Whether you've just moved into your first house or have gotten a hard-earned promotion (and a salary increase to boot), you may be ready to move past milk crates and dumpster-diving finds to substantial, heirloom-quality furniture. However, outfitting an entire home in high-quality furniture can be an overwhelming prospect for those who don't have much experience in selecting non-flatpack items.

How can you prepare for your furniture shopping excursion and give your home a contemporary, put-together look while sticking to your budget? Read on to learn more about identifying quality furniture craftsmanship and what you'll need to keep in mind to help you create a well-appointed home or apartment without breaking the bank.

Do Your Homework

Learning to differentiate between the various types of wood and wood finishes can keep you from overpaying for lower quality. With today's sophisticated manufacturing processes, it can be easy for a particleboard bookcase to be covered with genuine wood veneer and passed off as hardwood (at least until the purchaser picks up the bookcase to discover it's much lighter than expected).

Plywood, particleboard and MDF make up a great deal of today's furniture market; while many use the terms plywood and particleboard interchangeably, these types of wood are quite different. Plywood is made up of multiple thin layers of wood veneer; particleboard, as the name implies, is made from compressed wood chips held together with glue. MDF is an even stronger type of particleboard made from recycled wood fibers fused together under high heat and pressure.

Knowing how to read between the lines of a manufacturer's description to see when "real" wood gives way to MDF—or simply avoiding furniture that doesn't boast about being made from solid wood--can ensure you'll get your money's worth out of your next furniture purchase. You may also want to compare prices of some popular items to get some idea of what you can expect to pay if you're purchasing locally.

Learn About Quality Craftsmanship

In addition to educating yourself on wood types and finishes, you'll want to learn more about the qualities and features that set well-made furniture apart from the rest. For example, furniture with edges that are mechanically joined through a series of cuts—rather than nailed or glued in—are likely to stand up to more weight and use over time without buckling or beginning to come apart.

For items designed to support a larger amount of weight, like couches and beds, you'll also want to ensure this weight is evenly distributed. Check for the addition of extra legs (preferably screwed-in or jointed ones rather than nailed or glued ones) in the center of the furniture to ensure this center won't begin to sag.

Determine Your Priorities

If your furniture budget will allow you to get anything you want (within reason), but not everything you want, you'll need to do some prioritizing when it comes to making your selection. Few homeowners have the financial ability to run out and buy an entire household of furniture at once, so you may want to proceed by adding a few new pieces to your home (and cycling out the older ones) every few months; having a list of furniture you'd like to upgrade can help you focus your efforts on the most important pieces.

Many point to the bed as the best investment you can make; ideally, you'll spend about a third of your life on your mattress, box spring and bed, and those whose pastimes include relaxing in front of the television during the evenings may find that the bed provides a literal source of support for half the day or more. Ensuring that your bed is a comfortable place can significantly improve your quality of sleep (and therefore your quality of life).

For others, a sit-down family dinner at the dining room table may be an integral part of your lifestyle. If so, upgrading to a dining room table you can be proud of can be a great way to make dinnertime more memorable and special.

However, you don't always need to shoot for top shelf in every piece of furniture. For example, while you'll want any nursery furniture to be sturdy and free of any harmful paints or toxins, you don't necessarily want a solid walnut crib if you're concerned your toddler will leave teeth marks in the rails. Going with an average quality (and often lower-priced) item can help you preserve your budget funds for conversation pieces and furniture that is integral to your daily life.

Maintain a Consistent Color Scheme

Nothing can be more frustrating than realizing you have several pieces of high-quality furniture that don't match or even coordinate with each other. Because wood comes in such a wide variety of natural shades (as well as painted ones), matching can be tough. You'll want to figure out a color scheme and stick to it before you invest too much money in mismatched furniture that doesn't look much better than your lesser-quality college furniture.

Although you may opt for all-white furniture in a room with dark walls and switch to light oak in a more neutral room, keeping the color of your furniture consistent within each room can provide a more polished and put-together appearance throughout your home. You may even want to consult a designer to ensure that you're spending your money as wisely as possible.