Sleeping is one of the most important things you do in a day, as rest plays a role in your health, mood, appearance, job performance and more. Mattresses can provide the foundation for good sleep (or be responsible for stealing shut eye), and they are also one of the more expensive home purchases people make. To add more pressure, the mattress industry tends to be convoluted and confusing, which can make shopping for a new bed quite intimidating. Most shoppers have a fairly simple goal – to get the best mattress for their money. While the “best mattress” usually means different things to different people, we’ve put together a list of 10 insider tips to make shopping for a new bed easier and less stressful.
Choosing the Best Mattress: 10 Steps for Sweeter Dreams
Not sure where to start, or how that $500 bed compares to the $5000 model? Don’t worry; you’re definitely not alone. As far as household purchases go, mattresses can be pretty confusing when you factor in all of the types and brands and information. In this guide, we are going to cover the basics of a good mattress shopping strategy so you know what to look for, what to ask, and how to identify the best mattress for YOU – taking into account your preferences and needs, your budget, and your sleep style.
1) Take Inventory of Your Preferences
The first step to choosing the best mattress is to identify with that means for you. We all find different things comfortable, so there is no universal best mattress. You want to take a close look at things you find pleasing in a bed, as well things you may have disliked about past beds. Make note of these preferences, as they are sure to come up when consulting with salespeople and can be helpful for focusing your search and avoiding duds. If you share a bed with a partner, both of you should be involved. Here is a sample “survey” you can use:
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2) Assess Your Sleep Style
How you sleep plays a big role in identifying the best mattress options. There are three primary sleep positions – side, back and stomach. Each has particular needs to consider.
Side sleepers account for about 2/3 of the population. When sleeping on your side, your spine and neck should remain straight, parallel to the ground. Your hips and shoulders should sink in just enough to support straight alignment while still supporting your waist, and the mattress should sufficiently cushion hips, shoulders and other areas from pressure. Mattresses in the medium range of firmness or with softer top layers may feel most comfortable, and you want to make sure the comfort layers are 3-6 inches thick to allow for adequate cushioning (depending on body size and preference).
For back sleepers, the best mattress is one that supports the natural curvature of the spine. Neither your hips nor your upper body should sink too far in. Your lower back should also be supported, meaning you can not fit more than 1 finger between your back and the mattress when lying flat. Medium firm to firm mattresses offer ideal back support, and comfort layers between 2-4 inches provide ample cushioning without affecting support.
Stomach sleepers face the biggest challenges when seeking a comfortable mattress, because their lower back needs firm support but a firm surface may not feel great on soft, sensitive areas. When you sleep on your stomach, you want to make sure that your lower back and stomach do not bow downward which can cause tension and pain, and you also don’t want your neck to rest at an unnatural angle. Your best bet will likely be a firmer mattress with a thin layer of highly conforming/pressure relieving material.
3) Get Familiar with the Lingo
When you are shopping for a new mattress, it will prove immensely helpful to understand the terms and words you will encounter. Getting familiar with materials, specifications, sizes and other important words will help you communicate better with salespeople, and it also makes deciphering marketing language and comparing beds easier. Here is the essential “Cliff Notes” explainer of the mattress world:
You will want to make sure exactly what size of mattress you need well before buying. Most U.S. mattress makers follow standardized sizing as outlined below. If you are replacing a mattress for an existing bed frame, it can be helpful to pull out a tape measure and check, just to be sure. If you are planning on buying a new bed or changing sizes, consider how much space you have available and your sleep needs (bigger is usually better, especially for couples).
- Twin: 38”x74” to 39”x75”. Standard daybed and kid’s mattress size. Provides enough space for the average person to sleep comfortably alone.
- Twin XL/Long: 38”x80” or 39”x80”. Standard dorm mattress size, adding more length than twin. Sleepers over 5’8” or so may be more comfortable on XL length.
- Super Single: 48”x84”. This size is almost exclusively found in waterbeds, and offers a spacious surface for most single people.
- Full: 54”x75”. Also called double, full size beds are spacious for single sleepers and kids, and can work for guest rooms (but are too small for most couples).
- Full XL: 54”x80”. Provides longer length than full, which may be more comfortable for sleepers over 5’8”.
- Queen: 60”x80”. Queen is the most popular size, and can accommodate single sleepers or couples. But, a queen size gives each sleeper only 30” of width, smaller than twin size.
- California Queen: 60”x84”. Longer queen, usually found only in waterbeds.
- King: 76”x80”. Standard king is the equivalent of two twin XL beds, which provides ample space for most adults.
- Cal King: 72”x84”. Cal king is a good choice for sleepers over 6’2” as this size is longer than regular king, but it is also less wide. If you don’t need the extra length, go with regular king.
- Others: There are also a variety of custom mattress sizes that can differ from the above measurements, especially for waterbed replacement inserts, unique spaces like RVs, and for oversized beds (in excess of regular king sizes).
The key way mattresses are differentiated is by the materials they contain. Understanding these materials will help you decide which would make the best mattress for you, and is also helpful for contrasting quality and value among competing options. These are the main mattress types you will see, along the critical details for each. We definitely recommend reading more about the types you are interested in so you will know what to look for and compare. The “Guide to Understanding Different Mattress Types” article from WhatsTheBestBed offers a detailed overview and comparison for more information.
- Innersprings – Mattresses whose support cores are made of metal coils. Bonnell, pocketed, continuous and offset coils are the primary type. Coil beds are usually compared on coil type, coil count and gauge, and on the topper materials. Higher-priced beds tend to feature individual pocket coils and high coil counts (over 800 in queen). Layers of padding, foam and fiber sit above the coils for cushioning.
- Hybrids – Mattresses that have innerspring cores, but are topped with layers of specialty foams like memory foam and latex.
- Memory Foam – Mattresses with upper layers made of specialized polyurethane foam and support cores of regular polyurethane foam. Memory foam is compared by density, and can come in a few different varieties. Our article on Best Rated Memory Foam Mattresses of 2013 compares a few top brands
- Latex – Mattresses made entirely of latex rubber foam. Can be made from natural or synthetic latex, using the Dunlop or Talalay process. Learn more in our Latex Mattress Pros and Cons article.
- Waterbeds – Waterbeds are vinyl or rubber bladders filled with water. They are available in hardside and softside versions to accommodate different frames, and are distinguished by vinyl thickness, construction, and internal fiber layers.
You’ll usually see firmness described in vague terms, which will vary from brand to brand. It is meant to describe the resistance of the material, with softer beds featuring more cushion and less resistance, and firmer beds featuring less cushion and more resistance. Plush and soft will be on one end of the spectrum, while extra firm will be at the other. Plush, medium, medium-firm, firm, and extra-firm are common options. Some materials like latex may have more specific scales like ILD ratings (lower numbers being softer and higher being firmer), and different mattress types can feel different even when the firmness is described as the same. While some sources will always recommend firm mattresses for everyone, some studies point to medium/medium-firm as feeling more comfortable for most people. Either way. Take into account how you sleep, your body size, and what feels comfortable for you. If you and your partner have significantly different firmness preferences, some foam and spring beds can be made with different firmness levels on each half.
Most reputable manufacturers back their beds with warranties designed to protect consumers from major flaws or defects. In the mattress industry, warranties typically have two or more segments. For the first portion of the warranty (2-15 years), the replacements costs may be fully covered (ie full-coverage or full-replacement warranty). The second portion of the warranty is then pro-rated, meaning the percentage that the manufacturer will pay for repairs reduces annually with the age of the product. A good quality mattress should have around 10 years of full coverage, since that is the average lifespan. You also want to look at what is covered and what is excluded; usually sagging must reach a certain depth for example. Some types like waterbeds may also have shorter or more restricted warranties.
Another guarantee to consider is the return or “in home trial” period, or the number of days you have to return the mattress after buying. It takes time to adjust to a new bed, and you want to make sure you’ve found the best mattress. A good return policy should give you at least 30 days in case the mattress doesn’t work out, and should have minimal fees.
You will likely see a lot of add-ons and accessories when mattress shopping. A boxspring has a springy surface and is designed to be used with innerspring beds. A foundation has a solid, firm top designed to work with foam and other specialty beds. It is usually recommended to add the matching boxspring or foundation, but if you are replacing the same type of mattress and your current one is in good shape, you may not need a new one. However, if you are switching mattress types (springs to foam, for example) you may need a new foundation unless you use a platform bed. Adjustable bed foundations are becoming more common as well. These are electric units that allow you to change the angle of your head and feet along with other functions. These foundations offer several benefits and take the place of a regular box foundation (learn more in our guide to adjustable beds).
4) Make a Wish List
Based on your list of preferences, sleep position, and what you’ve learned while researching, develop a wish list. Putting your thoughts down will make it easier for you to narrow down the field when you start shopping, and can provide direction as to what you should be searching for. Include the basics like firmness and how you sleep, and if you want to include or avoid specific things. List any concerns or must haves as well, for example if motion transfer is an issue or if you want all-natural materials. You should also includes notes from your research (for example if medium density memory foam sounds like it might work best for you). Make this list on your phone or paper you can have with you while shopping.
Sample Mattress Wish List:
- Firmness: Medium Firm
- Good for: Side and Back Sleeping
- Materials: Memory Foam or Latex
- Layers: 3-4 inch comfort layer
- Preferences: limits motion transfer, stays cool, can return
- Quality Notes: Medium Density or higher, or Organic latex
- Mattresses to Try: ?
5) Go Exploring (No Commitments Yet!)
After researching and learning a bit about beds, do some exploratory shopping but do not commit to buying just yet. This is the phase in which you want to get a feel for the different materials and brands, while seeing what you like and don’t like. There will always be more mattress sales (trust us!) so don’t get pressured into a purchase if you aren’t ready. In addition to local showrooms, browsing mattresses online is also worthwhile as you will likely find a much larger selection and more information. Make notes about things you like or do not, as well as information on pricing and any other information you want to look into further.
6) Revise Your List
Once you’ve done a good amount of exploring, return to the drawing board to revise your wish list based on what you’ve found. If during testing you’ve realized you prefer firmer beds than you originally thought, or if you’ve found you prefer specific materials or brands, make a note. Continue narrowing down your list until you have a fairly detailed idea of what you want.
7) Set a Budget
Based on what you’ve identified as the best mattress types and styles, set a realistic budget within your price range. Mattress prices have a very wide range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on the materials and on the brands’ markups. Beds that are very cheap can work for temporary or occasional use, but for an everyday mattress you should expect to spend at least $800. Specialty mattresses are often more expensive than spring beds, and major name brands may have higher markups than smaller brands (though expensive doesn’t always mean better). Consider the average prices of the beds you liked while researching when developing your budget. According SleepLikeTheDead.com, the average prices paid by mattress type are:
- Innerspring – $1580
- Memory foam – $1590
- Latex – $1870
- Waterbeds – $900 (hardside beds are usually closer to $200-400 though)
8) Nominate the Candidates
With your revised wish list and your budget in mind, begin selecting the options that best match your criteria. Again, do not limit yourself to local showrooms, especially if you are shopping for specialty mattresses. There are many reputable brands and retailers online. While several sources say you should always do a showroom “test-drive”, some studies have shown this doesn’t really help people pick a bed that they will be comfortable actually sleeping in. Based on your criteria, begin identifying specific mattress brands and models that you think would be a good match along with their prices and specifications, and any other notes that you think will help later.
9) Thoroughly Research the Contenders
Once you have your list of potential beds, research them in depth. Determine the quality and quantity of materials inside the bed, see what kind of warranties and trials are offered, and read about the beds. If you can’t find information, search online or contact the brands for details. We also recommend reading a variety of reviews online to see what other owners have to say. Reviews can be very helpful for identifying pros and cons. Reviewers will often say what they like or don’t like, if they had a good or bad experience, how the bed compares to others, and other helpful information. They can also help you spot potential issues, for example if a high percentage of people mention the same problem. Keep in mind that people’s comfort and idea of value will vary, and the no one mattress will please every single person.
10) Identify the Best Mattress
The final step is to choose best mattress from the options you’ve found. Ask salespeople as many questions as you need to and don’t feel bad about calling or testing beds multiple times. A mattress is a big purchase after all, and you want to be happy with your choice. Eliminate those that do not meet your most important criteria, those that do not offer a good relative value, those that have subpar quality or consistently bad reviews, or others that you dislike. Rank the remaining beds based the major criteria and see which stand out. If you’ve narrowed it down to a couple options that seem very similar, see if one has better warranty and return policies or another advantage. You might also check out sales and specials to see if one is offering a more competitive deal. Many mattress retailers will “sweeten deals” with accessories, and sales are also common around major holidays.
Ultimately, think of mattress shopping as you would any major buying decision: do your research, carefully compare options, and then make an informed choice. These steps will help ensure you pick a bed that is a good fit for your needs. Knowing what goes in a mattress and comparing a wide range of products also helps ensure you get a good value and makes it easier to see through marketing claims. Finding the best mattress doesn’t have to be hard, simply follow these steps, take your time and shop with your goals in mind.