Seating on a budget

By Mir
July 13, 2010

The very pretty Emily writes:

I know that you’ve addressed this before, but I was just wondering if you had any new advice. I am a teacher and a fairly recent grad, so I don’t have a ton of money. I’ve seen some really cute couches on Craigslist, and some ugly couches that would be cute with the right slipcover. What is your opinion on buying used “soft” furniture? Is it worth saving money by buying it used and/or having it slip covered?

This is one of those questions I feel the need to preface with a big ol’ “take it with a grain of salt,” because this is a prime example of personal opinion being more important than fact.

Fact: You can buy things like furniture a lot cheaper if you’re willing to get them used.
Opinion: Used things with unwashable cushions scare me a little.

There, I said it. This is not to say that I’ve never gotten furniture used; I have, but I think it’s one of those things where if anything less than pristine condition is possibly going to skeeve you out, you could potentially end up investing a lot of time on not a lot of return, you know?

Furthermore, I’m not a huge fan of slipcovers unless you’re looking at the custom-fit ones, at which point—between the cost of the couch and then the cost of a quality cover—you may as well buy something new, because you’re probably not saving any money.

So where does that leave you? As happy as I am to buy a used dresser or table, I tend to shy away from used couches. Better options on a budget (this is in my opinion, obviously):

1) Ikea, if you have one locally, or Target or Big Lots if you don’t. Consider it “starter furniture,” and the sort of thing you can either pass on when you’re ready to upgrade or put in a basement rec room or a kid room without worrying about it being stained/broken/whatever.

2) The scratch-n-dent section of your favorite local discount furniture place. Maybe that couch has a ding on the back (that you’ll never see, because you plan to put it up against a wall), plus many furniture stores offer free no-interest financing (allowing you to take a year to pay without owing any interest; this effectively lowers your cost by whatever interest you can earn on that money in the meantime).

3) Online places like Amazon or Overstock (where the shipping is either free or just a few dollars). You’re gambling in buying without experiencing it in person, but they tend to have periodic deals which make it worth the risk.

4) Word of mouth. It’s less scary to buy furniture from someone you know. And if you happen to let folks know you’re looking for a couch on the cheap, well, maybe somebody’s grandma is cleaning out her house and has something she’s willing to let go if you’ll just go pick it up. Does this make it less gross than buying from a stranger? Maybe. I don’t know. Just a thought.

I’m guessing that wasn’t entirely helpful, but there you go.


  1. I second the word of mouth idea. We’ve gotten two free couches that way. Granted, neither of them were lovely or pristine, but they’ve been fairly comfy.

  2. The word of mouth idea worked well for my family – as did a grand opening sale. We bought a full sized futon when my mom left her house for an apartment. My daughter went to a LoveSac grand opening and pulled an 87% off discount out of their hat – seriously. She called us at 6 AM on a Saturday to say, “Can you pick me up in the van?” and “Since I have this outrageous discount, what do you want?”
    Not fancy furniture, but solid and good bargains.

  3. costco tends to have decent prices on furniture. It’s not cheap, but it’s a good price on a quality piece of furniture, delivered to your door, and if you don’t like it, you can return it at the warehouse (though getting it to the warehouse might be a problem).

  4. In our area, we shop at Ikea. You can buy a couch on the cheap and when you are better off, you can upgrade with one of their fancier slip covers which fit like a glove. I wouldn’t buy a used couch unless I knew the posteriors that had sat on it.

  5. One other option is when a builder is done building in a new neighborhood, they usually have a big sale on all of the furniture and decor in the model home. Technically, it is used but hardly anyone sits on the furniture in a model home — they just look.

  6. Keep this in mind. I can fit 3, yes THREE 26×26 fully stuffed couch pillows in the commercial washers at the laundry mat. I have 11 of these big micro-fiber pillows and they wash just great.
    So – if you can find something with removable pillows & zip off cushion covers on craig’s list… go for it!

  7. Big old NO on slipcovers. I’ve had the elastic-y kind and the loose kind. Both drove me batty. Easier to tolerate the ugly couch underneath.

    Reupholstering – if you can even find someone who can do it – will be verrry expensive.

    Can you tell I’ve lived with a couch I hate for a number of years? It may be time to find a friend who has an incontinent cat that I can offer to babysit. And then strap it to that couch. Voila; no more spousal resistance to getting rid of said couch.

  8. In my dorm days, I had my fair share of “student couches”– the sort that get scavenged from someone’s grandmother’s basement and then passed around for 10 years– and had no complaints, but I’d never do used upholstery now. It’s not about “gross”; it’s about bedbugs. Even the tidiest households can have them, and it’s just not worth taking the chance.

  9. We’ve been looking into cheap seating options and it looks like people really like Macy’s for style, price, and quality. If you wait until furniture is on sale (which seems to be at least twice a month) they have some really cute stuff that runs in the $650-700 range for a full sized couch. Some of the IKEA couches run up to that price now for nicer fabrics and I think the Macy’s furniture better constructed so you wouldn’t necessarily have to get rid of it in a couple years.

  10. re: used couches, I have two words for you.
    Bed bugs.

  11. When we were in college a couch was out of our budget. And hte first 6 years of our marriage we had used ones. We lived in a college town that was mostly non-smoking (it was rare to smell it on anyone at wal-mart that is how rare it was) and we were able to find great deals on used couches. We rotated through out those years trading with people and buying/selling. We nearly always made a profit b/c we got good deals. Anyway our last set kept making me sick (I have really bad allergies) so when we got a transfer with work that increased our pay substantially we decided to spend the money to buy a brand new couch that wouldn’t make me sick.

    So if you are broke and A) have allergies, go new OR B) if you don’t have good reliably clean/not nasty couches to choose from, go new! To this day the only items in our house we’ve bought new are our mattress and our sofa. Everything else we have is used and will stay that way for at least the next decade unless we build it ourselves.

    If you can save up $300 then I’d buy new even if it means you buy one couch and then save the next $300 for the second.

  12. nay in the era of bedbugs, tho i’d do friend/family member hand me downs.

  13. Mir, thanks so much for posting my email! Another question to throw out there to your intrepid readers however, I’ve seen a lot of design sites where the authors have made their own slipcovers. Most are claiming that it’s not that difficult. Does anyone have experience that they’d be willing to share?

  14. For some reason, used leather furniture does not bother me nearly as much…easier to wipe down and clean.

  15. I am a not good at sewing. Not good at measuring. Not much on depth perception either, but that doesn’t really apply, I guess. I have to say that I *did* make my own slipcovers on several occasions, with varying degrees of aesthetic and practical success. The first set was made from painter’s cloths–good sturdy fabric at a good price. Made a pillow case sort of thing for each cushion, little velcro for closure (meh) and sort of a really big painter’s cloth to cover the frame. It had a soho sort of feel, but it worked, washed well, and was neutral. I still love painter’s cloths, but I’ve also used sheets just for kicks. Same dye batch, generally cheap, generally square. Good things when you can’t sew or measure for crap. This last set of slip covers is surprisingly okay-looking. Got a huge amount of great quality copper-colored linen at a thrift store thinking, “someday, I’ll have someone make slipcovers for the sofa.” Never happened. So figured I’d try it myself before the fabric rotted out in storage. Learned to make a box seat cushion cover, a little over-sized, b/c linen is good that way, ran some elastic around the hem of the back part (really technical here, bad at this, remember?) and then attached some ties to the unseen back parts of the cushions. Not bad. Tuck a little. Have three boys. Still, just tuck a little. The frame part was time consuming, but not horrible. Again, linen is pretty forgiving, so maybe if I had to use real fabric I would have been screwed. Used a disappearing ink pen and traced the sofa parts on the fabric. Someone with talent would have made a template out of paper or muslin and had those notches where it all fit together. Not me, by god. I went slowly, used lots of bad words, and cut ridiculously generous hem allowances. Had to learn to do that “sewing curve” thing (still not sure how I did it) but well, overall, it looks better than it should. Washes pretty well. Again, I totally lucked out with the linen. Has that easy-going looking thing to cover up the horribly mis-measured pieces. It’s not bad. Really. I’m as surprised as anyone. The box seat cushion cover and the curved sewing thing made a difference in the overall look. Sometimes I dream about zippers…but they are so far out of my league, man, I can’t even tell you.
    Anyway, yeah, I’m lousy at sewing. Really lousy at it. I have three boys. I’m not patient. I am, however, quite unable to afford a new sofa and/or slipcovers. So I made my own slipcovers that don’t embarrass me. Painter’s cloth from Home Depot or similar is your best bet. Have sharp scissors and a seam ripper. You’ve got to be better at it than I am, seriously. Have at it.

  16. OVERSTOCK.COM —– super cheap and cute furniture and only about $2 for shipping!! Yep, I said it– $2 shipping!!! Done deal…goodnight! 🙂

  17. “Word of mouth” works best for us, too. We had our “starter sofa” like that for about 7 years.

    From strangers, unwashable cushions would skeeve me out. I guess there are the bedbug and allergy issues folks mentioned, but I also think of “Poppy” from “Seinfeld” whenever I see cushioned free furniture by the road . . .

  18. CORT Furniture is the place that rents most furniture to home builders for their models. They then sell it discounted at their outlets. They are VERY hit and miss, but if you have one in your area, they are worth checking out. Those models usually have some pretty swanky stuff and you can get a screaming deal on occasion.

  19. I highly recommend searching out consignment furniture shops in your area rather than using Craigslist. From walking the shop, you’ll be able to tell what type of quality they take in and how they care for the pieces they sell, which relieves a *lot* of my anxiety about bodily fluids, insects and the like. We found an Italian leather couch for $500 a few years back. When I checked online, it retailed at $3500! It had one little scratch on a seat, so I bought it, matched the leather with a $5 art marker and helped the sofa look brand new. We’ve since used consignment to buy three or four other big pieces of furniture and have had great luck.

  20. I am, right now, in the angst of looking for cheap (er) furniture. We just moved and have a larger (on post military) house to fill with a few needed pieces. I have been scouring Overstock, where I bought a gorgeous 8 x 10 rug for $420 ($2.95 shipping!). I have also been looking for a loveseat for a sunroom and two chairs for the large living room. Besudes Overstock and, I hit all my local HomeGoods stores and Marshalls, TJMaxx, etc., but World Market is where I found a GREAT DEAL. Their Studio Daybed/sofa is on sale right now for $299, down from $399 and they have nice looking faux leather chairs for $199, down from $249. If you sign up for their World Market Explorer program, you can get a 10-15% off coupon (I was told it was going to be a 10% coupon, but a 15% one popped up as well!). So, for all three pieces it was under $600. The sofa, I plan to play up with an easy homemade slipcover and some colorful pillows. They have a 60 day return policy, so I am still looking for something either cheaper and/or better but snatched those pieces up while they were on sale. Good luck!

  21. Seriously, unless I’m getting it from a friend, or a friend of a friend (but not further related than that) I refuse to accept anything used that is also upholstered. It makes me squeamish.

  22. Mary Ann,

    I’m so with you! I don’t want someone else’s funk 🙂 My back is so sore from my current couch, I just want a new one that’s nice and firm. Someone else’s hand me down isn’t going to cut it.

  23. Um, I guess I’m in the vast minority here, but I loved used furniture. If it’s clean and doesn’t smell like cats or dogs or smoke or pee or poop, and came from a nice home, I’m up for it. Bedbugs (or any other critter) have never been a problem.

    When I bring something icky home in a piece of furniture, my lowbrow thrifty ways will end, I suppose. Until then, I’ll keep snapping up the smokin’ deals on quality used furniture the rest of you are too squeamish to buy.

Bargain Hunt





Want Not Archives

Creative Commons License

Pin It on Pinterest