When Is The Right Time To Start Buying Nice Furniture?

When you're single but old enough that most of your friends are settling down, furniture shopping is as emotionally fraught as retail can get.

Last weekend I bought something from Room & Board for the first time. Room & Board, if you’re not familiar, is like a pricier, classier, and infinitely sturdier version of West Elm. It’s one of those places where grown-ups shop, and I’ve dreamed of owning something from there since my late twenties, when I first started trying to be a grown-up, furniture-wise.

On the continuum of furniture stores, Room & Board sits somewhere between West Elm (Ikea quality, priced for people who feel they've outgrown Ikea) and Design Within Reach (exactly whose reach I'm not quite sure). My first Room & Board purchase didn’t even come from one of its stores: It was a used R&B bed frame I got from someone on Craigslist, and even at half the retail price, it cost me more cash than I’ve ever handed to a stranger in my life.

The frame is made of white powder-coated steel and has a few minor blemishes. It’s full-size because I don’t really have the room for a queen. Like every bed frame I’ve bought secondhand, it was on sale because its owner graduated to something bigger. But it still felt like a milestone.

I lived alone, in a basement, albeit a pretty nice one. I wasn’t supposed to be buying things like this.

During a particularly interior-decor-obsessed period of my 29th year, I made frequent pilgrimages to Room & Board’s store in Washington, DC, imagining a life in which I might own a 76” André sofa in ink blue ($1699). The other people in the store — almost always couples, it seemed — could have actually purchased it, perhaps even in 89” or 101”. They contemplated sectionals and had spare rooms. The smallest André would have overwhelmed my tiny studio, and even if I had the space, and the money, owning it would have felt like wearing an evening gown to a low-key barbecue. I lived alone, in a basement, albeit a pretty nice one. I wasn’t supposed to be buying things like this.

When you’re single, and have reached the age where a lot of your peers are not, furniture shopping is about as emotionally fraught as a retail experience can be. What size do you need? How long are you going to be in this place? Is this your real life yet — furniture-wise, and otherwise?

Recently a friend and I were sitting at my dining table. It’s midrange as far as Ikea goes — a $200 solid wood four-top — not the cheapest stuff they sell, but not their nicest either. I bought it because I needed a table, not a table. It was a little small for my dinner party ambitions, I told him, and maybe I should replace it.

“I guess I probably won’t get a new table until I’m married,” he said.

He’s 35, and not engaged or anywhere close. I told him he could get a new table whenever he wanted. But I knew exactly what he meant.

The better furniture stores are full of couples for a good reason. People buy nice things when they feel settled: You invest in a comfy new couch when you’ve found someone to stay in with on Saturday nights. You upgrade to a bigger, better mattress because you’re sharing it with a partner now, and you can justify the expense. You can delight in boring talk about upholstery at parties because you’ve entered the time of life when people are setting up homes. The presence of two incomes, or a wedding registry, is another bonus.

It can feel selfish, or foolish, or bittersweet, to invest in “setting up home” as a single person, especially if you don’t own your place. Even if you can afford it, nicer furniture — whatever feels spendy to you, whether that means a $500 sofa or a $5,000 one — can feel off-limits until you’ve built a life that can sustain its weight.

There are plenty of practical reasons to avoid buying things and stick with the hand-me-downs and Ikea. Good stuff isn’t cheap, you may be moving around a lot, you might be living in a space you’ll outgrow, and maybe the big-ticket items are best picked with a partner later on. Maybe you just don’t care about end tables and would rather spend your money on other things.

But if you feel ready to own some grown-up furniture, it shouldn’t be your single status that holds you back.

There are more single people now than ever, but there’s still an assumption that you’re not really an adult until you’re married or have a mortgage, and preferably both. There’s “adulting,” as the young people and the brands who chase them put it — negotiating a job offer, doing your taxes on time, learning what the word “deductible” means. And then there’s the moment, maybe in your late twenties or early thirties, when your Facebook feed turns into a ticker of nonstop wedding announcements, baby photos, and proud new homeowners.

Most of us hit a point where we feel some version of I thought I’d have that figured out by now. I thought I’d be further along in my career. I thought I’d be married. I thought I’d have a house. My mother had two kids when she was my age. Not everyone wants all, or even any, of these things, even though we’d probably all accept a bigger salary. The gap between the life you thought you’d have and the one you’re in can be freeing, lonely, or sometimes both, depending on the day.

Without those traditional markers, you can feel adrift. It’s hard investing in physical symbols when it seems, either to you or to the people around you, like you’re still waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe 30 really is the new 20 — so when do you get the nice couch?

I’m single, and I’ve moved around a lot, and the first time I bought new, non-Ikea furniture was surprisingly stressful: I’d never spent so much money on anything before, and I worried about screwing it up. Only a few years earlier I’d gone to the suburbs with my roommates to pick up a free Craigslist loveseat, which we strapped precariously to the top of a station wagon and drove home for a terrifying 20 minutes in the slow lane. I still didn’t feel old enough to buy furniture that was delivered in an actual truck.

But it was also really exciting: I was making my home and calling all the shots. (The André sofa was not to be mine, but I got a 70” Draper from CB2 for half the price. It’s been discontinued, but as couches go, it was fine.)

Since then, and two moves later, I’ve sometimes felt guilty spending good money on furniture that’s not going in a “forever home,” or even a five-year home. Mostly I love making my rented one-bedroom apartment look and feel exactly mine. But sometimes, when I’m contemplating a bigger purchase and the woman standing next to me calls to her spouse, “Hon, what do you think of this dresser?” my internal voice wavers: Yes, I live here. Yes, just me.

The gap between the life you thought you’d have and the one you’re in can be freeing, lonely, or sometimes both.

I’m secretly a little thrilled every time I visit the home of a married couple who, like me, are in their thirties, and realize that they don’t actually have 100% grown-up stuff. That the status society confers on your wedding day doesn’t come with automatic knowledge of appropriate window treatments (seriously, why do curtains cost so much?!) or enough space for that big, solid wood dining room table. That we’re all figuring this out together.

Right now, I watch TV, read, work, and eat a lot of my meals on a 78” Ikea Stocksund sofa. It cost $599 and arrived in a gigantic box. I screwed the legs on myself. It’s pretty cute, and I find it neither particularly comfortable nor uncomfortable. For now, I live vicariously by suggesting Room & Board whenever someone asks where they should shop for a grown-up couch.

But I love my simple, airy Craigslisted R&B bed frame. After assembling several Ikea beds over the last few years — without the assistance of another adult — my mind was blown when I found that this one took literally two minutes to snap together. It has steel slats instead of those wooden ones that always clattered to the floor when I moved them. It’s built to last forever, though I certainly won’t sleep on it that long. But I like seeing it in my room.

When I was debating if it was prudent to pay this much for a full-size bed — a single person’s bed — and maybe a new mattress too, I thought: Maybe in a few years, I’ll have a guest room, and it can go there. Or maybe I’ll resell it on Craigslist — people will always want secondhand Room & Board. It’s OK to spend all this money because it wasn’t just for me.

But maybe it will have been just for me, and that’s OK. Spend within your means, consider your circumstances, resell the things you outgrow, and don’t overdo it. But buy nice things when you’re ready to, not when you think you’re supposed to. It doesn’t have to be a marriage bed to be one you love. ●

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