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Inexpensive alternatives to buying a new sofa

By Gary Foreman
Published: January 17, 2013

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
My wife and I have an older sofa that's looking pretty gross. We've cleaned it many times, but that just doesn't work any more. We really don't want to put new furniture on our credit card so we're looking for a cheaper option. Is there some way to get our old couch reupholstered affordably? -- Sonny

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Sonny,
Good decision to not run up your credit card. You'll be glad you made the frugal choice to not charge hundreds of dollars and pay interest for the privilege.

And, yes, there are a number of different ways to replace that old, worn-out sofa with something more appropriate. Let's consider some of your options.

The first thing to do is to analyze what you have. You say that it's stained, but how bad are the stains? Is it possible that a professional could do the cleaning job you could not?

Where are the stains? Often the back of the couch is fine and only the cushions and arms are worn or stained. Replacing the cushions and adding armrest covers could solve your problem at a much lower cost that replacing or reupholstering the whole sofa. 

Turn the couch over and check its construction. You want to make sure it's worth reupholstering. Some furniture just isn't made to last, especially newer furniture. If you find particle or pasteboard, it's probably not worth the expense of reupholstering.

Also, don't commit to reupholstering until you've compared the alternatives. Used furniture is often better made, and, because shipping isn't generally an option, prices are often quite low. That's especially true if you find people who are moving. Look for estate sales and online at eBay and Craigslist. 

Slipcovers are another alternative. If your sofa is a standard size you may find a ready-made slipcover you like. But even a custom-made slipcover will be less expensive than reupholstery.

Let's assume that you've checked the options and reupholstery appears to be the best choice. You have still more options to weigh. 

Although reupholstery takes some specific skills, if you have some sewing experience you might want to take it on as a do-it-yourself project. You'd still have the cost of fabric and materials, but the labor savings could be significant.

You'd also be able to save on the materials. Once you know how much fabric you'll need you can shop anywhere. A simple search will turn up many fabric outlets online. 

One way to save big on fabric is to find an end-of-bolt piece that's big enough for your job. Or you may find a piece that was cut for another job but then not used (sometimes customers change their minds). Check online and ask at local upholstery shops.

If you don't want to go it alone, take a class in upholstery, either an adult ed class or at a sewing center. Not only will you have an instructor to lead you through the process, you'll also have access to the heavy duty sewing machines needed for heavier fabrics. Your project will take a couple of months to complete, but the savings could offset any inconvenience. 

Another low-cost option would be your local vocational school. Many teachers use projects in class as a hands-on experience for students. You'll pay for materials, but very little, if anything, for labor. And, since the work is being supervised by a qualified instructor the results are generally quite good.

If you finally decide to use a professional reupholsterer, shop around -- especially if you're in no hurry. Some will discount a bit if you can wait until they don't have other work waiting. Prices will vary from shop to shop, often significantly, so take the time to find out what's available to you.

Don't be surprised if a professional reupholstery job costs nearly as much as a new sofa, especially when compared to cheaper new sofas. But, reupholstering a well-constructed couch could be money well spent. A sturdy sofa reupholstered in material you've chosen could last much longer than a cheaper new one.

Finally, no matter how you proceed you're wise to avoid using your credit cards to finance your purchase. The extra interest expense makes any purchase an unfrugal deal.

See related: Do-it-yourself reupholstery

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar Stretcher.com, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.