Illustration by Erin Taj

Oops, I Need to Buy a Mattress

Sleep soundly for the right price

The true mark of adulthood is having to purchase a bed for yourself. For years you took the thing you slept on for granted—it was purchased by your parents or provided by your dorm room, already modified with a simple topper. Eventually, however, you hit the point when the hand-me-down springs aren’t doing it anymore (or you graduated), and you have to go out and make a what-should-I-sleep-on decision on your own.

Mattresses should last for 10 years at most, meaning if you’re in your mid-20s and you’re using one from your teenage years, it’s time to make a change. The average American is sleeping more than 8 hours a night, meaning you’re likely spending at least a third of your life on a mattress — so it’s not something to skimp on, money-wise. While it might be tempting to roll into the store, pick the cheapest bed, and call it a day, it’s best to give some thought to what you need so that you’ll be happy with your purchase night after night after night…

Mattress shopping is high-pressure — don’t let it get to you

Mattress shopping, like other major retail situations, can involve a lot of pressure — take car shopping, for example. Salespeople will be pushy; they may try to talk you into uncomfortable financing situations on the spot. So, just like with a car, you should always negotiate, never pay full price, and feel free to walk away.

I learned that the hard way on my first foray into mattress-shopping, when I wandered into a Brooklyn mattress store hoping to get an idea of prices and styles. A salesperson not only talked me into buying a bed, but into “checking my credit” — which I only later found out opened a line of credit under my name. I left the store furious, made a lot of calls to their main office to get it closed and off my record, and then went to a Macy’s, where the mattress salespeople left me alone to flop on various beds and really get a feel for my ideal sleep experience. Only when I felt comfortable — with the bed and with the store — did I hand over my credit card.

Learn the lingo

You probably haven’t thought much about what’s in your bed, or what it’s made of. But it’s good to go in with a basic understanding of terms in the bedding industry that you might encounter. These are the things you can bargain with.

Coils — The core, or “interspring unit” that holds up a traditional bed. Coil styles are what makes a bed soft or firm.

Coil count — The number of coils in a bed. This can vary depending on the size of the bed and the construction of the coils. At minimum you want between 300 (a full-size mattress) and 450 (for a king). The number can hit up to 1,000.

Pillow-top — A layer of material is adhered to one side of the mattress for extra comfort. This means you do not flip it periodically like a traditional mattress to increase longevity and comfort.

Latex — A spongy material produced from either natural or synthetic rubber.

Memory foam — A high-density foam that is sensitive to weight and temperature. This type of mattress conforms to the shape of your body.

Foam density — This is the measurement of weight over volume, typically referred to in pounds per cubic foot, for a foam mattress. Higher means more durable and firm.

Indentation force deflection — A measurement of the foam firmness: the amount of force required to compress it by 25 percent of its original height. Soft foam is 10 pounds; hard foam is 80 pounds.

Size does matter

If you already own sheets and don’t want to buy all new linens, stick with the mattress size you already have! However, if it’s time for a total change, an upgrade in size (as you upgrade your life) is always a plus. But you should measure your space before making that decision — just because you think you can fit a California king in your apartment doesn’t mean that’s actually the case, and you should be thinking long term. If you need to move, can this bed move with you? Queens are a safer bet for most traditional apartments, but if you crave a king, don’t dash your dreams.

Do you like it hard or soft?

The first thing you need to know is whether you prefer a soft mattress or a firm one. (Although for some models, like Sleep Number beds, you can vary the firmness over time.) Even if you think you like one or the other, lie down on examples of both and see how you feel. You might like something softer than you previously thought! Or, if you have back problems, a firmer mattress may be your friend.

Once you know which way you lean (or lie, for that matter), you can cut out a lot of options and focus your attention on the beds with the best potential. Another thing to take into consideration is the frame you want to use. For many modern frames and low-profile beds, box springs are no longer used as support, and the bed rests on wooden slats. That will have a different feel than a box-spring-supported bed. (It will also make moving easier.) If you go for box springs for a bed that’s queen-sized or larger, consider a split box spring for ease in moving. Mattresses bend; box springs do not. Splits are like two twin-sized (or smaller) beds. Much easier for tight-squeeze moves.

Box springs do not automatically come with most mattresses. One area for negotiation on a mattress price can be the addition of a box spring free of charge, especially if you don’t mind one that’s less high-end. You can also save money by keeping your old box spring and putting a new mattress on top, if that mattress is the same size.

Or just forget the mattress store altogether

The internet has disrupted everything — yes, even mattresses. Now there are tons of low-cost, high-quality foam mattresses available for purchase online, with free returns and easy shipping. Sites like Casper and Tuft & Needle(or Leesa or Saatva) charge one price, no haggling, for each mattress size. They’ll ship them rolled up in an easy-to-move box and will even come take the mattress away if you decide you hate it. (Also, Casper just announced a partnership with West Elm, so you will be able to try their mattresses at select stores.)

The only downside to these new startup mattress disrupters is that they haven’t been around that long — so there are no longstanding tests. Casper launched in 2014, so no one has slept on a Casper bed for 10 years yet—meaning there’s no consumer proof they hold up as long as we expect a mattress should. Still, if you want to go foam, these companies are real game-changers, and at the price you could change your mind in a few years and still have gotten a reasonable amount of bang for your buck.

Most importantly, you (and, potentially, your partner) need to love the bed. There’s no one right answer, and if you can afford it there’s really no “too much” to spend on a mattress. A good night’s sleep is priceless.