A popular magazine article genre is the "Splurge and Save" photo essay. It's fun to see how you can get a high end look for less, but what is often not addressed is the functionality of the items.
There are pieces of furniture that need to be able to stand a pretty significant amount of wear and tear, and not buying a quality piece in those cases may lead to a false economy. One of the items in your home that really needs to stand up is the dining chair. If you think about it, the chair must support your body weight while it is being dragged across the floor in and out as you seat yourself. That puts significant pressure on the legs and a chair that isn't well made, will likely weaken at the joints quite quickly and you'll be buying new chairs in no time. Unfortunately, this is one of the items people are most tempted to buy "cheap" because most will need 4-8 dining chairs and the cost can add up quickly.
If you are looking at wood dining chairs, flip them over and look at how they are constructed. Chairs put together using dowels and screws are far better than those using nails, staples or glue (glue might be used along with other fasteners, though). Dovetails are ideal, but often found only in high end pieces. If you are buying a chair that is metal or even plastic, look especially at the joints and see if they look like they are put together in such a way that pulling and weight will likely not cause cracking of the materials. Are all the legs sitting on the floor? Does the piece easily twist? Sit down on it and pull yourself as if you were sitting down at a table. Does it wobble or flex?Some solid formed all plastic chairs can actually be pretty sturdy and a good budget option. Some are even quite attractive and they are easy to keep clean.
Below is a picture of a fairly well constructed dining chair. This isn't high end, but it is build using screws that are fairly sizeable and well sunk into the chair frame.
Upholstered pieces are also items I generally prefer to buy better quality. A poorly built frame is easily hidden beneath the upholstery and many times something that looks great on a showroom floor won't make it past the two year mark before it's starting to really show more age than it should. I tend to prefer custom order (it's not necessarily much more expensive, but you will have to wait) for large investment pieces like this. You should easily expect to have a sofa for 10+ years and it should look good for at least that long.
I prefer to buy Canadian-made whenever possible for a number of reasons. First, Canadian-made furniture is generally pretty good quality. If you are buying locally made, your money is going towards the furniture, not shipping, duty, brokerage fees. You are probably going to get more for your money even if the piece itself isn't cheaper than what you might find from an offshore manufacturer. It's also obviously great to support our own economy and you're generally not paying for a name and lots of marketing that some of the better known furniture suppliers have to build into their pricing structure. Watch out fo "Canadian made" pieces that are suspiciously inexpensive or available on short notice. They are often frames constructed overseas and then upholstered here. It's an unfortunate marketing trick that could have you buying something that isn't what you think it is. Here's a breakdown on upholstered furniture so you can see what lies beneath in a well constructed piece.
Look for foam that is a density 1.8 pounds or higher. The foam may start out stiffer, but will soften over time. If foam is already pretty "squishy" when it's new, it probably will be a pancake in a few years.
Fabrics should have a fairly high "rub count" which tells you how long the fabric should take to begin to show wear and tear. Anything over 50,000 "double rubs" is considered contract grade and is very high wearing. You don't need to go that high for in your home, but it's helpful to have the number in mind when you're shopping. I try and help my clients select neutral fabrics they won't tire of. We look for some texture and some variation in colour as that will help hide dirt or stains. Man-made fabrics are often easier to clean. If your cushions are reversible, that is also a very good thing and can give your sofa or chair a second life.
So, where can you save? With those big investment pieces aside, the pieces you sit on and that take weight and movement, you can consider that your side tables, coffee table and even dining table don't have to be able to stand up in quite the same way. I don't advocate buying low quality ever, because you will end up needing to re-buy probably sooner than you'd like. Apply some of the same principles above for looking at dining chairs when you look at side table or coffee table construction, but know you have a little more leeway here. Veneers are not a bad thing and actually perform pretty well in our dry climate. Woods that perform well in Calgary are oak and maple in particular. Tropical woods can be prone to splitting due to our low-humidity relative to where they grew. For this reason, I don't recommend bamboo floors, by the way.
Again, wall units and shelving need to be well made, but are generally not subject to much force beyond what is originally placed on them. Again, I don't suggest "cheaping out" but you don't typically have to be quite as fussed as you do about upholstered pieces and you will actually be able to see the joints and construction fairly easily in most cases.
Here's a handy pdf which you might want to print out and bring with you when you are furniture shopping. Middle of the road will work for most people for a long time and spending more doesn't always equal better furnishings. Remember what I said about paying for a name only to find out you bought something made overseas. It may not be terribly well constructed and made using wood that doesn't perform well here. It's disappointing to buy and investment piece only to find it's not what you hoped it would be in the long run.
Another great route to go is consignment if your budget is tight. If you know what to look for, you can assess a piece and pick up a real bargain. Just keep in mind that those sales may be final (as are all custom orders). Measure your space, take photos and bring those with you when shopping and don't feel pressured to make snap decisions about pieces you will own for years to come.
If you are not feeling confident, many designers and decorators will do shopping trips with you or suggest pieces for your space. Many will work on an hourly basis and do short consultations, during those you might ask about paint colours or other issues you are having. Preventing even one mistake with respect to furniture purchases can make bringing in an expert worthwhile.
Lastly, if you are purchasing furniture, DO make sure it will fit into your home. Will it go through the door? Down the stairs? Turn the corner you need it to turn? If you are in an apartment, will it go on the elevator? There's nothing worse than a final sale item that can't go anywhere but on your front step.