The last time I bought a new mattress, I dutifully and dumbly moseyed into the closest big-name superstore and paid $2500.00 for a brand new model from some brand that starts with an 'S'. I could have easily bought a used Honda for far less money — and way less time and hassle.
When said mattress outlived its usefulness, I was determined not to get soaked for that much cash ever again. So I read everything I could about the mattress-purchasing process, including what you are really buying, what's worth the coin, and any common scams to look out for. As I did, a very curious thing started to happen — the more I read and shopped around for a mattress, the stupider and more confused I became!
Usually, when I read everything I can about a possible big-ticket purchase, I get smarter — but when it came to untangling the mysteries of buying a new mattress, I suddenly went from empowered consumer to exhausted wretch, ready to just fork over another $2500 so I could go to sleep. How could buying a mattress be so hard? After all, a mattress is just a giant stationary cushion meant for napping with pets.
The whole mattress-buying process is terrible, built on consumer confusion and mis-information. The worst part is that the mattress-buying process is terrible BY DESIGN! Mattress companies, much like car salesmen, don't want their customers to be informed. And an un-informed customer is a customer who will overpay — every single time.
After hours of fruitless research (it was almost impossible to find unbiased info that hadn't been put forth by a mattress manufacturer or reseller), here's what I ended up realizing:
Mattress brands kind of don't really matter, and you don't actually get what you pay for when buying an expensive mattress. Yes, there are some bad, horrible, cheaply made mattresses to be had — but for the most part, you're simply paying for marketing. When shopping for a mattress, you might as well flip a coin to make your decision. So that's exactly what I did! Here's my story.
What are you really even buying?
If a salesperson tells you mattress X has 50% more 'HD polymer gel' or 20% more 'pocketed coils' than mattress Y, would you know what the hell that means? Are you going to take the time to ask them to explain in depth, thereby prolonging the amount of time you are spending in a mattress store with screaming children on your day off? Me neither. The truth is: parts are parts.
Mattress retailers very much bank on the fact that nobody really wants to be buying a mattress, so very few people actually take the time to research what they are actually buying. The innards of almost all mattresses contain some configuration of the same things: foam, latex, padding and coils — and those coils are a common source of customer confusion and misinformation.
Coil structure, or the type of coils, will create differences. There is no way to say that one is better than the other.
Each of the major brands uses a different coil construction. The salesman may tell you that his model is better because it has a higher coil count. This may be true, but should be completely irrelevant to your purchase decision. In all but very cheap mattresses, the coil counts are typically well within a range that is considered more than sufficient. So stay clear of mattresses with a coil count under 390, but above that, it’s not the coils that will make the difference.
(This goes for conventional inner-spring mattresses, not specialty spring mattresses where the coil sizes, alignment, and variations are much different.)
Why can't you comparison shop?
Buying a mattress is actually worse than buying a car. Because when you buy a car, dealers have the same exact model names — so you can compare apples to apples. A Toyota family wagon with the ST trim at Dealer X will have the same features, MSRP, and MPG as a Toyota family wagon with the ST trim at Dealer Y, making comparison shopping based on price a breeze. Comparing apples to apples is the cornerstone of any smart purchase — and it's also a big part of my patented technique for getting a great deal on a new car.
But when buying a mattress, there’s none of that. You won't find the same model mattress at two different retailers, as manufacturers purposely call the same mattress something different at every store. Therefore, you can't ever comparison shop — and you'll always end up paying too much. (How else do you think retailers can advertise that they'll "beat anyone's advertised price or your mattress is freeeeeeeeeee!"? It's because you won't ever see the same model name advertised in two places.)
So what's a girl to do?
I finally decided to take the whole purchasing experience out of the store and onto the Internet. I turned my attention to reading everything I could about a whole new breed of mattress retailers that are taking stores out of the equation and shipping a mattress right to your door via compression in a box — starting at just $600.00.
After sifting through all the options for these new foam-based mattresses, I wound up getting a Helix brand mattress for one reason: the ability to customize the damn thing. I like a softer mattress — and my dude would just as soon sleep on a stack of bricks. I'm cold every single night of my life — while he's constantly tossing all the covers on the floor. So any mattress we've owned until now has been a horrible compromise.
But Helix does something crazy cool: they have you answer a short questionnaire about your individual sleeping preferences and body type — then produce a mattress to your exact specifications in their factory right here in the USA. It's like ordering a fancy layer cake with exactly what you want inside!
You have two choices when ordering from Helix: a blended bed or a split bed. For a blended bed, Helix takes the combination of both individual's preferences and creates an optional midpoint mattress. For a split mattress, Helix splits the mattress right down the middle — with each side individually personalized.
I for sure thought this nonsense was too good to be true, but I'll be damned if the resulting mattress wasn't squishy enough for me to sink into without being unsupportive for the dude. I have been sleeping through the night without waking up for the first time in....years? And my horrible crunched shoulder pain that usually results in my hands being numb and tingly in the mornings has vanished.
Many mattresses that utilize foam (like the Helix does) tend to be a bit hot, but the dude hasn't complained one bit. (We ended up going with a blended bed, and it really is the best of both worlds.) The Helix mattress reminds me of my mom's fancy Tempurpedic mattress, only mine was about $4,000 less!
Our Helix is flatter, sleeker, and more compact than our old pillow-topped number, and you know what? I don't miss that stupid puffy thing. (The Helix also weighs way less than my old mattress, which makes moving it around and putting sheets on a breeze.) Plus, the Helix mattress has something magical inside of it that put an end to the jolting mini-earthquakes that occur every single time someone turns over in bed.
But best of all — the whole thing was exactly $995.00 for a California King (that's a full $1500.00 less than my previous mattress purchase!) and came to our door via UPS within about ten days. We cut open the box, unfurled the mattress, and never looked back. There was no rude salesperson, no ridiculous price, and zero confusion about what we were getting.
But what about laying on it?
Common sense tells us that you really need to lay down on a mattress in order to get a feel for if it will work for you or not, but laying down for five or ten minutes in a crowded store while a salesperson hovers over you isn't going to tell you anything. It takes a full two to three weeks for your body to get used to any new sleeping system. Helix has a 10-year limited warranty — and offers a 100-day return policy if you hate it, but a full month of restful sleep for us tells the tale:
So what do I do with my old mattress?
The biggest conundrum for me was what to do with my old mattress. With a mail-order mattress purchase, there is no helpful delivery driver to haul the old one away — and in my research, I read that the average mattress takes up a stunning 4o cubic feet in a landfill!
But mattresses are actually filled with recyclable material — and programs are springing up everywhere to recycle them. I found a local spot that would take mine using the handy locator in this post. I strapped my old mattress to the roof of my car, drove slowly (no, really, avoid the freeway at ALL COSTS), and dropped it off easy peasy. (They even paid me $7 for the recyclable material inside.)
If dragging a mattress across town doesn't appeal to you, avail yourself of a service like Mattress Disposal Plus. They will pick up from your home and recycle or donate your old mattress for you. They've saved over 626,000 pounds of mattresses from landfills so far.
So there you have it! Sweet dreams, sleepy kittens.
Alison Freer is the author of 'How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing'.