When to Splurge or Save on Furniture, According to a Designer

Everything you need to know before spending big on investment pieces.

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

As much as we love a money-saving Ikea piece (and we do, a lot), there are some furniture items that are worth dishing out the extra cash. But how do you avoid feeling overwhelmed and simulataneously ensure you’re not overspending on your big purchase?

Houston-based designer Jillian O’Neill is a former runway model who uses her expertise in fashion to inform her creations. She started her eponymous firm in 2004, designing custom high-end furniture for clients, and recently launched her debut collection that proves investment pieces don’t have to be over-the-top to make a statement.

“I strive to create straightforward pieces that are elegant and have a quiet confidence—meaning they don’t scream for attention, but still have a presence due to their lines and details,” says O’Neill. “The collection complements my desire to create spaces that are elevated yet livable and practical.”

As a mother to four kids, she knows firsthand the importance of “livable” spaces, and believes that elegance and functionality don’t have to be mutually exclusive when it comes to picking investment pieces. We tapped the designer to get her tips on all things investment decor buying.

Photography by Susan Soriano Photography

In your opinion, what constitutes an “investment” piece?

An investment piece is something that you could own forever; it should be versatile, but with an original design. It is a piece that you could see traveling along with you through many phases of your life.

What are the qualities to look for in these pieces?

The main factors are materials and craftsmanship. Finding a piece that uses solid materials will make the difference between a piece that you have for two years and a piece that you can have for 20+ years. Solid wood pieces can be easily refinished and will certainly hold up during years of usage.

Other questions to ask yourself are 1) Do drawers glide open easily and quietly? 2) How heavy is the piece? 3) If it is a seating piece, does it feel sturdy as you sit in it?

Speaking more broadly, what are your tips on how to find an investment piece of furniture?

Trust a professional will always be my first tip. If you discover someone you connect with, you will find them saving you a lot of money and hopefully making the process approachable and fun.

Pay close attention to sizing. You may have to refer to magazines to compare how different table heights work in rooms or how sizing a sofa correctly makes such a big impact.

Stay away from colors or patterns that are of-the-moment. Save the statement pieces for the more affordable elements in your home.

Where are some of your favorite places to find these pieces?

My sources are primarily to-the-trade sources. In our industry, the prices are higher in these showrooms, but you are actually getting the best value because the markups are not as high as they are in retail shops. The very first company that really inspired me was Chicago-based Troscan Design. Their Ennis Side Chair is still perfect in my eyes, even 10 years after I first used it in a space.

How do you reconcile a high-quality investment piece with something that’s family friendly? How do you recommend people with small children or pets go about finding those items?

I’m so glad you asked this question because it really is the foundation of my interiors business, as well as in my real life having four kids at home. I truly don’t think this should be as big of an issue as people make it. A quality piece should last 15 years at the very least so I think it’s worth the investment, especially because even after the piece is looking a bit worn it will be worth reupholstering or refinishing.

Some tricks I utilize are to use fabrics (perhaps even outdoor fabrics) on your main pieces that will withstand wear and tear. And again, any piece that is solid wood can be refinished after years [of] collecting nicks from kiddos running around the house.

Are there any red flags to look for when buying investment furniture?

If you are shopping online and the company doesn’t give any indication of their process, it leads to me to believe they don’t take much pride in how a piece is constructed. Showrooms that have many piece levels and markdowns listed on tags are usually a sign that you are not getting the most for your money. Also, check if the back of the piece is as beautiful as the front. If not, then the manufacturer is likely skimping out on other details as well.

On the opposite end of the budget spectrum, what are the pieces that you think people should save their money on?

My favorite pieces to pitch as budget pieces are dining table and end tables. Clients are usually surprised by my dining table suggestion, but if you think about what is most visible (the chairs around the table), doesn’t it make sense that that’s where you should put your money? You can buy a gorgeous slab of marble or walnut for a table top and achieve a great look for very little.

I also like to mix and match small end tables on a budget. It can be a fun and inexpensive way to bring in a trendy material or color without worrying about getting tired of it. Currently I’m loving CB2’s little acrylic nesting tables to pop around a family room.

See more furniture-buying tips:

The 9 Vintage Shopping Mistakes Everyone Makes How to Navigate Your Holiday Shopping on a Budget How to Hit Estate Sales and Antique Shops Like a Pro This Summer

Elly Leavitt

Writer and Editor

Elly enjoys covering anything from travel to funky design (tubular furniture, anyone?) to the latest cultural trend. Her dream apartment would exist on the Upper West Side and include a plethora of mismatched antique chairs, ceramic vessels, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases—essential to her goal of becoming a poor man’s Nora Ephron. You can probably find her in line at Trader Joe’s. You will never find her at SoulCycle.