Beds are expensive. The average spring mattress sells for $1,500, according to the slumber gurus at SleepLiketheDead.com. Once you add in a box spring, a bed frame, and a headboard, that number can easily creep up to or beyond $2,000.
We know that mattresses are something we shouldn’t buy used and shouldn’t skimp on, so I racked my brain to figure out a frugal way to get the bed I wanted. I figured that with a little bit of resourcefulness and the willingness to challenge societal norms, you can create a nice, king-size bed for a fraction of what it would cost going the traditional route.
Because if you thought I was going to pay over two grand for a bed, then you must not know that I am currently wearing generic rain pants that I got for 3 bucks at Goodwill. Do I give a crap that they are technically women’s pants? I do not. If they look good, they feel good, they keep me dry, and they’re affordable, then that’s all I need.
I began my search for a bed using those same parameters, and I found you can create your own DIY bed, including frame and mattress padding, for way less than $2,000. Here’s how we did it.
Question the Dogma
A year ago, when my girlfriend and I first moved in together, we knew that we didn’t want to keep sharing a queen-sized bed. I know we could have, but I’m 6’0″ and she’s 5’6″, and it never felt like we had quite enough room.
As we considered our options, we decided to try sleeping right on the floor. We had nice, new carpet, and once we threw a couple blankets down, it was plenty comfortable. We lovingly called it “The Super Bed” because it was huge and awesome and free. My friends called it “The Gorillas Nest,” which they meant as an insult but I took as a compliment.
But, we weren’t just trying this out because we are weirdos (which we are), but also because I had become obsessed with the idea that mattresses might not be providing me with optimal sleep.
I started doing a lot of research about the sleep habits of our ancestors, and I was particularly struck by a research paper from the British Medical Journal that detailed various ways humans sleep when they are still living in pre-industrial societies. They often sleep on hard surfaces, and they rarely use pillows. The author suggests that these different sleeping postures contribute to the lack of musculoskeletal issues in those societies.
I went from there to the goddess of alignment herself, Katy Bowman, a biomechanist who advocates transitioning out of a mattress to help alleviate chronic pain and facilitate a more natural sleep. Those two sources were enough to convince me to at least give the no-mattress life a try. I’d long had back issues that were exacerbated by sleeping on mattresses. Giving up the mattress made sense to me evolutionarily, orthopedically — and financially. What was the worst that could happen?
Find Cheap Materials
While the Gorillas Nest™ will always have a special place in my heart, when we decided to make the move from Los Angeles to Madison, Wis., my girlfriend and I agreed that we’d like to see what it was like to sleep on something slightly more classy than a 10-year-old blanket laid down on a carpet. Plus, our new place had hardwood floors throughout, so we would have had to use a lot more blankets.
So, we started talking about a solution. We knew we didn’t want to spend a lot of money and that we liked the extra firmness and room to flop around that the floor provided. The logical solution was to try to build our own bed so that we would could customize it exactly how we wanted.
We figured that pallets would be good for giving our new bed a little bit of elevation. Before we went out and bought some, we discovered my girlfriend’s parents had some lying around in their garage. Even better, my girlfriend’s sister had a couple we could use as well. (If your relatives aren’t sitting on piles of pallets, you can still often find them for free or cheap by inquiring at local small businesses and construction sites or searching on Craigslist.)
We had now acquired four wood pallets for free. Their dimensions when put together were almost exactly those of a traditional king-sized bed.
Besides some two-by-fours ($6.50) to act as connective tissue in the middle, the only missing piece was a smooth covering layer that would provide us with an even sleeping surface.
The tricky part was that we needed this layer to be breathable, because we had read that the pad you sleep on could get moldy if there was no air circulation. A quick trip to Home Depot and we found these sheets of perforated wood — sometimes called peg board, which you can use to hang tools in a garage or basement — for $25.
Put on Your Hard Hat and Build That Sucker
Okay, you in no way need a hard hat for this work, but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for me to wear one.
I am not comfortable around building materials, tools, and machinery. My greatest asset as a handyman is my willingness to admit that I can barely screw in a light bulb, and thus not overstep my boundaries.
This was going to require some work with a power saw, which meant I bit off a little more than I could chew when I confidently announced I would put the bed together.
I pretty much just looked at the plans (that my girlfriend had laid out), looked at the materials, and then said to my girlfriend, “Let’s ask if your dad will help.”
And then her dad came to the rescue. He measured, sawed, and drilled in 90-degree heat for about two hours while I helped where I could.
This meant that I mostly looked on and provided encouragement.
When I asked him how he knew how to do all that so well, he just shrugged and said, “You pick up this kind of stuff when you grow up on a farm.”
I thought farmers planted crops and milked cows. I didn’t know they were also jacks of all trades who could create amazing bed frames in less time than it takes to watch a movie. I always thought I was humble, but I’m clearly not Midwestern-farmer humble.
Think Outside the Mattress
I covered how we wanted to avoid mattresses because of price and for orthopedic reasons, but another big issue was the flame retardant. Every single commercially sold mattress is required to be pumped full of flame retardant to meet state and federal laws.
While this certainly has saved lives at some point, I’m confident we won’t light our bed on fire, so I’m happy to avoid the nasty litany of potential health effects that come along with breathing in flame retardant every night.
Because of these concerns, I’ll admit that we weren’t as frugal as possible when it came to our padding. Plus, we were really looking forward to an upgrade from using 10-year-old blankets as our sole source of cushion. We settled on a down mattress topper ($180 after discounts) on top of a latex pad ($270).
They are both very high quality, free of hazardous chemicals, and should last us a very long time. While those items are pricey, it still cost us far less than the average mattress ($450 vs $1,500).
Total cost for our DIY bed, between “mattress” and frame: $481.
Now, $481 is still a lot of money. But if you’re looking for a high-quality, long lasting, king-sized bed, you’re not going to do much better than that. Even the new, “low-cost” mattress startups like Casper and Tuft & Needle will run you between $750 and $950 for a king-sized mattress.
If we start feeling too opulent we can always go back to the floor, as we proved for a year that we are capable of that.
It might not look hip, and it might shock you with it’s stiffness if you’re not used to it, but we personally love the firmer feel. And while it will never make the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog, you’d have to be a pretty fancy gorilla to be sleeping in that thing. For me and my girlfriend, it’s perfect.