The furniture you live on, and the furniture you live around.

The furniture you live on, and the furniture you live around.

At the end of the year, I shared a list of things that worked for me in 2014, the things that made my life run more smoothly, or the things that just made life a lot more fun. like Lucky’s Market, audiobooks, my glitter flats.

I very nearly included our living room sectional on that list. I decided not to because 1. It’s just a sofa and 2. It felt materialistic. (Maybe that shouldn’t have stopped me, because I did include gold glitter flats on the list.)
sofa 1

My sister-in-law handpicked that sofa for us. When we moved into our new house in May, the living room baffled me. I just didn’t know what to do with it. Sarah is a talented designer with a great eye (not my daughter Sarah, although I find myself saying that about her more and more), and she made a plan the whole family loves.

Most of the budget went towards a single piece of new furniture: the sectional.

We’d been planning on this purchase for a while; it wasn’t just a we-got-bored-with-the-old-look purchase. Our old sofa was broken beyond repair: when we moved, we opted to trash it instead of loading it on the moving van. We expected this expense, but it still felt like a big chunk of change.

sofa 3

But it’s the perfect piece to anchor the room. We all love it, and our whole family piles on it to study history, watch Jimmy Fallon, and just hang out. It’s the kids’ favorite place to read. It’s where Will and I bring our coffee to chat. It’s where I burrow under blankets (in the corner seat, please) with a good book on frigid winter afternoons. (Bonus: the warranty is killer, so I’m relaxed about all this family togetherness on the sofa.)

We were at a family dinner when I told my sister-in-law how much I loved our sectional. My brother—who knows way more about furniture than I do—said I’d accidentally followed one of his favorite rules of thumb: Spend your money on the furniture you live ON. Save your money on the furniture you live AROUND.

I understood immediately. So did my dad, who said it’s just like handkerchiefs: some are for blowing, and some are for showing. (Ha!)

sofa 4

Our sectional is for blowing. We live all over that thing. It’s the favorite seat that everyone wants, because it’s comfy and it doesn’t budge when you flop on it. It’s cozy and inviting. It was money well-spent.

In contrast, we went the cheap route for the furniture we live around, the stuff that’s for showing. We want it to be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be comfortable, or stand up to heavy use.

We still have a lot to do in the new place. As we move forward with the finishing touches, we’ll be intentional about following that rule of thumb—spending our money on the furniture we live on, and going the budget route on the stuff we live around.

Is this a principle you’ve put to use in your home? I’d love to hear any other rules of thumb you have for YOUR home. 

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37 comments

  1. Jamie says:

    What a great rule! I’ve never heard it put that way before, but I love it. Definitely something to keep in mind.

    Our current rule is “once and done”. If we buy furniture, we don’t want to have to replace it…. like, ever. So when we bought a dining room table, it was expensive, but it’s reclaimed barnwood. It’s stupid heavy and solid as a rock, and will last forever. Ditto for our couch, coffee table, etc. They’re attractive and solid, in classic styles and will probably last us pretty close to the rest of our lives.

    I know that isn’t feasible for everyone, but it’s serving us really well!

  2. I love this principal and it makes total sense. It’s kind of the same for fashion isn’t it? Spend on shoes not scarves. Or beauty…spend on skin care not lipstick. The foundational things.

    Do you still like your Ektorp sofa?

  3. Janet says:

    Great rule. We need a new couch and I have not been happy with our last 2. We live on our couch too so maybe I need to spend a bit more and get something really good.
    Love yours, not sure we can fit a sectional in our space.

  4. Danae says:

    We recently did a similar thing with our living room. For years, we tried all sorts of configurations with our old assortment of furniture pieces. The furniture wasn’t terrible, but it was an odd collection of pieces we each brought into our marriage or bought for different spaces in various apartments before buying our house. We would periodically rearrange them to try and make it work, but that was a frustrating process and never felt right. As the couches finally wore out, we spent a LOT of time in furniture stores trying to figure out what we wanted. We ended up using a designer to help plan our space well, and I am 100% convinced this is why our new furniture works for us. I needed somebody else to look at my living room, listen to me describe how I wanted to use the space, and suggest specific furniture/wall colors/art that would look cohesive. It was so fascinating to learn more about my own taste, style, and preferences! I am an under buyer so it was really hard to commit to the expense, but so worth it. We now have furniture that achieves the function and aesthetic we wanted and we love living in the room!

    • Guest says:

      We did the same thing. I had never worked with a designer before but the store we were perusing offers design services for free (of course you more than pay for it in the end – ha!). He came out and I was able to say what I was wanting to feel in the room – peaceful, cozy, warm – and some specific needs (oddities) of our family. For example, we don’t have coffee tables because wrestling/rough-housing is a family tradition so we need a clear space – sounds weird but it works for us. I *love* our living room so much and every piece in that room truly sparks joy for me. I have a tendency of buying furniture that is too large or too small and he was able to suggest pieces that were the perfect size including having two custom ottomans instead of more chairs. Those ottomans have been WONDERFUL and our kids absolutely love them. Plus they can serve as tables with a tray on top. Anyway, I will most definitely work with a designer again for future room makeovers.

  5. Ana says:

    I really love how the blue flower pillows mimic your book page wreath, and your map pillow goes with your globe! How does the whiteish couch work, especially with the kids and dog? Is some or all of it washable (and have you had to wash it yet)? I think this is a great principle–when we remodeled our house, our splurge was granite counters–I spend soooo much time in the kitchen, and they make me happy every time I look at them, so it’s something I’m glad we did.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks! The sofa is a textured taupe-ish fabric that’s easy to clean. And with the warranty we can call a cleaning service if, say, somebody writes on the sofa with a g-2 (ahem) and the professionals will come get it out for free. 🙂

      We need to redo the kitchen and I’m filing away your comment about your countertops for then. 🙂

  6. I spy an Ikea map pillow that I just picked up for our new loft room. Good choice. 😉

    I’m still Scotch, so even though I have a millionaire’s taste, I have Scrooge’s feelings about spending money. There are a few things I’ll splurge on, cashmere sweaters being one of them… but only when they are on super sale at the end of the season. Same goes for furniture. I’m done buying cheap – I want quality that will last, but I don’t want to pay top dollar if I don’t have to.

    When looking for a larger replacement dining table, we turned to the web and local stores. Nothing felt right, and those that *might* make the cut, were just too pricey for my Scotchness. The table we REALLY wanted ran anywhere between $20K and $40k, and obviously that was NEVER going to happen. We kept looking and found a possible substitute – better price, but we hated the finish.

    One night in the fall, I was trolling around eBay and decided to randomly type in the kind of table I was looking for… and suddenly, there it was. OUR table. Solid wood, made by the Amish (so good craftsmanship, not sweatshop labor), in the size, color, and style we wanted, and the best price we’ve seen. Yes, we waited almost 3 months for it to be delivered, but now that it’s here, it’s perfect. We could not be happier.

    Bottom Line: paying more for something doesn’t mean you’re buying quality – not any more. But I’d rather pay (a little bit) more and buy better if it means I only have to shop once. 🙂

  7. Corby says:

    Never realized but I guess we kinda do that. Accent pieces in the house are tag sale, Facebook exchsnges or estate sale finds. Couches, mattresses etc….is where we spend the bucks.
    Although we did score on our sectional as a friend was moving and she had just bought her sectional 8 months prior and she was the only one in her house. Score!!!!

    And well let’s just say we bought our last king mattress when we got married 23 years ago so we are putting out the bucks this year for a new one. It’s about time

  8. This makes so much sense. Why spend a lot on something you never use but sits there and looks nice? I actually tend to go the cheap route with everything (partially cause I’m cheap, partially cause we don’t have much money) but spending the time and money investing in a good piece of furniture that is as heavily used as a sofa makes a lot of sense. We are thinking of buying a new sofa and upgrading from a string of Craigslist and hand-me-down sofas to one we actually pick out. *Swoon* Such luxury

  9. Katia says:

    I love the colours in your home, and the sectional does look fantastic!

    As for me, right now, our living room sofa and loveseat are in a terrible state. They are a pale beige colour and have seen spit-up, juice spills, cat hair… You name it! We thought about replacing them but decided to wait until the children are a bit older. Nice sofas are the one furniture item on which we’d spend good money. I suppose a nice dining room set is also in that category.

  10. Sarah R says:

    Your living room looks beautiful and your dad has had me laughing for the past 5 minutes! We bought a couch and love seat prior to kids and didn’t put a lot of thought into it, and now we’re already talking about replacing it. Hopefully we can Craigslist it or use it in our basement. It looks fine but we can tell the cushions aren’t as comfy as they once were.

    We are also in the process of purchasing a bunk bed for our kids, and we are following the same philosophy. What’s nice about the ones we found is the two beds can each stand on their own, so when they no longer share a room, the beds are still usable.

  11. I guess we’ve kind of done this, just not on purpose! Almost all our furniture is either second-hand or hand-me-down. Even our mattress and box spring, which are really nice, were given to us by friends. But when our couch needed replacing last fall (reaaally badly… it was my grandparent’s from the 70’s!), we found an amazing sale and got a fantastic couch that we absolutely LOVE. And it should last us a really long time. So that’s pretty much the only piece of furniture we’ve spent significant money on! 🙂

  12. Laurel says:

    This is really sound advice! I hope we are able to afford a nicer sofa someday soon. That is definitely something I want to spend money to live ON! 😉 Also, a nice dining set too.

  13. jackie says:

    I can relate with my 20 year old Eddie Bauer recliner (made by Lane). It has a lifetime guaranty so when the scissor mechanism broke recently, Lane replaced that at no charge and Eddie Bauer reimbursed me for the furniture repair fee. It has been lived on constantly all these years, primarily by large men.

  14. Shauntelle says:

    I love this idea so much! Our family is saving up for a sectional now too… we can’t use it yet because our current living room is too small, but we want to replace the hand-me-downs we use now with one nice, cozy sectional when we move for exactly the reasons you lay out here.

    This year, my new rule of thumb is this William Morris quote:
    ““If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

    It’s guided me to organizing, clearing, and adding more beauty and comfort to my home… small steps, but it’s already feeling so much better!

  15. Dana says:

    Great advice, Anne. We bought a new conch for our den last year and paid way more than we ever have for one, but we love it and it is so comfortable, plus it was exactly the color we wanted…now getting it into our old 40s bungalow with all of its crazy angles and doors was a trick and almost did not happen…. However it got in, we love it and we hope it lasts forever because I don’t think we can get it out again, ever! It makes a great napping couch, it served me well for sleeping after my knee surgery, the dog loves it and it is beautiful….

    We are slowly replacing furniture we inherited ( that we have had for 28 years or longer) with pieces that are our taste….My husband has recently built us a king size bed in craftsman style….it is heavy and gorgeous and we will keep it forever…He also made a craftsman coffee table and 2 end tables for our den. Now he is making a dining room table…..also craftsman
    style….We are not saving money with him building because he uses high quality expensive wood but we can have exactly what we want, though we have to wait a bit for him to complete the projects.

    When we were shopping for pieces to go with our new bed we were dismayed at the quality of the dressers we saw in most places…drawers not deep enough, poorly made ( hard to open and close) and really not good wood. We went to every furniture store in our town and finally ended up at an unfinished furniture store. The pieces were much better made, solid wood and we got to choose the exact finishes we wanted. The furniture was,again, more expensive but the pieces will last us for the rest of our lives.

  16. Deborah says:

    Love this furniture philosophy! My personal decorating mantra comes from a fellow expat who has also moved a lot. She recommends picking four decorating colors for your entire house. Everything you buy goes with those four colors. Then, if you have to make your stuff work in a completely new space, you have the freedom to swap rugs and art and chairs. Just did this for the fifth time in three years, and it was so nice to have that decorating flexibility.

  17. Anne says:

    Makes sense! We were thinking along these lines when we bought our sofa. It was a good purchase. I wish I had spent more money on the (already nice) dressers we bought for the dining room. We have three from the same line in different rooms, and they are not on proper sliders (or something like that). It’s too easy to push down on the drawers and break them. Your post also reminds me of something I heard a tv show host say: spend your money on mattresses and shoes, you’re in one or the other all day! 🙂 Your living room looks cozy!!

  18. My rule is that I should assume I’ll have to repaint the basement playroom if/when we sell the house. Possibly replace the carpet too. If I assume that, I am much more relaxed about the inevitable finger paint/play-doh mishaps.

  19. Tamara says:

    About 20 years ago (I’m pretty old compared to most of your readers!) my husband and I took the plunge and bought a dining table and chairs, made right here in North Carolina. It was a big expenditure for our family and we really hesitated before making the decision. That table has had daily use ever since and we’ve never regretted the purchase or thought about replacing it. Sometimes you just know!

  20. Emily says:

    Will you share the specific brand and type of couch you bought? I’m going to be in te market for something like that soon, I think, and I’d love to start the search with one that worked so well for you.

  21. 'Becca says:

    I’d like to hear more about living “around” furniture, because it seems that you mean something different than what I initially thought: furniture you work around because it’s just good enough at filling some less-essential function. It’s the mention of “showing” this furniture that makes me think that’s not what you mean. The furniture I work around is generally not very attractive.

    We use The Five-Part Furniture-Finding Plan, which often involves making do while you wait for the perfect piece to come along at the right price. Over 18 years, we’ve gradually refined our furniture, collecting things that work well and look good. Our current debate is whether to reupholster (including all new padding) or replace the 1980s couch we bought 18 years ago for $60 from a guy who had it in his room in a frat house. (That sounds awful, but the couch and his entire room were meticulously clean.) We like the high back and cozy corners, but the foam rubber is disintegrating!

  22. Aimee says:

    Great great great. That’s my philosophy around food – I’d rather spend money on quality groceries than crap from Safeway/Costco/etc. But ironically I’ve not (and should have) taken that when it comes to furniture recently. I had a gorgeous (and expensive) leather sofa and chair for over 10 years that I loved and it finally kicked the bucket (lesson: never buy a sofa where the cushions are permanently connected to the base, meaning you can never re-stuff them when they sag!) late last year. Rather than wait until we could afford another high quality one, we made the mistake, in our lust for something at least semi-sectional, of buying a sofa with a chaise at one end from Cost Plus because it was on sale. It felt “just fine” (but not “OMG this is amazing) at the store and we liked the color so we did it. Ugh. It’s so poorly made!

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