How to buy a mattress: the major factors
There are two major factors to look for in a new mattress. They are support & comfort.
- Support: You want the mattress to hold you in proper alignment from head to toe, so you don’t wake up with a back ache.
- Comfort: You don’t want the mattress to cause pressure to your body, which causes tossing and turning, which means you wake up tired.
How to Test for Support in a Mattress:
The most important factor in finding the correct mattress is proper support. You need the mattress to push up on your body to counteract your body weight. So that means get a hard, firm, stone-like mattress, right? Wrong.
Your body isn’t a straight line. Whether you sleep on your back, side, or stomach, your body has curves, and a mattress must come up to support the curves and arches of your body (similar to how a good shoe will have arch support). Consider the image below to illustrate:
You’ll notice that the mattress dips down around her shoulders and hips, but her spine is in proper alignment. If the mattress were too hard, her hips would be pushed up and her shoulders would be pushed up, and her spine would not be straight. If you’re in this position for too long, you can wake up with a back ache.
Additionally, if you keep changing positions to try to keep your back in alignment, you’re not getting into the deeper stages of sleep, which causes you to wake up tired. The same exact consequences occur if a mattress is too soft, and you’re in it like a hammock. You want a mattress to contour to the shape of your body to hold it in its neutral alignment.
How to Test for Comfort in a Mattress:
The second most important criteria to selecting the right mattress is comfort (or as you may hear it called, pressure relief). If a mattress is too hard, it can cause pressure to your body. This cuts off circulation and pinches nerves (ever wake up with a “pins and needles” feeling in your hand?), and will cause you to change positions frequently.
If you’re frequently changing positions, your sleep is fragmented and you don’t get into the deeper stages of sleep (such as REM sleep). This means you’ll wake up tired, even if you thought you got 8 hours of sleep. When you’re trying out the mattress, you should be able to lie in one position without moving around for at least a few minutes. If you can do that, you’ve found a good mattress.
Those are the two main criteria. If you find a mattress that keeps you in proper alignment which doesn’t cause pressure to your body, you’ve found a great mattress for you. To help fine-tune it from there, there are a few other things to consider.
The Minor Factors
There are several other criteria that you can look for when searching for a mattress.
- Motion & Separation: If you share your bed, you want to minimize motion transfer. If your partner gets in or out of bed, or changes positions, you run the risk of being woken up if the mattress transfers too much of that motion to your side of the bed. Try the mattress in the store with your partner, and have your partner switch positions while your back is turned to see how much motion you feel.
- Temperature: Another issue some people have is heat retention of the mattress. Most good mattresses these days have features to help mitigate this (advanced foams, phase change materials, ventilation, etc). The biggest risk here is with cheap memory foam mattresses.
- Edge Support: You want a strong edge support on your mattress, particularly if you sleep near the edge of the bed, or sit on the edge of the bed often. Most of the average or better innerspring mattresses use the upgraded foam encasement around the edge, but some of the very cheapest mattresses just use a steel rod on the side. Foam encasement is better. Memory foam mattresses don’t often have a separate edge support because of the nature of the foam (it’s designed to take the shape of your body, even when you’re just sitting on it).
The mattress shopping experience
Walking into a mattress store can be an intimidating experience. When you first walk in, you’re likely to see a sea of white rectangles and what you perceive to be a slimy, sharky, salesperson out to rip you off. You might be tempted to throw up your hand, say “I’m just looking,” and run out of the showroom and buy online.
Luckily, the real mattress shopping experience isn’t nearly as bad as I just made it sound, and in this section, you will be better prepared to know where to shop. In this section of the guide, I will walk you through the process of actually trying out the mattresses and selecting the right one, as well as give you some tips to get the best possible price.
Choosing a mattress store
Your first order of business will be to choose a store to shop at. Feel free to pick several to shop around at, especially if they’re near each other. There are several types of stores out there. I will give the pros and cons of each.
You can always buy a mattress online. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sites you can choose from. You can even go to Craigslist and get somebody’s used mattress for free (eww).
Pros: You get to shop for a mattress without leaving your house, you can shop dozens of companies quickly, and you’re likely to find a low price. In fact, websites like US Mattress tend to have the lowest prices anywhere. There are also direct-to-consumer mattresses like Leesa, Nest Bedding, and Tuft and Needle which sell good mattresses at reasonable prices.
Cons: You can’t try the mattress! This is a huge risk to take with your money and your health. In the previous section, I talked about testing the mattress for comfort and support. How can you make sure the mattress contours to your back and doesn’t cause pressure on your side unless you try it?
If you buy one online without testing it, be sure to get one with a free return policy. The aforementioned online stores Leesa, Nest, and Tuft and Needle are popular options for this. The free return policy completely negates the only con of buying online.
In fact, if all of this seems like a bit much, it would not be a mistake to just buy a Leesa, try it out, and if you don’t like it just send it back and iterate from there.
Another exception: If you try a mattress in person, you can buy the same or similar model online if you can do the comparison shopping. In fact, this is the strategy I recommend in my mattress negotiation guide.
(Read more about buying a mattress online here)
Big Box retailers:
These are stores like Sam’s Club and Costco. You can buy a mattress, a gallon of ketchup, and 144 rolls of toilet paper in the same trip.
Pros: Low prices, comparable to what you’ll find online.
Cons: Like online, you often cannot try all of the mattresses (they might have a couple out on display), and even if you can, you will get no expert help in selecting the right one. They also have a smaller selection.
Many department stores like Macy’s and Sears will have a section dedicated to mattresses.
Pros: You get to try the mattresses, most have a decent selection, and there will be a salesperson there to help you answer questions
Cons: The prices are a little higher at department stores than online or at big box retailers. You might need to take advantage of their price match guarantee. The salesperson there is not likely to be well-trained in selecting the right mattress, and very well might have been working in a different department a week ago. Also, there tends to be a lot more foot traffic through the department, so it’s awkward to try out the mattresses. Department stores also tend to play “games” with their prices, so be careful.
Beware of fake “regular” pricing at department stores. The “60% off” numbers are the regular retail price
Like department stores, furniture stores will also often have a section dedicated to mattresses. This is sensible, since a mattress is a piece of furniture.
Pros: It is convenient to have a whole bedroom set and a new mattress delivered at once. Sometimes they’ll give you a very low price on a mattress if you’re buying an entire bedroom set.
Cons: The salespeople aren’t usually specialized specifically on mattresses (though this varies by store). The selection is usually a little smaller than a mattress specialty store (but again, this varies)
Mattress specialty stores:
These guys sell just mattresses and items directly related to mattresses. Some are huge chains (like Sleepy’s and Mattress Firm), some are little local shops. The local shops vary wildly from high end boutiques to small guys trying to compete head-to-head with the big guys and anything in between.
Pros: Most salespeople will be well-trained and knowledgeable about mattresses and sleep. These will usually have the largest selections. Many of the large chains will have aggressive price match guarantees, so if you’re a good negotiator, you can get the lowest prices here. The boutique shops don’t often have any wiggle room, but they are also more fairly priced to begin with.
Cons: The retail prices tend to be higher (but again, most will have a price match guarantee and the most room for negotiation). The experience is highly dependent on how good the salesman is.
I recommend doing one of two things.
- Shop at a mattress specialty store to find the right mattress, then take advantage of their price guarantee to get the lowest price. (If you need help comparing model names, consult my comparison charts here). If the salesman gives you a hard time about matching the price, just buy a comparable model online. Or…
- Buy a direct-to-consumer mattress like Leesa. With a 100 night free return policy, it’s a low risk investment. Try it out, and then send it back for a full refund if it’s not what you want. You can read my review of them here. For many of you, the Leesa will give you a great night’s sleep, and it’s an easy way to get out of “analysis paralysis.”
In the store
Alright, so you’ve selected a few stores to go to and you’ve checked out some online mattress stores to get a general lay of the land. Next, you need to set aside some time to properly try the mattresses. This is not a purchase that should be made over a lunch break or in a few minutes. Set aside an afternoon to go mattress shopping. Expect to spend up to an hour or so in a mattress store trying mattresses.
Next, you walk into a store, gaze upon the sea of white rectangles and are approached by a salesperson. What do you do?
The biggest thing to realize is that the salesperson is there to help you. Most salespeople I work with genuinely want to help you find the right mattress. The slimy “used car salesman” stereotype is somewhat uncommon (though not unheard of) in the mattress business. Just give him or her a chance to help you. Most of the better stores will have a process in place to help find the right mattress. But the key is to take the time to try the mattresses.
Once you’ve narrowed down which mattresses offer the proper support and relieve the most pressure, it’s important to spend some time on that mattress to make sure it works for you. If you’re having trouble deciding between two mattresses, spend several minutes on each one. Whichever you can spend longer in one position on without tossing and turning is likely the better mattress. Try it on your back, try it on your side. Remember to check for proper support and comfort.
How to negotiate for mattresses
I have a mattress negotiation guide, so read that for an in-depth treatment of this topic. I will just summarize here.
The prices of mattresses are negotiable at most retailers and on most brands. In mattress shopping, the general strategy is to play one retailer off of another. Most places have a price guarantee. So if you get a quote from one place, you can take it to a competitor and have them beat the price. Take that price to another competitor and get an even lower price. You can also look up the mattress online (like at US Mattress) and get the retailer to match the online price. This is the easiest, least painful way to negotiate on mattresses.
If you don’t have time to go back and forth between retailers, online prices are usually the best as long as you are good at comparison shopping. So you can find the mattress that works best for you, and then just buy the comparable model online.
Comparing mattresses can sometimes be tough, though, since the exact model name will differ between stores. Don’t let that scare you off, though, because the lineup is usually the same from retailer to retailer. For example, Simmons Beautyrest currently has their recharge lineup. They have 3 major levels of Beautyrests: the entry level ones, (which used to be called “classic”), the Platinum models (which used to be called “World Class”), and a luxury level above that which may differ from retailer to retailer (Beautyrest Black, Beautyrest Legend, etc).
Even though the specific model names will usually differ, a Platinum Luxury Plush at one retailer will be virtually identical to a Platinum Luxury Plush at another retailer.
Types of Mattresses
You might have noticed that in all of this time, I haven’t mentioned any details about the construction of the mattresses. I’ve said very little about coils, types of foam, etc. Truth is, this is possibly the least important part of the guide, but it’s still good to know.
There are two basic categories of mattress.
- Innerspring. These are the traditional mattresses with springs (or coils if you prefer). They can be all tied together or individually wrapped
- Specialty foam. These will usually be made of different types of foam. Two categories of specialty foam are latex and memory foam.
Beyond these two major categories, you’ll find a few other types of mattresses. Some manufacturers make air mattresses, that use air chambers instead of coils for the support. Also, there are still some waterbeds around, in which water is used for the support. I honestly don’t know as much about these two categories of mattresses, and they make up a small part of the mattress industry, so I won’t go into them here. The biggest air mattress manufacturer is Select Comfort with their Sleep Number bed. There are several small waterbed manufacturers. Sleep Like The Dead has a detailed review of Select Comfort here and of waterbeds here.
There is also a category of beds developing called “hybrid beds” which have features similar to a specialty foam mattress on an innerspring support. I would call those much more similar to innerspring mattresses, but you can read more about hybrids here.
Most mattresses you’re likely to run into are the “innerspring” type. They have metal coils inside of the mattress with foams and fibers on the top.
The lower priced mattresses tend to use the older style coil in which they’re all tied together. The hourglass-shaped ones are called “Bonnell” coils, but other manufacturers have stronger variations on that type (like the “offset” coil and the “continuous” coil). These are generally a little less expensive than the individually wrapped coil, but don’t contour as well and transfer more motion.
On the left are Sealy “classic” coils that are all tied together. On the right are the higher end individually wrapped coils.
The better innerspring mattresses will use individually wrapped coils. This type of coil allows the mattress to contour to your body from the coil level, which give better support and causes less pressure. Additionally, wrapped coils are better at separating motion from side to side on the bed. So if one person bounces around or changes positions, the partner will not feel it as much. The downside? They’re usually more expensive.
The foams above the coils will have varying densities. You can get a mattress with firmer foams on the top or softer foams on the top. Some will be in the style of a “pillowtop” (which means the manufacturer sewed an extra cord around the side of the mattress to indicate it has a good amount of foam).
Don’t pay too much attention to the exact title of the mattress. One company’s “cushion firm” might be similar to another company’s “luxury firm” or even a “plush.” Just spend some time on each mattress and check for comfort and support, regardless of what the mattress is called or whether or not it’s technically a “pillowtop.”
What about coil count?
You may hear people talk about “coil counts.” There is a reason I’ve written this much and haven’t really mentioned them until now. They’re generally not important, as long as you’re not getting the least-expensive mattress. There are too many variables to consider to compare coil counts in one mattress to another. Type of coil, gauge (thickness) of the coil, the number of turns, whether or not its doubled up on the inside, etc. One mattress might have 1,000 coils, and another will have 900, but the 900 coil mattress might have a lot more steel in the coils overall.
The one thing I can say is to avoid is any mattress that has 420 or fewer Bonnell coils in a queen size. Those are only suitable for guest rooms, and they’re barely good for that. If the number is above that, you’re probably fine.
Foam mattresses are becoming much more popular, and they tend to get higher customer satisfaction ratings than innerspring mattresses (though they might not be what you’re used to). There are two major types of specialty foam, and a foam bed will usually have at least one of them, if not both. There is latex, and memory foam.
Memory foam is probably the most recognized type of foam in bedding. It is a slower-response foam (meaning it takes time to return to its normal position). This has the benefit of not causing pressure to the body. Memory foam is perhaps the best pressure-relieving material that is used in beds today.
Memory foam is often mixed with a type of gel to add additional support and to help keep a more neutral surface temperature. Older styles of memory foam (and cheaper Chinese memory foams) tend to retain heat. Most modern memory foam mattresses don’t have this issue.
Latex foam is the other type of common specialty foam. It tends to be more supportive than memory foam, a lot more durable (I personally have a latex pillow that has been in the same good condition for the past 6 years), it responds a lot more quickly than memory foam, and naturally keeps a more neutral temperature without relying on gel. However, it does not relieve pressure as well as memory foam does, and isn’t as good at separating motion. (Here is a more detailed look at latex foam)
Most of the time, these types of foam will be put on a base of what’s called “poly foam,” which is just a high density, resilient support foam. It’s not really designed for comfort, but it will hold the mattress up. Some lower-end mattresses are only made of poly foam, and these tend to feel harder.
Most of the new direct-to-consumer mattresses are foam mattresses, because they’re more easily compressed for shipping. This can be an inexpensive way to try out a foam mattress if you’ve been curious about them. (Leesa and Nest Bedding are my two favorite companies in this space).
The last thing to be careful of with specialty foam is to be wary of foams made in China. They tend to be lower quality and won’t hold up as long as many foams made in America or Europe. I made this mistake with my first mattress shortly after joining the industry. My mattress felt amazing for the first 6 months, but quickly lost both its comfort and support.
How much to spend
Many people who I talk to have no idea what a mattress is supposed to cost. They hear specials on the TV along the lines of “pillowtop mattresses, queen size sets for only $299!” and they assume that it’s for a good quality every night use bed, and there are options even less than that.
The mattress industry does itself a disservice by advertising like this, because that’s usually the absolute rock bottom as far as price and quality go.
You can find a mattress and boxspring set (in a queen size) for as low as $200 all the way up to as high as you want to spend. For example, a Tempurpedic Grand Bed with a motorized base can run you almost 10,000 dollars, and that isn’t even the most expensive mattress. So how much should you spend?
I’ll give a breakdown of what you can expect at each price range. This will vary by retailer and by region. If you live in the northeast, the prices will be towards the higher end, if you are in the middle of nowhere, the prices might be a little less. Additionally, these prices are for queen sized mattress and boxspring sets. Subtract ~100-300 for the boxspring, or multiply by ~50% for a king. (Note: These are what I consider the “real” prices for the mattresses, when they’re on sale. Retail prices might be much higher)
$0-200: This is probably a used mattress from Craigslist. Eww.
$200-400: These are your basic guest room mattresses. Expect to see those 420 coil Bonnell units I warned you about earlier. These may or may not have a pillowtop, and will have a 1 to 5 year warranty (click here for information about mattress warranties). Can be used by an adult for everynight use in a pinch, or if you’re on a really tight budget, but you don’t get much in the way of comfort or support.
$400-600: These range from some of the nicer guest room mattresses to maybe the bare minimum for every night use by an adult. You will either get nicer foams on the top than the cheaper ones, or stronger coils, but not usually both. The ones with a 10 year or more warranty will usually have no pressure-relieving foams up top at all, while the ones that have some nice layers of foam will probably still be using the 420 coil Bonnell unit. These tend to be good for college students on a budget.
$600-1000: These are about the average range for every night use mattresses. These are where a lot of your Sealy Posturepedics and Simmons Beautyrests live. You will get the better coil systems and advanced foams for coil mattresses. This is also the price range that the lowest priced memory foams start appearing. The direct-to-consumer mattresses I mentioned elsewhere in this article fall somewhere around this price range. If you find a memory foam mattress for significantly less than $600, you should be very skeptical.
$1000-1500: These mattresses will be the entry level of the luxury mattress. The coil systems might be a little more advanced, or they’ll use thicker layers of the specialty foams. The foam mattresses will be a bit thicker, and you start getting into the big name brand memory foam models.
$1500-2500: Mattresses at this price range will have just about everything you could hope for in a mattress. You’ll get the thickest layers of the best foams, strong coil systems, and longer warranties. Many of your Tempurpedics live in this price range. If you’re spending $2,000 on a mattress, you’re very likely to be getting a great one. Warranties tend to be longer here too, ranging from 10-25 years.
$2500-5000: There’s honestly not much you can add to a mattress to get to this price range. The best Tempurpedics reach this range, and some of the most expensive Stearns and Foster luxury mattresses come up this high as well. You might start hearing about materials such as “New Zealand wool” and “Mongolian horse hair.” Only spend this much on a mattress if the ones at the lower tiers don’t keep you in proper alignment or relieve pressure as well and you have the money to spend.
$5000+: I’ve only ever tried one mattress in this range, a Duxiana, and it did not feel as good as mattresses for 80% less money. There’s only so much you can add to a mattress before it’s counterproductive. If you’re considering spending $5000 on a mattress, make sure it supports you and is more comfortable than the cheaper ones. Don’t just buy it because it’s expensive. If you really want to spend $5000 on your sleep set, your money would be better spent on accessories like an adjustable base for the mattress. I’d take a $3000 mattress with a $2000 adjustable base over a $5000 mattress any day.
To sum up, here are the bullet points about how to shop for a mattress:
- Check for proper support, meaning being in proper alignment from head to toe
- Check for comfort, which is a feeling of no pressure to the sensitive parts of your body like shoulders and hips
- Mattress specialty stores tend to give you better service, online tends to give you better prices.
- Shop around and take advantage of price beat guarantees. Since online prices tend to be lower, make the brick and mortar store beat their prices to earn your business.
- If you get a coil mattress, individually pocketed coils tend to be better than ones that are all tied together. Avoid low-count Bonnell units.
- If you get foam, avoid cheap Chinese foam mattresses.
- Expect to spend at least $750 for a good quality mattress and boxspring set. If you spend more than $2500 on a queen set, you’re deep in the “diminishing returns” territory for your money.
- If all of this seems overwhelming, buying an online mattress with a free return policy is a reasonable alternative. If that doesn’t work, then you can go back and try the other steps. Leesa, Nest, and Tuft and Needle are common choices for this, though there are others (browse around my website for reviews).
I hope this helps you get a better night’s sleep without spending a penny more than you have to! For more information, read the related articles.
Disclosure: This site receives a payment from US Mattress, Overstock, 1800 Mattress, Leesa, Nest Bedding, Amazon, Sam’s Club, Macy’s, or Sears when you purchase a product using any links to that company in this article
Should you buy a mattress in store or online?: Goes over the pros and cons of buying a mattress in-store vs buying one online.
Negotiating for a mattress: This page gives an easy to follow outline on how to get the best price on any mattress
Reasons you need a mattress protector: One of the key accessories to go along with the mattress is the mattress protector. This isn’t some kind of b.s. upsell; it’s actually important
Types of pillows: A guide to selecting the right pillow
What to look for in sheets: Sheets can be as confusing as mattresses to buy, and there’s a lot of terminology to learn. This guide helps streamline finding new sheets.
Tricks a dishonest salesman might use: Here is a list of things to watch out for when in a mattress store.