14 MIN READ

Dreaming of a Good Night’s Sleep? These Mattress-Buying Tips Will Help

Heather Comparetto applies sheets to her newly acquired mattress.
Heather Comparetto's cat, Calvin, helps her put fresh sheets on their new mattress. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

My mattress and I… we don’t always see eye to eye.

You see, I believe my bed is a place I can go to lie down, stop doing things and black out for a few blessed hours of blissful oblivion.

My mattress, on the other hand, seems to think my bed is a place I go to seek out back problems, toss and turn for hours and fervently beg for the sweet, sweet release of sleep.

But that discrepancy in beliefs is probably due to the fact that I’ve never paid more than a couple hundred bucks for a mattress.

It’s true: I spent the early part of my adult life sleeping on a thin, flimsy mattress straight from everyone’s favorite Swedish furniture store.

Don’t get me wrong — that place is a staple home-furnishing destination. But its lower-priced mattress selection is better for guest rooms and kids’ beds, not for every day (er, night) use by an adult with a finicky back.

A good mattress, I’m learning, is simply one of those expensive realities you have to face eventually. There’s no real work-around and at some point, if you want a great sleep experience, you have to just save up and shell out.

But because a good mattress can cost upward of $800 (and a great mattress upward of $1,500), and because the recommended life span of a mattress is about eight years, I would consider a mattress a serious, long-term investment.

The Right Mattress Is a  Long-Term Investment

If you sleep the recommended eight hours per night, you’re spending a third of your life in bed.

I know, you’ve heard that figure before — but a third of your life! For someone who makes it to the average U.S. life expectancy of 78(ish), that means you’ve spent 26(ish) years of your life on a mattress! (That’s 25 1/2 if you count that period in college where you fell asleep anywhere, anytime — but never in a bed at night.)

But those problematic (at least for your back) college years aside, sleeping on the wrong mattress can cause long-term back and health issues.

“If you are not getting the proper support,” says Eric Springer, a Florida chiropractor, “a poor mattress can cause back issues, poor sleep and spinal misalignments.”

Plus, if you’re buying a new $200 mattress every two years because it wears out and starts to sag, after eight years you’ll end up spending as much on four low-quality mattresses as you would have spent on one high-quality mattress that would have lasted.

The bottom line? A mattress that’s suited for your particular needs could save you quite a bit of physical, mental and financial pain in the long run.

So if you’re having trouble sleeping or just can’t seem to wake up feeling any semblance of good, it may be time to invest in a higher-quality mattress.

How to Choose the Right Mattress for You

If you are thinking about shopping around for a new mattress, a chiropractor may be a good first step, especially if you’re experiencing back or neck pain when you wake up in the morning.

A chiropractor will perform an evaluation that could include a posture analysis, weight-bearing test, X-rays or various other orthopedic or neurological tests, Springer says. The results of that evaluation would allow the chiropractor to make a recommendation on mattress type and firmness.

Plus, if a chiropractor writes you a medical-necessity letter, your new mattress purchase may be tax exempt.

If you aren’t able to set up an appointment to talk to a chiropractor and do the gamut of tests and analyses, you can still find the right mattress for you; it will just require a little more legwork and a lot more research.

The Different Types of Mattresses

When shopping for a new mattress, people (myself included) like to walk into a mattress store, plop down on a few different models and fall in love with the softest, cushiest, pillow-toppiest one.

But that’s a trap. “The very soft mattresses… feel good in the store for those five minutes,” Springer says, “but are not offering enough support for overall neck and back care for eight-hour nights.”

Instead, Springer recommends a medium to firm mattress for the proper amount of support.

As for the type of mattress, there are a few options on the market.

Adjustable Air Mattress

No, I don’t mean the one you blow up using a foot pump while on a camping trip (although hey, if it works for you, it works for you, I guess).

Instead, I’m talking about an adjustable bed like a Sleep Number. There are several brands on the market, at several price points, but the idea is the same: a mattress that uses air to adjust to be firmer or softer based on your personal comfort preferences.

Although I’ve always been skeptical of the “find your own comfort level” thing, Springer actually put this type of mattress at the top of the list in terms of “better for your back.”

Adjustable air mattresses are especially helpful for couples who may have different needs when it comes to support but still want to share one bed, because most models allow the two sleepers to adjust their settings separately.

While adjustable air mattresses are on the pricier side (a Sleep Number-brand bed in a California king size can cost as much as $5,700), there are enough versions on the market that you can probably find a good one in your price range. The Sleep Number c2 bed in size queen, for example, is a much less scary $900; it just doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles. Still, Consumer Reports tested the c2 against one of the pricier models and found there wasn’t much difference between the two in terms of support.

Adjustable air mattresses generally last for quite some time. Many customers report having their mattress for over 10 years, and most of the adjustable air-mattress brands offer warranties should anything go wrong.

If you’re looking into an adjustable air mattress, shop around a little. Several brands offer adjustable air mattresses these days, so don’t narrow your search to just the one well-known brand.

Spring Mattress

A spring mattress (also referred to as an innerspring or coil mattress) is a what you think of when you think “mattress.”

You know — the one filled with metal coils that don’t actually look all that comfy but somehow work together to make one bouncy, cushioned whole.

This was ranked second on the list of Springer’s recommendations — after the adjustable air models but before memory foam.

There are several different types of coil configurations, but according to The Sleep Help Institute, there are a couple of important things to note when you’re shopping around:

  • Coil Gauge. The lower the number, the thicker the gauge — a 12-gauge coil will be thicker than an 18-gauge coil — and the thicker the gauge, the firmer the mattress.
  • Coil Count. Generally, coil counts in mattresses range from about 300 to 2,000. A higher coil count correlates with three things: a longer mattress life span, a better ability to contour to your body and, unfortunately, a higher price point.

But, just like with sheets and thread counts, eventually a high coil count becomes meaningless, The Sleep Help Institute says. Anything past 1,000 is pretty pointless comfort-wise and life span-wise, so don’t fall into the trap of paying extra for a coil count over 1,000.

An innerspring mattress has the shortest life span of all the mattress models on the market today, as it will start to sag after a time. Most last about 5 1/2 years, whereas other mattress models last closer to eight.

Still, with prices starting in the low hundreds (even for queen- and king-size mattresses), an innerspring mattress is a good option for someone on a tighter budget.

Memory Foam Mattress

Despite its comfort level and the amount of hype surrounding memory-foam mattresses, Springer put this type of mattress at the bottom of the list. “If you have a bad back,” he says, “you don’t want it ‘memorizing’ your bad spine.”

If you’re not dealing with a bad back, though, you might enjoy the pressure-point relieving feel of memory foam, which was created to allow you to sink in as the foam molds to your body. Seriously — it’s like sleeping on a cloud.

Because memory-foam mattresses are becoming more popular, they now come in a wider price range than when they first hit the market. While the average price for a memory-foam mattress will be higher than that of an innerspring mattress, the price will vary depending on factors such as density, materials and firmness.

The longevity of a memory-foam mattress depends largely on its density. A mattress with a higher density will last longer, while a lower-density foam will break down and become uncomfortable more quickly. A longer-lasting memory foam will have a density somewhere around 3.5 to four pounds per cubic foot, but will also be more expensive.

While a high density will help determine the mattress’ life span, it’s the ILD (or the indentation load deflection) that will determine its firmness. A higher ILD will mean a firmer mattress, while a lower ILD means a softer one.

With most memory-foam mattresses, the ILD will start low on the top layer and get higher the farther down you go. The mattress’ overall ILD is a combination of all the layers.

Memory foam also retains heat pretty well (and not in a good way), so if you’re a hot sleeper, you should look for a gel-infused foam. The gel helps move and trap the heat away from your body, allowing for a cooler night’s sleep — but again, this usually means a more expensive mattress.

Tips for Shopping for Your New Mattress

Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

All right, so you’ve talked to a chiropractor, you’ve done the research and you know what kind of mattress you want to invest in.

So now what?

The fun (if you love to shop) or stressful (if you just don’t) part: actually finding and purchasing the mattress.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you shop.

Shop Online First

If you’re planning to order a “bed-in-a-box,” you’ll have to shop online regardless. But even if you know you’ll be going into a mattress store to make the purchase, take some time to shop around online first.

Salespeople may try to talk you into a more expensive model, so you should have a good idea of what you’re looking for and what you can buy within your budget before you head into a store.

Talk to a Salesperson

Still, there’s no harm in going into a store (maybe just avoid the busiest hours) to have a salesperson talk you through your options. If you’re not ready to buy just yet, be clear about that and don’t let yourself be talked into making a decision before you’re ready.

Read Reviews

These days, everyone has an opinion about everything. When it comes to mattress shopping, though, that’s a good thing. Make sure to read the reviews of the mattresses you’re considering to make sure people are still satisfied after sleeping on them for a while.

Know Your Numbers

This goes for product specifics and prices.

First, know the specifics you’re looking for. Are you looking for a foam with a density of at least 3.5 pounds per cubic foot for a long life span? Or a firm mattress with a 12-gauge coil? Knowing these numbers will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed when you’re faced with a sea of options.

Then, make sure you note the prices on the mattresses you’re seeing. Some brands will put merchandise on sale online but not in stores, but the stores will usually price match the online price. Some mattress stores will even price-match a similar mattress from another brand.

Head to the Back of the Store

Mattress stores are just like any other stores: The bright, shiny new merchandise will be displayed for you to see right when you walk in the door. Instead of getting hooked on a new model, make a beeline for the back of the store, where they keep the older models that may already be discounted — or, if not, will probably have some wiggle room for haggling.

Try Haggling

What’s the worst that can happen — they say no and you buy the mattress for the original list price?

Most mattress stores have flexibility on everything from the mattress prices themselves to things like the delivery options, warranty terms and return fees (if needed) — which is why it’s so important to know your numbers before you go in.

Understand the Warranty and Return Policies

Before you make your purchase, make sure you understand the warranty and return policies and have them in writing (especially if you’ve haggled on the cost or terms).

A warranty will usually cover physical defects such as sagging in the middle, broken or exposed coils or bunching foam, but will probably not cover comfort issues. A warranty may be void if the mattress becomes stained or if any tags are removed, so be sure to check the exact terms of your warranty if you choose to purchase one.

Know When to Shop

If you need a new mattress right away, you may not have a choice about when you shop for and buy your mattress. But if you can wait for the right time, you’ll have a better chance at a great deal.

The best time to purchase a mattress is in February — over Presidents Day weekend.

Other good times to buy a mattress include the month of May (June is when new inventory usually hits stores), and any other long holiday weekends — meaning Memorial Day weekend is a double whammy.

An Ounce of Prevention…

When it comes to mattresses — and, really, most things in life — you get what you pay for. If you’re able to invest in a sturdier, longer-lasting mattress, you won’t find yourself having to replace it within a couple years.

As long as you properly care for it, a good mattress should last you anywhere from six to 10 years. (Eight years is the recommended life span, but depending on the type and a few other factors like the sleeper’s size, it could be slightly shorter or longer than that.)

Still, there are a few tips and tricks that will help you maximize your mattress’ life span:

Rotate It

Rotating a mattress once in a while ensures it gets an even distribution of wear and tear to keep it from caving in prematurely.

Mattresses used to come with two right-sides up, but most models these days have only one, so you’ll most likely need to stick to rotating yours — not flipping it like conventional wisdom used to suggest.  

The general rule of thumb is to rotate your mattress, switching the head and foot positions, once every three months. If your mattress is flippable, you can flip it with the same frequency.

Also, if you have a box spring under your mattress, you should rotate (not flip) it every six months.

Be Careful Where You Sit

Sitting in the same spot on the edge of your bed every day (say, while putting on your shoes) will cause uneven wear along the sides of your mattress. Try not to sit in the same place day after day, and consider getting a chair to put in your room if you need somewhere to sit often.

Protect Your Assets

Putting a mattress protector over the mattress but under your fitted sheet will help prolong the life of your mattress by preventing damage from spills and stains. This will also help keep allergens and bugs at bay.

Keep It Clean

A couple of times per year (like during spring and fall cleaning, if you’re into that), you should deodorize and vacuum your mattress.

Remove the sheets, then sprinkle baking soda so it covers the top of the mattress. Wait 30 minutes for the baking soda to absorb any smells, then vacuum it off.

In between deep cleanings, you can spot clean with a little bit of water mixed with hydrogen peroxide, dish soap or baking soda. Use a clean rag to blot the stain, and try not to let the liquid soak into the mattress. Then make sure the spot dries completely before you make the bed.

Invest in Your Mattress, Invest in Your Health

A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your overall health and well-being — and it starts with a good mattress.

If you’re struggling with soreness, aches and pains or are waking up irritable or without feeling rested, your old mattress may be the culprit.

“If you have… back problems, the wrong mattress can make it worse or cause poor sleep habits,” Springer says. “This is an important investment for your health.”

And really, aren’t your back, neck and mental health worth the investment?

Grace Schweizer is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

The Penny Hoarder Promise: We provide accurate, reliable information. Here’s why you can trust us and how we make money.