I get it. Everyone wants to buy something that looks nice and doesn’t cost a fortune. Not to pick on Ikea, but they’ve cornered that market. You can find all the popular styles reasonably priced, but how much do you know about the furniture you’re buying? See, my issue with cheap furniture is the quality.
You’ll waste more money replacing cheap furniture than you would if you invested in something more durable.
How can you determine how well a piece of furniture is made? First, look at the materials used in the construction. With online shopping, it’s much easier to find a specific list. You want to avoid particleboard, fiberboard, or MDF board as they are all a form of engineered wood, which is created by broken down fibers of old lumber glued together. The issue with engineered wood is it doesn’t withstand weight or wear like hardwood. It’s easily damaged as it’s likely to bow, scratch, and chip. Another disadvantage, it’s not easily sanded or painted. You can’t sand out a scratch or update the style because it doesn’t have grain, and paint causes it to warp. Have you ever bought a tv stand and then noticed four months later that it sagged in the middle from the weight of your tv? That’s engineered wood.
Now, unfortunately, it gets more complicated. Sometimes furniture is made with a combination of hardwood and engineered wood. Typically, the frame or supports are constructed of hardwood, and then design components like drawer fronts are made with engineered wood to save resources. This type of furniture can be a good option if there’s a strong frame. If you’re out shopping and can’t find a materials list, a good reference is how heavy the piece of furniture is. Something made of solid wood (or a wood frame) will be much heavier than engineered wood. Another pro tip is that most furniture you have to assemble is made from engineered wood.
So why does it matter? While there’s nothing wrong with buying a cheap piece of furniture, there is an issue with its shelf life. As I mentioned earlier, it may last six months before you start to see wear and tear on your piece. After two years, you’ll be ready to kick that thing to the curb for something new, and ultimately, it will end up in a landfill. Now companies will argue that engineered wood is made from recycled wood and therefore helps the environment by saving trees. While we may keep some trees from being cut down, if it ends up in a landfill, we’re just creating a new problem. Companies are looking at ways to re-use and recycle engineered wood, but anything with paint, stain, or varnish goes right into the garbage… which is all furniture. If you must buy new furniture every two-three years, that’s up to five pieces you’ve disposed of in just ten years. An item at $200-$300 each adds up to $1,250 over time. It may seem reasonable spread out over ten years but consider this: if you invest in something of quality, you can keep the piece longer, update it over time, or sell it in the future when you’re ready to replace it. Less waste, less hassle, and a better aesthetic because, let’s be honest cheap furniture looks cheap. It won’t matter what curtains you put up or pillows you use to decorate if all your furniture is scratched and buckling.
Now, let’s take a step back because while I believe in investing in your home, I understand we don’t all have $2,000 to drop on a dresser. I furnished my house while in college, so I know. If you’re moving or starting brand new, I know it seems like you need to buy things “just to have” or “just to get started.” I don’t suggest sleeping on your floor mattress until you can afford that teak west elm bedframe you’ve been eyeing, but I urge you to consider what you must have to start. Yes, you need a couch, but do you need an entire living room set with end tables and a coffee table the day you move in? Probably not. So here’s my advice, invest in things that hold a lot of weight (actual weight) like dressers, desks, storage cabinets, beds, and couches. For more aesthetic pieces like end tables, nightstands, and coffee tables, feel free to get something of lesser quality if you must have it. Buying furniture slowly over time helps you curate a collection of pieces you truly love and build a better design. Another great option is thrift stores, used furniture shops, vintage shops, or apps like offer up or Facebook marketplace. Be careful with antique stores, sometimes it’s old furniture at a discount, and sometimes it is 4x the price because it’s “antique.” Because engineered wood was created in the ’60s, most older furniture is solid wood. Over half the furniture in my own home is something I bought second-hand. Mid-century modern is super popular right now, and you can find many great vintage pieces made of solid wood for half the price of retailers.
We all fall victim to wanting the best thing right now. But I promise stopping to think about your overall design goals and the longevity of your purchases will help you make a better decision in the long run. If you’re interested in learning how to mix vintage styles into a modern aesthetic, click here.