, look for bargains for everything else. There are a few ways to outfit your home office space without breaking the bank:

  • Buy Used (or Free). A used desk or office chair can be just as sturdy as a new one. In some cases, older furniture is better quality than the stuff made today. You can find gently used furniture on websites like Amazon and eBay. You can also find some high-quality free furniture through your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook or inexpensive options from private sellers on apps like OfferUp. Just remember to practice social distancing when arranging for pickup or delivery.
  • Ask Around. Your friends or family can be a good source of cheap or free office furniture or equipment. Hit them up to see if they’ve got anything on your list they’re looking to part with, then arrange a way to get it to your house while keeping social distancing guidelines in mind.
  • Choose Energy-Efficient Products. Shop with energy efficiency in mind, both to save money on the purchase price and to save money over the life of the product. A smaller laptop uses less power and costs less than a heavy-duty desktop computer, for instance.
  • Ignore the Siren Call of Designer Office Supplies. An inexpensive Bic pen writes just as efficiently as a fancy-pants designer pen. A plain yellow pad of paper lets you take notes that are just as detailed as the ones on a cutesy printed notepad.
  • Wait for Sales. If you don’t need something for your office right away, wait for it to go on sale. Plus, it could turn out that you don’t need it at all.
  • Get Your Employer to Chip In. If you’re an employee working from home, ask what your company can contribute in terms of equipment and supplies. Often, you don’t need to pay for your own equipment, as your employer can give you a laptop or other equipment to use. If your company hasn’t said anything about equipment, it doesn’t hurt to ask what your boss wants you to do.
  • Negotiate Your Phone or Internet Service. You can sometimes get a deal on your phone or Internet connection, especially if you’re switching providers or are bundling two services into one. Even if you’ve been with your current provider for a while, call and ask about any current deals or offers they have available to you.

Final Word

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or are preparing to telecommute for the first time, having a dedicated workspace at home makes a huge difference when it comes to your overall productivity. While you probably have to spend some money to create that space, you don’t have to go into debt or bust your budget to do it.

Making a budget and sticking to it can help you keep your spending in check as you create your home office. Focus on the things you need and the things that can help you do your job the best rather than on what’s going to make your office look Pinterest-ready.

How do you plan to set up your home office on a dime? What are your priorities?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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