How Not to Blow Your Budget on Cabinets- The Tricks to Stretching Your Money

We discuss some insider secrets to getting the most bang for your buck on your next cabinet purchase.

Photo by Mark McCammon on

During our Choosing Cabinetry Series, we had this information as a miniseries, but we think it deserved to be in the spotlight. After all, being practical with your design choices, including budget, is what we are all about. We have tweaked a couple of things, add a few items, and combined the mini series into one so that it will be an easier read and reference. Make sure to check out the original series to better understand the construction terms that we will be using.

When choosing cabinetry for your next project, we know not everyone has the budget for the best made cabinet, so where will your dollars be best spent?

Cabinet Construction

When you are looking at the construction of your cabinet box, usually full-plywood is better than furniture board and the thicker the boards, the better. But do you really need a full-plywood box? We recommend making sure to first look for those manufacturers who stand behind their cabinet with that limited lifetime warranty. It is a pretty good bet that if they are willing to replace the cabinet if it fails, that it is built to not fail under normal use. Once you have found a reputable manufacturer, it is okay to order their standard construction for the majority of your cabinets.

If you pay special attention to making sure that your cabinets are being installed correctly and that your plan allows for everything being properly supported, you shouldn’t have any problems with basic construction. For example, if you put a deep cabinet (usually 24″ deep) above your refrigerator, most manufacturers will not consider it to be properly supported unless you have a tall cabinet, panel, or wall in which the front frame can be secured on both sides. Not following the manufactures installation requirements could void that warranty should anything fail.

Splurge on the cabinets that matter. If you have a wall cabinet specifically to display great-grandma’s china, then that is worth the upgrade. Pay for that all-plywood box construction and throw in some decorative and supportive shelf brackets for good measure.

We speak a little more about this when covering cabinet finishes, but it may be a good idea, if it is in the budget, to upgrade any sides that will be seen to the flush furniture plywood construction. This will make your side a wood veneer, in most cases, so that it will age the same as your cabinet fronts. It will also make your side even with your face frame, as we discussed during framed cabinet construction, to make installing moldings easier. Save the money by leaving the sides of the cabinets you are never going to see standard construction.

As far as drawer boxes, shelves, drawer glides, and hinges go, this is where you want your budget dollars to go. They take the brunt of the weight and wear and tear on a daily basis. Splurge a little on the higher quality, especially if your warranty is not limited lifetime.


Use the Overlap in Cabinet Lines to Your Advantage

When working with the large cabinet manufacturers, most of them produce at least one, and sometimes several, different lines in each cabinet classification category. They are often trying to compete against one another to make the best cabinet at a given price point so that you will choose them over the other vendor. This is especially true in a big box store, where manufacturers display their offerings side-by-side.

Because of this competition, you might find a cabinet on the shelf, or stock cabinet, with more semi-custom features and construction, such as a wood dovetail drawer box, upgraded hinges and 3/4″ thick adjustable shelves. If the sizes that you need for your project are more basic and you like one of the door and finish combinations, you may not need to move into a semi-custom line to get a decent quality cabinet. Look for the warranty information as well, as some of them may be for 10, 15 years, or more.

Be aware though, some companies like to dress up a still inferior product with nice upgrades. This is why it is important to learn a little about cabinet construction before you attempt to save money this way. For example, we wouldn’t recommend using a cabinet that has a furniture board hang rail on the upper cabinets for anything other than very basic uses.

To take even further advantage of those product overlaps, look to see if there is a matching finish in their semi-custom line. Just ask a sales person which lines are made by the same manufacturers. You may be able to order glass doors, different trim options, decorative legs, etc., to make your space look a little more custom. You can even add after market accessories from companies like Rev-A-Shelf. We do not, however, recommend mixing the cabinets themselves unless they are completely separate from the others, like in an island, and a different door and finish. This is because most of these lines will be made in different factories, so slight inconsistencies may occur.

Need more flexibility with your sizes, finishes, and/or style? Look for semi-custom. Cabinet manufacturers will often have different lines of semi-custom. Each line will have their own finishes, door styles, and customization options as well as corresponding price points. For ease of explanation, we will call them lines and A, B, and C, with A being the most basic, and therefore, least expensive.

So how can this save sometimes thousands of dollars? First, you need to have an idea of the look you want and a list of your basic needs before you start shopping. Start with the least expensive line to see if it fits your needs then work your way up only if necessary. If you are dead set on a specialty cabinet to hold your humongous stand mixer and it is only available in Line C, then that is your starting point. But, if you find the door, color, and storage options that you need in line A, by going to more expensive line B, you will only be paying for options that you are not using. By following this plan, you will take advantage of those overlaps in product offerings without paying more for what you don’t need.

One good thing to point out, in most cases, construction upgrades can often be found in all lines. So if you want full-plywood construction, but don’t need a lot of fancy accessories, then usually you can still get that quality-built cabinet in Line A without blowing your budget.

It might even be a good idea to request a quote in two lines, within the same manufacturer, to see how much price difference there really is and what design differences there may be. That specialty cabinet for your mixer might not be such a great idea when you see the true cost of the upgrade. With multiple quotes, be fair to your designer and limit your comparisons to only a couple within the same manufacturer. It is, usually, fairly easy to make changes and price within these lines, but making a jump to another manufacturer usually requires a whole new design and a lot of extra work. Narrow your choices down ahead of time using standard linear foot estimates and must-have item offerings. Once you have a more finalized plan in place, your designer can give you a good idea of what you will be sacrificing if you need to get your budget in check.

Do you have a weird nook or space that you think might require custom cabinetry? Speak to your cabinet designer. You might be surprised at the magic they can work with semi-custom lines.


Cabinet Finishes

The most obvious cost saving option when it comes to finishes is to keep your choices timeless. If you don’t have the budget to replace your kitchen every ten years as styles change, timeless is the way to go. It will also help with resale value, as not everyone likes the trendy looks. As far as upfront costs go, stain is usually the least expensive option with paint being an up charge.

While a natural oak hasn’t stood the test of time, some woods and paints are more likely to last a little longer. Fine-grained woods, such as maple, stained in neutral dark brown tones, though not necessarily on-trend, tend to have a little more staying power. Also, cherry, natural or with a light brown stain can be more of a neutral. Stay away from stains with orange or red tones as well as woods, like natural maple, with yellow tones. These never age well.

When painting, staying with more timeless colors like white, pale creams, grays, and taupes that can keep your kitchen looking new longer. While darker greys and blacks are trendy now, and might have more staying power than say red, only time will tell if they become classics or will end up in the discard pile. Pairing these finishes with a classic door style, such as a raised panel, or a simple shaker, will also help to keep your cabinets looking fresh.

Another cost-saving strategy is going with a classic, more timeless finish on the majority of your cabinets with pops of something more trendy. This is a great way to keep with current trends, but are easier to change out as tastes change. A small island in a french blue, a hutch in a rustic grey quartersawn oak, or just some shelving in that deep red you have been eyeing, are some examples of how to incorporate trends without being stuck with something you hate ten years from now.

Keeping with the classics may also save you money up front. One of the least expensive options will be simple door styles in a stained maple. If you are wanting white, consider going thermofoil to save some dough. Frame style thermofoil, like we talked about in Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction, really look like the real thing and are usually quite a bit less expensive than painted cabinets.


Beware of the Sales Pitch

What about designer commissions? Won’t they try to sell you on the more expensive lines and finishes? As a designer, it is important to work within your clients budget as much as possible and not to try and oversell just to make a commission. That being said, not all designers follow this philosophy. If your designer works on commission and your budget is tight, it is even more important that you take the time to ask questions about the product you are being quoted. Ask them where you can save and what you would be giving up if you moved to a less expensive line or finish. Their answers to these questions will often tell you if they are serious about finding you the best cabinet in your budget.

Start Low

Reduce your cabinet budget a little to start and be realistic about your wants vs. your needs. Because most consumers only remodel a kitchen once or twice in their lifetime, it is common not to understand the true costs. Start with a little lower budget than what you truly are willing to spend to see if you can get what you want for that price. Once you have a design that you like, that extra money can be held in reserve, used for those nice-to-have upgrades, or for that special design idea that came up during planning.


The Bottom Line

If you need to make cuts, as always, key construction elements should be maintained. Then you can work on aesthetics, such as specialty finishes and accessories.

The bottom line when it comes to your cabinet budget, is that the more knowledge that you have, the more control you have and the more you can put your hard-earned dollars where they really count.

Related Reading:

Choosing Cabinetry Part 1: Cabinetry Box Construction, Framed Vs. Frameless

Hiring the Right Contractor

Starting Your Project Part 1: Budget


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