How to Update Your Kitchen Cabinets on a Budget

Ben Kissam
Written by Ben Kissam
Updated September 22, 2021
A young woman opening a kitchen cabinet
Photo: Maskot / DigitalVision / Getty Images

You can give your kitchen cabinets a makeover without breaking the bank

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Many dream of refacing or refinishing their kitchen cabinets, especially if they didn’t install them in the first place. A full kitchen remodel costs on average more than $25,000, but there are still plenty of things you can do to upgrade or update your kitchen cabinets without spending a ton of money.

Learn which types of cabinets you can get within your price range, and a few alternatives to tearing out and replacing your cabinets that can still liven up your kitchen.

7 Affordable Kitchen Cabinet Updating Tips

From adding a new coat of paint or wood finish to cutting down on labor costs, here are seven budget-friendly tips for upgrading your kitchen cabinets.

1. Paint Your Old Cabinets

Sometimes, all your kitchen cabinets need is a fresh coat of paint to liven up the area. You can completely upgrade your kitchen's aesthetic for the price of paint and a few simple tools.

Having a pro paint your kitchen cabinets costs between $1,200 and $6,000. But you can save some money by doing the job yourself. Just be sure you research the process, choose the right paint colors, use a stripping product to remove old paint, sand your cabinets down with sandpaper, and apply the new coat of paint carefully. 

If your cabinets aren't made of wood, ensure the paint you're buying will work on alternative surfaces like laminate.

2. Update Your Kitchen's Lighting

A spacious kitchen with white cabinets
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Nothing holds your existing kitchen cabinets back like low or uneven lighting. If replacing your kitchen cabinet hardware doesn't fit your budget at the moment, upgrading your kitchen's lights can help.

In a kitchen, you should consider three types of lighting for your space:

  • Ambient lighting: The main source of light in the room (typically on the ceiling)

  • Task lighting: The sources of light for workspaces when cooking, cleaning, or reading recipes (think: under-cabinet lighting)

  • Accent lighting: Interior cabinet lights and any spaces you wish to accentuate

Upgrading to LED lights for your ambient and task light spaces could give your kitchen a whole new vibe. Recessed lighting is a good choice for kitchens with low ceilings, as it won't take up much room.

3. Add Glass Doors

If you're overwhelmed at the prospect of picking new kitchen cabinet colors, why not consider installing glass doors on one or more of your existing kitchen cabinets?

Glass cabinets are a great way to highlight one area of your kitchen, give it a nuanced and elegant vibe, and even potentially remove older cabinets that don't flow with the design you have in mind. (That's a win-win in our book.) Just be sure you love your dishware, as it will be on full display.

4. Add Cabinet Wallpaper

While you're at it, why not upgrade the inside of your cabinets, too?

Adding cabinet wallpaper is a great way to jazz up your kitchen without breaking the bank. It's the perfect affordable first step if you're planning to upgrade slowly. You could pair this tip with adding glass doors or use it on its own.

5. Add a Backsplash

A kitchen backsplash fills the space between your cabinets and countertops. If this is currently just a shade of wall paint, adding new material here can give your existing kitchen cabinets new life.

Tile, ceramic, and porcelain are the most popular options, but you might also consider:

  • Natural materials (or faux look-alikes), such as wood, brick, and stone

  • Tile

  • Patterned glass or marble

Your backsplash should not only be aesthetically appealing, but functional as well. Consider how your new backsplash will hold up against stove heat, grease, and moisture. Stain and heat-resistant options (aluminum, vinyl, marble) are always a good idea.

If an entire backsplash isn't in your budget at the moment, look into smaller decorative tile inserts to install above the stove that will make your kitchen look more expensive.

6. Use a New Wood Finish on Your Cabinets

If you have wood cabinets, you can give them new life by applying a stain or wood finish. (This costs $4 and $10 per square foot on average.)

Like paint, you'll need to prep and prime your cabinets. But with dozens of wood finish options like oak, cherry, maple, and mahogany, you can literally change the entire aesthetic of your kitchen in an afternoon. Don't be surprised when friends start asking how much you paid for your new wooden cabinets.

7. Self-Install Your New Kitchen Cabinets

Homeowners typically spend around $5,000 to install new kitchen cabinets, with the range being between $1,830 and $8,955. On top of that, custom or even semi-custom designs (two kitchen cabinetry terms you should know) can easily creep into the five-figure range.

A local kitchen refacing professional will typically charge by linear foot to install your cabinets. Stock cabinets cost between $50 and $100 per linear foot, while custom designs could exceed $450. You could save this amount by installing the cabinets yourself if you're willing to tackle a challenging but doable project. The project requires basic tools (drill, hammer, etc.) and removal, cleaning, and installation. Be sure you have the skills required to hang them safely, though, and do your research. 

You may even be able to cut costs by simply removing your old cabinets and hiring a pro to install new ones.

Affordable Kitchen Cabinets on Any Budget

Detail of a rustic kitchen with vegetables on the countertop
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Here are some price ranges to consider when shopping for budget kitchen cabinets.

Under $1,000

Stock cabinets made of plywood, particle board, wood veneer, or laminate are your best bets for staying under $1,000. You'll likely need to install them yourself or hire a handyperson to do the rest of the job.

$1,000 to $2,000

Some more expensive types of wood, such as pine and oak, may be doable in this price range. For under $2,000, you're still probably looking at only stock options. Shop multiple home improvement stores to find the best kitchen cabinet door styles and a design you like.

$2,000 to $6,000

The average homeowner spends a little over $5,000 on their wooden kitchen cabinet upgrade project. The number of cabinets and the size of your kitchen definitely factor into the cost greatly, but you can save money by shopping for sets instead of custom designs.

Stainless steel cabinets are also available in this price range, which you might choose as a sleek and durable option.

$6,000+

Beyond the $6,000 mark, those looking to upgrade their kitchen cabinets have a multitude of options. This budget is where you can start looking into semi-custom and fully customized cabinet designs. Hiring a local kitchen remodeler who understands your vision and fits your price range is probably your best bet.

3 Alternatives to Shopping for New Kitchen Cabinets

A luxurious kitchen with wooden floors and a kitchen island
Photo: coralimages / Adobe Stock

Here are three other options for livening up your kitchen without replacing your cabinets just yet.

1. Update Kitchen Appliances Instead

A good place to start is to ask yourself what the focal point of your kitchen is currently. What do people see when they first walk in? What stands out? (If your answer is, "I'm not sure!" that could actually be a good thing. It means you have a blank slate to work with.)

A new sink, dishwasher, or refrigerator definitely all make a big impact. If you don't like the look of your current kitchen cabinets, upgrading your appliances could be a good first step in making your kitchen have a more cohesive look. And, depending on the project, some of these could be a more affordable option.

2. Add Unique Touches to Your Kitchen

Not every kitchen upgrade needs to be major. Sometimes adding a few personal touches to your kitchen can have a big impact.

Here are some ideas:

  • Add a set of antique or copper cooking pans displayed above the sink or stove

  • Add a coffee or tea bar

  • Add artwork

  • Redesign your kitchen windows

  • Add a removable kitchen island

  • Add a stainless steel hood to your stove

3. Rethink Your Kitchen's Layout

Freeing up space in your kitchen is another way to take the focus off your cabinets (or place it on something else). Does your kitchen flow, and can guests easily walk through it or is it kind of cluttered? Consider moving tables, appliances, and other objects around to bring new energy to your space.

FAQs About Updating Your Kitchen Cabinets

Durability and appearance are the two main drawbacks to installing budget kitchen cabinets, which are often made of less-durable wood or plastic. You're also limited to stock options, meaning you may have a small selection from which to choose.

On the plus side, you can always paint these more affordable kitchen cabinets to make them look the way you want.

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