Ask LH: Is Cheap Furniture Worth Buying?

Ask LH: Is Cheap Furniture Worth Buying?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m moving into a new apartment, and I don’t really own a lot of furniture. Should I just head out to IKEA for everything I need to save some cash? Or should I spend more at expensive stores for furniture that lasts longer? Is there any way I can get something long-term without emptying my bank account? Thanks, Amateur Interior Designer

Title photo by carroteater (Shutterstock) and JuliusKielaitis .

Dear Amateur Interior Designer,

We’ve all been there: You’ve just moved into a new place, and you’re starting from scratch (or close to it). Before you start shopping, here are a few things to consider to net the best bang for your buck.

Before Anything Else: Plan Your Space


Before you run out and spend your money, take time to plan out the space so you know what you can fit, what colours and designs you like, and what furniture you really need. It may seem like common sense, but it’s critically important to do this first. You might think you have room for a couch and a couple of easy chairs, but you shouldn’t start shopping without detailed measurements and a basic plan. Photo by Francis Storr.

One tip that’s worked for me in the past is to template my furnitures with pieces of paper if I already know what I want to put into a room. Measure your space so you know what you have to work with. Even better, draw it all out on some graph paper and take that shopping with you so you can compare your measurements against the size of the furniture you want to buy. For the tech-inclined, webapps such as Google Sketchup, Design Your Dorm, IKEA Planner, Floorplanner and the Make Room Planner can help. Once you have your measurements, you should have an idea of what you want to fit into your space, and your budget will dictate how much of your dream setting you’ll be able to buy.

Buy Based On How Long You Plan To Live There


The next thing you need to think about is how long you’ll be living in your new place. We’ve talked about how if you can’t commit five years to a career path, then it’s not a path. Take the same approach for your dwelling. Regardless of your budget or your eye for quality, keep in mind how long you plan to live there. Photo by Lenore Edman.

If you know you’re moving in a year — especially if you’re not sure where you’re moving — there’s no reason to blow your budget on expensive pieces sized for the place you just moved into. If you know you’ll be there for a few years — maybe between three and five — you’ll want some resilient, quality furniture, but obviously not everything. If you’re moving into a house you plan to live in for 10 years or more, you should be comfortable buying furniture that you expect to last the long haul, and that hopefully you won’t have to replace every few years. Similarly, even if you move frequently but know you’ll stay in the same area, make that your multi-year plan and buy some quality pieces you know you’ll always use, no matter where you go.

Finally, when we say making a furniture shopping plan, we mean that. Don’t just run out and buy all the furniture you’ll need at one time. It can be tempting to go to IKEA and load up your car with everything you could possibly want, but choose essentials first and bring them home before anything else. Once the essentials are in place, then you can decide whether you need anything more. Remember, just because you have room for it doesn’t mean you need it. Leave that space free for things you may want in the future, or — heaven forbid — own less stuff.

Spend Your Money Where Your Time Goes


The “buy with the amount of time you plan to live in your home in mind” rule is great, but there’s one area where it falls down: Places you spend most of your time. This is called The Comfort Principle. Furniture that you use most often and are essential to your life, comfort, or quality of life are is what deserves the most room in your budget. Photo by tifonimages (Shutterstock).

It’s easy to go out and spend a lot of money on a shiny new TV as soon as you move into a new apartment, but if you only watch TV once a week, your money would be better spent elsewhere. The prime example: most people spend between six and eight hours in bed every day sleeping. If you spend more on your entertainment centre, which you may use for three hours a day at most, than you do on your bed, you should adjust your priorities. If you work from home, your desk, your office chair and workspace setup deserve a good slice of your budget because you use that equipment most often. If you enjoy cooking, put money into making sure your kitchen is set up to foster your love of cooking.

Ideally, the biggest parts of your furniture budget, especially if you’re sticking around your new apartment for a while, should go to your bed and bed frame, your desk chair and workspace (if you work from home at all), your couch, and those other parts of your home that you use and enjoy most frequently. Don’t be tempted to spend a lot of cash on a chair you never sit in, or a set of end tables that are gorgeous but are still just end tables.

Buy Throwaway Or Functional Items Cheaply

Now that you know where you should spend your money freely, let’s talk about the places you should save your hard-earned cash. Items that are purely functional or not really visible are great places to save some cash. A set of drawers hidden in a closet, or a nightstand that does nothing but hold your phone and an alarm clock, are both good examples. Similarly, if your furniture plan says that you’ll be moving in a few years and you need something in the interim that’s specific to the space you live in now, that’s the type of furniture you should buy as cheaply as possible.

Shop For Used Bargains, But Exercise Caution


Buying from second-hand stores, auctions, charity shops or online is an obvious way to save money. Online, ebay and Gumtree are the most obvious sites, but also consider options such as Freecycle. Photo by The Living Room.

When buying used furniture, make sure that you examine each piece carefully for wear and tear, damage, and any signs of insects. Bedbugs and other pests can make their homes in the cracks and nooks in old wooden furniture and easily hitch a ride home with you. Make sure you carefully evaluate the surroundings and the seller before you take anything used home with you.

Ultimately, cheap furniture can be worth buying, as long as you know why you’re buying it. If it fits, it’s functional and you understand you’re trading durability for cash, then it’s a good idea. Finding a used diamond in the rough is a great way to score quality furniture on a budget. The only place we wholeheartedly say used furniture is not worth it is if you’re trying to save money on something you use every day. Furniture that’s essential to your health or comfort is worth your money.

Armed with a firm budget and a plan for your space, you can’t go wrong. Shop around, buy your essentials first, and remember, cheap doesn’t mean low-quality. Just keep an eye out for a great deal and you’ll be fine. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Try and buy furniture made of real wood and made with decent construction techniques. Much furniture is made to ‘showroom’ standard, i.e. not long after it is out of the showroom it starts to fall apart. Cheap glues, poor materials such as chipboard or mdf, staples and nails all make for fragile furniture. Try and look beyond the surface, tip it up, open the drawers, look at the back etc. Will the joints hold the expected load? Is the contact with the floor appropriate (mdf and chipboard react badly to pressure in the wrong direction and moisture)? Will the surface take the expected treatment? I

    • MDF and chipboard are very appropriate furniture construction materials. Sure, it’s not as nice to talk about as your latest hardwood dining table or desk, but it will do the same job when used correctly.

      The important thing is to investigate the construction techniques used. Are things braced and fitted securely.

      But don’t judge things simply because they’re not made of hardwood.

  • Buy quality, I mean real quality – and it will last much longer, and give more enjoyment & pleasure. Even if quality costs double, it will likely last 3+ times as long, making it better value.

  • I used a set (read: an entire wall of em) of Billy bookcases for 15 years, packed full of books. The light birch ones look chic if you pick the right doors for them – indistinguishable by most people from units costing 4x at much. Shelves never bowed or broke. Only got rid of them when a long distance move with them was impractical, and my current space wouldn’t accommodate a wall of bookshelves so I haven’t replaced them.

    I’ve currently got a Pax wardrobe with a turquoise door (yeah, turquoise!) and a red Expedit cube shelf. Happy as a clam with both so far after 4 months, knock on MDF. I also have some “quality” contemporary designer pieces that are “real”, but which I expect to last not much longer than the IKEA given their construction (expensive imported designer upholstered furniture is not necessarily built for generation-to-generation hand-me-down). I don’t necessarily WANT furniture that will last me 20 years. In 10 years, I’ll want a different style.

    That said, for me, as someone who’s moved house 6 times: Desk chair, mattress = buy new, spend as much as you can afford. Workstation = get what you will be productive using, and don’t scrimp and get something too small. Decor = spend here as well… it’s like with clothing… accessories can make the outfit. Everything else = IKEA FTW, or SOMETIMES gumtree, but I worry about the pest/smell issues with used furniture.

  • We have a lot of 2nd hand furniture – both hand me downs and bought – and they serve us well. We also have a few IKEA pieces and ones I have built from scratch (read went to Bunning bought the separate bits and put together shelving unit) which was cheap and useful. I hate paying huge $ for “new” fashion furniture when the ops shops and garage sales get you quality good furniture for much less.
    Of course beds (mattresses) are always new and underwear! other than that I’m happy with secondhand (quality) buys! I have heap of business shirts from ops shops (and good brand names too) which are more than fine!

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