How to furnish an apartment with just four hours at IKEA

Guest post by Monica

How to furnish an apartment in four hoursMy husband has cystic fibrosis. Long story short: shit hit the fan, they don’t do lung transplants where we live in Albuquerque, and, with maybe one day’s notice, we were flown via air ambulance to Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.

I was allowed a single carry-on bag for both of us. We lived out of that bag for two weeks. I was sleeping on a cot in his hospital room most of the time, until Eirik recovered enough to get discharged from the hospital to wait for his new pair of lungs.

Now the fun part. The average wait time for lungs is six months, and you can’t be more than a few hours away. So I needed to find us a place to live and wait, close to Stanford Hospital, on the cheap. And I mean cheap — we were already pinching pennies and fundraising to pay for his medical expenses.

In case you are not aware, the Bay Area is not a place to do anything on the cheap.

With some luck and some help, I found an apartment we could “afford” relatively quickly… but it was unfurnished. A furnished apartment was going to cost an additional $1500 a month, so, nope, that wasn’t an option. I thought about third-party furniture rental, but that was going to be about $500 a month on top of the rent. After two weeks of living in a hospital I was looking for the easiest option, but medical expenses and living expenses were adding up fast. Sensing my concern — or maybe just looking at our finances — the apartment leasing agent just looked me in the eye and said, “You know, you could furnish an apartment at IKEA for way cheaper than $500 a month.” And she was right.

The night before my husband was discharged, I spent four hours in an IKEA, and I got everything I needed. It was madness, but I’m still happy with the decision I made.


  • Everything was delivered to my apartment for relatively cheap: $100.
  • Putting together the furniture was oddly therapeutic.
  • All of this furniture can be sold and/or taken home. More value than renting furniture!
  • My intense bed bug paranoia and germ phobia were slightly abated that all this stuff was new.


  • I had to go back to IKEA to pick up a missing piece and straighten out a mix-up with a back-ordered product.
  • The first week I was completely overwhelmed by it all.
  • Could it be done cheaper with garage finds and thrift stores and some hardcore cleaning? Maybe. But I wanted my husband “home” and comfortable as soon as possible.

What I bought and hacks around the obvious choices:

First, I suggest shopping online. Start making a list. Then, once you get to the store, try to find what’s most comfortable of the cheapest choices you made online. And save yourself some grief and go at an off-time — for example, on a Wednesday night like I did. Remember to eat at the IKEA cafeteria too! Four hours alone shopping in an IKEA can easily break you; you need to stay strong!

  1. Here’s a fantastically cheap living room table. And you know what else it works for? TV stand! Don’t spend an extra $20 on a table just because they call it a TV stand.
  2. I bought a futon so that we could have visitors crash in our apartment. This one turned out to be more comfortable than the original one I liked online, so it’s a testament to trying things out for yourself.
  3. I also bought this chair for the living room, because I love this chair.
  4. Ignore all the tables labeled “dining table.” They cost hundreds more. Go straight for these tables. I got a long one, so we use one end as a dining table and the other end as my desk for telecommuting.
  5. And pick out some cheap chairs. I picked these, but they took time and a wrench. I probably would have been better off getting folding chairs elsewhere.
  6. Lay on some mattresses and pick the one you’ll hate the least. I opted for a nicer frame, since this isn’t something we have at home, so I thought it would be nice to keep afterward.
  7. Cheapest dressers to use as nightstands and for storage are these guys.
  8. I got the cheapest desk I could find. My husband’s a writer — we couldn’t do without that!
  9. I upgraded his office chair a bit; he was going to spend a lot of time there and he was getting a damn lung transplant.

Other basic household things to remember:

When shopping for the little stuff, be ready to dig. IKEA tends to put the cheaper options out of view.

  • A set of dishes
  • Glasses
  • A couple kitchen towels
  • Kitchen knives and utensils
  • A baking sheet
  • Basic set of pans
  • Glass baking pan
  • Mixing bowl
  • Kitchen trash can
  • Basic floor lamp
  • Broom and dustpan
  • Pick up the sale towels. My suggestion: don’t pick red! Bleeding color is not a problem you want to deal with in your laundry trips.
  • Don’t forget the sheets and pillows… like I did. Revel in the freedom of picking any color you so choose! (That was actually the most fun part. I didn’t care if anything matched. Just whatever was cheap.)

More tips:

Remember to check out IKEA’s “As Is” section. $1 surge protectors and hammers? Yes, please. I have a lot of furniture to put together.

I also suggest signing up for an Amazon Prime free trial to make your first month easier and, if you’re in the Bay Area, Google Shopping Express will be your best friend.

There are definitely a couple of odds and ends you may need to pick up after your first four-hour trip, but this is a solid start to feeling like you live in your apartment.

Comments on How to furnish an apartment with just four hours at IKEA

  1. first of all – good luck to you both with the lung transplant! i hope the wait is short and the recovery shorter.

    second of all – you are a strong woman tackling a house full of ikea-do-it-yourself alone and under stress. you sound like a rock.

    • Thank you! Everyone says waiting is the hardest part, and so far it looks like they’re right. And while I’m happy with my Ikea decisions now- the first day I was alone with all those boxes was a rough one!

      • My sister’s BFF had cystic fibrosis. I say “had” because ten years ago, somewhere a family lost their 17-year-old daughter in a car accident. On their most terrible night, we got the miracle we were hoping for. We always think of that family with tremendous gratitude and great love, and we never forget the gift they gave us all, though of course BFF was the organ recipient. Ten years later, he is doing amazingly well; no rejection, no unmanageable complications. In fact, within a few days of waking up post-op, BFF’s voice was deeper and stronger in amazing ways (yay, working lungs!) I mean, we could tell *right away* that he was doing so much better. It was just mind-boggling. Anyway, just wanted to send you a positive story to buoy you on your journey. Thank you for writing!

        I saw below you asked someone else how long they waited. BFF waited two years for the “right pair” of lungs. A set came up that weren’t a perfect match, and he passed. The gamble was that if the second set weren’t a perfect match, he had to take them… and he might be sicker. The first set came up six months into the wait; the second about 18 months later… and they were a perfect match. The anti-rejection meds kicked the shit out of his kidneys, so he got a new one from his brother later…. no wait for that.

        Is there an online fundraiser for your hubby that you don’t mind linking to? I’d like to send you enough for that upgraded office chair, at least. šŸ˜‰ Keep strong and carry on!

          • Thanks so much for the story and the donation! We definitely appreciate both. My husband’s voice is already pretty deep, so if the new lungs make it deeper, it’s going to be Christian Bale’s Batman deep. An exciting side effect we never thought of!

  2. Welcome to the Bay! Hope you enjoy your stay here, despite the situation that had led you here. Ikea has been a lifesaver for me any time I’ve moved, it makes life a lot easier. The best part is when you finally move back out you can pop all that stuff onto Craigslist and it’ll sell pretty well – I’ve had a lot of success selling my old Ikea furniture that way!

    Good luck with the future transplant! You’re in good hands at Stanford, they’re top of the line in health care and always have new breakthroughs. They’ve saved several members of my family’s lives, so I’m a big fan of their work. Hope everything goes well for you and your husband!!

    • If we have to sit around and wait for lungs in an expensive place, the Bay area is definitely a beautiful place to do it in! I’m glad to hear Ikea stuff sells on Craigslist easily. I assumed it would be like New Jersey, where I sold a lot of furniture on Craigslist before. That’s what I was hoping. And, yes, Stanford is pretty much the best.

  3. I wish you the best with the lung transplant! And this is a great source for moving, especially if it’s somewhere semi-permanent. Thank you for the insight.

  4. Best of luck with the lung transplant, and thank you for sharing your experience.

    I live in Alaska. There is no Ikea. In all my travels I just haven’t made it into one. Near my husband’s hometown in Massachusetts there is a huge, multi -level furniture store full of twists and turns and a movie theater. In my mind I imagine that’s what an Ikea is like, but with practical Scandinavian furniture and a cafeteria. Just the thought of it completely overwhelms me. I’m in awe that you powershopped for four hours and were able to furnish an apartment. I’m two weeks into living in our new place and today I’m going to take your list of basics to the store to fill in some gaps.

  5. Wow, you are awesome! My husband and I had to wait in Boston for a transplant for our son (we’re from Maine), and we didn’t ever feel together enough to actually settle down; that must feel so much better than any alternatives. Best of luck for a short wait and easy recovery, and thanks for sharing these ideas. This is all helpful for anyone starting in a new place!

  6. Good luck with the transplant. One of my tricks when I was furnishing an apartment was to put the tv on top of a dresser. It saved a lot of space!

  7. Good luck with the transplant. I hope everything goes well for your husband.

    These are some great shopping tips for Ikea. I agree with all of them, except this one:
    “Lay on some mattresses and pick the one you’ll hate the least. I opted for a nicer frame, since this isn’t something we have at home, so I thought it would be nice to keep afterward. ”

    Ikea actually has some really great mattresses, so I would personally set the bar much higher than “one you’ll hate the least” unless you must buy one of their cheapest ones. My mattress in my favorite item that I own from Ikea, and it is super comfortable. I was sad when I had to keep it in storage for a year and sleep on a mattress my husband had bought from a different company that was not nearly as good.

    • I’m another big fan of ikea mattresses. I actually really like the one my SO got – they’ve changed the names since, but it was one step up from the worst mattress. (which is what I bought – just too thin!). I really do like the mattress – and I love that it’s foam because then I’m not nearly as bothered by the movements of my SO.

      • I got one of their regular ones, not a foam one*. I think it was middle of the line or perhaps a little above that in terms of cost, and it was a bit more than my parents wanted to pay for a mattress for my grad school apartment. However, they agreed with me that a comfortable bed was important and they agreed to get it for me. That was in 2007, and I still have that same mattress and box spring (and the frame I got with it). It’s survived a couple of moves and being in storage for slightly over a year and it is still super comfortable.

        *(The foam ones sound great from what I’ve heard. There was a post here a few months back about how great foam mattresses can be: )

    • My JCPenney mattress & box spring came in, and over half the stitching wasn’t right. Like the bottom thread of the sewing machine ran out and no one replaced it. They replaced the mattress, but somehow didn’t get the order to include replacement of the box spring. It took over 6 weeks to get my bed after I ordered it. Not two months later it was sagging!! And I was getting springs digging into my ribs, hip, and knee. I had to fight tooth and nail to get them to return it, because it was technically a return window of 60 days from purchase, but they also usually assume delivery within a week. I was solidly within the 60 days from the final delivery, so they made the return and picked it up.

      We ended up with an IKEA mattress & memory foam topper for half the price (and that’s half the price of JCP’s uber-sale end-of-season 75% off price). I turns out the stuff we got is combined half the thickness of the pillowtop stuffing on top of the old mattress’ springs, and a hundred times more comfortable. And NO SAGGING!

  8. That’s pretty much how we furnished our apartment when we moved cross country šŸ˜‰ One thing to note, though, is if you’re at all chemically sensitive, Ikea’s particle-board stuff can be super stinky, so you’re probably better off avoiding it unless you have time to let it offgas somewhere. Learned that the hard way with a dresser (which then fell apart-rar!)

  9. When you move back, you can also try renting your apartment as ‘furnished” and selling everything in bulk. My friend moved from Cuba and had nothing, so when an apt she wanted came up and it turned out the guy was moving and selling all his stuff, she offered to buy it “all” and got a bulk deal (I think it was 1000$ for everything – bed, sheets, dishes, computer, you name it except his clothes).

    there are two advantages – you do your landlord a favour because you find your own replacement, and you don’t have to separate everything and sell it separately. Obviously he would have to approve on the tenant, but it would make your life a hella lots easier because you won’t have to pack everything (think dishes, cups, rice cooker, sheets etc etc)

    • Or offer to sell it to your landlord for that purpose. I’ve sold things like a washing machine and alarm system to landlords before. They may appreciate the ease!

  10. Very best of luck with the transplant list! Sounds like you made excellent decisions for your new place. I’m also a big fan of Ikea – and I’ve always found their furniture to be pretty sturdy. I have a single futon which is over 15 years old and still very comfy!

    On the other hand though, don’t rule out independent shops for home furnishings – we recently needed 2 new carpets for our new house at short notice and we were on a pretty tight budget. We tried a big nationwide chain store but they had a 10 day wait for a carpet fitter. So we popped in to a local independent carpet shop and explained the situation. They had a selection of carpets which they could install the very next day and their prices actually beat the chain store by quite a bit.

  11. I don’t have cystic fibrosis but I do have chronic illnesses including severe asthma which I’ve had since I was a baby. As a child I was told by doctors it was severe enough that we might want to consider a lung transplant. We didn’t and my asthma is kept at bay with a crapton of medicines and liberal inhaler use. I’m still disabled, weak, tired, fatigued, and out of breath all the time, but I’m very thankful that I can still lead a relatively normal life despite that and I can’t even begin to imagine what you guys are going through. I hope that your husband receives his new lungs soon and that you’re both on your way to a kick ass recovery and life! I’m honestly in awe of your strength!

    That said, this is pretty much how we furnished our Bay Area apartment the 3 years we lived there. It’s ridiculously expensive to live there. I worked at a big tech company right near Stanford (across the street actually) and lived in San Jose because we couldn’t afford to be in Palo Alto itself. We ended up leaving the Bay Area for the Midwest. Our Ikea furniture came with us! We don’t have an Ikea close by now but I’m sure we’ll make a trip again to find one whenever we get a more permanent place. In the future I hope to have this furniture furnish a guest room or get donated to family. It might just be Ikea furniture which I know can be considered low quality but it’s in pretty good condition and looks nice overall and wasn’t super expensive so we’re quite happy with it so far.

    • Yeah, we’re living in Sunnyvale, there’s no way we were finding a place in Palo Alto! I want to take our Ikea furniture home for our unfurnished guest room, but I’m not sure the truck costs will really be worth it. First we gotta get through the surgery, then we’ll worry about the selling/keeping nitty gritty! I wish we could donate the furniture to another family going through the same thing, but there are so many germ issues to contend with. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

      • Ask the social worker at the hospital if you can donate the furniture to another family in need after your husband gets his new lungs. I’m a nurse who works with heart transplant patients, and I know that right after our patients are discharged from the hospital they usually spend a week or so at a “transplant” house for easier follow up testing before going home for real. So you may still be able to donate your furniture somehow in spite of the germ issues. Best wishes for a short wait and a quick recovery.

  12. Obvious question:what did it all cost to furnish the apartment. And the dishes linens etc.?

    hope everything went well for you and your husband…

    Thanks! Adele

  13. I previously went to IKEA and had to furnish my apartment and it was a nightmare. Not only did I have to put the furniture together myself while also dealing with work and my family, but when I finally purchased it, I realized a lot of the things I bought didn’t mesh together very well. This time around I decided to go with Furnishr who helped me to design my room, deliver the furniture, and even set it up for me. They definitely saved me money. You can check them out at

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