When I moved out of my college dorm and into my first college house, I had to buy some necessities: silverware, ant traps, a much-needed toilet plunger, and furniture. I had already shelled out a couple hundred bucks for an Ikea dresser, a Wayfair bed frame, and a very used nightstand, and I needed some way to cut costs. The only big spend left was the mattress.
I could’ve found something on sale at Mattress Firm or handed down from another student, but I wanted something nice. After all, I had made it halfway through college sleeping on what was basically an air mattress with a few springs and a two-inch-thick, lavender-scented foam pad (its sleep-inducing smell lasted for a whole two weeks before fading). And as a person who aspires to at least eight hours of sleep a night, I wanted to make an investment in my nocturnal health. The only catch was paying for it.
Then I discovered the bed-in-a-box industry, a radical upset to the traditional mattress-buying experience. Companies like Purple, Casper, and Nectar say lying on a bed in a mattress store, staring up at fluorescent lights, and imagining how well you’d sleep isn’t the ideal way to find the perfect mattress. Instead, through the magic of the internet and U.S. shipping infrastructure, these companies will send you a slab of foam rolled up in a nearly person-sized box. You unroll it, let it magically expand into a mattress, and try it out in the comfort of your own home. The best part? Almost all of these companies allow you to return the bed free of charge after 100 nights—or about the same length as one of my academic terms.
The con was simple: Try out a new mattress every 100 nights. I’d pick a new company, order a boxed bed, sleep like the Prince of Monaco for three months, and return it to make way for the next one. And because I’d get my money back, I wouldn’t pay a cent. When I told friends and family of my plan, they asked me how long I could realistically keep it going. Luckily, bed-in-a-box companies were proliferating—according to Consumer Reports, their share of the mattress market rose from 6 percent in 2014 to 12 percent last year. At least 10 advertised trials of 100 nights or more—some even offered a full year. Convinced that my plan was foolproof, I wondered if I would ever pay for a mattress again.
I wasn’t the first to game the bed-in-a-box return system. New York Times columnist Ron Lieber tested the five companies’ policies in the summer of 2016. He was able to return all of them, with only occasional hiccups.
I started with Purple. Soon after I unrolled and let it puff up to normal size, I realized it was, by far, the glitziest thing I had ever owned. For three months I luxuriated on its flexible grid technology, which cradled my pressure points and kept me cool, sleeping better than I had for the previous two years. So that December, when I filled out an online form to send the mattress back according to plan, I selected an option to extend the trial for an extra month at no cost, mainly to have the cushion just sit in my room for all of winter break without me there.
When I came back in January, two movers from 1-800-GOT-JUNK plucked the mattress from my rickety bed frame, hauled it into their truck, and drove away, free of charge. I took a picture of the receipt they gave me and emailed it to Purple customer service to prove I no longer possessed the mattress, and the company refunded me within a week.
My next con victim already sat in another box in my room when the first movers carried Purple away. It was a Casper, and it had arrived at my house in the dead of the Chicago winter just three days after I ordered it. Every aspect of the Casper was geared toward lulling me into sleep, beginning with the sun and moon icons on the flaps of the box.
But that semester, working at my student newspaper until 2 or 3 a.m. every morning just to wake up for class five hours later, I became exhausted and irritable despite the Casper’s four layers of premium foam and patented zoned support. I soon learned that no amount of charmingly branded technology could upgrade my sleep if my lifestyle didn’t allow for it. I couldn’t buy—or even scam—my way to self-care.
The Casper left as efficiently as it came, and it was time to take my hustle on the road. I spent the spring interning in New York, and my sublet conveniently came without furniture. I turned to the next mattress company on my list, Leesa, whose product didn’t seem to have any notable differences from its competitors other than a seasonal offer that gave me a free pillow with my purchase.
The mattress was the only piece of furniture in the room, its interior design walking a fine line between minimalist and eerie, so I filled the extra space with fantasies about life in the Big Apple. Working at my first full-time day job, I’d come home with no obligations other than spending hours leisurely cooking Bon Appetit recipes and eating them atop three layers of cooling, comfortable memory foam while rewatching Sex and the City. In one episode, Samantha Jones remarked, “Who we are in bed is who we are in life.” For those glorious three months, I felt fantastic in both.
When the third pair of men from 1-800-GOT-JUNK arrived at my apartment in June, I decided to take advantage of their New York honesty by asking them where, exactly, they were taking my return.
In online FAQs, most companies say they donate the returned mattresses, and most of the time they’ll only take them back if they’re in good condition. Fully aware that these could have been lies, I instead chose to think of myself as the Robin Hood of mattresses, stealing from the companies to donate high-quality sleeping equipment to the less fortunate. But when I asked one of the movers if he’d be driving the cushion to the nearest Goodwill, he shook his head as if telling me Santa Claus wasn’t real.
I asked each company’s customer support to provide more information about what happened to my returns. None could give me a clear answer, saying only that when they can’t donate the mattresses, they recycle them responsibly. 1-800-GOT-JUNK told me they do recycle the mattresses they pick up, but I couldn’t get any specific information about recycling efforts or facilities in the cities I’d used them in.
Because I didn’t know enough to deem the disposal environmentally friendly, I realized my scam could harm more than just mattress manufacturers. Even if the beds were properly recycled, it still felt like a waste to throw away a perfectly good hunk of foam every three months and just hope for the best. So I decided to pull one last grift for the summer, then put an end to the sting—and keep the free pillow.
I pulled my final fast one on Tulo, a company I had never heard of before looking up a list of bed-in-a-box brands online. It was as comfortable as any of the other mattresses, which was further evidence to me that they were all made in the same factory and stuffed into different boxes. (Tulo, it turns out, is owned by Mattress Firm.) When I submitted my fourth and final return request, I received a delivery receipt for “-1” mattresses. And sure enough, a Mattress Firm truck showed up at my house in late August, and two men meticulously carried my final victim away.
I collected my last refund that September and emerged no less cash-strapped than when I started a year prior. I had slept on genuinely nice mattresses for 365 days—for free. Sure, changing beds every three months wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, and it required upward of $700 of disposable income to pay for them in the first place. But in addition to being (mostly) well-rested, I felt like a new inductee into a society of skilled scammers.
Even though I had potentially deposited, at most, four pieces of foam into two local city dumps, I still had to reckon with the morality of my operation. If I planned to keep up the long con and rent mattresses until I ran out of companies to bamboozle, that waste would’ve added up, along with my guilt. Despite all the comfortable bedding that lay ahead of me, would there eventually come a point when I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night?
Maybe that’s dramatic, but it’s part of why I gave up the sting in favor of a more wholesome system of bed ownership. If I truly wanted to sleep better, I’d have to change my behavior, not my mattress. So now I’m back to snoozing on a not particularly special secondhand mattress I bought myself, slightly nostalgic for the high-class thrills of my days as a swindler. Most of the time, I sleep perfectly fine.
Alex Schwartz is a science writer and photographer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in Popular Science and Gizmodo. He gets especially excited about climate solutions, drag queens, and parrotfish.