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Keeping costs low on a kitchen remodeling

By Gary Foreman
Published: January 31, 2013

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for

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Question for the expert

Dear New Frugal You,
Our kitchen is nearly 30 years old. We've been putting off any kitchen update because of the cost. But now the wood kitchen cabinets are starting to fall apart. How can we update the kitchen without spending a lot of money?  -- Tara

Answer for the expert

Dear Tara,
A kitchen remodel is one of the more common home upgrades. An estimated 5 million happen each year in the United States. It's not surprising. Styles change, new technologies improve old appliances and even invent new ones. Plus, your kitchen gets a lot of use, so things just wear out.

To inexpensively remodel your kitchen you'll have three major questions to answer.

1. How big is your budget?
2. How much remodeling will your budget allow?
3. How much (if any) of it will you do yourself?

We'll start with the budget. Don't be too influenced by the "average cost to remodel" or "average return when you sell your home" figures you'll see tossed around. Those numbers are just that -- averages. Your home isn't average, and neither is your budget, so make your own choices.

Instead of asking how much other people spend, find out how much you can afford to spend. Then work within that budget. It's easy to talk yourself into a better this or upgraded that. Don't do it. In fact, you probably should only plan on spending about 90 percent of your budget. Kitchen remodeling projects tend to uncover a surprise or two.

Are you considering a loan to make the remodeling happen? Start by checking your finances. This would be a good time to review your credit reports if you haven't done that in a while to make certain of your creditworthiness.  Compare your home improvement financing choices to find the best deal. 

Once you have a budget number, decide how much remodeling you can fit within that budget.

An inexpensive kitchen remodel generally doesn't include taking everything to the bare walls and redesigning the kitchen, including its layout. There's nothing inexpensive about that.

But there are a lot of less-expensive options available. You might want to just paint or refinish your cabinet doors. Or if the underlying cabinets are sturdy, staining or covering them with new mica could be a good choice.

If you're going to redesign, consider how you use your kitchen. Select changes that favor your usage. Settle on a design before you start. Changes made midproject can be expensive.

Choose your materials carefully. There's a wide range of quality and prices. You want to get the best materials you can within your budget. Shopping can make a difference. You may find that smaller specialty shops are less expensive than the home centers. Let them know that you're price sensitive.

Make the little things count. People tend to notice things such as drawer pulls and handles. You might get more impact by spending an extra dollar on each of the 18 drawer pulls and handles instead of spending hundreds more on the cabinet doors.

You'll need to research the options' cost. Do as much as you can online or by visiting home centers, but for some you'll need to call professionals and ask them for estimates.

Once you've decided how expensive and how extensive you want the kitchen remodel to be, you can decide how much of it you want to tackle yourself.

An inexpensive kitchen remodel is a good do-it-yourself project. Your part might be as simple as removing doors prior to their refinishing. Or it could be removing entire cabinets. Most homeowners with minimal skills can do much of the prep work. Contractors are usually willing to let you do that as long as you finish on time.

Choose your contractor carefully. Get three bids on any work that a professional will do. And check contractors' references. Make sure they're bonded and insured. Agree in advance on how you'll be billed for unexpected problems that add to the labor.

If you work through the steps you should have an inexpensive kitchen remodel that fits within your budget and has the maximum impact. Hope you enjoy your new kitchen!

See related: Kitchen remodeling and your budget

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.