Custom framing is so darn expensive. Even if you layer promotions and coupons and holiday sales, a small custom framing job can still run hundreds of dollars. There are certainly items that are worth that money to have an impeccable framing job done (e.g., degrees, special awards, artwork). But what about items that are special and you want to look really nice (like your recent family portrait or say, your new awkwardly shaped art from Minted), and you just can’t fathom shelling out hundreds of dollars for something that might not be on your wall forever? Well – I have an answer! There is actually a really easy ways to make your artwork look custom for a fraction of the cost. Let me share this budget framing trick with you!

Budget framing of Flamingo Print in white frame with square mat

The Framing Conundrum

Here is a situation I find myself in all the time, and maybe you do too? I have a dozens of empty picture frames (from all the various walls in all our various homes). And then a new piece of art comes along, and none of the frames I have work. Usually, the frame size isn’t quite right for the art or the scale doesn’t match the variety of mats I have on hand.

Take for example this cute little print I got from Minted (Flamingo, no longer available) for my entryway gallery wall. I loved everything about the design and the colors…and honestly, I also liked that the square shape contrasted with all the rectangle pieces already on my wall.

white picture frame next to an art print of a flamingo wing

Even though Minted offers custom picture frames and mats with their artwork, I couldn’t justify the heavy added cost with all the frames I already own. Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to specify my preferred frame size to fit my gallery wall arrangement. But the selection of square frames is limited in most stores, and an 8″ square mat is not something you can (typically) find off a shelf.

In this situation, you might assume custom framing is your only option…

white picture frame next to an art print of a flamingo wing

It’s All In the Mat (Usually!)

Take a look at any professionally framed piece in your home. More often than not, the element that makes them look stylish and custom is usually…the mat!

Wall of frames showing custom and non-custom options

By using a mat to perfectly border the outer dimension of your artwork or photograph (no matter what kind of frame it’s in), you instantly give it style, class, and an elevated look. So…if you want your framing job to look custom, give it a custom mat! 

The Budget Framing Hack I Love

Okay…so how do you get a custom mat for your artwork? Especially when your piece might be a unique size or shape?

Did you know that you can get a mat cut…in any size and layout, from any of the matboard options…at Michaels? (And probably other framing stores like JoAnn Fabrics and Hobby Lobby….but I haven’t checked their options personally.)

Yep! Just the mat. No frame. And they can probably do it while you wait, depending on how busy they are and if they have your preferred mat in stock.

By having professionals cut just the mat, you can use any off-the-shelf frame you can find (or already have) and end up with a pretty custom budget framing job for a fraction of the cost.

NOTE: I should note that this hack works best for pieces that will comfortably fit into standard-size frames without looking super awkward. If you have a really obscure piece, you might not be able to fit it into a standard frame…no matter what mat you use. In this case, custom framing might, in fact, be your only option. 

white frame mat with a square cut out of the middle.

After experimenting with my existing frames and gallery wall arrangement, I determined I needed a 7.5″ square cut out of an 11×14″ white mat board rectangle. That’s pretty specific and not something I could easily find pre-made. So I walked up to the custom framing counter at Michaels; and after a few minutes designing the mat on the computer and ensuring everything was just right, the sweet gal cut this mat for me while I waited.

NOTE: I did this in the pre-COVID era. You may now need to make an appointment.

Sure…I opted for the most budget-friendly white mat board they had available and skipped the double mats or decorative edging…but it cost me $13. Significantly less than a custom job would have been for (likely) the same finished look.

Budget framing picture hack: "semi-custom" framed picture of an art print.

Budget Framing Final Result

I came right home, popped the new mat and art into my old frame, and hung it right up!

Budget framing picture hack: "semi-custom" framed picture of an art print.

A square piece in a rectangle frame is not the most common thing you can find, but it’s exactly what I needed for a very specific spot. I’m thrilled I didn’t have to pay a fortune AND it got one more thing out of the basement. Wins all around!

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Other Budget Mat Ideas to Try

If heading out to the craft store for a specialty-cut mat isn’t quite necessary for your particular piece, here are some other budget-friendly matting options to try!

Shop for Picture Mats

If you don’t need a custom frame mat and simply want to “dress up” your standard-size art, check Amazon for mats. In the search terms, be very specific about the total mat size AND the opening size you need, and there’s a good chance you will find some inexpensive options!

NOTE: Many mats are sold in bulk, so this is particularly useful when trying to create gallery frames.

White frames with super hero prints on a white wall with blue pillows

Cut Your Own Mats

You can actually order sheets of “uncut mat board” and a mat cutter and do it yourself! Although this will take some patience AND practice (HERE is a great tutorial to follow), this can really save you a lot of money if you have big or multiple pieces to frame.

Super Hero Alphabet Print in white frame

Yep – I cut this one myself from solid white core mat board. Definitely not perfect but waaaay cheaper than a custom job for this inexpensive print!

Colored Mats

If you want colored mats around your artwork, consider painting white ones! If you pair quality white mats with several coats of acrylic paint, you can create gorgeous colored mats without a custom order! (Learn more about using colored mats HERE.)

Gallery Wall with Colored Mats

Fake It

Finally, for a super cheap hack, thick cardstock or posterboard can both be made to look like mats inside your frames! And while you know the mats aren’t really made of mat board, most people won’t even notice. Case in point, I ran out of mats for my big gallery wall and used cardstock in one frame. Can you tell which one in the picture below?!? Didn’t think so 😉

Budget framing DIY Gallery Wall with Colored Mats

Psssst – it’s the very upper left!

Take care to use a really sharp craft knife to get clean interior cuts, and consider using dimensionals between multiple mats for a more professional, layered look.

If you have some art you’ve been wanting to get on the walls but have been dreading the cost of framing, I hope these budget framing trick helps you out! Although most of my art projects are relatively small, you can actually use this same trick to save money on almost any frame job. Even if you have to purchase a new frame, combining an off-the-shelf frame with a custom-cut mat is still likely to save you hundreds of dollars for a very custom look!

See You Soon!