How to Buy a Bed and Mattress

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Do you really have a bad back--or just a bad bed? Buying a new mattress set can be confusing and expensive--a queen set can cost $400 or $4,000. Most of us spend one-third of our lives in bed, though, so it's worth it to find one that's just right for your body.

  • Look at construction, not price. A $400 mattress and box spring may be as good as a $700 set. In more-expensive pocket-spring mattresses, each spring rests in its own fabric pocket and responds independently to the weight above. In less-expensive continuous-spring mattresses, a single length of wire forms the springs.

  • Test mattress support by lying beside your sleeping partner; you shouldn't roll toward each other and one person shouldn't feel motion as the other leaves the bed.

  • Consider coil count and the gauge of the wire in the coils as indicators of firmness (and often quality). Generally, the more coils, the firmer the mattress, although thicker wires can compensate for fewer coils. Lower gauge means the wire is thicker.

  • Consider a waterbed--helpful for some back problems--or an airbed, where electronically controlled air pockets adjust firmness for each person. Make sure your floor can accommodate a waterbed's weight.

  • Check out latex rubber and viscoelastic mattresses ($900 to $3,000) by brands such as TrueSleep and Tempurpedic. The dense foam is energy absorbing, heat sensitive and self-adjusts to body mass and temperature. Allergy and dust-mite resistant, this mattress doesn't need to be turned.

  • Take a test nap on a polyurethane foam mattress ($150 to $400). They also self-adjust and come in various thicknesses and firmnesses. Place on a platform bed or box spring.

  • Determine the size needed. Custom designs aside, the most common dimensions are: Twin/Single, 39x75 in. (99x190 cm); Twin Extra-long, 39x80 in. (99x203 cm); Full/Double, 54x75 in. (137x190 cm); Queen, 60x80 in. (152x203 cm); Eastern King 76x80 in. (193x203 cm); California King, 72x84 in. (183x213 cm).

Tips & Warnings

  • Before investing in a new bed, try it out: Ask to sleep on a friend's bed for a night.
  • Choose a bed 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) longer than the tallest person sleeping in it.
  • Why buy a mattress and box spring set? A new mattress on an old box spring will last only one-third as long as it should.
  • If a queen or king box spring won't fit up your stairs, ask about a split box spring.
  • When you're in the store for a mattress sale, be on guard for the salesperson's nudge toward fancier models. What's more, you'll find the same mattress labeled differently at different stores. This makes comparison shopping practically impossible.
  • If you buy a super thick pillow-top mattress, your old sheets may no longer fit.
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