9 Tips for Buying a New Mattress

What You Need to Know Before Heading to the Mattress Shop

Couple mattress shopping
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A new mattress is an important purchase and deserves some thought beforehand. A quality mattress is fairly expensive—on average, around $1,000 for a traditional spring mattress and more than $1200 for memory foam. And a mattress also plays a very important role in your life, not only during nighttime sleeping hours but even while you’re awake. After all, a supportive, comfortable mattress promotes a good night’s sleep, which in turn helps you function better during the day and avoid many chronic health ailments. So if you’re in the market for a new mattress, it helps to be armed with knowledge before heading off to the local mattress store or clicking the “Buy now” button online.

Know Your Size

You don’t necessarily have to buy a replacement mattress that is the same size as the old one. Perhaps you bought a king-sized bed back when the whole family piled into bed for Sunday morning cartoons and fun, or you were sharing your bed with Rex, your St. Bernard/Great Dane mix. But now, the kids are older and your new dog is a corgi. You can gain quite a bit of bedroom space and save money by downsizing to a queen or full-sized mattress. Or maybe you’re moving out on your own, and it’s time for something bigger than a twin.

Think about your current lifestyle before heading out to shop. Of course, changing mattress size means you’ll need a new bed frame or at least a new headboard. This can offer a great opportunity for a bedroom makeover.

The standard dimensions of bed sizes:

Size Dimensions
King 76 x 80 inches
California King 72 x 84 inches
Queen 60 x 80 inches
Full XL 53 x 80 inches
Full 53 x 75 inches
Twin XL 38 x 80 inches
Twin 38 x 75 inches

Try Before You Buy

Yes, it’s awkward, but yes, you really do have to lie down and give the mattress a try before you plunk down your credit card. There’s no substitute for this step, so stretch out fully, curl up in your favorite sleeping position, roll from side to side, sit up as if you’re reading in bed, and sit on the edge of the mattress to get a feel for its firmness. And if you share your bed with a partner, they need to try it out as well, preferably both of you at the same time. Ideally, you should spend at least ten or more minutes trying out each mattress you’re considering.

If you are planning on buying a mattress online, you should still go to a brick and mortar shop and give the model you’re considering an in-person audition.

Ask About Returns and Trial Periods

Even though you tried the mattress in the store, the real test comes after an entire night—or week, or month—spent sleeping on it. That’s why most mattress dealers give a “comfort trial” period. Usually around 30 days, this is a window wherein you can return the mattress if it doesn’t end up being as comfortable as you’d hoped. Be aware: Many stores charge a restocking fee if you exercise this option. Still, a trial period is crucial, especially if you are buying the mattress online.   

How Firm Do You Like It?

The mattress industry does not have a standardized measurement of mattress firmness. This means one manufacturer’s “firm” could be another maker’s “extra firm.” So use these descriptive terms as a guideline, not an absolute. This is another reason why it’s so important to actually try a mattress before you buy.

Some manufacturers rank their mattresses by firmness using a simple verbal description: soft, medium, firm; while others offer a more elaborate 10-point rating system, with 3 to 5 indicating a soft mattress, 6 to 7 indicating medium firmness, and 7.5 to 10 indicating a firm mattress. But with each manufacturer creating their own rating system, what ranks as a "7" in one mattress may feel more like a "5" for another manufacturer's mattress.

Also, don’t assume that a bad back means you need an extra firm mattress, or that a softer mattress will be more comfortable. Most people sleep best on a mattress that is somewhere in the middle, but closer to firm than soft.

Pillow Top: Yes or No?

Pillow-top mattresses are very popular these days, but the fluffy comfort adds quite a bit to the mattress’s cost and isn’t always necessary. Keep in mind that a pillow top is likely to go flat long before your mattress gives out, especially if you are heavy. Conversely, if you are very light, your weight might not be enough to fully engage the support of the mattress through the pillow top, leaving you achy in the morning. Instead, consider buying a standard mattress and adding a thick mattress topper for that luxurious feeling.

Know Your Options

There are several types of mattresses out there, but the most common three are traditional innerspring, memory foam, and hybrids that combine the two. Adjustable air mattresses, such as Sleep Number, are also fairly popular.

Each type of mattress has both pros and cons, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them before heading out to the store. Very briefly:

  • Innerspring mattresses are the most common, and typically the least expensive. They provide good support and a wide range of firmness measurements and are romance-friendly. On the downside, they aren’t tremendously durable.
  • Memory foam mattresses are fairly expensive but are excellent for cushioning sore joints or aching muscles. They can be hot, however, and are not very romance-friendly.
  • Latex foam mattresses are similar to memory foam, but latex is more elastic and offers a more generalized "hug" than memory foam. It has more bounce and is thus more romance-friendly than memory foam. Latex foam is a good choice for sleepers who don't like the smothering, hot feeling of memory foam. Latex foam comes in natural, synthetic, and blended varieties.
  • Hybrid mattresses have springs with a foam overlay. A good hybrid mattress provides the best of both foam and innerspring models, but an inferior hybrid is likelier to give you the worst of both. Hybrid mattresses are available with either memory foam or latex foam.
  • Air mattresses allow you to customize the firmness just the way you like it, and many allow both bed partners to tailor their half of the bed to their preference. You’ll pay a price for this convenience, however, at the cash register.

Skimp on the Foundation

If you have a platform bed, you won’t need a foundation (some people still call them the box springs out of habit), but if you don’t have a bed frame and don’t want your mattress on the floor, you’ll need a foundation to raise it up. But there’s no need to spend a lot of money on what’s basically a wooden box covered with fabric. If your old foundation is still in good shape and you’re buying the same size mattress, you might not need a new one at all. If purchasing a new foundation, ask to substitute a lower-priced model for the one typically sold with your mattress.

A standard bed frame that once held both a foundation box spring and mattress can be converted to a platform-style bed simply by omitting the foundation/ box spring and laying wooden slats or a sheet of plywood across the bed frame to hold the new mattress. Most modern mattresses perform just fine without the box spring, though manufacturers also try very hard to sell them to you.

What About Buying Online?

It might seem risky to buy a mattress online, but it’s becoming a popular option. There are lots of reasons for this: no need to deal with a pressuring salesperson, a wide range of choices, access to luxury brands, better prices and avoidance of sales tax, to name just a few. Still, there are undeniably some downsides as well: You can’t try the mattress before you buy (unless you’ve managed to try out the same model in a brick and mortar store before buying online), returns are a huge hassle, you’ll need to dispose of your old mattress yourself, no salesperson assistance and no chance to negotiate price.

Therefore, if you’re going to buy online, you need to do your research, choose a reputable site, and make sure the return policy is impeccable.

Budget Generously

A good mattress is not cheap, but good health and a positive mood are priceless. While you should never go way beyond what you can afford—after all, a new mattress doesn’t do you much good if you can no longer afford to pay your rent—this is one time where it pays to splurge a little. You’re going to spend around a third of your time on that mattress, so make those hours count. Isn’t it worth cutting back on unnecessary expenses, at least for a little while, if it means you can drift off to the land of Nod easily and comfortably, then wake up feeling great? Yes, a good mattress is that important.